The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity


I taught my first philosophy classes in the autumn of 1952, at Northwestern University. In those days, an instructor was expected to teach three or four courses a quarter, and thus in the space of a year I taught nine or 10 different courses, most of which were simply assigned to me. One was a course on “The Rationalists,” meaning Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz (fortunately, I had the benefit of having taken a course on Spinoza taught by the great Harry Wolfson in 1949). The interest in Spinoza evoked by being assigned that bit of “forced labor” stayed with me, as did a certain puzzlement…The puzzle was that, although I could see how Spinoza’s metaphysics was supposed to “work,” I could not fathom Spinoza the human being, and that meant that the mighty system did not ultimately make sense to me. The reason it didn’t “make sense” is that—as the title of his masterwork, Ethics, indicates—Spinoza didn’t just produce a metaphysical system and an epistemology to go with it (although that’s what has always attracted the most philosophical attention), but also an ethical philosophy in the ancient sense. … Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza speaks directly to my puzzlement.

more from Hilary Putnam at the NY Observer here.