Get to know one of the great rationalists of the seventeenth century. Referred to as “the prince of philosophers” by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, Baruch Spinoza has left a lasting impact on the fields of ethics, biblical criticism, and literature.
The rationalist philosophers argued that knowledge does not come primarily through the senses, but through reason. The mind, they argued, contains innate ideas. These innate ideas are the foundation for, and structure of, knowledge. In order to attain truth, one must apply reason to these innate ideas. Consequently, one does not need direct experience of reality to achieve knowledge. Behind this theory was the belief in a common substance out of which all things are formed. Since the rationalist mind is also made from this substance, it shares the same basic structure. It is this shared structure that allows the mind to acquire knowledge of everything else.
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Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) was born in the Jodenbuurt in Amsterdam, Netherlands. His philosophy laid the foundation for the eighteenth century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism. Spinoza grew up in a Portuguese community of Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam. His father was a successful trader. He attended the Keter Torah Yeshiva until he was 17. Leaving the yeshiva early, Spinoza began studying with the freethinker, former Jesuit, and accused atheist Frances van den Enden. Spinoza adopted the Latin name Benedictus de Spinoza, moved in to van den Enden’s house, and began teaching at van den Enden’s school in Amsterdam. During this time, Spinoza associated with Mennonites and a group of anti-clerical Catholics, known as Remonstrants. Following his father’s death in 1654, Spinoza ran the family business with his brother Abraham, leaving after a few years to pursue philosophy. In 1656, Spinoza was expelled from the Jewish community for heresy. Following this expulsion, Spinoza focused on writing, studying and his work as a lens grinder. In 1676, Spinoza completed his primary philosophical work, Ethics. He died in 1677 of lung disease.