Spinoza's Shadow on Science

Eric Palmer

Allegheny College

Abstract: 
Jonathan Israel has recently made much of the claim that Spinoza cast a long shadow over enlightenment culture, including scientific thought, in the century leading to the French Revolution. Israel claims that there were “two enlightenments,” dividing moderate Christian theists from radical “libertine” atheistic monists, materialists, and deists. Israel argues that monists were strongly influenced by “rationalistic and secular” interpretations of Spinoza’s thought, and moderate Christians were vehemently opposed to it, despite that he was rarely referred to in print by either group. Spinoza’s implicit materialism was, according to Israel, generally too volatile a topic to discuss openly, yet it abided at the root of atheist and materialist thought that worked to its culmination in the Age of Reason and the French Revolution. Israel’s thesis has been of singular importance in European cultural history over the past decade, and he gives particular place to science and philosophy of science in his argument. This presentation introduces the Radical Enlightenment thesis to the HOPOS audience and provides a skeptical assessment with particular attention paid to the context of philosophy of science up to about 1700. It challenges the validity of Israel’s claim by indicating that his characterization of the cleft during that period is lacking: his treatment of the epistemological project of empiricism and mechanism in Boyle, Locke and Hooke is peremptory and insufficient, and his evidence for the presence of Radicals in science and the philosophy of science during this period is skimpy. Israel’s Radical Enlightenment thesis also appears to be non-falsifiable: first, for reasons that may be apparent in the capsule summary above, and second, because of a protean character in its re-statement at various points in Israel's writing.