I knew he was the philosopher for me when I heard others badmouth him

Spinoza, the philosopher, annoyed many but I was drawn to his complex style and challenging ideas

If you take up reading philosophy even casually, you will naturally be drawn to some areas over others. Perhaps political philosophy is for you, or philosophy of mind, or formal logic.

Once you have found the area that most appeals to you, it won't take you long to find your philosopher. He or she will articulate something you always knew but couldn't tidily verbalise yourself, or they will change your mind in some profound way, and be someone whose ideas you see fit to adapt for guidance. Not all of their ideas, of course, but some. Spinoza – a 17th-century Dutch philosopher of Jewish Portuguese heritage – is my guy.

He works on you over time with his modest confidence and his dark eyes

I knew it from the instant I heard some older students badmouthing him in my first year of study. They spoke of his complex style and challenging ideas as though he had the use of himself (as an Irish mammy might say of an upstart young person with the galling entitlement to go their own way, possibly while wearing tight trousers). “Who does he think he is”, they seemed to ask, “to be so very awkward about things?”

Like an intense but insecure young man mustering up the courage to ask you out for coffee, Spinoza is a slow burner. He works on you over time with his modest confidence and his dark eyes and before you know it, you’ve really become rather attached to him. He blooms like the rose (representing secrecy) that marked his personal seal the more time you spend with him. His ideas can be peeled like an onion. There is always more underneath. Between the thick ridges of substance, there is a thin filament of gossamer skin that reveals its cellular mysteries when you hold it up to the light. He is quietly brilliant. Meticulously, and gently, he firmly makes us all look stupid, and we have to go away and do some work before we can engage him again.


Inconvenient ideas

In his time, Spinoza pissed off a fair quantity of people by having inconvenient ideas. This was such a cause for concern that his greatest work, his Ethics, was never published while he lived. His ideas were subversive and deeply offensive to many, and some of them will still put a wind up some people. As one of those who laid the groundwork for modern conceptions of psychology, he is still influential and very much worth reading, if a little laboured in his style.

This dualism is our lived experience every day, but it is nebulous

If you check in with yourself for a moment, you’ll find perhaps to your surprise that you are a dualist. At least pragmatically, we are all dualists, in that we believe ourselves to be separate or distinct from our bodies. We think of ourselves as precisely that – a “self” – seated inside an albeit intensely important meat wagon. We consider our personal “self” as a consistent concept throughout our lives. I may change as an individual, but my “self”, the central thing that is “me”, is unchanging. It is the “I” from which I observe the world. It is the content of the experience which makes the “me” who fell off her bike aged seven the same “me” who reads Spinoza now. This dualism is our lived experience every day, but it is nebulous, and Spinoza saw it as illusory.


I feel very confident that I am not just conscious, but that my consciousness entails a specific set of characteristics that individuate me from others. Spinoza’s monism (as opposed to dualism) challenges us to find this “self” – the one that experiences things and forms the attitude of my perception. If you try to define it, you will quickly get tangled. The “I” doesn’t consist in your memories but in the action of perceiving them as they originally happened and in the action of thinking about them now. The “I” is always behind a veil. It is the thing undertaking actions rather than the thing thinking about them as they happen. Regardless, we feel certain that, slip though it may through our fingers the more we try to clutch it, that “self” must be there. How is your “self” different from anyone else’s? What does it consist of? Those are questions worth asking.