A spiritual automaton: spinoza, reason, and the letters to blyenbergh
This paper examines a disagreement over epistemic “first principles” that takes place in the correspondence between Spinoza and Blyenbergh. Blyenbergh, following Descartes, states he will doubt that which is clearly and distinctly understood if it conflicts with Scripture. Spinoza, in turn, acquiesces completely to whatever his understanding shows him. Because they have a disagreement over the authority of reason, Spinoza “hardly believes that [their] correspondence can be for [their] mutual instruction.” But their correspondence can serve for our instruction: In his dispute with Blyenbergh, Spinoza gives his clearest account of his commitment to reason. Like Descartes, Spinoza claims that because he experiences absolute certainty when he forms a clear and distinct idea, he completely acquiesces to the testimony of his understanding. Unlike Descartes however, Spinoza is unambiguous that this act of acquiescence is not to be understood as a voluntary act worthy of praise or criticism—but rather as an act of a spiritual automaton. I argue that by examining Spinoza’s dispute with Blyenbergh, we gain important insight into the naturalistic epistemic approach that undergirds Spinoza’s Ethics.
Keywords: Spinoza, Blyenbergh, first principles, epistemology