The Spinoza’s Web-project examines the life and work of the Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), as well as the networks in which he participated. In the reception and assessment of his thought, scholars have always seen an indissoluble connection between his writings, character and reputation, and the course of his life. Every era thus forms its own impression of Spinoza, and this image plays an important role—more than it does with other philosophers—in the way his thought is understood. This project seeks to develop tools for documenting Spinoza’s life, writings, and work as completely as possible, and will trace out the impact of his philosophy by mapping out the context in which his thought evolved. The project revolves around four research axes, each of which will produce its own output.
Sub-project 1: The Spinoza Web
The first sub-project seeks to assemble all the available documents and data pertaining to Spinoza and to make them available via an open-access website. The Spinoza Web will accommodate all the sources pertaining to Spinoza’s life, works, letters, correspondents, and networks. Much material has already been uncovered, but new, thorough and directed research will also be undertaken in various libraries and archives. Spinoza scholarship must confront several obstacles particular to it that result from the mystery in which much of his life is shrouded. Yet since both followers and opponents collected whatever writings they could get their hands on, new discoveries are from time to time unearthed in unexpected places. A prime example is the early manuscript of the Ethica recently discovered in the Vatican Library by Leen Spruit.
Sub-project 2: A Bibliography of Spinoza’s Works from 1663 to 1796
Spinoza’s works circulated in manuscript as well as printed form, and were both applauded and despised. They were also outlawed, and even before this formal censure was pronounced his ideas were already considered dangerous and therefore circulated clandestinely. The publication of his works was a risky business, and this had impact on their circulation: most appeared anonymously, with false titles and misleading publisher information. In order to document this aspect of the reception history, a second sub-project will produce an exhaustive description of all of Spinoza’s published works (including translations) that appeared in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The result will be A Bibliography of Spinoza’s Works from 1663 to 1796.
Sub-project 3: Van Velthuysen and his Circle
Spinoza formed an important part of the intellectual landscape of the last decades of the Dutch Golden Age, in which philosophy played a bigger role than is commonly assumed. Here the new philosophy of Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and the like found resonance. Spinoza’s philosophical ideas created a shockwave, also among those who gladly embraced the new philosophy. Even the Utrecht physician and philosopher Lambertus van Velthuysen, who was himself suspected of being a dangerous modernist, accused Spinoza of atheism. Van Velthuysen stood at the centre of a republican-Cartesian society called the ‘Collegie der Sçavanten’. This group included several university professors, and partly found its cohesion in the common enemy of the members, namely the formidable orthodox-Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius. These Utrecht Cartesians were in touch with Spinoza, but also distanced themselves from him. Van Velthuysen played an important role in the development of the new philosophy in the Netherlands, and it is high time that his role, as well as the network in which he moved, are carefully documented. This is the goal of the third sub-project, entitled Van Velthuysen and his Circle.
Sub-project 4: Weaving the Web: The Development of Spinoza’s System
The fourth sub-project will seek to bring together the above lines of study in a synthetic overview of Spinoza’s philosophical development. Although his thought is highly systematic in nature, and although all the component parts bear a strong connection to each other, this coherence has proved to be difficult for later generations to grasp. As a result, his writings have at times been decried as either impenetrable or inconsistent, and it has been assumed that Spinoza continually tweaked his texts. On the basis of a careful study of the internal logic of Spinoza’s philosophical development, his interaction with his context, and the way in which his individual works were composed and transmitted, the sub-project Weaving the Web: The Development of Spinoza’s System will document the stages in the development of his thought, situated in its historical context.
A wider public
A remarkable aspect of Spinoza’s philosophy is the audience it has garnered for itself beyond philosophers alone. Scholars active in other disciplines have likewise found inspiration in his ideas, but also outside the academic setting there has been a remarkable amount of interest in Spinoza. This is evident, for example, in the sale of his works, the popular books and websites dedicated to Spinoza, and the societies devoted to the study of his thought. This is especially true in the Netherlands. The Spinoza’s Web-project will seek to offer research output of a high quality and with a thorough academic basis, but in more widely accessible forms. It is structured in such a way that the results will not only be of benefit to the academic community, but also reach the wider public with a general interest in Spinoza’s philosophy.
The project is scheduled to be carried out between March 2014 and July 2018 at the University of Utrecht. It is supervised by Piet Steenbakkers, senior lecturer in modern philosophy at the University of Utrecht, and the holder of the endowed Spinoza Studies-chair (Spinozahuis-society) at the Erasmus University Rotterdam.