Book Review: Spinoza & Dutch Cartesianism: Philosophy and Theology

9780198732501_450Douglas, Alexander X. Spinoza & Dutch Cartesianism: Philosophy and Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. VIII + 184 pages.

Recent decades have seen a considerable resurgence of interest in Spinoza’s philosophy and its role in what is nowadays called the “Early Dutch Enlightenment”. In their analysis of Spinoza’s thought a number of scholars (Wiep van Bunge, Jonathan Israel, Theo Verbeek and others) have given fresh attention to the philosopher’s intellectual environment in the seventeenth-century Dutch republic. The present book by Alexander Douglas (lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, London) follows in the footsteps of this historical contextual approach by asserting that Spinoza’s philosophy should be read primarily as a rebuttal of the “separation thesis” advocated by his Dutch Cartesian contemporaries.  According to this thesis, philosophy and theology must be kept separate as they “belong to completely independent domains of knowledge.” (4) It was this approach, Douglas argues, that Spinoza sought to refute in all of his writings starting with his Principles of Cartesian Philosophy and ending with his magnum opus, the Ethics.

In the first chapter on the so-called “Utrecht Crisis”, Douglas sketches the debate that (to his mind) is crucial when it comes to understanding the development of the Cartesian “separation thesis.” Because of their adherence to Descartes’s mechanistic theory of nature, Dutch Cartesians like Henricus Regius (1598-1679) had to defend themselves against the sharp criticism voiced by traditional Scholastics like Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676). This criticism was aimed mainly at the Cartesian denial of substantial forms. By rejecting this crucial concept, Voetius and his followers feared, Cartesian natural philosophy could no longer account for the revelation of God’s goodness and generosity in nature.

It was in reaction to these charges of impiety (so Douglas’s argument in chapter two goes), that the Cartesians developed their “separation thesis” arguing that philosophy is concerned with a completely different category of knowledge (theoretical knowledge of the intrinsic nature of things) than the other academic disciplines like theology, law, and medicine (practical knowledge based on ‘common experience’). Here, Douglas pays close attention to the work of the prominent Dutch Cartesian Johannes de Raey (1622-1702). De Raey’s position according to Douglas “emerged as the most consistent and thoroughgoing version of the Dutch Cartesian separation idea.” (51) Yet, Douglas goes on to explain, this separation idea did not sufficiently address the question of the proper place of metaphysics, which traditionally was an area of overlap between theology and philosophy.

In his third chapter, Douglas sets out to show how Dutch Cartesians dealt with this difficulty and how Spinoza posed a significant challenge to them. The dominant approach taken by De Raey was to ignore metaphysics altogether. Spinoza, in sharp contrast dared to develop a metaphysical theory drawing on Descartes work, thereby undermining the Dutch Cartesian attempt of keeping theology and philosophy separate. Moreover, Spinoza’s ‘Cartesian metaphysics’ also moved into a strongly heterodox direction. Taking up Descartes’s notion of God as causa sui Spinoza developed a thoroughly necessitarian worldview, which he defended by using a version of the Dutch Cartesian ‘accommodation theory’ in scriptural interpretation.

In fact, as Douglas argues in his fourth chapter, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was written in order “to show that Spinoza’s philosophy, which included a great deal of speculative theology, was at no risk of contradicting Scripture and faith.” (91) This Spinoza did by pointing out (against Wittich and others) that Scripture did not contain any mysteries of faith, but rather could be understood by every common man endowed with sane reason. Moreover, he maintained that the Bible is not concerned with knowledge at all, not even with the knowledge of the alleged ‘tenets of faith’ necessary for salvation, but rather aims at practical piety only.

Spinoza’s most elaborate rejection of the “separation thesis”, Douglas argues in chapter five, is to be found in his Ethics and more particularly in his ‘Idea of God’ (Deus sive natura) as well as in his rejection of the distinction between will and intellect. Both of these issues evoked criticism among Dutch Cartesians. Douglas focuses on the critique found in Wittich’s Anti-Spinoza but finds it wanting. Wittich misunderstood Spinoza’s method and failed to provide a convincing argument defending the Dutch Cartesian distinction between intellect and will.

In the epilogue to this book, Douglas treats the empiricism that emerged towards the end of the seventeenth century. Contrary to Spinoza’s philosophy and Dutch Cartesianism it did not rely on innate ideas and could therefore be seen as a more fundamental and hence more effective antidote to Spinozism. Yet, as Douglas goes on to argue, Newton and his followers admitted that new empirical evidence could overturn present theories. Thus, at least implicitly, they allowed for the possibility that Spinozist ideas could ultimately be vindicated by new discoveries.


This book is a very interesting study on the relationship between philosophy and theology in Dutch Cartesianism and in Spinoza. Douglas makes a good case that this issue lay at the very heart of Spinoza’s philosophical endeavor. Moreover, this book can be commended for is clear structure and its lucid style. Anyone interested in this topic will certainly profit from reading this concise work.

Yet, there are also questions that could be asked and some points of criticism. First of all, one wonders, if De Raey’s conception of the relationship between theology and philosophy is representative of the Dutch Cartesian movement. To be sure, Douglas does mention other Dutch Cartesians (Wittich, Van Velthuysen et al.), but he seems to rely mainly on De Raey’s work. While there can be no doubt about the Dutch Cartesian insistence on separating philosophy and theology, there seems to be a certain variety when it comes to the way in which this separation was argued for. According to Douglas, Dutch Cartesian natural theology is ruled out by the “separation idea”. But how is it then possible, that beginning already in the 1650s prominent Cartesians like Clauberg, Wittich, and Röell published books that can only be classified as natural theologies? Moreover, De Raey’s “separation idea” is clearly at variance with that of the prominent ‘Cartesio-Cocceian’ like Johannes Braun (1628-1708), who did not confine the Cartesian truth-criterion of clear and distinct perception to philosophical matters, but also applied it to theological knowledge.

Another point of criticism concerns the terminology being used by Douglas. At a number of occasions, he applies the label “traditionalists” to those theologians belonging to the anti-Cartesian fraction among Dutch academics. This is problematic, because “traditionalist” is a pejorative term that implies a value judgment on the part of the author. Moreover, as Douglas (following Han van Ruler) readily admits, Voetius did not reject Cartesianism simply because he hated new ideas, but rather because “he had a philosophical system, which he believed, not without justification, to be more rationally defensible than that of the Cartesians.” (23)

Finally, a note about Douglas’ remarks concerning the nature of Cocceianism is in order. On page 112, he writes: “Cocceian theology is based around the idea of a kind of legal relationship existing between God and humans.” Here, he probably hints at the prominence of the covenant concept in Cocceian theology. In fact, some scholars (like J.B. Torrance) have argued that Cocceius’ notion of the covenant is strongly indebted to seventeenth century legal thought. However, more recent scholarship (M. Beach, R. A. Muller et al.) suggests that this assertion is rather questionable. Moreover, it can easily be argued that western Christianity in the Augustinian tradition has always made use of legal concepts and terminology in order to describe the divine-human relationship. It is not a unique characteristic of Cocceianism.