Reflections on Spinoza

By Chan Kok Keong

A talk at the Perak Academy by KOH CHYE HOCK

Koh Hock Chye was 17, when he first encountered Spinoza through Ronald W. Clark’s acclaimed Einstein: The Life and Times, he borrowed from the Ipoh Public Library. His Life-long interest in Spinoza was sparked by a passage in the book where Einstein declared that: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind”.

Chye was fortunate that in his senior year as a Philosophy student at the University of Utah, USA, a young Assistant Professor by the name of Don Garrett returned from Harvard to join the Philosophy Department, his alma mater. Professor Garrett’s reputation as a young and upcoming academic philosopher who had already established himself as a Spinoza and Hume scholar preceded his return to the University of Utah. For the next three years, Chye studied Spinoza’s magnum opus Ethics under the guidance and supervision of Professor Garrett, first for Chye’s Senior Thesis on an in-depth survey of the Ethics and subsequently a Master Thesis on “Philosophical Theology and the Metaphysical Foundation of Ethics in the Philosophy of Tagore and Spinoza.”

Chye considers the Ethics a daunting piece of Philosophical writing but well-worth the effort to study.

What makes the Ethics daunting?

  1. Its methodology- geometric method
  2. Its arcane language – a translation from Latin, but even in the original Latin, it was difficult.
  3. The subject matter covered are difficult – God, nature, religion, mind, body, space, time, psychology, emotions, determinism, free will, ethics and politics.
  4. How these subject matters fit into a grand system logically, coherently and consistently.

Although the Ethics is a self-contained work and, as Spinoza had wished, the book is self- sufficient in elucidating his philosophy. However, Chye thinks that some prior knowledge of the works of Descartes, Hobbes and Moses Maimonides and the general philosophical movement during the early modern period of philosophy between mid-15th Century through mid-17th Century would be helpful.

Anyone who studies Spinoza is immediately confronted by some apparent opposing ideas in Spinoza’s philosophy and how these ideas are either rejected, accommodated or reconciled in his works:

  1. God and atheism
  2. Determinism and freewill
  3. Self-interest and altruism
  4. Empiricism and rationalism

In the past three decades, scholarship and Spinoza studies have increased exponentially, and Spinoza’s philosophy and what his philosophy can instruct the human race is more relevant, and perhaps, needed today than ever before. Spinoza was truly a man ahead of his time by at least 300 years.

The talk was held in the premises of Perak Academy on February 13 at 5.30pm and amongst those who attended were:

Dato’ Lee Hau Hian from KLK
Dato’ Gan Tuck Kong from Ngan Yin Groundnuts
Chan Kok Keong from Chan & Associates
May Ang, a housing developer
James Teh a farmer
Au Hah Chye former executive Secretary of the Perak Academy and
Dr. Raman from Quest University

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