SPINOZA BIOGRAPHY by Margaret Gullan-Whur

  Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza   Jonathan Cape 1998  Hardback  ISBN 0-224-05046-X

Within Reason jacketA biography of the 17th-century philosopher, including a vivid historical picture of the Dutch Golden Age.

Set amid the turbulent changes and achievements of the Dutch Golden Age, this biography roots the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch or Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677) in the context in which his ideas grew. Expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at the age of twenty-four, he was soon reviled by all other orthodox religious authorities for his “horrendous heresies”. The simple claim that so shocked his contemporaries was that human beings were parts of a single unified nature, which was also God. [But Spinoza was only trying to solve the problems of his day.]

Spinoza wanted above all to bring universal harmony through rational understanding. Undeterred by threats, shunning or vilification, he spent the rest of his life demonstrating that understanding the natural interconnection of all existing things – including thoughts – could dispel scientific error, prejudice, racial and religious hatred and political or psychological conflict. Just by considering what any existing thing, idea or event must, by nature, have in common with all other existing things of its kind, he insisted, we start to dissolve stubborn confusions and irrational passions.

This  biography shows how Spinoza’s ideas were forged by Spinoza’s own life experience. Drawing on recent scholarly research and Dutch and Portuguese sources not previously explored, Dr Gullan-Whur focuses on the way the philosopher struggled to put his ideas into practice. in the face of personal and national turmoil and tragedy. Along the way she demolishes the myth that he was a lofty, noble-natured recluse. Yet by exposing his emotional vulnerability, prickly pride, violent feelings about women and conviction that he knew better than any living scientist – including the great chemist and inventor Robert Boyle – she shows just how relevant his living philosophical experiment remains to ordinary human problems, public and private.

Margaret Gullan-Whur has a Ph.D. in the philosophy of Spinoza from University College London.

She retains a passionate admiration for the man who suffered poverty and  malicious hatred  while offering valuable theories of reconciliation between all races and religions

See also ARTICLES  on Spinoza ,  with a link to the Ph.D. thesis


Reviews of  Within Reason

“A sumptuous and rigorously scholarly account of the much-loved seventeenth-century philosopher …. brilliantly detailed.”   Steven Poole, The Guardian, 30 January 1999

“Historical reconstruction at its most peerless comes in Margaret Gullan-Whur’s Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza: and its bizarre, but riveting scenes of life among orthodox Jews in the Calvinist Amsterdam of the seventeenth century; they might have been imagined by Jorge Luis Borges.”   Graeme Woolaston, The Glasgow Herald, December, 2000

 “Margaret Gullan-Whur’s biography gives a vivid account of Spinoza’s Holland  .. Diligent searching of the archives has enabled her to fill out details and to question long-held assumptions.”  Roger Scruton, The Times, 3 December 1998    

 “She not only explicates Spinoza’s political, religious and metaphysical insights but does an excellent job of envisaging his complex personality needs, and feelings.  Especially noteworthy are her discussions of Spinoza’s harsh view of women and his relationship to Descartes. A fascinating study of an important figure in Western thought; recommended for philosophy collections.” Gene Shaw, New York Public Library,  Library  Journal, 15 February 2000 

“All these challenges are met, with impressive skill and confidence, in Margaret Gullan-Whur’s biography, Within Reason.   She has immersed herself in both the original sources and the latest works of historical scholarship; she skilfully handles the political background, and brings to life the social and religious practices of Hispanic-Dutch Jewry with an unusually vivid pen. This is a biographer who has looked long and hard at paintings, as well as books and manuscripts. …. Readers who have never dipped into Spinoza’s works will gain a good idea of the general nature of his metaphysics .. ”   Noel Malcolm, The Sunday Telegraph, 15 November 1998

Reviews of Margaret Gullan-Whur’s  and Steven Nadler’s 1998 biographies

“There has never been a full length biography of Spinoza in English, and now, like buses, two come along at once.  Both authors are accomplished scholars, as you need to be (Spinoza was fluent in Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, French and Dutch.” Ben Rogers, The Independent on Sunday, 16 January 2000 

“While Gullan-Whur’s imaginative story makes Spinoza a living person, Nadler’s more academic account leaves him a pale philosopher, a chess piece in an intellectual context.  … Her biography is a tour de force, a remarkable blend of imagination and erudition. Spinoza here ceases to be a philosophical saint and becomes a flesh-and-blood character with quirks, flaws and passions, and, strikingly, enduring Iberian taste, dress and manners.  .. The history of philosophy has a purpose and meaning only when its ideas and arguments emerge from the lives and historical contexts that gave birth to them.   For this reason, and for others cited above, these biographies by Margaret Gullan-Whur and Steven Nadler are a great step forward.”  Frederick Beiser, The Times Literary Supplement, 25 June 1999

 “Gullan-Whur has made more use of personal research on out-of-the-way documents in The Netherlands; Nadler’s work is based only on (widely ranging) published material. … The splendidly researched biography by Margaret Gullan-Whur presents a very different picture and is a very different kind of book. It is more in the genre of psycho-biography, attempting to plumb the depths of Spinoza’s character and claiming that he was far from the saintly but emotionally cool person of tradition.”Timothy Sprigge, International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. XL1, No 1. Issue No 161, March 2001




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