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Spinoza and Politics

Lecturers: Jon Rubin and Janice Richardson

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 1 2017

Spinoza and politics: at first sight, even this simple formula is a glaring paradox! If politics belongs to the order of history, here is a philosopher whose whole system is presented as the elaboration of the idea that to know is to know God, and that “God is nature” itself. If politics belongs to the order of the passions, here is a philosopher who sets out to know (intelligere) the desires and the deeds of men “in the geometric style … as if it were a question of lines, planes and bodies” (Ethics, preface to part III). If politics is inherently bound up with present events, here is a philosopher for whom wisdom and the sovereign good consist in conceiving all singular things “from the viewpoint of eternity” (sub aeternitatis specie) (Ethics, V). What can he have to tell us about politics, that is not pure speculation? Spinoza and Politics, xxi

Although Balibar’s remarks in the main are concerned with Spinoza’s masterpiece, the Ethics, not his unfinished Political Treatise, nevertheless we could raise many of the same concerns with this latter text. “I am fully persuaded that experience has shown all the kinds of State which might conceivably enable men to live in harmony” Spinoza confidently tells us in the opening paragraphs. And although the Political Treatise is not written in the geometric style, the attitude towards the passions, the multitude, the possibility of understanding how people come together and govern themselves and others, remains as firmly committed to a rationalist thesis of intelligibility stripped of all condemnation. Although the Political Treatise is an order of magnitude less forbidding than the Ethics, it remains a difficult text. It has been, compared to the Ethics, relatively neglected. This neglect must be partly due to its unfinished status; Spinoza died whilst writing it. But also, notoriously, the final, unfinished chapter “On Democracy” ends after only a few pages with a regressive screed against the very possibility of women partaking in political power, based on the “alternative-fact” that no woman has ever ruled. It seems unlikely that Spinoza had never heard of Queen Elizabeth I of England and impossible that he had not heard of Descartes’ final patron, Queen Christina of Sweden, who reigned whilst Spinoza was a young man. The status of these final comments (fatal flaw, unnecessary excrescence, death-bed weakness) remains a topic of necessary controversy for any progressive theorist who engages with Spinoza’s thought.

Despite all the reasons why Spinoza should not, cannot, be read as a political theorist, he has been important to a long line of progressive and radical thinkers from Marx and George Eliot in the nineteenth century, through the ‘Althusserian moment’ in France in the ’60s, to feminist philosophers and activists in the twenty-first.

This course will begin by situating Spinoza’s thought within its historical context. It will then look at the elements of political thought in Spinoza’s Ethics before moving on to the Political Treatise itself. From there it will look at a number of theorists in the radical continental tradition and their writings on Spinoza and politics.

For the final two weeks, Associate Professor Janice Richardson, will lecture on contemporary feminist theory and Spinoza.

Course Schedule

1. Historical context and the politics in the Ethics

2. Spinoza, The Political Treatise focusing mostly on chaps 1&2, 11

3. Althusser, 'Ideology & Ideological State Apparatuses' & The Future Lasts Forever

4. Balibar, Spinoza and Politics

5. Balibar, Spinoza and Politics

6. Macherey, Anthropology and history
- Macherey, Spinoza's Philosophical Actuality
- Macherey, Spinoza, the End of History, and the Ruse of Reason

7. Macherey, Hegel or Spinoza

8. Negri, The Savage Anomaly

9. Montag, Bodies, Masses, Power

10. Montag, Bodies, Masses, Power

11. Richardson, Feminism and Spinoza

12. Richardson, Feminism and Spinoza

Very Selective Reading List:

  • Althusser, Louis. 1984. Essays on Ideology. Translated by Ben Brewster and Grahame Lock. London: Verso.
  • ———. 1995. The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir. Translated by Olivier Corpet and Yann Moulier Boutang. New York: New Press.
  • ———. 1997. ‘The Only Materialist Tradition, Part 1: Spinoza’. In The New Spinoza, edited by W Montag and T. Stolze. London: University of Minneapolis Press.
  • Althusser, Louis, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Jacques Rancière, and Pierre Macherey. 2016. Reading Capital : The Complete Edition. Translated by David Fernbach and Ben Brewster. London: Verso.
  • Balibar, Étienne. 1994a. ‘Spinoza, the Anti-Orwell: The Fear of the Masses’. In Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy before and after Marx, 3–38. London: Routledge.
  • ———. 1994b. ‘Subjection and Subjectivation’. In Supposing the Subject, edited by Jean Copjec, 1–15. London: Verso.
  • ———. 1997. Spinoza: From Individuality to Transindividuality. Delft: Eburon.
  • ———. 1998. Spinoza and Politics. Translated by Peter Snowdon. Verso.
  • Gatens, Moira. 1996. Imaginary Bodies. London: Routledge.
  • ———. , ed. 2009. Feminist Interpretations of Benedict Spinoza. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Gatens, Moira, and Genevieve Lloyd. 1999. Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present. London: Routledge.
  • Lloyd, Genevieve. 1993. The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy. 2nd ed. Ideas. London: Routledge.
  • ———. 1994. Part of Nature: Self-Knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics. New York: Cornell University Press.
  • Macherey, Pierre. 1998a. In a Materialist Way: Selected Essays by Pierre Macherey. Edited by Warren Montag. Translated by Ted Stolze. London: Verso.
  • ———. 1998b. ‘Spinoza, the End of History, and the Ruse of Reason’. In In a Materialist Way: Selected Essays by Pierre Macherey, edited by Warren Montag, translated by Ted Stolze, 136–58. London: Verso.
  • ———. 1998c. ‘Spinoza’s Philosophical Actuality (Heidegger, Adorno, Foucault)’. In In a Materialist Way: Selected Essays by Pierre Macherey, edited by Warren Montag, translated by Ted Stolze, 125–35. London: Verso.
  • ———. 2011. Hegel Or Spinoza. Translated by Susan M. Ruddick. Minneapolis ; London: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Montag, Warren. 1999. Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and His Contemporaries. London: Verso.
  • Negri, Antonio. 1991. The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics And Politics. Translated by Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Prokhovnik, Raia. 2003. Spinoza and Dutch Republicanism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Richardson, Janice. 2009a. The Classic Social Contractarians. London: Ashgate Publishing.
  • ——— 2009b. ‘Chapter Three: Spinoza’. In The Classic Social Contractarians, 47–71. London: Ashgate Publishing.
  • ———. 2014. ‘Spinoza, Feminism and Privacy: Exploring an Immanent Ethics of Privacy’. Feminist Legal Studies 22 (3): 225–41. doi:10.1007/s10691-014-9271-3.
  • ———. 2015. ‘Hobbes’ Frontispiece: Authorship, Subordination and Contract’. Law and Critique, October, 1–19. doi:10.1007/s10978-015-9165-9.