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Spinoza: Passion, Politics and the Power of Reason

Lecturer: Bryan Cooke

Originally Taught: Winter School 2013

Lecturer: Bryan Cooke
11am-1pm, June 17 - 21
Room 0104

"All contemporary philosophers are looking through lenses that Spinoza polishes." Heinrich Heine.

"To be a follower of Spinoza is the essential commencement of all philosophy." G.W.F. Hegel

This course attempts to introduce students to the thought of the great seventeenth-century Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza and in particular to his posthumously published masterpiece "Ethica" (Ethics). The purpose of the course is threefold. First, and most importantly, I want to give students an entry-point into Spinoza's philosophy, to his profound and enduringly provocative reflections on nature, reality, politics and the mind. Second, I want to provide (as much as possible in the time allowed) students with a sense of why, after the philosopher's re-discovery in the 19th century, Spinoza's work has become a touchstone for so many thinkers, particularly in the twentieth-century, who wanted a vision of humanity and of politics that is at once radically democratic, but not built upon the (Hobbesian-Lockean) foundations of modern liberalism. Finally, I would like, if possible to give students a sense of Spinoza's continuing appeal as a thinker who defends the rights and the power of human reason (which Spinoza identifies) in an age where, as Alain Badiou points out, it is fashionable to make protestations as to the limits or the poverty of the human intellect.

Given, however, that succeeding in the first task is an indispensable condition for the two subsequent ones, the bulk of the course will be given over to exegesis with as much time as possible allowed to giving a sense of the implications, problems and potentiality of these conclusions.

Course Schedule

Lecture 1: Will introduce students to Spinoza's life and times. Starting with the reasons for Spinoza's early excommunication from the Amsterdam synagogue, I will try to give a sense of Spinoza's relationship to the intellectual currents of his times, in particular, to some of the political and theological factions which divided the Dutch Republic.

In addition, I will also discuss Spinoza's most important published work: the Tractatus-Theologicus Politicus. Because the course focuses on the Ethics, I will not have time to run through the argument of the book in anything like the detail it deserves. However, I do want to leave students with a sense of what this strange (and in its time loudly execrated book) sets out to achieve, i.e. with its attempt to defend the value of philosophy both in public life and in relation to the claims of revealed religion.

Time permitting, I will also tell students a little about Spinoza's later reception, focusing in particular on the "pantheism controversy" (Pantheismustriet) in German philosophy of the 1780s, which commenced with Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi's revelation that the recently deceased Gotthold Lessing was a "Spinozist." I will then mention, how the outcome of the controversy (very much against the intentions of Jacobi) would result in the next generation of German philosophers seeing their own task as that of creating a "Spinozism of Freedom".

Lecture 2: Begins our discussion of the Ethics proper. After a brief discussion of the language of the text and the famous "geometric" presentation, I will discuss the section on God and as much of the second book (On Mind) as time allows. The goal of the lecture is to give students a sense of Spinoza's terminology (substance, attribute, mode, causa sui), his rejection of final causes and also the implications of his theses in regards to the relationship between nature (human and otherwise) and freedom.

Lecture 3: Will complete the discussion of Book II (Mind) and introduce the all-important third book of the Ethics, on the topic of the Affects. Combined with the following section "On Human Bondage", this book is the heart of the Ethics, in which Spinoza's "anthropology" is laid out.

Lecture 4: Will finish the outstanding sections of Section IV and briefly discuss the very difficult final book of the Ethics which goes by the title: "On Human Freedom". In addition, I will start to discuss some of the possible implications of the system laid out so far, in relation to both some of Spinoza's twentieth-century interpreters and in relation to some of the arguments of Spinoza's unpublished "political treatise"

Lecture 5: Will conclude the discussion of the Ethics and attempt to address the question: as to why so many contemporary philosophers have found Spinoza a political thinker of such importance for the struggles of our own time.

Primary Texts:

1) Spinoza, (trans. Edwin Curley), Ethics, (Penguin Books). N.B. This is the only text that is essential to the course. The Elwes translation of the Ethics is also out of copyright and thus available freely online. I prefer Curley's translation, but the latter is acceptable if, for whatever reason, e.g. financial or students have trouble acquiring the book.

Note: For the intrepid student a Latin version of the Ethics can be found at:

2) Spinoza, Theological Political Treatise, Jonathan Israel (ed.) Cambridge, 2007.

While I will discuss this text in the first lecture, we will not have time to go through it in detail. I only mention this edition for the interested students.

Recommended Secondary Sources (For the Perplexed)

I highly recommend Gilles Deleuze's book Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Students familiar with Deleuze may consider this book, conceptually slight in comparison with Deleuze's -other- Spinoza book, Expressionism in Philosophy. However, while the latter work is magisterial, the former (Practical Philosophy) is far more accessible and also contains some wonderfully lyrical testimonies as to Spinoza's greatness as a philosopher.

For the perplexed, Genevieve Lloyd's Routledge Guide to Spinoza and the Ethics is an informed, accessible, wide-ranging introduction, that also has a fine sense of Spinoza scholarship.

Additional & Background Reading:

Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic, which is devoted to the relationship between Spinoza and Leibniz is an entertaining, accessible book, designed for a wide-audience.

Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment and its sequels Enlightenment Contested etc. is a fine, detailed, strident contribution to the history of ideas and provides extremely useful information about the intellectual and political of Spinoza's Age. Spinoza is also, for Israel, an unmistakably heroic figure who, as a consequence, is often given centre-stage in his accounts of the birth-pangs of modern thought.

Etienne Balibar's book Spinoza and Politics is a fascinating virtuoso treatment of all three of Spinoza's major works, but it assumes considerably more knowledge and is much more densely argued than the previous items on this list.

Level of Difficulty: Introductory/Intermediate