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Spinoza

Table of Contents

  1. Historical Sketch
  2. If you only read one
  3. But if you have time for more
  4. In the original language
  5. Historic receptions (work in progress)
    1. 20th-century France
    2. 20th-century Italy (need help on this one)
    3. 19th-century Germany and the “Pantheism Controversy”
  6. Annotated Bibliography
    1. Reader’s guides and helpful texts
    2. Key interpretations
    3. Notables studies
    4. Anglo-American readings
    5. Edited volumes

1. Historical Sketch

As Heidegger liked to say of any philosopher, Spinoza was born and then died. People theorize he died of tuberculosis that was likely exacerbated by all the glass dust he inhaled working as a lens grinder. In his lectures on the history of philosophy, Hegel famously wrote: “Spinoza died on the 21st of February, 1677, in the forty-fourth year of his age. The cause of his death was consumption, from which he had long been a sufferer; this was in harmony with his system of philosophy, according to which all particularity and individuality pass away in the one substance.” I’m not making this up. Later in the lecture, Hegel says that “It is therefore worthy of note that thought must begin by placing itself at the standpoint of Spinozism; to be a follower of Spinoza is the essential commencement of all Philosophy. For as we saw above (Vol. I. p. 144), when man begins to philosophize, the soul must commence by bathing in this ether of the One Substance, in which all that man has held as true has disappeared; this negation of all that is particular, to which every philosopher must have come, is the liberation of the mind and its absolute foundation.” In Hegel and Spinoza, Gregory Moder thoughtfully opines that perhaps Hegel’s acerbic commentary on Spinoza’s death is a thoughtful aphorism that captures how Hegel thought of Spinoza’s philosophy. Enough of Hegel for now.

Spinoza was the son of Jews semi-exiled to Amsterdam. More specifically, he was part of a Marrano community in the Netherlands that consisted of Jewish merchants. The signature event of Spinoza’s life is that he was banned from his Jewish community when he was 23 years old. The text of the ban has survived, and though Jews were routinely excoriated or banned from the community, Spinoza’s ban is notable for how intense the language is: “Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law.” The ban was never lifted, and Spinoza seems to have been okay with that; though, one wonders if he was ever homesick after his exile.

He spent the rest of his life working as a lens-grinder and hanging out with various European intellectuals. I understand some biographers theorize that Spinoza didn’t actually need his lens-grinding job, but did it mostly out of scientific interest. His friend Jan de Witt was murdered in 1672, two years after Spinoza published his Theological Political Treatise (described as “a book forged in hell”). Spinoza was said to be deeply affected, and had to be stopped by his landlord from reacting by leaving a placard at the murder site. Spinoza was also famously offered the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, but refused because it might curb his freedom of thought. Compare, for example, to Hegel’s climb up the university ladder (I promise, I’m not anti-Hegel).

Spinoza’s Ethics was published after his death by his friends, along with all his other writings. There is thus, as with most works that come to us from History, dispute as to what the “original” versions might be. An original version of Spinoza’s Ethics (in Latin) was recently discovered in the Vatican Library in 2011 and released.

2. If you only read one

The Ethics (Samuel Shirley translation); recommended edition contains the Ethics, an earlier unfinished (and important) work called the Treatise on the Emendation [or improvement] of the Intellect, as well as some important letters Spinoza wrote. The book is relatively cheap used. If money is no object for you, I’d recommend the Edwin Curley translation that you’ll find in The Collected Works of Spinoza Volume I. There is also a translation out by Michael Silverthorne and Matthew J. Kisner (and edited by Matthew J. Kisner). It’s based on a recent critical edition prepared by Fokke Akkerman and Piet Steenbakkers in France, and seems promising. I haven’t worked through it yet, but it is the most recent translation of the Ethics. I don’t recommend the old Elwes translation, but I should note it is the free version that you’ll find on Gutenberg and ethica.db. Amazon affiliate link for the Curley translation here.

3. But if you have time for more

The best English-language source for Spinoza is Edwin Curley’s monumental two volume The Collected Works of Spinoza. The first volume was published in 1985, and the second was released nearly 30 years later in 2016. Curley is now professor emeritus (at University of Michigan), but I will vouch for the fact that he still answers emails. The two-volume work is beautiful, and contains bountiful introductions and footnotes as to the choices Curley made in his Latin-to-English translations. The two volumes together are pricy, but necessary for serious study.

4. In the original language

I have regrettably not found a good version of Spinoza’s texts in the original Latin. There are many publishers who seem to operate on a kind of textbook-mill model in which they’ll print a text off the public-access text. The result is a print book sloppily put together, prone to falling apart, and more cumbersome than simply pulling up the original Latin on your choice of website (I recommend ethica.db, but the online Spinoza-verse has many fruitful options you’ll find off the first page of Google results).

5. Spinoza’s Reception

This section is ultimately going to be a work in progress. There’s significant work left to be done in tracing Spinoza’s reception from the posthumous publication of his work up to the present day. As a Spinoza scholar, I’m chiefly familiar with key points of his reception, and less so the full narrative, especially as concerns the 17th and early 18th century. I’ll split up this section into regional receptions, although you could tell the story of his reception not in terms of regions, but areas and concepts. For now, I follow the standard Western way of describing his reception in terms of his Continental reception foremostly.

5.1 20th-century France

Lot to be said here, and my main source text will be Spinoza Contra Phenomenology by Knox Peden. Peden argues that, beginning with the arrival of phenomenology in France following the Heidegger-Cassirer Debate in Davos (detailed magnificently in The Continental Divide by Peter Gordon), Spinoza was the way out for philosophers who wanted to think the “philosophy of the concept,” opposed to the “philosophy of experience.” The distinction between philosophy of the concept and experience is usefully made by Foucault in his introduction to Georges Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological.

Peden argues that, beginning with the philosopher of math Jean Cavaillès and the latter’s rejection of Heidegger and, more directly, Husserl, French philosophy turns to Spinoza as an alternative to the Cartesian-inflected eruption of phenomenology in European thought in the post-war period. Indeed, the only surviving work of Cavaillès’ we have is a critique of Husserlian methods of grounding thought in phenomenology entitled On logic and the theory of science; the text famously ends with Cavaillès concluding that “it is not a philosophy of consciousness but a philosophy of the concept that can yield a doctrine of science” (78).

Whether we take Peden’s version of French intellectual history as definitive, it remains that Spinoza and Descartes are the two modern philosophers who exercise the most influence over post-war France, and I would argue that while Descartes is filtered through the phenomenological tradition, Spinoza comes through directly–for the latter is decisively rejected by Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger; Descartes is conversely developed and expanded upon.

5.2 20th-century Italy and operaismo

This section to address Negri and autonomist readings from the 70s.

5.3 19th-century Germany and the “Pantheism Controversy”

Lot to be said here and it starts with the philosopher Friedrich Jacobi being a real asshole.

6. Annotated Bibliography

6.1 Reader’s guides and helpful texts

  • Lord, Beth – Spinoza’s Ethics: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide
    • Lord’s text is extremely accessible, lucid, short, and outlines the key concepts needed to read the Ethics solo. It’s about 200 pages long, but useful as a reference in addition to reading straight through.
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