Spinoza

Table of Contents

  1. Historical Sketch
  2. Reading Spinoza
    1. If you only read one
    2. But if you have time for more
    3. In the original language
    4. Background Reading
  3. Spinoza’s receptions
    1. 20th-century France
  4. Annotated Bibliography
    1. Reader’s guides and helpful texts
    2. Notable interpretations
    3. Edited volumes
  5. Concluding Remarks

1. Historical Sketch

As Heidegger once said of Aristotle, Spinoza was born, he worked, and then he died. The standard account of his cause of death is that he died of tuberculosis exacerbated by all the glass dust he likely inhaled working as a lens grinder. In his lectures on the history of philosophy, Hegel said: “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.” Later in the lecture, Hegel says that “[i]t 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 wonders if Hegel’s off-color remarks on Spinoza’s death are an aphoristic comment indicative of how Hegel thought of Spinoza’s philosophy, as Hegel typically wove a philosopher’s death into his account of their philosophy.

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 definitive biographical event of Spinoza’s is his ban 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 stands out 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.

He spent the rest of his life working as a lens-grinder and hanging out with various European intellectuals. 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 and acceptance of a position at the same university a century later.

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 authentic original might be. A very early version of Spinoza’s Ethics (in Latin) was recently discovered in the Vatican Library in 2011, and there is a PDF of it floating around.

2. Reading Spinoza

2.1 If you only read one

There’s no better starting point than his masterwork: The Ethics in the iconic white Samuel Shirley translation (1982); this 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. The book is relatively cheap if you find it used. If money is no object, I 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.

2.2 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 he’s still answering emails and publishing on Spinoza. The two-volume work is beautiful, and contains bountiful introductions and footnotes that elaborate on the choices Curley made in his Latin-to-English translations. The two volumes together are pricey, but worth it. Remember that if you’re a graduate or teaching faculty, you can get an instructor’s copy relatively easily, though only the second volume is available. The publisher ignored my emails asking about volume one.

2.3 In the original language

I have not found a good print 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).

P.S., if you can read Spanish, reading Spinoza in Spanish gets you much closer to the original Latin. I recommend Manuel Machado’s translation.

2.4 Background Reading

One of the reasons I love Spinoza is that he is perhaps one of the easiest philosophers to read without knowledge of what his historical context is or what philosophers he is responding to [note: this is not the same as saying he is easy to read!]. It is the nature of philosophy that you ultimately must know the historical context of a work, and Spinoza is no exception. However, similar to the Stoics, Heraclitus, or Marx, Spinoza is more penetrable than most for the novice or amateur.

The single most useful philosopher to read in order to read Spinoza is Descartes. Many also recommend Maimonides, though I haven’t read him enough to comment authoritatively on how much knowing Maimonides’ thought helps. It would also be helpful to have read Aristotle, especially On the Soul. It might help to read Hobbes, though Hobbes was much more a contemporary of Spinoza, and it’s unclear if Spinoza read Hobbes before completing most of his own work. Because Spinoza is not often in the habit of citing or name-dropping other philosophers, there aren’t many places where you’ll be lost because you don’t recognize who Spinoza’s referring to. You will get lost, instead, for other reasons.

3. Spinoza’s Reception

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 across Europe and beyond. As a Spinoza scholar, I’m 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, of course, tell this history many different ways. For now, I follow the standard Western way of describing his reception in terms of his 20th century Continental readers in France.

If I was to elaborate further, I would touch upon Leibniz’s history with Spinoza (see the wonderful, very insightful and addicting The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart), the troubled history of the publication of The Ethics, and the domination of the Leibniz-Wolffian philosophy through which Spinoza was (not) read. Beth Lord, whose reader’s guide I recommend at the end, also wrote Kant and Spinozism, where she argues at the outset that Kant very likely did not read Spinoza. I would touch upon Hegel’s ambivalent love for Spinoza, the “pantheism controversy” in late 18th-century Germany, Heinrich Heine’s respect for Spinoza, and Nietzsche’s discovery of Spinoza, whom Maurizio Scandella convincingly argues read Spinoza only through Kuno Fischer’s introductiory text.

3.1 20th-century France

My main source text for this section is 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 path forward for philosophers opting to advance what Jean Cavaillès called the “philosophy of the concept,” and not phenomenology as the “philosophy of experience.” The distinction between philosophy of the concept and experience is elaborated by Foucault in his introduction to Georges Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological. Canguilhem was a friend and admirer of Cavaillès, and wrote a long obituary for him that is currently not available in English beyond Peden’s quotations of it in Spinoza Contra Phenomenology.

Peden argues that, beginning with the philosopher of math Jean Cavaillès and the latter’s rejection of Heidegger and Husserl in particular, 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. Deleuze was not the only commentator on Spinoza. For an insightful though not exhaustive list, thumb through Spinoza Contra Phenomenology. There is much more to add, but this is supposed to be a quick reading-guide intro so that you can figure out what direction you would like to go in.

4. Annotated Bibliography

4.1 Reader’s guides and helpful texts

  • Lord, Beth – Spinoza’s Ethics: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide (2010)
    • 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.
  • Deleuze, Gilles – Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (1968; tr. 1990)
    • It may be fairly argued that this text belongs in notable interpretations, but if you have an intermediate amount of experience in philosophy, Deleuze’s book on Spinoza is a difficult but clear and arguably faithful interpretation of Spinoza’s thought.

4.2 Notable Interpretations

  • Curley, Edwin – Spinoza’s Metaphysics – An Essay in Interpretation (1969)
    • An early reading of Spinoza by an American philosopher who is Spinoza’s main English translator as well as, in my opinion, interpreter. Curley has written on Spinoza throughout his career, and he is fairly even-handed in pulling from Continental and Anglo-American readings of Spinoza. His interpretation functions as a great bridge to more decidedly Analytic or Continental readings.
  • Bennett, Jonathan – A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, Vol. 1 and 2 (1984)
    • Bennett is a decidedly Analytic reader of Spinoza who pulls no punches in telling you what he thinks is malarkey and what he finds to be meaningful. He famously declares that he believes the fifth part of the Ethics to be a disaster and does not want to talk about it, but does so to complete his interpretation. Bennett’s is a great starting point for the Analytic reception of Spinoza.
  • Macherey, Pierre – Hegel or Spinoza (1979; tr. 2011)
    • Macherey’s is a powerful book that is very insightful if you are familiar with Hegel. It also pairs nicely with…
  • Moder, Gregor – Hegel and Spinoza – Substance and Negativity (2017)
    • A fairly contemporary study of Hegel and Spinoza with reference to Heidegger, Marx, and other more contemporary philosophers. Moder’s book is exceedingly clear and insightful, and as the title indicates, is dedicated to a productive reading of Hegel with regard to Spinoza and Spinoza with regard to Hegel.
  • Negri, Antonio – The Savage Anomaly (1981; tr. 1991)
    • Fascinating and intense reading of Spinoza that stands out in its creativity. Negri draws heavily on Spinoza’s letters and political writings, as well as Spinoza’s biography. Negri’s reading focuses heavily on the concept of the imagination, much like…
  • Gatens, Moira and Lloyd, Genevieve – Collective Imaginigs: Spinoza, Past and Present (1999)
    • Lloyd and Gatens are often classed as feminist readers of Spinoza, which is accurate, but they should also be recognized as additionally contributing to or re-founding the reading of Spinoza’s (disparaged) concept of the imagination. Distinct from Negri, Lloyd and Gatens provide a very clear reading of Spinoza that focuses on collectivity and the power of imagination. Fun aside about Gatens: a friend of mine was at a conference where she was giving a paper on Spinoza. Apparently, some old professor insisted that she had misread the text, and Gatens replied by quoting the Latin from memory. The guy got upset and stormed off to grab a copy of the original Latin to prove her wrong. He never came back.
  • Peden, Knox – Spinoza Contra Phenomenology – French Rationalism from Cavailles to Deleuze (2014)
    • As cited above, a very fresh and original study that combines intellectual history and philosophy. Arguably not so much about Spinoza but about interpretations of Spinoza, but I count it because it gives an introduction to reading Spinoza through Althusser, as well as re-interpreting Deleuze provocatively as giving a Heideggerian reading of Spinoza.
  • Wolfson, Harry – Philosophy of Spinoza Vols. I and II (1934)
    • Wolfson’s reading is often referenced in order to critique it, but this speaks to the enduring influence of Wolfson’s interpretation. Wolfson’s study was the key study of Spinoza for the early 20th century, and it is wide-ranging in scope. The book holds up well, though I recommend entering it once you’re familiar with Spinoza and more dominant interpretations. Wolfson’s thesis that Spinoza is the first modern philosopher because he breaks from the God of the Scholastics remains a provocative point, and this claim occurs in the introduction to Vol. I.
    • Yovel, YirmiyahuSpinoza and Other Heretics Vols. I and II (1989)
      • Yovel is a wonderful and clear writer who weaves together history, biography, and philosophy to provide a powerful interpretation of Spinoza that is particularly attentive to the Jewish philosophical and religious elements of Spinoza’s thought. Yovel is a notable interpreter particularly for his interpretation of Spinoza as a marrano, or, a crypto-Jew following their forced conversion to Christianity.

There are many more texts I’ve left off, but I’ll list some names below if you’d like to investigate further or else recognize a familiar name that might inspire you to pick up their work on Spinoza:

  • Balibar, Étienne – Spinoza and Politics (1985; tr. 1998)
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc – no particular book, but Spinoza appears across his work
  • Della Rocca – Spinoza (2008)
  • Dobbs-Weinstein, Idit – Spinoza’s Critique of Religion and its Heirs: Marx, Benjamin, Adorno (2015)
  • Garrett, Aaron – Meaning in Spinoza’s Method (2007)
  • Gueroult, Martial – Spinoza I; Spinoza II (1969, 1974; only available in French)
  • Harris, Errol – Salvation from Despair: A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy (1973)

4.3 Edited Volumes

  • Vardoulakis, Dimitris – Spinoza Now (2011)
    • Very sharp collection of essays on Spinoza that is relatively recent, as far as philosophy goes.
  • Montag, Warren and Stolze, Ted – The New Spinoza (1997)
    • Classic collection of essays that focuses on Spinoza’s 20th-century Continental reception, and includes essays by Althusser, Deleuze, Irigaray, Macherey, Balibar, Matheron, Negri, and others.
  • Grene, Marjorie and Nails, Debra – Spinoza and the Sciences (1986)
    • Excellent collection of essays by recognized Spinoza interpreters on Spinoza’s relation to science.
  • Lloyd, Genevieve – Spinoza: Critical Assessments (multiple vols.)
    • This series is typically top-notch, and each volume concerns different aspects of Spinoza’s thought.
  • Moreau, Pierre-François and Curley, Edwin – Spinoza: Issues and Directions (1990)
    • This is a collection of papers from the Chicago Spinoza Conference, and there are many interesting topics covered here. This conference includes interpreters of Spinoza from multiple walks and areas of philosophy, and this aspect partly informs the power of the papers here as they appeal to readers from various traditions of philosophy.

5. Concluding Remarks

The above is meant to be a kick-starter to pushing you to read Spinoza on your own, and thus this is my excuse for anything I’ve left out or thought not worth mentioning (like Leo Strauss, for example). I spent way longer on this than I should have, and my plan is for the other reading guides to be much shorter than this one–I happen to have a lot of love for Spinoza. I hope it helps you to find a starting point in your own reading.