HIS 362G • SPINOZA AND MODERNITY-W
Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century Dutch-Jewish philosopher of Portuguese descent, has been alternately labeled the instigator of the "radical enlightenment" (Jonathan Israel), the renegade Jew who gave us modernity (Rebecca Goldstein), the betrayer of the Jewish tradition (Hermann Cohen), a savage anomaly in the western intellectual tradition (Antonio Negri), and the theorist of the one kind of god in which a physicist of the twentieth century might conceivably believe (Albert Einstein). In his own seventeenth-century Amsterdam context, his writings - and even mere rumor of them were enough to earn him full excommunication from the Jewish community. Yet in subsequent centuries those scandalous writings have become a crucial chapter in histories of western philosophy. G. W. F. Hegel, for instance, would argue that only after Spinoza could one really begin to philosophize properly. This course will introduce students to the core of Spinoza's writings that have produced such diverse reactions over the centuries, as well as to exemplary moments in those reactions. We will spend roughly half of the semester reading Spinozas works (The Theological-Political Tractatus and the Ethics). As we work through Spinozas own writings, we will aim to understand how he fused philosophical traditions with a Jewish intellectual heritage to produce a unique intellectual modernity, one of radical immanence. He brought god down to earth, conflating god with nature (both mind and matter, the two simply being different ways of god or nature expressing itself). In doing so, he not only refused any transcendent god or ideal, but also challenged the mind-body dualism so prominent in western thought. In the second half of the course, we will work with the intellectual legacy left by Spinozas equation of god with nature. That intellectual legacy undercut the religion-secularism divide defining post-Enlightenment Europe. Indeed, that legacy could be said to be one of a god-infused secularism, an immanent world in which the divine consists in all things, all individuated phenomena. Some have seen this aspect of Spinozas work as a radical form of monotheism, or of monotheisms logical secular evolution (Lenn Goodman). Others have read it as a specifically secular-Jewish form of modernity, one resting on the idea that Judaism both religious and secular accommodates divine immanence better than its Christian neighbor (Moses Mendelssohn and Heinrich Heine in the 18th and 19th centuries; Rebecca Goldstein and Willi Goetschl in the 21st). Still others have seen in Spinoza a realization of radical Protestantism, in which glimpses of the divine appear to all via study of the natural world (Friedrich Schleiermacher). By the end of the nineteenth century and again at the start of the twentyfirst materialist-prone thinkers have found in Spinoza a means to understand scientific study and the laws of natural necessity while still affirming conscious moral agency on the part of the individual (Antonio Damasio). And quite recently, twenty-first-century Marxist thinkers have found in Spinozas thought the only model of social organization equipped to empower the multitude to confront global capital (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri). This course will grapple with all of these developments that have evolved out of Spinozas thought to understand the core that has made all of these seemingly diffuse interpretations possible.
The course will be one with an intensive writing focus, as students will work best with Spinoza's thought if they write about it on a weekly basis. Students will thus write weekly one- to two-page essays about the weeks reading, submitting these for feedback and then revising and compiling them as final journals at the end of the semester. In addition, students will be asked to write ten-page essays at the end of the semester in which they work with one or more pieces of reception literature and assess those pieces in relation to their knowledge of Spinozas writing. Students will have considerable latitude on this front. They may choose to work with a piece of recent scholarly literature (e.g. something from Israel, Goetschel, Goldstein, Deleuze), or a more historical piece from the reception (e.g. a novel from George Eliot, whose characters are famously "Spinozist"; a poem from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, or a more philosophical piece from someone like Hermann Cohen or Leo Strauss). Finally, as a capstone to the course, I will ask students to share their studies with the class in oral presentations and also as circulated final papers.
Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1991). Baruch Spinoza, Ethics in The Essential Spinoza: Ethics and Related Writings, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006). Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (New York: Schocken, 2006). Willi Goetschel, Spinoza's Modernity: Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Heine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), excerpts. Jonathan Israel, "Enlightenment! What Enlightenment?" Journal of the History of Ideas 67:3 (July 2006): 523-545. Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2003), excerpts. Heinrich Heine, Religion and Philosophy in Germany, trans. John Snodgrass (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), excerpts. Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem and other Jewish Writings, trans. Alfred Jospe (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), excerpts. Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), excerpts. Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinozas Metaphysics and Politics, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), excerpts Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), 69-92.