Three Contemporary Spinozas

By Benjamin Aldes WurgaftApril 18, 2015

Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization by Hasana Sharp
Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavailles to Deleuze by Knox Peden
Spinoza for Our Time: Politics and Postmodernity by Antonio Negri

I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes and bodies.

— Baruch Spinoza


A SPINOZIST POLITICS? Mathematics? Posthumanism? Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza is, as Hasana Sharp points out in her Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, a “philosopher of many posthumous births.” Recent decades have seen the 17th-century Dutch Jewish thinker reincarnated again and again, even wandering the earth in multiple bodies at once. Spinoza (1632–1677) has been presented as the fountainhead of the “Radical Enlightenment,” a heretic and father of heresies, a catalyst for the secularization process, an expert ideology theorist, and much more — and each depiction has generated controversy.

At the core of Spinoza’s ambitious philosophical agenda is an insistence upon the truth, achieved through the operations of reason, regardless of its social and political consequences. For many, his philosophy stood as a threat, necessarily leading to deep doubts about the coherence of religion, morality, and political institutions. For F. H. Jacobi, the late-18th-century anti-rationalist writer of the counter-Enlightenment, Spinozism opened a Pandora’s box of heresy; Jacobi equated “Spinozism,” with “pantheism” and with the replacement of religious revelation with reason. If Spinozists were consistent, this would lead to fatalism and nihilism. Jacobi’s remarks on the Spinozism of Gotthold Lessing led to the momentous Pantheismusstreit (Pantheism Controversy), which began as a private correspondence between Jacobi and Lessing’s friend Moses Mendelssohn (himself a defender of Spinoza) regarding Lessing’s beliefs and legacy, and then became a public dispute. The Pantheismusstreit became a watershed moment in the German Enlightenment, especially relevant to Enlightenment-era inquiries into the authority of reason, making the latent conflicts between faith and rationalism apparent to all — while also illuminating one obvious critique of rationalism, namely that it could become a faith unto itself. One irony of the Controversy was that it led to a rise of Spinoza’s reputation among the writers of Germany’s classical Goethezeit, which followed thereafter, a striking contrast with the generations of German thinkers before Jacobi, who had excoriated Spinoza for his “atheism.”[1] And yet the very heterogeneity of Spinoza’s contemporary reincarnations speaks to the protean character of his thought, to his ability to rise beyond all past controversy — and to the way his rationalist approach to questions of nature, truth, and the status of the human can be reinterpreted and adapted to serve the needs of new generations.

The three books I consider in this review — Sharp’s aforementioned Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, Knox Peden’s Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, and Antonio Negri’s Spinoza for Our Time — all deal with the question of the political meaning of Spinoza’s writings. Yet in each of them a different Spinozism breathes. Each offers a different answer to the question of what a Spinozist politics might look like, if such can exist at all. What sort of politics might we produce if we, too, understood human “actions and appetites” in terms of their production by “lines, planes, and bodies”?

In 1786, Mendelssohn’s friend Immanuel Kant suggested that Spinoza’s ideas led directly to a dangerous “enthusiasm”: an irrational faith in the power of rational thought and of concepts. Kant was, of course, no enemy of reason or of the Enlightenment, but he was troubled by several aspects of Spinoza’s thought, in particular the emphasis on immanence, the claim that God is not separate from the world, but rather an immanent cause of everything in nature. Once again, in the eyes of some this meant pantheism. For others it was atheism.[2] There is something suggestive about Kant’s application of the term Schwärmerei (enthusiasm, or even fanaticism) to Spinoza’s rationalism. It reminds us of the human drama of philosophy, of the way problems can become obsessions rather than simply interests. In Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, Peden quotes a 2008 interview in which the French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion said: “You start to suspect that Spinozism accompanies the philosophy of each philosopher precisely because it is not a philosophy itself but an ideological complement to all, the refuge of faith for nonbelievers.” Marion’s statement is not identical to Kant’s charge of Schwärmerei, but the two are congruent in their emphasis on Spinozism as a posture, stance, process, or even set of affects rather than a philosophical system.


Spinoza insisted that humanity enjoys no special status within the broader sweep of nature. Nor did he set God apart from nature as a master builder gazing down at a finished creation. Sharp’s Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization examines the consequences of this stance and argues that we should embrace Spinoza’s anti-anthropocentrism, which can in turn inspire “renaturalization,” a term Sharp borrows from feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz. In a skillful book informed both by Spinoza scholarship and by debates within feminist theory, Sharp argues that Spinoza’s claim that we must regard our lives as natural lives challenges the anthropocentrism within liberal political theory, undermining its grounding assumption that humans are defined by characteristics other natural creations do not enjoy. These characteristics may include reason, or morality, or a higher order of agency. Mind, especially, requires renaturalization, and a new appreciation of the fact that it is as natural as body.

While Spinoza insisted on a separation between the mental and the physical, he located both within the broader sweep of his “nature,” a term that did not mean anything like “the natural environment,” but simply meant “everything.” If the charge of “anthropocentrism” caricatures liberal humanism somewhat (and, as Sharp suggests, “the human” has in any case become a post-metaphysical concept, always open to question), it nevertheless has its merits, illuminating how a certain vision of the human underlies our sense of what politics is about. Sharp’s view is that the anthropocentric road quickly leads to self-hate: the political-theoretical critique she develops from Spinoza aims to “enab[le] self-love in humanity by eroding those models of man that animate hatred […] by suggesting that we are, at one extreme, defective Gods or, at the other, corrupt animals who need to be restored to our natural condition.”

But renaturalization is not nature’s re-enchantment in the sense that the romanticism of Wordsworth or Coleridge has made available to us. A re-enchanted nature would always involve charms that show up most clearly to the human eye, and thus it would be anthropocentric, too. Nor does renaturalization mean enshrining an imagined coordinate point beyond the anthropos, or refusing to use nonhuman animals or natural resources to improve the human condition. If Sharp describes her position as “posthumanist,” she does not mean to give normative precedence to nonhuman aspects of our earthly environment. Such a position might involve judging human social conventions and political practices by the standard set, respectively, by bees, whales, or microbes. Nor does she impute humanlike agency to networks of nonhuman creatures or even inanimate things, as some posthumanists are eager to do. Living in accordance with our natures is clearly part of Sharp’s goal for us, and yet she sees those natures as relatively changeable, and our lives subject to improvement, especially when we weave them together with the lives of other creatures. Importantly for Sharp, renaturalization leads not to a life regulated by a reductive sociobiological account of what it means to be human, but instead to a form of ideology critique, as we clear away the accumulated myths about what comprises human dignity, on the basis of which transcendental standards should regulate our political conduct. We are not bees, whales, or microbes, but we’re also no angels.

If the transcendentalist versions of humanism can lead to self-hate as we fault ourselves for being less than heavenly, feminists, race theorists, and many others have long regarded transcendentalism’s opposite — naturalism — with appropriate suspicion. They are keenly aware of the way accounts of nature have been marshaled to legitimate oppression and prejudice. One scarcely need cite the use of putative “race science” over the past two centuries to defend practices ranging from slavery to genocide. It is understandable if social constructivism has, for many, seemed a better intellectual tool for the pursuit of liberation and progress. Sharp is careful to point out that there is no necessary conflict between a social constructivist or historicist account of nature and the Spinozist renaturalization she proposes, which calls on us to attend to “constellations of relationships and communit[ies] of affect.” In other words, she argues that one can acknowledge the effects of history on our conception of nature (even as we inhabitants of the Anthropocene acknowledge the effects of recent human history on the natural environment) while focusing, pragmatically, not on the constructed character of nature but rather on what it is like to be natural: we are pushed and pulled by desire, need, and interdependency, always disarmed but sometimes enhanced in the process. Sharp’s argument, in other words, is basically pragmatist and has to do with comportment rather than with ontological or metaphysical truth-claims. Pragmatism out of Spinozist rationalism may seem like a paradox, but it is born out of the basic but crucial insight that even pure ratiocination is still a natural endeavor conducted by philosophers who happen to be natural creatures.

G.W.F. Hegel understood Spinoza’s pure affirmation of vital processes as a starting point for philosophy. He also believed that his own thought moved further by tracking the development of life via “negativity,” all the way through the myriad socializations of human life, socializations that work through contests of recognition and the mastery of selves and others. Both Hegel and Spinoza are theorists of desire, but they differ in their pictures of desire’s operations, with Hegel emphasizing the violent qualities of desire and the fragility of the social relations desire puts into effect. Importantly for Sharp, Hegel’s work — understood through the lens of one of his most prominent 20th-century interpreters, Alexandre Kojève — has inspired many theorists who today work on the politics of identity. For them, one of the most necessary critiques of liberalism hones in on the problem of recognition, the fact that our political and social systems function on the basis of definitions of personhood (sometimes citizenship, sometimes “humanness”) that often exclude many aspirants on the basis of their race, gender, sexuality, religion, mental or physical capacity, and so forth. Existentially spun, this yields the question of what kind of life is considered worthy of mourning when it is lost; politically spun, this yields a politics of identity, for which many march in the streets and which has become so familiar that certain of its basic assumptions can attain invisibility.

Sharp thinks that the Hegelian politics of recognition, even as theorized by thinkers such as Judith Butler (who proposes the compatibility of Spinoza and Hegel on the problematic of desire), misses something critical about naturalness (embodied by Spinoza’s conatus, the survival instinct): a commitment to the struggle for recognition means a commitment to subjecthood, and it is precisely subjecthood that the politics of renaturalization encourages us to question. While Sharp is even-handed on Butler’s treatment of Hegel and Spinoza, her insistence on the distinctiveness of the conatus raises questions about what a practical politics of renaturalization would look like. The politics of recognition, after all, is not a merely theoretical matter but one in which we are always finding ourselves “thrown” by the very inequities of the civilization within which we live. It is unclear to me that a better appreciation of vital processes, and a displacement of the anthropos that sings at the heart of the political, is a replacement for recognition. Sharp herself doesn’t seem blind to the necessity of political struggle. Perhaps instead renaturalization is, as Sharp sometimes seems to suggest, a necessary supplement, a reminder that our natures can never be summed up by the terms recognition gives us.

When compared with many contemporary expressions of posthumanism, which range from similar critiques of the centrality of the anthropos to studies that insist on the vital quasi-agency of the nonhuman (Bruno Latour’s 2004 Politics of Nature and Jane Bennett’s 2011 Vibrant Matter are notable examples of this enterprise), Sharp’s posthumanism is laudably temperate. Simply put, she argues that the contemplation of the smallness of the human within the cosmic (a wonderful Spinozist theme) counterbalances our anthropocentrism. Yet like all posthumanisms, Sharp’s leaves us with a considerable epistemological challenge as we struggle to imagine nonhuman standpoints, a challenge made even more difficult by the fact that she situates that challenge within the perspective of political (and thus emphatically human) life.


Peden’s Spinoza Contra Phenomenology tells a very different story, and not only because it is a work of intellectual history with certain empirical goals rather than a work of philosophical and political-theoretical critique. Sharp asks us to imagine our creatureliness and the needs and desires that bind us to fellow-creatures. The goal of that imagining seems to be pragmatic rather than contemplative. In contrast, Peden tells the story of 20th-century French thinkers whose philosophical inquiries map more closely onto Spinoza’s image of the intellectual love of God, in all the devotion and asymmetry of that love. As articulated in Ethics, such love comes from our appreciation of necessity, of the way all things partake of the divine essence. Peden glosses this as “aligning the self with broader, rational forces,” and it is the Spinozist version of the very old notion that philosophy isn’t just a method or a set of questions and answers but a practice of self-comportment. Where Sharp’s book is lively with nature and affect, Peden’s protagonists are all passion for the ideas themselves. Spinozism in 20th-century France yielded what Peden calls a philosophy of the concept, a striking alternative to the channel of French thought most familiar to Anglophone audiences: the philosophy of the subject. (Its best-known exponents include Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault.) While the lineage of subjectivity or consciousness can be traced back to Descartes, in the 20th century it was not just watered but soaked by the aquifer of phenomenology, originating in the Austro-German Edmund Husserl’s meditations on Descartes’s Meditations, revised by Heidegger’s “New Thinking,” and imported to France by thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas.

The contrast between a Spinozist rationalism of the concept and a Cartesian rationalism of the subject is, essentially, that the former rejects the idea that the cogito (i.e., of cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am) is the starting point for philosophy, something upon which Descartes insisted. Concepts are not consciousness. The various ways this idea gets articulated are complex. Formally speaking, Peden’s book is a series of episodic portraits of these articulations, presented through careful readings of the works of an impressive range of thinkers, many of them unknown to Anglophone readers, including the mathematician and philosopher of science Jean Cavaillès, the philosophical rivals Ferdinand Alquié and Martial Gueroult, the philosopher Jean-Toussaint Desanti, and of course the much better-known Gilles Deleuze and Louis Althusser. The scope of this book is impressive, as it moves from the set theory of Cavaillès all the way to Althusser’s engagements with both Spinoza and Marx and Deleuze’s influential readings of Spinoza and Heidegger with and against one another.

Peden’s protagonists (usually not Spinoza scholars per se; the history of Spinoza scholarship in France would be a different story than the story of a Spinozist tendency in French thought) were interested in thinking beyond the limits of the human subject, in contemplating concepts that exist whether or not they are known by the mind. Often they are also interested in thinking outside of historicism, and, as if following their lead, Peden has written an internalist book, more concerned with understanding the technical details of his protagonists’ work than in contextualizing it by reference to their political, social, and cultural surroundings. This works stepwise: sometimes the culture that mattered most to these thinkers, Peden reminds us, was the internal culture of the Sorbonne, but sometimes explanation via academic subcultures is still too contextual for Peden. As he puts it, glossing Spinoza’s own ahistoricist desire to see things “under the aspect of eternity,” “philosophical arguments have an integrity and transmissibility that are irreducible to their context, biographical motives, or strategic purposes.” But ahistoricism is a two-way street, a point that becomes part of Peden’s argument. Against those who would derive a political message from Spinoza’s thought, whether a liberal or a radically emancipatory one — and perhaps against Spinoza’s own claim that his politics were grounded by his metaphysics — Peden insists that Spinozist rationalism cannot provide metaphysical license for any politics at all: “Spinoza’s philosophy can be used to undermine the pretensions of any mode of political thought that seeks a metaphysical foundation — even if that metaphysics is Spinoza’s.”

This does not mean that Spinoza cannot inspire modes of personal and political comportment, but he certainly doesn’t do so by setting down ground rules. One of the most compelling stories in Peden’s book is that of Jean Cavaillès, who was said by some — including his friend, the philosopher of biology and medicine Georges Canguilhem — to have “practiced Spinozism” by fighting in the Resistance. In 1940, Cavaillès helped to found the resistance group Libération-Sud, and he was eventually executed in 1944 for his activities. Canguilhem, who in later decades would devote much time and energy to Cavaillès’s hagiography, thought that fighting in the resistance was the expression of Cavaillès’s thought — albeit, importantly, it was not the expression of a “Spinozist politics.” As another friend of Cavaillès, the sociologist Raymond Aron, reported, action in the Resistance for Cavaillès was “necessary” in the same way that the operations of mathematics are necessary, a statement that simultaneously naturalized those actions and emptied them of political content. Mathematics, Cavaillès said — playing on the double meaning of the French “expérience” — was effectively an experiment (expérience) without a subject; the working out of mathematical questions was not, for him, dependent on the conscious mind of the mathematician. Cavaillès was extraordinary in his capacity to act. By contrast, efforts to get a constructive politics out of Spinozism always fail, in a fashion evoked by Ferdinand Alquié’s claim that “nothing disorients us more than philosophy precisely because it takes us out of the world to something that is not a world.”

France is the country that brought us the phrase “an intellectual,” meaning a politically engaged activist writer, and thus it is all the more valuable to have studies of French thinkers for whom an unmistakable gap loomed between philosophy and politics, even if they sometimes tried to bridge it. Peden’s book reveals French Spinozism to be not a passage through which philosophy manifests in the world via practices of living (including political ones) but rather an obsession with concepts that sometimes demands specific styles of comportment within the world. This is faith for the faithless indeed, an irony given that Spinoza’s status as a religious heretic, banned from Amsterdam’s Jewish community via a writ of herem for his views, barely figures at all for Peden’s authors. But an additional irony is that the story of Spinozism as the philosophy of the concept ultimately returns us to the pragmatist Spinozism upon which Sharp meditates — unworldliness reworlded. It may not result in a politics — on the emphatically political Althusser and Deleuze, Peden notes that their “rationalist commitments at once exemplify and exhaust the political purchase of their efforts, regardless of intent” — but it may result in the clearest form of critique possible.


It is startling to compare the scholarly monographs of Sharp and Peden — both in the early stages of their careers — with Spinoza for Our Time, a short book built out of four lectures given by the influential Italian theorist Antonio Negri between 2005 and 2009. Negri, writing with Michael Hardt, has made Spinoza the theoretical lynchpin of a grand Left project simultaneously philosophical, political-theoretical, and bluntly political. Spinoza for Our Time briefly mentions one historical reason for this conjunction of 17th-century philosophy and early-21st-century politics: in the 1970s the rediscovery of Spinoza offered new tools for radical critique at a “moment of farewell to traditional Marxism.” The question, of course, is what “radical critique” here means, and why Spinoza seemed available as a replacement for a traditional reading of Marx. Negri is hardly the only Marxist thinker to have turned toward Spinoza; Althusser, Étienne Balibar, and Pierre Macherey are often mentioned in this regard, too.

But Hardt and Negri’s Spinozism has always seemed to go beyond “mere” critique; it involves making Spinoza into the prophet of a new world order. Spinoza for Our Time extends and reflects back upon the trilogy of longer, mosaic-like (sometimes Guernica-like, in their kaleidoscopic ambition) books that Negri wrote with Hardt: Empire (2000), Multitude (2005), Commonwealth (2009). Beginning in Empire, which mapped what Gopal Balakrishnan calls an “acephelous supranational order,” the result of globalization, they presented Spinoza as standing for a form of desire that affirms life (they followed Hegel’s view of Spinoza, in this regard) and translates into a “vital politics” in which a collectivity organizes itself and takes action, challenging empire with another kind of power — a kind of power to which late capitalism turns out to be, Hardt and Negri tell us, all too vulnerable. This power, according to Hardt and Negri, is born out of the multitude’s tendencies toward movement, one key example of which is the movement of workers seeking a better life across state borders. This review is not the place for a full summary of Hardt and Negri’s project, but a few further observations are in order, especially given that Sharp and Peden encourage a certain skepticism about efforts to extract a political philosophy from Spinoza.

Negri is a formidable Spinoza interpreter, to be sure, and attached to what he terms a “subversive” reading that takes into account the distinction between Spinoza’s accounts of power as both potentia and potestas, as well as Spinoza’s approach to immanence and the spontaneity of being. However, the ambition of his project has drawn the kind of scorn that ambitious projects, especially ones that claim to ground a politics directly in philosophy, often attract. In 2005, before the Empire trilogy was complete, Tom Nairn penned a particularly scornful review of Multitude in the London Review of Books, describing the authors as offering no real content or direction for political activity, only “ismhood.” What better early-21st-century word for Schwärmerei could there be, what term more redolent of a desire to return to a point in the mid-20th century prior to the much-ballyhooed “end of ideologies”? After all, what seemed on offer was “ismhood” with no constructive content beyond the promise of the multitude’s potency, and the claim that Spinoza provided the theoretical optics that would reveal said potency. Nairn’s harsh words do notably obscure one part of Hardt and Negri’s intent, even if he ably describes the failings of their project: they want not only political emancipation for the masses currently constrained by empire, but also emancipation from prior forms of politics as such, including party politics. This may be what pushes their work into a territory we simply may not be prepared to recognize as anything other than “ismhood.”

Negri responds in the most casual of ways to Nairn and his other critics (notably, to his other critics on the Left) in the chapter of Spinoza for Our Time entitled “Multitude and Singularity.” Having been accused by Nairn of being in the “redemption business,” Negri responds by accusing Nairn of having forgotten “the overflowing joy of multitude-making, the joy of the construction of the common.” This is more than praise for the insurgent energies that Negri sees animating collaborations in political resistance around the world. He also sees a conflict between materialisms, Marxist and Spinozist, and judges that Spinozist materialism affords a vitality, a plenitude, that need only be given organization, in contrast to those materialisms that treat the stuff of the world (including us) as basically inert. Negri tells us that 1968 yielded a Spinoza who offers praxis rather than redemption, which is a stirring idea — but it leaves us with a question that Peden’s and Sharp’s works help us to articulate: how can a philosophy that is certainly a source of plenitude but not a source of teleology yield a praxis we can recognize, given the human limits of political thought? Can viewing social and political life as “a question of lines, planes, and bodies” open onto a political program at all? Perhaps the most damning aspect of Nairn’s review was not his critique of Negri and Hardt’s political-theoretical claims, but rather his suggestion that behind those claims lurked a surprising meta-project, namely, to secure a continuing role for intellectuals, like Hardt and Negri themselves, who are capable of linking the politics of the multitude to overarching or even totalizing philosophies. This is of course a classic picture of the task of the political intellectual, made enduring by the intellectual history of France from the Dreyfus Affair through the time of Cavaillès and up through the arc of Sartre’s prominence. But, as Peden’s work makes clear, the search for direct translations between rationalist philosophy and political practice often produces more noise than signal.


[1] See Frederick C. Beiser, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), Ch. 2, “Jacobi and the Pantheism Controversy.”

[2] Importantly, and as Beth Lord points out in her Kant and Spinozism: Transcendental Idealism and Immanence from Jacobi to Deleuze (London: Palgrave, 2011), Kant likely did not read Spinoza directly, but rather responded to Spinozism as presented in a series of contemporary writings by F. H. Jacobi, J. G. Herder, and Solomon Maimon. Lord notes that Spinozism was explicitly presented, by these authors, as an alternative to Kant’s transcendental idealism.


Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s articles, essays, and writings on food culture have appeared in History and Theory, Modern Intellectual History, Gastronomica, Meatpaper, and other publications, and several books are in the works.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is a writer and historian, whose books include Ways of Eating: Exploring Food Through History and Culture (University of California Press, 2023), co-written with Merry White; Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food (UC Press, 2019); and Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (Penn, 2016).


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