SPINOZA: THE OTHER PATH
(Éditions du Cerf, 504 pages, 2018)
If Spinoza now deserves to be read, studied and understood, it is because he offers an alternative path—alternative to the one that dominated the preceding centuries, a path that can perhaps help us overcome or solve the failures and disasters attributed to modernity.
In recent decades there has been a remarkable surge of interest in Spinoza. Neurophysiologists, psychologists, philosophers, animal rights advocates, and even botanists are rediscovering his famously dense and opaque treatises. Why is it that, once deemed “archaic and medieval,” Spinoza is now more relevant than ever? This is the question underlying Blandine Kriegel’s latest book.
Kriegel, one of France’s foremost political philosophers, explores Spinoza’s formative years through his exposure to three main cultural influences: the Sephardic Jewish tradition; his freethinking circle of Dutch friends; and the broader intellectual and political history of the Dutch Republic at the dawn of the modern scientific revolution. Throughout the book, Kriegel engages with a rich body of international research, which helped dispel Spinoza’s long-held reputation as a reclusive thinker leading a life of pure reflection in isolation from his contemporaries.
Kriegel combines historical investigation and text analysis to introduce Spinoza’s politics. She turns to The Theologico-Political Treatise and the lesser-known Political Treatise to demonstrate why Spinoza’s innovative arguments in defense of democratic governance, separation of powers, and the freedom of thought and expression constitute a decisive stage in modern political philosophy. Did his political ideas mark a definitive rupture with classical political philosophy? And did they pave the way to the Revolution? With this in mind, she reviews the dissemination of Spinoza’s political ideas among French and English Enlightenment thinkers, while insisting on the need to distinguish Spinoza, his thought, from Spinozism, the reception of his thought.
Finally, Kriegel examines The Ethics, Spinoza’s monumental and posthumously published work. She first introduces the historical context, focusing on the paradigm shift brought by the arrival of Newtonian physics, and on Spinoza’s critical engagement with the radical positions of Descartes. Kriegel follows with a comprehensive evaluation of each of The Ethics’s five parts illuminating Spinoza’s views on God, the universe, human nature, knowledge, will and freedom. How, she asks, are we to explain that such a profound philosophy was ignored for extended periods of time? To answer this question, she reappraises the complex reception of Spinoza’s philosophy in Germany—from early rejection, to Goethe’s enthusiasm, to Hegel’s ambivalence.
Since the beginning of her research, Kriegel has studied early modern thinkers. Her substantial work on the historical and philosophical foundations of the concepts of human rights, republic, and democracy makes her an authority on Spinoza. Kriegel’s vast erudition allows her to address the many ways in which Spinoza’s philosophy has been misinterpreted: from the early adversaries who merely saw him as the destroyer of religion to his later adepts who approach his thought selectively. She masterfully demonstrates the contemporaneity of Spinoza’s philosophy, and why his ethics, “which do not separate knowledge from the belief in the infinitude of God and nature,” may well be the ones we most urgently need in the twenty-first century.
Blandine Kriegel, a student of Georges Canguilhem, and research collaborator of Michel Foucault, is one of France’s foremost political theorists and historians. She is Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy in Paris and the author of numerous books and more than four hundred articles. Her critically acclaimed book, The State and the Rule of Law, was translated and published by Princeton University Press in 1995. Kriegel was the editor of the journal Philosophie Politique. She has also had a high public profile in France through her role in a succession of national reform commissions.