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Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza (1632–1677)

Long recognized alongside Leibniz as a key post-Cartesian rationalist, Spinoza has come to be regarded as one of the major philosophers of the early modern era, responsible, according to some, for the ’Radical Enlightenment’ at the source of philosophical modernity. Born in Amsterdam to descendents of Portuguese Marranos (Jews who had been forced into Catholic conversion), Spinoza’s earliest education was in the Jewish community, although he very quickly established contact with Cartesian circles. The decisive event of his life - in the eyes of his biographers at least - was his excommunication from the Amsterdam synagogue in 1656, ostensibly for his heretical denial of the immortality of the soul. Spinoza spent the rest of his life in various small towns in Holland, leading an austere existence before dying in his sleep of consumption at the age of 44. Besides an early exposition of Cartesian philosophy, the only other work Spinoza published in his lifetime (though anonymously) was the Tractatus Theological-Politicus (1670). This work was remarkable not simply for its advocacy of religious tolerance and democracy as a social form, but also for its engagement with the Bible as a historical, rather than a religious, document. Spinoza deemed his masterpiece - the Ethics, a metaphysical treatise presented in ‘geometrical order’ - too controversial to be published in his lifetime, though it appeared shortly after his death.

Spinoza has received many, often contradictory labels, from pantheist to atheist, drawn from his phrase Deus sive Natura (God, that is, Nature). Indeed, perhaps no other philosophy has aroused so much divisiveness among interpreters concerning its relation to its sources, with some emphasizing its Jewish roots, others its Cartesianism, and still others its connections with radical millenarian movements of seventeenth-century Holland. For most of the twentieth century in France, Spinoza was read as a thoroughgoing rationalist, the one who best revealed the inconsistencies of the Cartesian cogito and its theological vestiges, as well as the thinker most exemplary of the commitment to rational thought’s capacity to supervene on the intuitions of ‘merely’ lived experience. It was this Spinoza that influenced Louis Althusser in his re-reading of Marx, and that served as a source of inspiration for the Cercle d’Épistémologie.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘Action de la structure’, CpA 9.6 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Alain Badiou, ‘Marque et manque: à propos du zéro’, CpA 10.8 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Ethics. In The Collected Writings of Spinoza, volume 1, trans. Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
  • The Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, and Selected Letters, trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.
  • Theological-Political Treatise, second edition, trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001.