Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity: The Hidden Enlightenment of Diversity from Spinoza to Freud

September 16, 2010

Spinoza's metaphysical and political thought has always fascinated his readers. His Ethics has been interpreted in countless different ways and, since his death in 1677, Spinozism has been associated with almost every philosophical tendency from atheism to pantheisim, naturalism to materialism, fatalism to determinism. Seen as scandalous in his own time, and often overshadowed by the philosophies of Kant and Hegel, its fortunes have certainly changed in recent years with many new efforts to appraise his thought.

Michael Mack's book joins the growing literature on Spinoza's thought. In general subject matter, it sits alongside Jonathon Israel's epic intellectual histories of the "radical Enlightenment", which position Spinoza at its forefront, and Yimiyahu Yovel's study of Spinoza's influence and distinctive position in modern thought as a philosopher of immanence.

Mack's study is certainly not as sweeping as these two in its focus, however. It takes as its central figure the 18th-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, unpacks the Spinozist roots of his thought and charts the influence of both, in particular on the modern literature of Goethe and T.S. Eliot and Freud's psychoanalytic thought. Mack's approach is not that of an intellectual historian. He claims a "hybrid methodological approach"that couples philosophical history with a cultural theory of the present. He poses a question that is insistent in contemporary times: what does it mean to be a universalist? How may universalist shared values and norms be maintained in face of political difference and diversity?

His decision to turn to Spinoza and Herder to answer such questions is intriguing, and he finds in Herder not the Romantic thinker of nationalism so often associated with his philosophical outlook, but a more tentative and open thinker who dwells on an ethics of difference. Herder draws strongly on Spinoza's philosophy of nature and substance and his refusal of all forms and shapes of dualistic thinking, be they between body and mind, reason and passion, nature and culture, or individual and community/society.

In Mack's analysis, Spinoza's "naturalisation of the human", his deconstruction of anthropocentric views of the world, his rooting out of teleological thinking and of all patterns of dogmatic thinking all become instrumental forces in Herder's critique of his philosophical master, Kant. This emphasis on Spinoza's naturalism and sense of the interconnection of all things is welcome, and in this sense Mack's analysis may usefully converse with other, more recent Spinoza scholarship.

A deepening of this Spinozist view of the world (no doubt one also attributable to other thinkers) is, perhaps, not Mack's central aim in the book since the "enlightenment of diversity" highlighted in its title is used most by Mack to describe Herder's philosophic-political project rather than Spinoza's. Indeed, Herder's approach to particularity and diversity, and his replacement of a teleological view of history with one that emphasises incompletion, also has its point of reference for contemporary political theorists. Mack illustrates this nicely with a brief reference to Seyla Benhabib's reliance on Herder's anthropological work for her own notion of "interactive universalism".

Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity is a wide-ranging and ambitious work that will be relevant to many interests. The concluding chapter on Freud and his relation to Spinoza will be of particular interest to scholars working in psychology and neuroscience. As Mack reminds us in his introduction, Spinoza's philosophical inquiry "vibrates in a force field where political, medical, theological, psychological and literary currents criss-cross each other". Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity is the attempt of a committed scholar to do justice to this force field.

Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity: The Hidden Enlightenment of Diversity from Spinoza to Freud

By Michael Mack. Continuum, 232pp, £65.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781441173447 and 118721. Published 25 May 2010

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