Branded a heretic by the Amsterdam Jewish community and a prophet by postmodern Marxists, Spinoza is not your ordinary political thinker. He speaks about politics on the level of God and at that level both nationalism and religion appear inadequate. He speaks about philosophy at the level of emotions and at that level both abstractions and pessimism look slavish. He was hated by monarchists and republicans and is loved by Straussians and post-structuralists.
A paradoxical thinker, we'll follow his method in class by engaging in experiential theory. Besides in-class discussions, we'll do some work in small groups and using role play to tease out some of his key concepts. For instance, what is the difference between understanding ourselves through the attribute of thought and extension? What does it look like to decide something using our minds? What do we learn when we consider the emotional forces informing said decision? Much of what Spinoza discusses takes place on the intimate level of the human mind, but that shouldn't confuse us into thinking that his was a purely psychological inquiry. "There is no singular thing in Nature which is more useful to man than a man who lives according to the guidance of reason" (Ethics IV, P35, C1). Only a society constituted by people aware of their emotional patterns will be capable of democratic rule.
Spinoza, A Spinoza Reader, edited and translated by Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994)
Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise, edited and translated by Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1991).
Steven B. Smith, Spinoza, Liberalism and the Jewish Question (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
Giles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1970).
Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (New York: Schocken, 2006).
Over the course of the semester, you'll write two five-page essays. These are not research papers, and they should not be summaries. They are thoughtful, organized responses to the work under discussion. They should delineate issues, propose interpretations, raise questions, and provoke thought.
I'll be looking at all your papers and getting them back to you with comments in a timely fashion. Any paper can be resubmitted for another look. This is what I'll be looking for:
In other words, the writings should be engaged and honest; written with a reader in mind and full of all your brilliance.
The final project will be a group paper, composed in the manner of the game telephone. One writer will begin the creative effort writing two to three pages to get us started. A copy of that bit of writing will be sent to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a second copy to a second writer who will continue the project, emailing a copy of his or her prose to me and a copy to the third writer. The writing does not accumulate as we proceed; each of you will only have the piece that immediately proceeds your own. The whole (sub species eternitas) will only emerge at the end.
Show up. Write. Read with a pen in your hand. Have a dictionary near by. Let your brain stretch in new directions. Consider changing a deeply-held belief. Develop a political vocabulary. Cultivate an aesthetic for materialism.
Class attendance is crucial. If you have to miss a class, please let us know. Students who miss more than two classes will see a drop in their grade. Failing to pass in one of the three essays translates into a D. Don't take this class if you can't stay on top of the assignments.