Michael Mack on his new book Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity:

Michael Mack_Spinoza

Michael Mack Spinoza and the Spectres of Modernity

The book discusses the contemporary relevance of Spinoza and the social, religious and political legacy of his writing and thought. His thought has posed a challenge-if not an outrage-to established ways of conceptualizing society, politics, medicine and religion. Central to this challenging and constructive work is his innovative reading of self-preservation as dependent on the preservation of the others.

Spinoza defended the rights of the individual while at the same time enmeshing these rights with the flourishing of human society as whole.

Here the flourishing of the individual relies upon the well being of the larger community. The book reappraises Spinozan thought as an alternative to the divide between liberalism and communitarianism. Its main argument unfolds a philosophical sense of our world as an inclusive home. Different national or religious identities contribute to its construction.

Spinoza was the first thinker to appreciate difference not in terms of separation or segregation but as contribution to a diverse and interconnected understanding of human flourishing. This made his thought such a challenge to theological, medical and political orthodoxies. The response to this challenge was demonization: he was equated with the satanic and was associated with anti-Semitic stereotyping until the late eighteenth century. The turning point in the intellectual and political reception of Spinoza was the so called pantheism controversy triggered by the publication of Jacobi’s bestselling On the Dotrine of Spinoza.

From then on Spinoza came to change major elements in Christian theological and political thought: from Goethe to George Eliot’s early Zionism in Daniel Deronda.

In the Spinozan building of self and society opposites are not fundamental. Oppositions do not oppose each other but are complementary to each other. Spinoza’s legacy seems to be a ghostly one: it opens up a space where apparently incompatible entities visit each other as if one were haunting the other. The specter whom Marx conjured up in his Communist Manifest (1848) had already made an appearance in the hugely influential On the Doctrine of Spinoza with which Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi provoked the Spinoza controversy in 1785. Jacobi makes clear that he endeavors to put an end to the haunting with which Spinoza’s ghost seems to keep Europe enthralled. Jacobi attempts to turn the indefinable specter of Spinoza into the clearly definable doctrine of Spinoza.

Jacobi sets out to clarify matters by pinpointing the exact structure and shape of Spinoza’s teaching so that it can be opposed. The book shows how unsuccessful Jacobi’s attempt was. Far from having put an end to Spinoza’s legacy, Jacobi in fact provoked a controversy that hugely increased the appreciation of the writing, life and thought of the Dutch Jewish philosopher within the public sphere of the late eighteenth century.

The book delineates this legacy as a blueprint for human flourishing in the religious, political, cultural and medical sense. It is concerned with human flourishing mainly because the driving motor behind Spinoza’s rational inquiry is the discovery of ways through which humanity avoids violence, destruction and self-destruction.

Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity has been reviewed in Dutch here and in the Times Higher Education.


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Centre for Medical Humanities
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