Oxford University Press (forthcoming
Spinoza’s recognition of the unpredictable fortunes of individuals, explicable through the interplay between their intrinsic natures and their susceptibility to external causes, informs his account of political success and – what for him is the same thing – political virtue. Thus, a state may thrive because it has a good constitution (an internal feature), or because it was fortunate not to be surrounded by powerful enemies. Normally, however, it is the combination of both luck and internal qualities that determines the fate of things. What is true about the fate of states holds equally of the fate of other types of individual, both human and non-human. In a sense, even the fate of a theory is determined by the interplay between its intrinsic virtues, and mere historical luck.
A quarter century ago, shortly after I began my graduate studies in philosophy at Yale, I started thinking about writing a dissertation on Spinoza’s philosophy. A good and caring friend in my graduate cohort advised me against the idea, which he believed was tantamount to “professional suicide” given the oddity of Spinoza’s thought. Indeed, the environment of analytic philosophy in the mid- and even late-1990s was not particularly auspicious for the academic study of Spinoza. Spinoza was – rightly – considered as having little commitment to commonsense, and commitment to commonsense – the most stubborn of prejudices – was (and still is) considered by many a minimal requirement for entry into the club of “decent” philosophers. Yet, things have changed over the past twenty-five years. So much so, that recently a (non-Spinozist) early modernist colleague of mine complained to me about the futility of changing the description of an event he planned from a ‘Spinoza workshop’ into an ‘early modern philosophy workshop,’ since “one way or another, most of the submitted abstracts are going to deal with Spinoza.” Indeed, in many ways, the interest and intensity of the study of Spinoza’s philosophy in the Anglo-American world has eclipsed that of almost all other early modern philosophers, and we seem to be facing a circumstance in which Spinoza is gradually competing with, if not replacing, Kant as the compass of modern philosophy. One can list many reasons for these dramatic developments: from Spinoza’s radical naturalism, to his dismissal of the fairytales of anthropomorphic and anthropocentric religion – while Kant on these issues could at best be said to kick the ghosts from the front door while inviting them back as ‘ideas’ or ‘postulates of practical reason’ through the back door –- to his unequivocal rejection of the illusions of humanism. Still, we lack a full explanation of the recent Spinozist upheaval in North American philosophy.