Spinoza's Provocations


There is an explosion of interest in Spinoza's philosophy in the past decade or so. What characterises this revival of interest is an increasingly wider perspective in examining his works. His politics is viewed in conjunction with his metaphysics and his ethics is seen in dialogue with his epistemology. In addition, there are new avenues of research, for instance, by asking how Spinoza's philosophy might help us examine art and literature. 

This conference will explore some of these diverse perspectives that cannot be classified under one field of philosophy but which function instead as provocations to thinking through issues that matter today.

Where: Bankstown Campus, room 03.G.54

December 1

11 am - 11.25 am
Morning Tea/ Coffee
11.25 am - 11.30 am
Professor Dennis Schmidt: Welcome
11.30 am - 12.30 pm
Spinoza and the Meaning of Life
Genevieve Lloyd
12.30 pm - 1.30 pm
Lunch break
1.30 pm - 2.30 pm
Rational and Affective Genesis of the State: Balibar's Reading of Spinoza
Daniela Voss
2.30 pm - 3.30 pm
Between Authoritarianism and Constituent Power: Natural Right and Democracy
Dimitris Vardoulakis
3.30 pm - 4 pm
Coffee/tea break
4 pm - 5 pm
On Spinoza and Signs: The Two Covenants and Authority in the Theological-Political Treatise
Gregg Lambert

December 2

9.30 am - 10 am
Morning tea/ Coffee
10 am - 11 am
Humility, Acquiscentia and Self-worth: A Spinozist Response to Jean Hampton's Feminist Kantianism
Janice Richardson
11 am - 12 pm
The Causation of Ideas
Jon Rubin
12 pm - 1 pm
Lunch break
1 pm - 2.30 pm
"Double Session" Spinoza and Percy and Mary Shelley: the idea of Prometheus as exemplar
Moira Gatens and Anthony Uhlmann
2.30 pm - 3 pm
Coffee/tea break
3 pm - 4 pm
Autonomy and Vulnerability Entwined: A Spinozist Perspective
Aurelia Armstrong 
4 pm - 5 pm
Spinoza's Compendium of the Grammar of the Hebrew Language
Inja Stracenski

Titles and Abstracts

Aurelis Armstrong - Autonomy and Vulnerability Entwined: A Spinozist Perspective

There is a tendency, present in much recent theoretical work on vulnerability, to conceptualise autonomy and vulnerability as essentially opposed. The aim of this paper is to challenge the assumption that autonomy necessarily entails the denial of vulnerability, dependence and connection through an examination of the way in which, in Spinoza's thought, increasing autonomy is associated, not with the self-assertive and self-protective practices of a narrowly defined sovereign self, but rather with increasing capacities to act in ways that empower both self and others. Spinoza understands autonomy – the limited capacity to exercise a degree of self-determination – as a kind of activity that expresses bodily and mental striving to persist and to flourish. Because Spinoza's ontology locates individuality within an interactive, interdependent network of causes, the degree of activity enjoyed by each individual must be explained in terms of the interaction between an interior aspect – an essential power of acting that defines each individual – and an exterior aspect – the power of the environment acting on her. It is, for Spinoza, the combination, or reciprocal determination of these two factors that determines whether a particular encounter will result in increased or decreased activity for the affected/affecting individuals. Spinoza's relational ontology thus entails an account of activity that presents it as developed through interaction, and thus as vulnerable to being thwarted not only by directly disabling relationships, but also by the lack of sufficiently supportive relationships. But while this entwinement of autonomy-activity and vulnerability might be taken to imply that autonomy is enhanced simply by reducing our degree of vulnerability and exposure to the world, Spinoza refuses this conclusion. On the contrary, he links increasing autonomy with expanding capacities for interaction and with the production of mutually supportive relations that augment the power and autonomy of all. I argue that the advantage of Spinoza's way of linking vulnerability and autonomy is that it enables us to assess different forms and instances of vulnerability in terms of the degree to which they are autonomy-undermining or autonomy-enhancing. Thus it also provides a means by which to evaluate the adequacy of social, political and institutional responses to vulnerability with reference to the value of relational autonomy.

Aurelia Armstrong teaches philosophy at the University of Queensland. She has published essays on Spinoza, Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, and Feminism. She is the editor (with Keith Green & Andrea Sangiacomo) of Spinoza and Relational Autonomy (EUP, forthcoming) and is completing a monograph with the working title Spinoza's Practical Philosophy

Gregg Lambert - On Spinoza and Signs: The Two Covenants and Authority in the Theological-Political Treatise

Interpretation, whether in scripture or in nature, is concerned only with signs and effects. And yet, interpretation may already be a misleading word, belonging to what Spinoza calls a "confused idea," since the sign would be seen as the cause that produces in the mind the effect of a passion (or passivity) that requires interpretation; or rather, that calls for someone who bears the imagination and the authority (auctoritas) to express as the sign's effect the power of understanding (conatus). Thus, for Spinoza, both scriptural and juridical interpretation stem from the same confusion of signs with effects, and this forms the expressed argument of the Theologico-Political Treatise "revelation and philosophy stand on completely different footings." And yet, as my reading will show, the true object of this dualism is the analysis of the different arrangements of what Spinoza will classify as the "common notions" within the forms of Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy (e.g. freedom, generosity, pietas, reason, fear and hope, c.f. TPT, Ch 7). Therefore, Spinoza determines the concept of law by the different historical arrangements of common notions belonging to each state form, in order to demonstrate that the expression of sovereign right, qua expression (i.e., either in the form of command or imperative), is completely contingent upon political constitution of Monarchy. In turn, this informs the basic paradox that motivates Spinoza's entire inquiry: in view of different combinations of the forces that determine contemporary society and the expression of a state of nature that no longer resembles a tyrant, how is it that the concept of law is still determined by command or dictate by a first sovereign principle? Thus, the TPT is perhaps the first expression of a fundamental principle of philosophical modernity, and Spinoza is perhaps the first philosopher to question the validity of then current conception of Right in view of the arrangement of the common notions that belong to a democratic society, in which law becomes positive, no longer expressing the right of a Sovereign, but rather the expressed assent or common agreement of a "vox populi. Henceforth, the concept of right would be replaced by the notion of "contract," which has at its fundamental expression a "sign" of agreement, and the legal personality of the state, formerly embodied in the figure of the Monarchy, would now become a problem of expression that is taken up by the science of jurisprudence. However, as Deleuze already underlined in Spinoza: A Practical Philosopher, the final section on Democracy in the Theologico-Political Treatise remains unfinished, which will lead me to speculate on the current arrangement of the common notions and the interpretation of "signs." 

Gregg Lambert is Dean's Professor of Humanities at Syracuse University, USA and member of the Philosophy College of Fellows at Western Sydney University. Between 2008 and 2014 he served as the founding director of the Syracuse University Humanities Center and is currently the lead investigator of the Central New York Humanities Corridor, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He has published widely in the field of Continental Philosophy, especially on the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, and his most recent publications include Return Statements: The Return of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy (Edinburgh UP, 2016) and Philosophy After Friendship: Deleuze's Conceptual Personae (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

Genevieve Lloyd - Spinoza and the Meaning of Life

Spinoza offers a view of the world as lacking purpose — whether within it or beyond it. Yet his vision of human life is not bleak. The void apparently created by the absence of purpose is filled by an enriched concept of desire; and joy is inherent in his concept of conatus  as a striving to persist in being. By relating these aspects of his philosophy to his way of thinking of life, my talk aims to illuminate some of the ambiguities, perplexities, and confusions in contemporary concern with "the meaning of life".  

Genevieve Lloyd is an Emeritus Professor in Philosophy at UNSW. Her books directly on Spinoza are Part of Nature: Self-Knowledge in Spinoza's Ethics (Cornell University Press, 1994 ); Spinoza and the Ethics (Routledge,1996 ); Collective Imaginings: Spinoza: Past and Present (Routledge, 1999) (with Moira Gatens); and the set of edited volumes Spinoza: Critical Assessments (Routledge, 2001). Her most recent books are Providence Lost (Harvard University Press, 2008) and Enlightenment Shadows (Oxford University Press, 2013) (Pb edition 2016).

Moira Gatens & Anthony Uhlmann - Double Session: Spinoza and Percy and Mary Shelley: the idea of Prometheus as exemplar

Some are sceptical that any account of art might be drawn from Spinoza. James C. Morrison, for example, assumes that aesthetics requires an engagement with beauty. He notes that Spinoza barely mentions art or beauty and asserts that they are values completely alien to his philosophy. Morrison's assertion sits uneasily with Spinoza's powerful influence on writers and poets. Moreover, a good deal of excellent recent scholarship has established Spinoza's importance to the development of English and German Romanticism (Beiser, Bell, Vallée, Mensch), to German Idealism (Förster & Melamed), French rationalism (Israel, Peden), as well as to Kantian aesthetics (Gardner & Franks, Lord).

In 1774 Goethe wrote a poem called 'Prometheus'. In discussions with Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi this poem came to be closely associated with atheistic Spinozism (Vallée). In 1814 Percy Shelley obtained Spinoza's complete works and read these with his wife Mary who was learning Latin. In 1816 in a famous competition involving the Shelleys and Byron, Mary conceived of her novel Frankenstein, (which carries the often forgotten subtitle: or, the Modern Prometheus), and Byron also wrote a poem called Prometheus. In 1817 Percy and Mary Shelley began work on a translation of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus at the same time that she was completing Frankenstein. In 1820, Byron assisted the Shelleys in their translation of Spinoza, and Percy Shelley published his verse play Prometheus Unbound (Bieri; Hill; Cameron; Garrett).

To date no one has explored the implications of the timing of these activities and how reading and translating Spinoza might have influenced Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Prometheus Unbound. Our case studies of the Shelleys will trace the importance of the figure of Prometheus and its relation to Spinoza's exemplar of the 'free' man and its antithesis, the 'bound' man. The use of an exemplar as a means of modelling ethical behaviour is one of the ways in which Spinoza is used by the Shelleys to draw his ideas into their creative work. Prometheus may be seen to represent the freedom of scientific reason acting against the bondage of passion and ignorance. Yet problems are posed even to men of science, like Victor Frankenstein who is no less imprisoned by a chain of affects than is his creature. The drama that ensues involves the struggle between the free man and the slave within: between true understanding and folly.

Before joining the Philosophy department at the University of Sydney, Moira Gatens taught at Monash University and the Australian National University (1987-1992). She is a fellow of the Academy of the Humanities in Australia as well as the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. In 2007-08 she was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin. In 2010 she held the Spinoza Chair at the University of Amsterdam. In 2011 she was President of the Australasian Association of Philosophy. In 2012 she was appointed the Challis Professor of Philosophy at Sydney. Her present project is on Spinoza and fiction. Her most recent monograph is Spinoza's Hard Path to Freedom, (Van Gorcum, 2011).

Anthony Uhlmann is Director of the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. He is the author of a number of books linking literature and philosophy with particular interests in the work of Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze: Beckett and Poststructuralism (Cambridge UP, 1999), Samuel Beckett and the Philosophical Image (Cambridge UP, 2006), and most recently Thinking in Literature: Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov (Bloomsbury, 2011).

Janice Richardson - Humility, Acquiscentia and Self-worth: A Spinozist Response to Jean Hampton's Feminist Kantianism

"We call him humble who quite often blushes, who confesses his own vices, and tells the virtues of others, who yields to all and finally who walks with his head bowed, and neglects to adorn himself." (EthicsIII,P29 Exp.)

With the exception of the issue of adornment – which is sexualised in the case of women – and, of course, the ubiquitous "false universal" male pronoun, this quotation is gendered. It is still true (and a cliché) that in our culture women apologize more than men and are more often self-deprecating. In this paper, I will compare Spinoza's analysis of humility with Jean Hampton's Kantian feminist analysis of self worth, to consider what happens when Hampton's arguments on the impact of self-entitlement and humility on "fairness in relationships" are reworked within a Spinozist ontology. This involves tracing the different meanings of acquiscentia in Spinoza's thought.

Janice Richardson is an Associate Professor of Law at Monash University. She is the author of Selves, Persons, Individuals: Philosophical Perspectives on Women and Legal Obligations(Ashgate Press, 2004), The Classic Social Contractarians: Critical Perspectives from Feminist Philosophy and Law (Ashgate, 2009), Law and the Philosophy of Privacy (Routledge, 2016). She is also co-editor of Feminist Perspective on Law and Theory (Routledge, 2000) and Feminist Perspectives on Tort Law (Routledge, 2012). She has contributed to a number of journals including: Angelaki, Feminist Legal Studies, Law and Critique, Ratio Juris.

Jon Rubin - The Causation of Ideas

I want to consider the question: what is the kind of causality proper to modes in the attribute of Thought, that is, ideas? Spinoza's opposition to the use of any kind of final causation is one moment of clarity that I do not intend to dispute. Recently there have been interesting suggestions that Spinoza is still using a model of formal causation to think about the causation of ideas. It's certainly true that formal causation remained a key form of explanation, especially in the medical arena, in the seventeenth-century. But the term 'formal causation' covers a multitude of positions; how does Spinoza fit? Three clues in the Ethics are worth considering: firstly, the term ideato, which both Curley and Shirely translate as 'object'; secondly, Spinoza's use of contemplatur, with its strong neo-Platonic, Plotinian connotations; and thirdly, Spinoza's use of exemplars which also hark back to scholastic debates around the productivity of (divine) ideas. This paper will use these clues to round out a richer conception of the kind of causation we find in the attribute of Thought.

Jon Rubin taught the graduate program in the philosophy and ethics of mental health for eight years in the Medical School of the University of Warwick, before moving to Australia. He now lectures for the MSCP. His most recent lecture series was 'Deleuze and the problem of ressentiment' but before that he has taught 'philosophical self-fashioning from Socrates to Deleuze', and 'Spinoza and Spinozisms'. His research is currently split between Spinoza and Deleuze.

Inja Stracenski - Spinoza's Compendium of the Grammar of the Hebrew Language

Spinoza's Compendium is believed to be of no major philosophical interest, and is ignored by many. Edwin Curley's second volume of The Collected Works of Spinoza, published this year (2016), does not include the text of the Compendium. In this one case, even the principle of preservation of Spinoza's original corpus seems to play no decisive role. This paper looks at Spinoza's project of a Grammar of the Hebrew Language: its context, structure and aim. The purpose of the Compendium can be described as one of 'transformation' of the sacred language into a secular one, for as Spinoza explains: he is writing it for "all those who desire to speak Hebrew, not cantillate it". Written for a philosophical audience with no preliminary knowledge of Hebrew, the Compendium represents, as I will try to show, Spinoza's peculiar response to the three main philosophical interests of the 17th Century concerning language. Namely, the interest in universal language, universal grammar and the origins of language from Bacon to Leibniz.

Inja Stracenski is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Sydney. Her thesis title is 'Knowledge of God – Spinoza's Metaphysics of Morals', written under the supervision of Prof. Moira Gatens. She holds an M.A. in Philosophy, Theology, Logic and Theory of Sciences from Ludwig-Maximilians-University (LMU) of Munich. She contributed a book chapter titled 'The Will and the Reason' ('Der Wille und die Vernunft') to a 2012 comparative study on the foundation of ethics in Kant and Spinoza, edited by the German Spinoza Society.

Dimitris Vardoulakis - Between Authoritarianism and Constituent Power: Natural Right and Democracy

The argument that right is coextensive with power is the central axis of Chapter 16 of the Theological Political Treatise. This position has spawned two contradictory interpretations. The liberal interpretations customarily associate this position with the doctrine that might is right that Plato describes in the Republic. The radical democratic interpretations, on the other hand, see in the coextensivity of right and power a forceful articulation of constituent power. I argue that as soon as the coextensivity of right and power is understood in the context of Spinoza's encounter with Hobbes's De Cive, then neither of the above interpretations is satisfactory. What emerges instead, I will show, is an agonistic conception of democracy.

Dimitris Vardoulakis (Western Sydney University) is the author of The Doppelgänger: Literature's Philosophy (2010), Sovereignty and its Other: Toward the Dejustification of Violence (2013), Freedom from the Free Will: On Kafka's Laughter (2016), and The Ruse of Soveirgnty: Democracy and Stasis (2017). He has also edited or co-edited numerous books, including Spinoza Now (2011) and Sparks Will Fly: Benjamin and Heidegger (2015). He is the director of "Thinking Out Loud: The Sydney Lectures in Philosophy and Society."

Daniela Voss - Rational and Affective Genesis of the State: Balibar's Reading of Spinoza

This paper discusses the problem of social relationships and the question of community building in the light of Spinoza's Ethics. It particularly focuses on Proposition 37, Part IV, where Spinoza claims to provide what he himself refers to as "the foundations of the state (civitas)" (E4P37S1). Balibar takes this Proposition as the point of reference to develop an account of the dialectic foundation of the City: "Every real city is always founded simultaneously on both an active genesis and a passive genesis: on a 'free' (or rather, a liberating) rational agreement, on the one hand, and an imaginary agreement whose intrinsic ambivalence supposes the existence of a constraint, on the other" (Balibar 1998: 112). I argue that his reading of Proposition 37 is flawed because he maps the two demonstrations on a distinction between a rational and an affective genesis of the City, taking over the simplified distinction between rationality on the one hand, and passions and imagination on the other, as two distinct sources for the association of human beings. I will show that Spinoza does not consider affectivity as the opposite of rationality; there are affects that spring from reason and wherein the mind is not passive (cf. E4P63). In other words, there are joys and desires that are active because they are not determined by external encounters (E3P58). Conversely, I argue that rationality is not something given to us by nature. We have to acquire this capacity through a process of experience and learning, which relies on the affective encounter with things and other human beings. The foundations of sociability, as Spinoza elaborates them in Proposition 37, are thus much more complex and cannot be reduced neither to rational insight or the social bonds of passion, nor to a dialectic account of both.

Daniela Voss is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, Melbourne. She taught philosophy at the Free University of Berlin as well as the University of Hildesheim. Her current research focuses on the formation of collective agency as well as the particular role of information and communication technologies for intersubjective action. Her PhD centred on the work of Gilles Deleuze and his relationship to the tradition of European philosophy, in particular his debt to Kant and post-Kantian thinkers. The most recent relevant publications in the field are: Conditions of Thought: Deleuze and Transcendental Ideas (EUP 2013) and At the Edges of Thought: Deleuze and Post-Kantian Philosophy (co-editor with Craig Lundy, EUP 2015).