We were Spinozists

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Throughout this essay, it has been argued that Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze have a idiosyncratic take on Spinoza's philosophy, making the latter a philosophy of contingency. There were specific philosophical and political reasons behind this move to a contingent Spinoza – an anti-teleological Marxism, a non-Hegelian dialectic, an affirmation of life, and so on. By re-reading Spinozian substance in a way that emphasizes the immanence of attributes and modes in substance, these thinkers sought to provide a more materialist understanding of the contemporary situation that allows for the contingency of events, i.e. that political actors are not defined by a Subject but can make their own history and construct their own politics. But as I argued, this move toward a substance that is causally constituted by its attributes and modes makes the unity of these aspects of substance spurious at best, unthinkable at worst. For the emphasis on immanence that makes the modes the primary concepts of concern runs the risk of making each its own substance without being able to relate to one another – the modes are not an expression of substance but are causally constitutive of it. Thus, the modes are not infinite in kind (and therefore, unified in substance) but become absolutely infinite, each acting as its own self-cause.

Although my focus has been on the more abstract theoretical aspects of Spinoza and the contingent Spinozists via the latter's readings of the Ethics, there are political consequences to these theoretical problems. While Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze each have their own emphases and subtle differences, they are unified in some key conceptual moves. Substance is no longer causally prior; substance is not important but rather the modes are what are most real; the attributes are substances themselves; contingency or pluralism is privileged over necessity or monism. What their readings of Spinoza have trouble addressing is the way the modes (such as political actors) relate to one another; or their relationships are absolutely contingent without any explanation as to why a certain political, social, or economic organization is preferable over another. The affections one person experiences (their political “preference” or “belief”) are absolutely infinite from others. Thus, a person's commitments cannot be articulated through a connection to the necessity of substance, i.e. what unifies one with an infinity of others, and becomes an assertion, making any kind of democratic politics (yet alone a communist politics) unthinkable. Another related aspect is that a critique of capitalist social relations also becomes an arbitrary assertion of one's will, since the thoughts that occur in one's head are not shown to be a part of substance's unity. Althusser and Macherey's attempt at a critique of ideology runs the risk of becoming a Nietzschean will to power, and Deleuze's attempt to think the singularity of a life runs the risk of turning into its opposite: a violent conception asserted on a life.

Most of this paper has been spent tracing the arguments of Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze about Spinoza with little explicit references to the work of the lens maker himself. While these comments are cursory, here are some suggestions toward reading Spinoza as necessitarian monist and how such reading could provide a framework to think a radical politics.

Spinoza has already a provided a way to think the unity of all finite modes, and this requires a serious reading of the first five definitions of the Ethics, especially D3 and D5, which Gueroult, Macherey, and Deleuze say are tentative or speculative, and not to be taken too seriously.104 From definitions three and five, Spinoza puts forward the following as his first proposition: “A substance is prior in nature to its affections.”105 For Spinoza, the unity of substance is cause of the affections of the modes, i.e. the plurality is derived from the unity or monism. The knowledge of the modes is dependent upon the knowledge of substance as their cause, since modes are known through another with substance as the ultimate referent. Given Spinoza's definitions, propositions, and demonstrations, the modes are capable of being thought as unified because substance is their infinite absolutely necessary cause; thus, the modes can relate to one another because each is a modification of absolutely infinite substance. This unity should not be confused with acosmism because as Spinoza argues, “From the necessity of the divine nature there must follow infinitely many things in infinitely many modes, (i.e., everything which can fall under an infinite intellect).”106

Each mode or thing strives to persevere in its being,107 and although each is affected in different ways, they are not absolutely different since they express God's or substance's power, which is the unity of them. As a result each individual seeks the increase of his or her power. As Spinoza puts it, “To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that all should so agree in all things that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together, should seek for themselves the common advantage of all.”108 Through Spinozian substance and its causes it is possible to promote solidarity amongst different groups in different places and times and to criticize any condition in which their ability to preserve their being is degraded because all modes adhere in substance. Political concepts such as these are shown as necessary, moving away from any arbitrary or contingent relation, i.e. away from any moralizing or voluntarism that has no basis.

1Jonathan Israel sees Spinoza as the main figure of what he terms the “radical enlightenment” in contrast to the “moderate enlightenment” (for example, Locke). See Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, especially, pp. 159-270. A discussion of Israel's work is beyond the scope of this essay. For an edited volume that pertains to themes of this paper, see Montag and Stolze, ed. The New Spinoza.

2Marx did take notes to Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise, but the manuscript is just copied out passages from Spinoza's text without any commentary. Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics, Vol. 2, p. 78. Nonetheless, there is a fairly palpable influence of Spinoza on Marx. For a perspective that comes from the history of ideas see Yovel, ibid., pp. 78-103.

3One example that is in closer to proximity to Marx's lifetime and an important figure in the broader Marxist movement was Georgi Plekhanov: “Thus, Feuerbach’s ‘humanism’ proved to be nothing else but Spinozism disencumbered of its theological pendant. And it was the standpoint of this kind of Spinozism, which Feuerbach had freed of its theological pendant, that Marx and Engels adopted when they broke with idealism. […] However, disencumbering Spinozism of its theological appendage meant revealing its true and materialist content. Consequently, the Spinozism of Marx and Engels was indeed materialism brought up to date.” Plekhanov, “Fundamental Problems of Marxism.” Another, more contemporary exception, who is not a focus of this essay, is Evald Ilyenkov. This Soviet philosopher devotes an entire chapter to Spinoza in Dialectical Logic:Essays on its History and Theory. Ilyenkov, “Thought as an Attribute of Substance,” pp. 27-74.

4Althusser, “On Spinoza,” Essays in Self-Criticism, p. 132.

5I avoid using “dialectics” here because of Deleuze's affirmationism.

6Spinoza, E1D6: “By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence. Exp: I say absolutely infinite, not infinite in its own kind; for if something is only infinite in its own kind, we can deny infinite attributes of it [NS: (i.e., we can conceive infinite attributes which do not pertain to its nature)]; but if something is absolutely infinite, whatever expresses essence and involves not negation pertains to its essence.”

7Only one text of Gueroult's has been translated into English that I am aware of. Gueroult, “Spinoza's Letter on the Infinite,” Spinoza: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Marjorie Grene, pp. 182-212.

8Knox, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 282 n.8.

9Deleuze, “Gueroult's General Method for Spinoza,” Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, pp. 146-155.

10Due to a lack of knowledge of French, I am heavily reliant upon Knox Peden's account of Gueroult in Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, pp. 65-93.

11Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 66.

12Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 69.

13Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 70.

14Gueroult, Leçon inaugurale. Quoted in Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 70.

15Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 71.

16Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 82.

17Spinoza E2A5 and E3P2: “The body cannot determine the mind to thinking, and the mind cannot determine the body to motion, to rest, or to anything else (if there is anything else).”

18Gueroult quoted in Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 84.

19The literature on Spinoza's parallelism is vast. For an analysis about the complexity of parallelism in Spinoza, see Melamed, “Spinoza's Two Doctrines of Parallelism,” Spinoza's Metaphysics: Thought and Substance, pp. 139-152.

20Gueroult quoted in Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 86.

21Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 87.

22Gueroult quoted in Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology, p. 92.

23In another context, William Connolly says as much as well about Spinozism being a faith: “But in my judgment Leo Strauss is right: Spinoza's conviction that the structure of human thought at its highest level of attainment corresponds to the structure of the world is grounded partly in faith and not in demonstration alone.” Connolly, “The Radical Enlightenment: Faith, Power, Theory,” Theory & Event 7:3 (2004). For a compelling critique of Strauss's reading of Spinoza, see Frim, “Sufficient Reason and the Causal Argument for Monism,” Society and Politics, Vol. 5, No. 2 (10), pp. 137-158.

24“Hence a philosophical reading of Capital is quite the opposite of an innocent reading. It is a guilty reading, but not one that absolves its crime on confesing it. On the contrary, it takes the responsibility for its crime as 'justified crime' and defends it by proving its necessity. It is therefore a special reading which exculpates itself as a reading by posing every guilty reading the very question that unmasks its innocence, the mere question of its innocence: what is it to read?” Althusser, “From Capital to Marx's Philosophy,” Reading Capital, p. 15. Although Althusser is focusing on reading Marx in this book, given the question he poses, he is also concerned with reading in general.

25Macherey had an important influence in Althusser's revision of this chapter of Reading “Capital”. For an illuminating discussion on this point see Montag, “Between Spinozists, The Function of Structure in Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze,” Althusser and His Contemporaries, pp. 72-100. Macherey's essay “Literary Analysis: The Tomb of Structures” had a significant influence on Althusser's reformulations. See Macherey, “Literary Analysis: The Tomb of Structures,” A Theory of Literary Production, pp.136-156.

26Althusser, “From Capital to Marx's Philosophy,” p. 28.

27Althusser, “From Capital to Marx's Philosophy,” p. 34.

28Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, pp. 2 and 5.

29Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, pp. 82-83.

30Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, p. 83. Macherey has a valuable insight into how Deleuze approaches of reading texts, especially Spinoza: “This is exactly how one should see Expressionism in Philosophy: not as a study in the history of philosophy striving after a faithful, correct reading, attempting merely a risk-free identical reproduction or charting of what is written in the Ethics as though it belonged to a realm of past thoughts; rather as an attempt to put the text to work, to to bring its theoretical and practical concerns into play, and bring out 'another language in its language' through a kind of repetition freed from the phantoms of identity, and productive differences.” Macherey, “The Encounter with Spinoza,” Deleuze: A Critical Reader, ed. Paul Patton, p. 148.

31In another text dealing specifically with Spinoza, Deleuze writes, “There is a double reading of Spinoza: on the one hand, a systematic reading in pursuit of the general idea and the unity of the parts, but on the other hand and at the same time, the affective reading, without an idea of the whole, where one is carried along or set down, put in motion or at rest, shaken or calmed according to the velocity of this or that part.” Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, p. 129.

32Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Ch. 7. Timothy Brennan also makes this point in Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies, p. 47.

33Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, passim.

34Melamed shows how the metaphysics undergird the politics of the Theological-Political Treatise in “The metaphysics of the Theological-Political Treatise,” Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise: A Critical Guide, ed. Melamed, Yitzhak Y and Michael A. Rosenthal, pp. 128-142.

35Harrison Fluss in a recent review of Peden's Spinoza Contra Phenomenology uses a similar playful and polemical phrase, “substance abuse.” See Fluss, “Natura highs,” Radical Philosophy, 188 (2014), p. 52.

36Althusser, “On Spinoza,” Essays in Self-Criticism, p. 132.

37Althusser, ibid., pp. 134-135.

38Althusser is basing these claims off of Spinoza's critique of final causes. See Spinoza, E1 Appendix.

39Althusser, “On Spinoza,” p. 135. For now, I leave aside a discussion as to whether Hegel was right in his characterization of Spinoza.

40Spinoza to Burgh, Ep. 76.

41Althusser, “On Spinoza,” p. 137.

42Althusser, ibid., p. 138.

43Althusser, ibid., p. 140.

44Althusser, ibid.

45Spinoza, E2P7: “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.”

46Althusser, “On Spinoza,” p. 141.

47Spinoza, E1P1

48Althusser, “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, p. 167.

49Althusser, ibid., pp. 169-170.

50Althusser, ibid., p. 170.

51For an insightful analysis of Althusser that shows how the aleatory Althusser is present in earlier phases, see Negri, “Notes on the Evolution of the Thought of the Later Althusser,” Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory: Essays in the Althusserian Traditions, ed. Antonio Callari and David F. Ruccio, pp. 51-68.

52Althusser, “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” p. 176.

53Althusser, ibid.

54Althusser, ibid., p. 177.

55Althusser concludes, “In sum, a parallelism without encounter, yet a parallelism that is already, in itself, encounter thanks to the very structure of the relationship between the different elements of each attribute.” ibid. How these attributes relate to one another (how they could already be an encounter) is unlikely since Althusser does not clearly deduce the attributes from substance.

56Althusser, ibid., p. 179.

57Balibar would go on to do the same at a later date. See Balibar, Spinoza and Politics. Evaluating Balibar's interpretation of Spinoza is beyond the scope of this paper.

58In the preface to the second edition, Macherey says the “or” in the title is one of opposition as well as comparison and equation, like sive in Spinoza's formulation Deus sive natura. Macherey, Hegel or Spinoza, pp. 4-6.

59Macherey, ibid., p. 9. For another piece from another tradition of thought that evaluates Hegel's understanding and critique of Spinoza, see Melamed, “Acosmism or Weak Individuals?: Hegel, Spinoza, and the Reality of the Finite.” Errol Harris has some insightful comments on Hegel's critique of Spinoza that acknowledges the former's short-comings, while having a more sympathetic relationship to Hegel. See Harris, “The Concept of Substance in Spinoza and Hegel,” The Substance of Spinoza, pp. 200-214. Macherey has a more sympathetic reading of Hegel in “Spinoza, the End of History, and the Ruse of Reason,” In a Materialist Way, pp. 136-158.

60Spinoza's most extensive critique of method is the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. Macherey argues that it is necessary to read this text as “a sort of 'Discourse against Method.'” Hegel or Spinoza, p. 44. For an insightful discussion of the importance of the Emendation in Spinoza's philosophy and why it needs to be read along the Ethics, see Frim, “Sufficient Reason and the Causal Argument for Monism.”

61Macherey, Hegel or Spinoza, p. 49. My emphasis.

62Macherey, ibid., p. 50.

63Macherey, ibid., p. 51.

64Macherey, ibid., p. 52.

65Macherey, ibid., p. 53.

66Spinoza, Emendation. Spinoza, E2

67Macherey shares this reading of the attributes with Althusser. See above. For a helpful guide exploring this reading of the attributes in the work of Macherey, see Read, “The Order and Connection of Ideas: Theoretical Practice in Macherey's Turn to Spinoza,” Rethinking Marxism, 19:4, pp. 500-520.

68Macherey, Hegel or Spinoza, p. 64.

69Macherey, ibid., p. 70.

70Spinoza, E1D6: “By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.”

71“Or else we could just as well say they [attributes] are themselves contents that stand for a form, substance, because the latter 'consists' of them and comprehends them as 'constituting' its essence. What this signifies, quite simply, is that the terms form and content are altogether inappropriate to characterize the relation that links attributes to substance.” Macherey, Hegel or Spinoza., p. 86.

72Macherey, ibid., p. 88. My emphasis.

73Macherey, ibid., p. 91. Causa sui italicized in original. All others my emphasis. Macherey concludes, “Thus, engendered in its attributes, which are its internal efficient cause, substance is also the cause of itself; it is clear from then on that the substance is not an immediate absolute, because it must be deduced, even if from itself.”

74“We thus find the relation between substance and its attributes to be profoundly modified. First it is no longer possible to affirm the exteriority of the attributes in relation to substance: the attributes are in substance as elements or moments through which it constitutes itself. On the other hand, if we absolutely insist on the need to establish an order of succession between substance and attributes, it is no longer at all certain that substance should be placed before the attributes, but it is they rather that precede it, as conditions of its self-production, because they maintain an essentially causal role in the process of its constitution. This explains a frequently observed anomaly: the

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