Monday, November 08, 2010

Boehm, Omri. Review of Michael Mack, SPINOZA AND THE SPECTERS OF MODERNITY. NDPR (October 2010).

Mack, Michael.  Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity: the Hidden Enlightenment of Diversity from Spinoza to Freud.  London: Continuum, 2010.

In the last ten years or so, the question of Spinoza's impact on Enlightenment thought has been opened anew. The thinker who up until recently was deemed "hardly to have had any direct influence on eighteenth-century thought" (Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, 187) is now being read as a major contributor -- perhaps the major contributor -- to Enlightenment thinking and politics. Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment marks the founding moment of this trend -- a trend motivated not only by a historical interest, to uncover Spinoza's far-underestimated impact on the Enlightenment, but also by a normative project: to revive Enlightenment values -- the true ones, of 'radical', secular, anti-colonial modernity.

Michael Mack's Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity certainly belongs to this trend, extending it to the study of Herder (this is the book's core), Goethe, George Eliot and Freud. Herder's Spinozist radical Enlightenment is presented as an answer to the Enlightenment of Kant which is infected, on that reading, with an unwelcome baggage of Christian dualism, faith in teleology and even racism. I believe that there is little room for doubt that Spinoza's impact on Enlightenment thought indeed deserves the growing attention it now receives. But the belief that a remedy for modernity's malaise can be found in more Spinozism (and less Kantianism) seems to me questionable. I will review Mack's new contribution from that perspective.

The systematic question guiding Mack's project is the (often doubted) compatibility of Enlightenment universalism with the modern commitment to the value of diversity. Universalism is commonly judged as a symptom (or even the origin) of colonial European chauvinism. But by treating a non-exclusivist thinker like Herder as a true heir of the Enlightenment -- rather than as an anti-Enlightenment figure, as he will be remembered from Isaiah Berlin or more recently from Zeev Sternhell's The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition -- Mack challenges this common judgment.

The book's first two chapters are dedicated to Spinoza, whose philosophical position is presented as a conceptual framework enjoining universalism with diversity. . . .

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