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  • Spinoza's Political Treatise: A Critical Guide ed. by Yitzhak Y. Melamed and Hasana Sharp
  • Jason Read
Yitzhak Y. Melamed and Hasana Sharp, editors. Spinoza's Political Treatise: A Critical Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xiii + 215. Cloth, $105.00.

The Political Treatise is relatively overlooked in Spinoza's corpus. This is especially true in Anglo-American contexts, where scholarship has been slow to engage with Spinoza's political philosophy, at the expense of a correct understanding of his metaphysics. The reasons for the lack of interest in the Political Treatise are numerous. The immediate and most often cited reason is its incompleteness. Not only does it break off unfinished, but it does so at precisely the point that is essential to its argument; the discussion of democracy. That Spinoza refers to democracy as the "completely absolute state" (TP Chapter 11, Paragraph 1) while leaving the chapter on democracy incomplete would seem to doom Spinoza's book to the status of a partial draft. However, leaving it at that would be to neglect the way in which the Political Treatise expands and complicates the arguments of the Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Failure to engage with the text is a failure to examine not only the challenge of Spinoza's philosophy, but also the challenge his philosophy presents to political philosophy.

All in different ways, the essays collected in this volume deal with the difficulties of either assimilating the Political Treatise into Spinoza's thought or the tradition of political philosophy, or entirely rejecting it from Spinoza's works or political philosophy. It might be incomplete, but its formulations risk "incompleting" (in the sense given to the term by Etienne Balibar in "The Infinite Contradiction," Yale French Studies 88 [1995], 146) Spinoza's political philosophy. The entire collection deals with a series of tensions, or aporias, between the Treatise and the rest of Spinoza's thought as well as between his thought and political philosophy. In some sense, most of these tensions have to do with the relation between experience and philosophy. First, and most well-known, Spinoza's Political Treatise opens with an invocation of experience against philosophy. As Spinoza writes, "experience has revealed every conceivable form of commonwealth" (TP 1.3), whereas philosophers conceive of men "not as they are, but as they would like them to be" (TP 1.1). However, as Julie Cooper argues in "Statesmen Versus Philosophers: Experience and Method in Spinoza's Political Treatise," Spinoza's invocation of experience is not only in tension with the Ethics method of examining things sub specie aeternitatis, but also with the historical investigations that make up the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. The Political Treatise seems to be oddly situated between experience and concept, or, to take the two major influences on Spinoza's thought, between Machiavelli and Hobbes. The tension affects not just the question of method in the [End Page 758] Political Treatise, but also its objectives as well. As Michael Rosenthal argues in "What is Real about 'Ideal Constitutions'? Spinoza on Political Explanation," there is a tension between Spinoza's realism, his tendency to treat human beings not as one wishes them to be but as they are, and his positing an ideal constitution. As a norm, an ideal is necessarily at odds with practice and experience, but at the same time must be inserted back into experience in order to become practical. It is perhaps for this reason that, as Mogens Lærke and Daniel Garber argue in their respective essays, Spinoza's Political Treatise would seem to take a step backward from the argument for religious tolerance put forward by the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in that it argues for establishing a national religion. This step backwards is tied to what is perhaps the most important step forward of the Political Treatise. As Chantal Jacquet and Filippo De Lucchese argue, one of its fundamental innovations, which distinguishes it from the Tractatus, is that it dispenses with the social contract as the basis of the state, turning instead to the affects, imagination, and intelligence of the multitude. Without the ideal of the contract, politics and political belonging must be constructed anew...


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