Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Feminism and Heterodoxy: Moira Gatens's Spinoza

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Feminism and Heterodoxy: Moira Gatens's Spinoza

Article excerpt

According to the influential narrative of Jonathan Israel, Spinoza introduced "the most decisive shift in the history of ideas in modern times." Spinoza's substance monism, on his sometimes sensational account, effectively demolished the bases of traditional authority, undermining every possible justification for human hierarchy.1 Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise was excoriated as that "most pestilential book" by virtue of its unprecedented threat to clerical authority and the social divisions upheld by it.2 Spinoza, on this narrative, exposed the various props and stays of abusive power that mar human history. Liberated from the illusory ideologies and cosmologies that preserve the power of the few against the many, Spinoza provides the theoretical basis as well as political arguments for the most uncompromising affirmation of Enlightenment values: "toleration, personal freedom, democracy, equality racial and sexual, freedom of expression, sexual emancipation, and the universal right to knowledge and 'enlightenment.'"3

Israel's is an unequivocal celebration of Spinoza as an iconoclast who broke decisively from the oppressive ideas of his day. Less emphatic versions of this narrative are common in Spinoza scholarship. Like Israel, Stephen Nadler delights in foregrounding the scandals Spinoza provoked. His Theological-Political Treatise was, indeed, denounced as "a book forged in hell . . . by the devil himself."4 Nadler's story does not so much emphasize Spinoza's radical egalitarianism as his anticipation of secular morality. Others, like Yirmiyahu Yovel and Steven B. Smith, interpret Spinoza as the first "secular Jew," anticipating the common-sense liberalism of today, which judiciously separates personal morality from public duties. What these narratives have in common is that Spinoza's heresy and radicalism with respect to his own time is to be admired especially insofar as it supports the values that we (or at least authors such as these) share today. Spinoza was cast out and cursed by his own community, determined to stand against the widely held views of his own time, but such heroism yielded the Enlightenment secularism that many of his adherents defend. The heterodoxy of yesterday has made possible the orthodoxy among right-thinking people today.

Several commentators have expressed their scepticism regarding the tion of as herald of the radical Enlightenment.5 Yitzhak Melamed doubts that Spinoza deserves to be credited even with moderate Enlightenment commitments. In particular, Melamed denies what Israel takes to be Spinoza's greatest achievement: the establishment of philosophical support for human equality. According to Melamed, "for the most part, [Spinoza] despises and fears the masses"6 Perhaps most damning for Spinoza's egalitarian credentials, Melamed suggests, is his maintenance of the natural inferiority of women, alongside his persistent contempt for what is "womanish"7 If Spinoza is regarded by some as an awkward figure in the history of Enlightenment ideas, his explicit denial of equality between men and women makes Spinozist feminism appear to be a paradox, if not an oxymoron. How could a philosopher who insists on the exclusion of women from citizenship and state office by virtue of their insuperable weakness be an inspiration for feminism?

The puzzles over Spinoza's egalitarian credentials pose a problem particularly if one understands feminism primarily or exclusively as a demand for equality with men. When feminism is seen as a subcategory of Enlightenment commitments, one may choose to see Spinoza's misogyny as superficial and as a betrayal of the radical potential of the egalitarianism yielded by his metaphysics. But if feminism is not understood exclusively as one strand of late modern orthodoxy, we might better understand the surprising companionship of Spinoza and feminism. Indeed, Moira Gatens finds the heterodoxy of Spinoza's thinking with respect to the ruling ideas today to be what is most valuable for feminism. …

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