Writing the history of Spinozism

In this essay I reflect on Knox Peden's Spinoza contra Phenomenology, a history of French rationalist Spinozism in the mid-twentieth century. The book marks an important intervention in modern French and European intellectual history, depicting the importance of Baruch Spinoza's thought in the negotiation of and resistance to the phenomenology that captivated much of twentieth-century French intellectual life. With philosophical and historical sophistication, Peden tells the story of several relatively overlooked thinkers while also providing substantially new contexts and interpretations of the well-known Louis Althusser and Gilles Deleuze. While accounting for Peden's major accomplishment, my aim is also to situate his work among a number of recent works in the history of Spinozism in order to reflect on the specific methodological questions that pertain to the widely varying appropriations of Spinoza's thought since the seventeenth century. In particular, I reflect on Peden's claim that Spinoza's thought cannot provide an actionable politics, a claim that runs counter to nearly two centuries of leftist forms of Spinozism. I offer a short account of some of the ways that theorists have mobilized Spinoza's thought for political purposes, redefining “action” itself in Spinozist terms. I then conclude by reflecting on the dimensions of Spinoza's thought (and recent interpretations of it) that make it possible for such significantly different claims about its political potential to be credible.