Timothy Brennan On Baruch Spinoza and Giambattista Vico

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[Editor's Note: Here's a post by Chris Mullen, one of our frequent Facebook group posters.]

Not too long ago I purchased a cheaply priced, used copy of Vico’s The New Science, which I recently started to read (there are two things in life that I can always find justification for spending money on: beer and books). While doing some research on Vico, I came across an interesting lecture given by Timothy Brennan of University of Minnesota called “Vico, Spinoza and the Imperial Past.”

Watch at CornelCast.

While my initial interest in Brennan’s lecture centered on his use of Vico, I grew interested in his critique of Spinoza or, to be more pointed, the use that “French and Italian Communist intellectuals of the 1960’s and 1970’s” made of him. According to Brennan, 10 to 15 years ago Spinoza was “a topic without public appeal.” But, given the rise of the “commercial viability of Antonio Negri and the “modest appeal of Deleuzian Theory in the academic market, this is no longer the case.” Brennan labels Louis Althusser as one of the principle culprits in presenting an “alternative Spinoza” or, as he puts it “Spinoza in quotations.” He sees the use of Spinoza by “Althusserian Post-Marxism” as the basis for many of the “fads and tendencies” found in contemporary post-colonialism, as well as in other academic fields.

“The very thinker who stood for an airtight and enclosed system of inflexible laws is envoked by the best philosophers as the champion of the open-ended productive force and positive potential of the human to develop outside of any social force.”

Brennan then turns to Edward Said who “polemically embraced” Vico as a “counter to the philosophical strands found in Descates and Spinoza that were then asserting themselves in literary and cultural theory, then being the mid-1970’s.” The rest of the lecture is Brennan’s attempt to offer, what he sees, as an “explicit riposte to Decartes and his philophical offspring, which includes Spinoza” by offering Vico as a contrast. Brennan sees these interpretations of Spinoza as “antipathetic to Vichian theories of language, history, agency, and foreign cultures.” (Vico stood opposed to the Cartesian and analytical worldviews  of his contemporaries and it was only later recognized the Vico had formulated the most “enlightened alternative to Cartesian rationalism.” Descartes v. Vico)

Even if the internal debates of “Post-colonial theory” bore the hell out of you (a sentiment for which you will receive no condemnation from me), i think that Brennan’s general discussion contrasting Vico and Spinoza is worth your time. Many of the ideas that come to “blossom in Hegel” are here presented as being anticipated by Vico. The discussion also sheds light on some of the contemporary radical Left’s “invented use” of Spinoza (a critique i found useful having read very little of Spinoza myself).

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