The seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza is not as well known as his French counterpart, René Descartes. The legacy of Descartes’ claim that humans possess an abstract mind and a distinct physical body continues to be felt today, in fields such as cognitive science and artificial intelligence.
Spinoza, however, opposed this interpretation of consciousness, known as mind-body dualism. His previously neglected ideas are increasingly seen as relevant to the latest thinking about thinking. For example, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has argued in a book entitled Looking for Spinoza that the body influences the mind, just as much as the other way round.
“A wide-ranging and ambitious work that will be relevant to many interests”
Times Higher Education
Michael Mack’s book comes at a time when Spinoza’s thought and writings are enjoying a renaissance. However, Mack looks more widely than the theory of consciousness to show how Spinoza’s influence spreads across a wide range of fields. Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity: The Hidden Enlightenment of Diversity from Spinoza to Freud describes how a line of writers and thinkers re-configured Spinoza’s ideas and how these ideas thus became effective in society at large. Spinoza was the first thinker to theorize narrative as the constitutive fabric of politics, identity, society, religion and the larger sphere of culture. And Spinoza’s writings on politics and ethics provide a new way of thinking about the problems of modernity. As Mack puts it in his introduction:
The historical texts discussed in this book have a contemporary relevance precisely because they are not products of our age but are rather distinct from it and in their distinction are thus capable of producing thought which is relevant to rethinking the problems we are facing now.
It is perhaps a sign of Spinoza’s increasing relevance that Mack’s book has become unusually popular online. Available free to download on Scribd, Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity has had around 5000 readers so far – a remarkable number for a comparatively complex academic work. Spinoza also features in Mack’s latest book, How Literature Changes the Way we Think, which was recently featured on this blog.