Baruch Spinoza symposium looks at controversial thinker’s work

Interest in the controversial 17th-century Dutch thinker Baruch Spinoza seems to be enjoying a resurgence. A two-volume work by a York professor was launched last year, and now a student-organized symposium, "Spinoza: Ethics, Interpretation, Power", coming up in February hopes to capitalize on the growing curiosity.

The two-day interdisciplinary symposium takes place on Feb. 1 from 9am to 5pm in Suite 281, York Lanes, and Feb. 2 from 9am to 5pm in Suite 305, York Lanes. Three eminent Spinoza scholars will present papers on the first day, followed by graduate student presentations on the second day.

One of the organizers of the symposium, PhD candidate Neil Braganza, says interest in Spinoza has come from faculty and students alike. "A number of reading groups on Spinoza have recently formed at York. Amazingly, these groups reached a combined membership of over 25 people that were willing to slog away at Spinoza’s tricky, almost brain-burning, prose."

Left: Baruch Spinoza

Part of the intent of the symposium is to stress the importance for interdisciplinary research in the humanities and social sciences. The study of Spinoza is traditionally undertaken in Jewish studies and philosophy departments, but is now garnering broader interest, says Braganza. It is showing up in research on environmentalism, psychology, economic theory, literary theory, feminist theory, critical race theory and queer studies.

"Due to the richness of his thought – which overlaps inquiries into metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, theology, politics, psychology, social dynamics and the history of philosophy – it seems his ideas may offer a particularly deep approach to interdisciplinary thinking that is relevant to many disciplines at York University," says Braganza.

Some of the questions the symposium will explore include: What is the relationship of ethics, interpretation and power in Spinoza? What demands does examination of that relationship place upon the reader? How does that relationship come alive for us today? How are we to understand the connection among Spinoza’s three major treatises – Ethics, Theological-Political Treatise, Political Treatise?

York Professor Emeritus Brayton Polka, author of the two-volume study of the ideas of Spinoza Between Philosophy and Religion (Volume 1, Lexington, 2006, and Volume 2, Lexington, 2007), will present "Existence Human and Divine" on the first day of the symposium.

Warren Montag, a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and author of Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and his Contemporaries (Verso, 1999), will present "Lucretius Hebraizant: Spinoza’s Reading of Ecclesiastes" on the first day as will Willi Goetschel, University of Toronto professor and author of Spinoza’s Modernity: Mendelssohn, Lessing and Heine (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). Goetschel will discuss "Words, Lines, and other Signs: Spinoza on the Interplay of Ethics, Politics, and Interpretation". A plenary discussion with all three professors will follow.

On day two of the symposium, seven graduate students will present papers on Spinoza, starting with McGill University PhD candidate Erik H. Stephenson, who will present "Knowledge is a Weapon: On the Political Role of Adequate Ideas in Spinoza’s Philosophy", followed by York PhD candidate Michael Tilley, who will consider "Some Thoughts on a Proposal for a Solution to the Problem of the Attributes".

York PhD candidate Tod Duncan will talk about "The Ethics of Ideology Critique" in the third session, University of Victoria Phd candidate Bjorn Ekeberg will discuss "Spinoza and the Problem of Change: Substance – Conatus – Intuition" in the fourth session, followed by York PhD candidate Shawn Thomson talking about "Interpreting Spinoza Interpreting: The Power of Sovereignty in Ethics". In the final two sessions of the day, York PhD candidate Robyn Lee will present "Chosenness and Universality in Spinoza", while University of California, Santa Cruz, PhD candidate Evan Calder Williams will discuss "Socialism and/or Barbarism".

The organizers of the symposium are all PhD candidates in York’s Graduate Program in Social & Political Thought. They are: Neil Braganza, Sarah Conrad, Tod Duncan, Jason Harman and Shawn Thomson.

Everyone is welcome to attend. For more information, e-mail:

The symposium is sponsored by the Office of the Vice-President, Academic; the Faculty of Arts; the Office of the Associate Vice-President, Research (Social Sciences & Humanities); the Social & Political Thought Speakers’ Series; Division of Humanities; McLaughlin College; Deptartment of English; Philosophy Graduate Student Association; Department of Philosophy; and the Sociology Colloquium Committee along with additional support from the Fresh Coffee Network and the Centre for Research on Work and Society.