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Dialogues in Human Geography

2017, Vol. 7(2) 156160
Spinoza and the possibilities for The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permission:

radical climate ethics

DOI: 10.1177/2043820617720063

Hasana Sharp
McGill University, Canada

In this commentary, I endeavor to respond to what I identify as the core question of Ruddicks paper: How
does the theoretical dethroning of humanity force us to reinvent ethics? I expand on Spinozas profound
contribution to the radical rethinking of the subject at the level of ontology. Although Ruddick invokes
Spinoza, first and foremost, as a potential resource for ethics in light of climate disruption, I conclude that
those resources offer only a glimmer of how to live differently. The work of reimagination at the level of
metaphysics is flourishing, but we have yet to develop its implications for ethics and politics.

anthropocentrism, ethics, ecology, Spinoza

So what if humans are not metaphysically excep- up) in the room. Once we see how profoundly con-
tional, uniquely minded, or exclusive bearers of nected we are at the level of ontology and need,
value? So what if bodies do not end at the skin and what do we do? How do we reckon with the effects
minds are not internal to individual human subjects? of centuries of imperialism on the part of some
So what if ecological systems exhibit a kind of savoir humans? How does the theoretical dethroning of
faire, a clever power to recompose themselves and humanity as a category force us to reinvent ethics?
persevere in creative response to radical changes? While Ruddick (2017), in her paper Rethinking
What do these revolutionary perspectives in ontol- the subject, reimagining worlds, does not presume
ogy, metaphysics, and epistemology imply as we to answer these questions, she constructs a web of
confront myriad threats of ecological devastation? diverse thinkers, not usually in conversation with
What does the insistence on the illegitimacy of one another, to form a compass for the 21st cen-
human metaphysical privilege entail when human tury. Honored to be woven into this web, I never-
and nonhuman interests come into conflict? And how theless confess my humility before the articulation
on earth can a 17th-century rationalist like Benedict of a (if not the) fundamental challenge of our age.
de Spinoza help us to approach these questions?
Susan Ruddick undertakes the ambitious effort to
stage an encounter between neovitalism and envi- Corresponding author:
Hasana Sharp, Associate Professor of Philosophy, McGill
ronmental ethics. She urges those advocating a live-
University, 855 Sherbrooke St. W., Montreal (QC) H3A 2T7,
lier apprehension of matter, organic, and inorganic Canada.
networks of power to consider the elephant (crack- Email:
Sharp 157

Since I am a specialist of Spinozas philosophy, I attention to nonhuman powers, to how forms of

will confine myself to the task here of elaborating on human association are always necessarily com-
his profound challenge to any concept of the sub- prised of nonhuman elements. Ruddick pushes Spi-
ject with particular attention to its implications for noza beyond Spinoza in pursuit of a posthumanist
an anti-anthropocentric ethics. I will conclude with ethics that affirms both the value of biodiversity and
a consideration of the problem of antagonism the reality of radical antagonism. It will be my effort
among humans and nonhumans, which has become in what follows, as a Spinoza scholar, to clarify still
increasingly acute in light of climate disruption. further what Spinoza offers her laudable project.
Many revolutionary perspectives in ontology and Ruddick (and others) are absolutely correct to
metaphysics cite Spinoza as inspiration. Indeed, his find in Spinozas philosophy a profound challenge
philosophy offers a treasure trove of resources for an to our inherited conceptions of human subjectivity.
expanded and anti-anthropocentric understanding of Best known, of course, is Spinozas rejection of
the individual, mind, striving, interest, among other dualism, according to which mind (thought) and
major concepts. In order to address the problem of body (extension) are fundamentally different things,
ethical conflict, however, we must, as Ruddick does, obeying two distinct sets of laws, and differently
think with rather than merely about Spinoza (cf. valued (see Plumwood, 1993: Ch. 2). From the point
Macherey, 1992). With Spinoza, we might still hope of view of Cartesian dualism, extended matter con-
for a better compass, but given the unprecedented forms predictably and necessarily to a rigid order of
character of what the future promises, the work of cause and effect. Bodies are not self-organizing;
reimagining ethics has only just begun. they are governed by inertia and derive their power
Ruddick finds in Spinozas ethics at least three from outside them. Mind, in contrast, is infinite,
promising features: (i) human individuals are com- unconstrained by the rules of efficient causality, and
posite, meaning that they are multiple and com- internally determined. Because mind is, in some
plex, necessarily constituted by many diverse respect (i.e. the faculty of the will), infinite and
powers, many (even most!) of which we would call independent, it is of greater value than the finite and
nonhuman; (ii) subjects (things or finite dependent body. Dualism, then, maintains a
modes, in Spinozas language) strive in such a way mutually exclusive binary, such that one member
that they must expand, overflow, and connect to is of greater metaphysical and moral value. This is
others; and (iii) it is possible to evaluate whether the well-known metaphysical underpinning of
and how certain compositions are enabling or dis- human exceptionalism. As Rene Descartes notes,
abling, good or bad. Spinozas ethics thus acknowl- animated by egalitarian impulses, things are minded
edges and affirms the tremendous diversity of life, or they are not (Descartes, 1988: 20). All humans are
the extent to which nonhuman reality constitutes minded, and thus we are all equal to each other. Yet,
human existence, but without surrendering the pos- among created beings, mind is an exclusive (and
sibility of normative evaluation. Even if what is thus defining, essential) property of human beings,
good for each singular being is unique to that thing, which makes us superior to all other earthlings.
it is objectively the case that some relations or The exclusiveness and absolute difference of
beings really are good or bad, helpful or harmful. mind from matter undergirds the dominant current
Moreover, the ethical reasoning sensitive to singu- of humanism in western thought. It is a metaphysi-
larities that Spinoza undertakes is not confined to cal thesis with the moral implication that humans
the unique needs of diverse human individuals, but alone are moral ends and merit distinctive moral
also to what enhances the being of a couple, a com- consideration. As Immanuel Kant puts it:
monwealth, a people, a crowd, and so on. Etienne
Balibar declares that Spinozas originality lies in his Through reason, man conceived himself (though only
treatment of them ass as his principal object of darkly) to be the true end of nature, and in this regard
investigation, reflection, and historical analysis nothing living on earth can compete with him. The first
(1989: 106). Nevertheless, Spinoza gives negligible time he said to the sheep, the pelt that you bear was
158 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

given to you by nature not for yourself, but for me; the causes that allowed it to so fly. But its point of view is
first time he took that pelt and put it on himself (Gen such that, just like us, it would believe that its flight
3:21) . . . he saw within himself the privilege by virtue was brought about by its own endeavor, and that its
of which his nature surpassed that of all animals, motion was a consequence of its self-originating
which he no longer regarded as fellows in creation, desire. This, then, is that freedom which all men
but as subject to his will as means and tools for achiev- boast of possessing, Spinoza insists. Our understand-
ing his own chosen objectives. (Kant, 1970: 225) ing of ourselves as uniquely self-determined is noth-
ing but the perspectival and limited character of
Nonhumans can be instruments, ends to the knowledge: we typically know only the proximate
means of others, but humans demand a totally dis- causes of our desires. Yet, our freedom to execute
tinct moral orientation. Humans, and humans alone, an action is not different in kind from the freedom
deserve to be respected as absolute values, ends in of a stone catapulted through the air. In the same letter,
themselves. Spinoza surmises that:
As both Gilles Deleuze (1994) and Antonio Negri
(1991) have perhaps done the most to show, Spinozas a triangle, if it could speak, would likewise say that
philosophy yields rich possibilities for a flatter meta- God is eminently triangular, and a circle that Gods
physical topology. Among Spinozas core metaphy- nature is eminently circular. In this way, each would
sical doctrines is his view that thought and extension ascribe to God its own attributes, assuming itself to be
are both infinite powers of nature, and everything like God and all else to be ill-formed. (Spinoza, 2002:
expresses as much intellectual power as it does cor- 908910)
poreal power (Spinoza, 2002: 247, E IIp7). A mind is
as free or servile, as powerful or weak, as self- Thus, Spinoza suggests that not only do all things
determining or other-dependent, as its body (see Mon- exist in thought as much as they do in extension,
tag, 1999: Ch. 2). Spinozas theory of mind, more- they all attribute to themselves a unique kind of
over, extends to all beings, even those most would freedom and value that distinguishes them from all
consider to be inanimate. For what we have so far other beings. By comparing humans not to higher
demonstrated [concerning the nature and origin of the animals but to stones and triangles, Spinoza radi-
mind] is of quite general application, and applies to cally reconfigures human metaphysical priority.
men no more than to other individual things, which Spinoza frequently urges his reader to grasp
are all animate, albeit to different degrees (Spinoza, humanity through the prism of geometry, considering
2002: 251, E IIp13s). The universality of animation human actions and appetites just as if it were an
or mindedness is such a comprehensive principle that investigation into lines, planes, or bodies (Spinoza,
Spinoza analogizes the subjectivity of stones, circles, 2002: 278, E IIIpref). However literally one takes his
and triangles to that of human beings. It is not only the analogies, it is undeniable that, at the level of meta-
case that mountain gorillas, ant colonies, or forests physics, Spinoza profoundly disrupts the foundations
think. All finite things persist in thought and extension of humanism, according to which humans are
to the same extent and, he suggests, with a similar uniquely minded, at least partially exempt from the
orientation toward the world. In a strange kind of general laws of nature, and thereby superior. As Rud-
thought experiment, Spinoza insists that, if geometric dick emphasizes, he also disrupts individualist con-
figures or rocks could convey to us their self- ceptions of thinghood by presenting human modes
experience, they would tell us both that they are free as, like all modes, ineluctably bound to others, not
and that what is best is whatever most resembles them. only dependent on them in order to exist and act but
Spinoza urges an interlocutor, Hugo Boxel, to imag- also only ever provisionally distinct from them. As
ine a stone or a triangle structured by a similar moral composite individuals operating within a vast causal
psychology to our own: my kind is free, exceptional, network, we must integrate others and exchange parts
superior, and of superlative value. Spinoza observes of ourselves in order to continue to exist. Our being
that a stone thrust through the air is ignorant of those constantly overflows our ostensible bodies, just as
Sharp 159

our bodies are comprised of more bacterial cells than a force field of powers and counterpowers. There are
human ones (Wenner, 2007). With bounded indivi- always other beings in nature by which one can be
duality and human exceptionalism off the table, how destroyed (Spinoza, 2002: 323, E Ivax1). Even if his
do we negotiate the conflicts that anthropogenic eco- ontology is flatter than traditional ones, his practical
logical devastation render increasingly acute? philosophy is not at all flat. Simply put, and pace the
Revolutionary perspectives in metaphysics and deep ecological interpretation (Sessions, 1977), no
ontology refuse both the dualism, according to ethical prescriptions follow from the fact that every-
which mind is other than and superior to body, and thing is natural, minded, and conative. We can all
human exceptionalism, according to which humans help or hurt one another by virtue of existing within
are the only free and minded beings. With the nega- the same system of causal relationships. But our vul-
tion of these two doctrines, we have an insurrection nerability to hostile forces does yield a prescriptive
against the kingdom of ends. Ruddick proposes that ethics of mutually enabling composition. To live, we
the disruption of metaphysical privilege demands need to combine with those other beings and forces
new scales of justice, but it is not clear that the that amplify and support our existence. Spinoza
revolutionary perspectives in ontology, metaphy- regarded other humans as unquestionably the most
sics, and epistemology are up to the task. Those who important allies in our effort to maximize our mental
have long worked on bringing justice to a consider- and corporeal powers (Spinoza, 2001: 331, E
ation of nonhuman nature, however, typically move IVp18s). But he also regarded humans as the most
the walls surrounding the human kingdom but leave dangerous others in nature (Spinoza, 2002: 686). Spe-
the fortress intact (e.g. Regan, 2004). In my view, cies membership is not what makes an alliance, or a
we have a situation in which the more radical phi- super composition, enabling. It is a question only of
losophical outlook all but ignores practical consid- the extent to which another can increase the power of
erations, but the practical approach is overly modest the mind to produce ideas and the body to undergo
with respect to the metaphysical topography. Influ- and generate affects (Spinoza, 2002: 341, E IVp38).
enced by Deleuze, the radical ontologists under- The assessment of which encounters enrich and con-
standably avoid moral judgments, but it is worth tribute to ones existence and which do not is the
remembering that Deleuze admired Spinoza above sensitive contextual work of practical reason (reason
all for his practical philosophy (Deleuze, 1988). illuminated by imagination). The art of forming more
Although Spinoza is frequently cited as inspira- enabling compositions within a causal network is
tion for radical perspectives in ontology, he is gen- very difficult, since it involves discerning the unanti-
erally not viewed as a friend to environmental ethics cipatable effects of encounters among singular
(Houle, 1997; Lloyd, 1980). Spinoza interrupts the beings with distinctive needs and variable affective
foundations of human exceptionalism and species complexions. Spinoza paid little attention to the non-
superiority, but he does not advocate balancing human powers that necessarily sustain and amplify a
human interests with nonhuman beings (Spinoza, humans life, let alone the adverse effects human
2002: 338, E IVp35s). Just as a triangle would actions have on those nonhuman powers. I have
necessarily prefer all things insofar as they are tri- argued that his system encourages an appreciation
angular, humans are determined to prefer and value of those myriad and varied forces (Sharp, 2011b).
what they deem (correctly or not) to be most human. An appreciation, however, does not provide a means
It belongs to the essence of each and every being to of adjudicating conflicts.
strive to persevere with as much vitality and perfec- It strikes me that Spinoza contributes a great deal
tion as is available to it (Spinoza, 2002: 283, E to what Ive called revolutionary perspectives in
IIIp6). Spinoza takes self-preference and self- ontology, metaphysics, and epistemology. More-
preservation to be both desirable and virtuous (Spi- over, as Ruddick suggests, the sensitivity of his phi-
noza, 2002: 330331, E IVp18s). losophy not only to connection and continuity but
Nevertheless, he acknowledges that all finite also to antagonism and vulnerability provides a use-
beings are profoundly vulnerable, persisting within ful corrective to those ontologies that dethrone the
160 Dialogues in Human Geography 7(2)

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Declaration of Conflicting Interests Inquiry 20(14): 481528.
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest Sharp H (2011a) Animal affects: Spinoza and the frontiers
with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publica- of the human. Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9(1/
tion of this article. 2): 4868.
Sharp H (2011b) Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturali-
Funding zation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial Spinoza B (2002) Spinoza. Complete Works (Shirley
support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of S, Trans.). Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett
this article: Research for this article was supported by the Publishing Co.
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