Summer 2021 - PHIL 451W E100

Advanced Topics in the History of Philosophy (4)

Spinoza & Political Psychology

Class Number: 4052

Delivery Method: Remote


  • Course Times + Location:

    Tu 4:30 PM – 8:20 PM

  • Prerequisites:

    two 300 level PHIL courses.



May be repeated for credit. Writing.


Selected Topics: Spinoza and Early Modern Political Psychology

[Note: this course is to be taught concurrently with PHIL 854.]

In the very first paragraph of his Theological-Political Treatise (TTP), Spinoza remarks that human beings “usually vacillate wretchedly between hope and fear, desiring immoderately the uncertain goods of fortune, and ready to believe anything whatever.” Thus, the work starts from the recognition that insofar as emotions are entangled with our desires and beliefs, they play a central role in our political and social lives. However, that they do often results in civil conflict. This basic fact was clear to 17th century Europeans – the region was ravaged by wars of religion, between Protestants and Catholics, and between different factions of Protestantism – and the Dutch republic in which Spinoza lived and wrote was threatened by civil unrest. In the TTP, published anonymously in 1670, and in the Political Treatise, published posthumously in 1677, Spinoza both aims to understand how our emotions, desires, and beliefs figure in how we live together (our political psychology) -- and to address the problem of how, being emotional beings, we can achieve and preserve a stable civil society.

Spinoza’s work is challenging, as much of his analysis takes religious belief, and the role of religion in political and social life, as paradigmatic. His analysis can and was read as a threat to religious authority. Understanding just wherein his critique of religious belief lies is part of any interpretation of the work.

The bulk of this course will be focused on the Theological Political Treatise, though we will consult the Political Treatise and the Ethics (especially Parts 3 and 4). Towards the end of the course, we will look through a Spinozistic lens at two other authors – François Poulain de la Barre and Gabrielle Suchon -- who aim to change a fundamental societal prejudice – the inequality of the sexes. How do emotion, desire and belief figure in their efforts to change society substantively without undermining civil stability? (This question might be applied as well to Spinoza’s own work.)

Meet Dr. Shapiro: watch a presentation on Public Reason: Building Community by Thinking Critically


Students will

  • acquire an understanding of Spinoza, a philosopher with whom some will already be familiar, that is both more broad and more in-depth
  • learn about other philosophers with whom they do not have prior familiarity and methods for approaching a new text
  • identify and frame philosophical questions contained in the readings
  • engage critically with both primary and secondary source materials to develop original analyses and interpretations that address the questions that have been identified
  • become aware of and deploy research methods in history of philosophy (and philosophy more generally)
  • improve both written and oral presentation skills
PHIL 451W may be applied towards the Writing Requirement (and the upper division Writing Requirement for Philosophy Majors). This course may be repeated for credit if the topic is different.


  • Six 1pg responses to reading 20%
  • One 5 pp paper 25%
  • One 10-12 pp (3000-4000 word) paper. Students will propose a paper topic with select bibliography, and work with the instructor to refine the topic. Students will be expected to submit draft of the paper for review. 40%
  • Exercises in/reflections on research methods 15%


Course delivery: remote, synchronous (Zoom meetings). Online presence during scheduled time is required.



For the summer, instruction will continue to be remote, and class will be conducted on Zoom. Students must have access to internet and a computer/other device that permits streaming video, word processing and teleconferencing with Zoom. If students do not have reliable access, they should inform their instructor and contact the IT desk to see if a loaner computer and/or support for streaming can be arranged. It is recommended that students use broadband wired or wireless (3G or 4G/LTE) internet connection, with bandwidth of at least 1.5Mbps (upload and download). There is one computer lab on campus for limited access.


All required materials will be available electronically through SFU Library.

Spinoza, Baruch. The Collected Works of Spinoza, Vol. 2 Translated and edited by Edwin Curley. Princeton UP, 2016. (ISBN: 97806911676333)
                    Please note that this book is available electronically, and the Library will be making an electronic edition available.

François Poulain de la Barre, On the Equality of the Two Sexes and Education of Ladies. Both in Three Cartesian Feminist Treatises, ed. Welch and transl. Bosley. University of Chicago Press, 2002. 

Gabrielle Suchon, A Woman Who Defends all the Persons of Her Sex, ed. and trans Domna Stanton and Rebecca Wilkin. University of Chicago Press, 2010. 


An edition of Spinoza’s Ethics. There are a number of good options. A high quality translation is essential here, so please opt for one these.

  • Spinoza, Baruch. The Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume One.  Translated and edited by Edwin Curley.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1986.  (ISBN: 9780691072227).
  • Spinoza, Benedict. A Spinoza Reader:  The Ethics and Other Works.  Edited and translated by Edwin Curley.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • Spinoza, Baruch.  The Complete Works.  Ed. M. Morgan.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 2002 (ISBN:  0-87220-620-3)  (B3958 .S55 2002)

Electronically available (through the Library) secondary sources

Gatens, Moira., and Genevieve. Lloyd. Collective Imaginings Spinoza, Past and Present. Routledge, 1999.

James, Susan.  Spinoza on Philosophy, Religion, and Politics.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Melamed, Yitzhak and Michael Rosenthal (eds.). Spinoza's 'Theological-Political Treatise'. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Nadler, Steven.  A Book Forged in Hell:  Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011.  (B3985.Z7 N34 2011)

Sharp, Hasana ; Melamed, Yitzhak (eds.). Spinoza's Political Treatise. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Steinberg, Justin.  Spinoza’s Political Psychology:  The Taming of Fortune and Fear.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Additional journal articles and book chapters to be provided.

Department Undergraduate Notes:

Thinking of a Philosophy Major or Minor? The Concentration in Law and Philosophy? The Certificate in Ethics? The Philosophy and Methodology of Science Certificate?
Contact the PHIL Advisor at   More details on our website: SFU Philosophy

New elective grade policy : P/CR/NC, pilot project for Spring/Summer/Fall 2021. List of exclusions for the new policy. Specifically for Philosophy: 

  • Students can use a P or CR to satisfy any requirement for a major, joint major, or minor in Philosophy (with the exception of Honours tutorials).
  • Students can use a P or CR to satisfy any prerequisite requirement for any PHIL course.
  • Students can use a P (but not a CR) to satisfy any requirement for the Ethics Certificate, or the Philosophy and Methodology of Science Certificate.
  • Philosophy Majors and Honours students can use a P (but not a CR) to satisfy any WQB requirement.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University.


Teaching at SFU in summer 2021 will be conducted primarily through remote methods, but we will continue to have in-person experiential activities for a selection of courses.  Such course components will be clearly identified at registration, as will course components that will be “live” (synchronous) vs. at your own pace (asynchronous). Enrollment acknowledges that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes. To ensure you can access all course materials, we recommend you have access to a computer with a microphone and camera, and the internet. In some cases your instructor may use Zoom or other means requiring a camera and microphone to invigilate exams. If proctoring software will be used, this will be confirmed in the first week of class.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who believe they may need class or exam accommodations, including in the current context of remote learning, are encouraged to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning ( or 778-782-3112).