Spinoza and the Crisis of Liberalism in Weimar Germany

Michael A. Rosenthal

Abstract: Nowhere was the ambiguous intellectual, cultural, and political legacy of Spinoza more deeply felt than in Germany, especially in the tumultuous period before and during the Weimar Republic. This essay examines the reception of Spinoza’s political philosophy in this period by three thinkers. Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) claimed that Spinoza’s conception of a state based on the ideas of individual rights and freedom of conscience was an important cause of the instability of the liberal Weimar state. Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) criticized Spinoza’s pantheism for undermining ethics, and he had little sympathy for Spinoza’s utilitarian version of the social contract. Although critical of Spinoza in his early writings, Leo Strauss (1899–1973) offered a more nuanced appreciation of the Theological-Political Treatise: Spinoza’s work was important for Jews because it presented the essential tensions they faced in the liberal Weimar Republic and in the modern world.

Biography: Michael Rosenthal is an associate professor of philosophy and member of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Washington. He earned his BA from Stanford University and his MA in philosophy from the University of Chicago. He earned his PhD in philosophy in 1996 from the University of Chicago. His current research focuses on the philosophy of Benedict Spinoza, and he teaches and publishes in the areas of early modern philosophy, ethics, political philosophy and Jewish philosophy. Some of his numerous articles include "Spinoza's Republican Argument for Tolerance," in the Journal of Political Philosophy (volume 11, 2003), "Spinoza's Dogmas of Universal Faith and the Problem of Religion," in Philosophy and Theology (volume 13, 2001), and "Two Collective Action Problems in Spinoza's Social Contract Theory," in History of Philosophy Quarterly (volume 15, 1998).

Volume 3, Number 1 (Winter 2008) pp. 94-112