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Hasana Sharp – Human and Animal Exemplars: Spinoza’s Remarks on Beasts

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

McGill Philosophy Workshop

Human and Animal Exemplars: Spinoza’s Remarks on Beasts

Hasana Sharp

with a response by Erik Stephenson

Monday,  February 8, at 3 PM in Leacock 927


This paper examines Spinoza’s notoriously "anti-theriophilic" remarks on beasts (bruta) in the Ethics.  Whereas other treatments of these remarks focus on the question of "animal rights," I argue that his meditations on "brutes" have little to do with the codification of human behavior toward animals.  Rather, Spinoza’s concern lies with human attitudes toward themselves.  Specifically, he is concerned with a misanthropic despair that can erupt as a reaction to the superhuman norms contained in certain conceptions of virtue, morality, and law. 

On my interpretation, Spinoza’s words on beasts reject the figure of the animal as a model, or exemplar for human agents.  The image of the animal, then, is not an animal in its own right, but a wild, uncultivated anti-man, and therefore always an image of man (in both senses of the genitive).  Moreover, those who desire or revere this anti-man are precisely those who desire the rigidity of human law, but despair that men, including themselves, are incapable of living up to it.  In turning away from the demands implied in the reigning model of man, they turn to the wild animal, the anti-man, a turning that involves, paradoxically, erecting a new law, the law of nonhuman nature, the law avant la lettre, or maybe contre la lettre.

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