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Spinoza’s Dream

  • Willi Goetschel


In 1664, in a letter to a friend, Spinoza shares a dream he had of a “black, scabby Brazilian.” At the historical moment of a fierce race among Europe’s colonial powers, when the Amsterdam Jewish community’s vested interests in the Dutch colonial enterprise have reached a formidable status, Spinoza’s dream reflects an early awareness of the postcolonial predicament. The dream figures this awareness as the moment of the awakening—inseparable from the imagining—of the modern subject. Although the dream has been discussed with regard to its significance for understanding the role of the imagination for Spinoza as well as the issues of freedom, slavery, and question of race, the paper addresses the specifically postcolonial juncture that Spinoza’s dream and the letter marks. Spinoza’s dream figures the philosopher’s awakening to the precarious status of the postcolonial subject position as recognition of the constitutive significance of the postcolonial constellation for the formation of modern awareness.



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1 For the pivotal role of Spinoza in the debate on what is “Jewish Philosophy” and what defines modern Jewish identity see Goetschel, Willi, The Discipline of Philosophy and the Invention of Modern Jewish Thought (New York: Fordham, 2013).

2 For readings of the letter, see Feuer, Lewis S., The American Imago (14) 1957: 225242; Bertrand, Michèle, Spinoza et l’imaginaire (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983), 536; Sanchez-Estop, Juan Dominguez, “Des Presages à l’entendement: Notes sur les presages, l’imagination et l’amour dans la letter à P. Balling,” in Studia Spinozana 4 (1988): Spinoza’s early writings, 5774; Laux, Henri, Imagination et religion chez Spinoza (Paris: Vrin, 1993), 141145; Gatens, Moira and Lloyd, Genevieve, Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present (London: Routledge, 1999), 1923; Montag, Warren, Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and His Contemporaries (London and New York: Verso, 1999), 8789; Klein, Julie R., “Dreaming with Open Eyes: Cartesian Dreams, Spinozan Analyses,” Idealistic Studies 33.2–3 (2003): 141159; Rosenthal, Michael A., “‘The Black, Scabby Brazilian’: Some Thoughts on Race and Early Modern Philosophy,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 31.2 (2005): 211221.

3 Letter by Spinoza to Balling, The Collected Works of Spinoza, trans. Edwin Curley, Vol. 1. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 353. For the Latin use of Aethiops see Spinoza, Opera Omnia, ed. Carl Gebhardt, Vol. 4. (Heidelberg: Winter, 1925), 77.

4 For a detailed discussion of this aspect of Spinoza’s letter to Balling see Bertrand, Gatens and Lloyd, Sanchez-Estop, Laux, and Klein.

5 There may remain some unresolvable tension in the way he discusses the function of dreams compared to his mature theory of the affects, but we should not rush to reduce this to a simple self-contradiction that helped repress one anxiety or another that Spinoza might have experienced. Rather, I suggest addressing the complication Spinoza’s discussion creates as an attempt at working through a problematic dream—or rather a problem or number of problems the dream seeks to address.

6 The reasons for the excommunication were most likely not religiously motivated but driven by concerns about what was considered a direct attempt at infringement of the Jewish community status of self-administration. Spinoza had taken recourse to the Amsterdam judicial court for a business matter against the custom to submit such cases to the self-regulating body of the Jewish community. See Steve Nadler and for a detailed discussion Vlessing, Odette, “The Excommunication of Baruch de Spinoza: A Struggle between Jewish and Civil Law,” Dutch Jewry: Its History and Secular Culture 1500–2000, eds. Jonathan Israel and Reinier Salverda (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 141170.

7 See Israel, Jonathan, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477–1806 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 621, 625; Nadler, Steve, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 212f.; Harrison, Mark, Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease (New Haven: Yale, 2012), 26f.

8 For a contemporary account of rumors concerning a Mediterranean origin of the plague see Defoe, Daniel, A Journal of the Plague Year (London: Penguin, 2003), 3: “it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant among some Goods, which were brought home by their Turkey Fleet; others said it was brought form Candia, others from Cyrpus. For the claim that a “plague-stricken ship travelling to Amsterdam from Smyrna” was the origin of the 1663 plague see Panzac, Daniel, “Plague and Seafaring in the Ottoman Mediterranean in the Eighteenth Century,” Trade and Cultural Exchange in the Early Modern Mediterranean: Braudel’s Maritime Legacy, eds. Maria Fusaro, Colin Heywood, and Mohammed-Salah Omri (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 4568, esp. 48.

9 Israel, , The Dutch Republic, 625.

10 More on Isaac Aboab da Fonseca in the following. For Jewish slave owners during this period, see Natalie Davis, “Regaining Jerusalem: Eschatology and Slavery in Jewish Colonization in Seventeenth-Century Suriname” in this issue.

11 Haarnack, and Hondius, , “ ‘Swart’ (Black) in the Netherlands,” 92.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 92.

14 For an account of the incidence see Vlessing, “The Excommunication of Baruch de Spinoza,” 163: “Isaac Spinoza, closely related to Michael Spinoza [Spinoza’s father], had once been attacked by a Moor, a negro named Abraham. The assailant carried a stone in one hand and a knife in the other, and hit Isaac on the chest. He was disarmed by bystanders, but returned later with a juvenile gang threatening the Jews, who fled to the synagogue in Joseph Pinto’s house.” For the likely identification of Isaac Spinoza with Bento (Baruch) de Spinoza’s grandfather, who lived in Antwerp but was buried in Amsterdam, see Nadler, Spinoza, 31. For the incidence: Gemeentenarchief Amsterdam, Archief 5075. See also Haarnack and Hondius, “ ‘Swart’ (Black) in the Netherlands,” 92 and 336 note 15.

15 Vlessing, “The Excommunication of Baruch de Spinoza” calls it a family story and suggests that Spinoza’s dream might be linked to this “family story,” 163f. There is, however, no indication that the incidence of 1620 circulated as a “family story” that Spinoza would have been aware of.

16 See Kolfin, Elmer, “Black Models in Dutch Art between 1580 and 1800: Fact and Fiction,” Black Is Beautiful: Rubens to Dumas (Amsterdam: Wanders Publishers Zwolle, 2008), 7187, and Carl Haarnack and Dienke Hondius with a contribution by Kolfin, Elmer, “ ‘Swart’ (Black) in the Netherlands: Africans and Creoles in the Northern Netherlands from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century” in the same volume, 89106. For Dürer’s 1521 portrait of Katherina see Haarnack, and Hondius, , “ ‘Swart’ (Black) in the Netherlands,” 90f.; for Rubens’s striking 1613–1615 study, see “Four Heads,” 76f. See also Massing, Jean Michel, The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition—Europe and the World Beyond, Vol 3.2. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), esp. 213260.

17 See Elmer Kolfin, “Black Models in Dutch Art.” Besides Dürer and later Rubens (for background: 78) see also Rembrandt (82, 242, 251).

18 Kolfin, , “Black Models,” 83.

19 See Black Is Beautiful, painting 62, 247. Including a black page or servant figure became a trend reflected in numerous paintings of the time. See the countless paintings in this volume and also in Massing, The Image of the Black.

20 Kolfin, “Black Models,” 83.

21 For a striking example, see Ferdinand Bol’s portrait of Pieter de la Court, his second wife Catharina van der Voort, and a black servant (1661, Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts). For a discussion of the painting see Massing, The Image of the Black, 228f. Pieter de la Court was a prominent figure close to Jan de Witt, one of the prominent political leaders of the Dutch Republic 1654–1672. Catharina van der Voort was related to Jan de Witt. Spinoza owned a copy of De la Court’s Political Discourses and was influenced by his ideas. Cf. Nadler, Spinoza, 258.

22 Feuer, Lewis S., The American Imago 14 (1957): 225242.

23 Mattos, Hebe, “ ‘Black Troops’ and Hierarchies of Color in the Portuguese Atlantic World: The Case of Henrique Dias and His Black RegimentLuso-Brazilian Review 45.1 (2008): 629.

24 For the original Latin see Spinoza, , Opera Omnia, ed. Carl Gebhardt, Vol. 4. (Winters: Heidelberg, 1925), 76.

25 Feuer, 229–33.

26 For a detailed discussion of the complicated economic and financial situation that led to the herem, or excommunication, as anything but religiously motivated see Vlessing.

27 Spinoza’s Collected Works, 353.

28 See Spinoza’s Ethics, E3P2Schol.

29 Curley, , Spinoza’s Collected Works, 497.

30 As Spinoza notes in the passage quoted earlier, effects of the imagination that don’t proceed from corporeal but from the mind can assume the role of being omens of what will happen because our mind but not our body is able to anticipate things, that is, to represent something as present that is not present (“the effects of the imagination [or the images which have their origin in the constitution of the Mind] can be omens of a future thing”). Whether the later Spinoza would agree with this determination is another question.

31 See Bertrand’s remark in the concluding paragraph of the introductory chapter that makes paradigmatic use of Spinoza’s dream: “La connaissance adéquate ne se substitute pas à l’imaginaire, elle s’y superpose.” Bertrand, Spinoza et l’imaginaire, 36.

32 Balibar, Etienne, Spinoza: From Individuality to Transindividuality, Mededelingen vanwege he Spinozahuis 71, 1997.

33 Balibar, Etienne, “What Is ‘Man’ in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy? Subject, Individual, Citizen,” The Individual in Political Theory and Practice, ed. Janet Coleman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 215241, esp. 230, and the discussion of Balibar’s notion of transindividuality in Gatens and Lloyd, Collective Imaginings, 65–69.

34 See for instance Bertrand, Spinoza et l’imaginaire, as well as Gatens and Lloyd, Collective Imaginings.

35 Gatens, and Lloyd, , Collective Imaginings, 66.

36 Feuer, Lewis S., “The Dream of Benedict de Spinoza,” 240241.

37 Israel, , The Dutch Republic, 766.


Spinoza’s Dream

  • Willi Goetschel


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