Published online by Cambridge University Press: 10 January 2011
A little more than fifteen years ago an exchange between David West and Isaiah Berlin concerning Spinoza's “positive conception of liberty” was published in Political Studies. West aimed to rescue Spinoza from Berlin's procrustean critique of positive liberty by pointing to liberal features of Spinoza's thought, such as his methodological individualism and his defense of toleration. Berlin's response to West seems to reveal an embarrassing lack of familiarity with these liberal features of Spinoza's thought. He claims that, according to Spinoza, “the obstacles to rational thought must be removed…all irrationality, heteronomy, passion, which resist or darken reason, must be removed, or at the very least controlled, by rational self understanding, education and also legislation – that is, if necessary, the sanction of force, of coercive action.” There can be no question that Berlin is largely mistaken about this last point. However, Berlin's mischaracterization raises an interesting question: why exactly doesn't Spinoza think that we should attempt to snuff out irrationality and dissolution with the law's iron fist?
In this chapter I take seriously the force of this question. I will intensify the problem in the first section below by noting several features of Spinoza's thought that lead him to eschew skeptical, pluralistic, and rights-based arguments for toleration, and make his defense of toleration even more surprising. I follow this by delineating the prudential, anticlerical roots of Spinoza's defense, before turning – in the final section – to consider just how far and when toleration serves the guiding norms of governance, namely, peace and positive liberty.