A reconstruction of the Berlin-West Debate

Matteo De Toffoli

Spinoza’s political philosophy is generally considered a cornerstone of modern liberalism, for it promotes a democratic system in which the warranty of tolerance and freedom should not just be ensured a posteriori by the state, but represents the proper purpose whereby the commonwealth itself is established. Nonetheless, in his examination of the concepts of positive and negative freedom, Isaiah Berlin recognized in the author of the Theological-Political Treatise the germ of a possible authoritarian and paternalistic drift, due to his consideration of political freedom in the former sense. In response to this accusation, in a 1993 article appeared on Political Studies, professor David West argued in favour of a softer consideration for Spinoza’s politics. Analysing the Spinozian notion of positive freedom in a broader sense (namely, enriching it with some moral and ontological considerations drawn from Ethics) he gets to sustain that it doesn’t necessarily lead to the tyrannical paternalism which Berlin generally associates to rationalist political theories, like those of Plato, Hegel, Fichte and Marx. The aim of this paper is to illustrate the debate, examining both the Berlin-West crosstalk and the political chapters of the Treatise in order to understand whether and to which extent Spinoza’s accusation is justified.

Questioning Spinoza on Positive Freedom
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