‘Spinoza, the Transindividual’ by Étienne Balibar reviewed by Dan Taylor

Spinoza, the Transindividual

trans. Mark G. E. Kelly, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2020. 196 pp. £19.99 pb
ISBN 9781474454285

Reviewed by Dan Taylor

About the reviewer

Dan Taylor is a Lecturer in Social and Political Thought at the Open University, and author of …


On the day Étienne Balibar defended his habilitation thesis in 1993, he was confronted by Alexandre Matheron, a leading French scholar of Spinoza. ‘You read Spinoza as if at every corner of the doctrine you wanted to uncover an aporia and prove that he had put himself in a contradictory situation in which he couldn’t resolve his own problem, and that’s wrong. That’s wrong!’ Balibar, with typical modesty and geniality, replies: ‘Not everybody is as capable as you, knowing Spinoza entirely by heart and resolving any difficulty in his doctrine or in the interpretation of his work by finding in a remote corner of a text the phrase that resolves the contradiction.’

There are two intriguing things at play. The first is the scandal Balibar provokes in cross-examining canonical thinkers in the history of philosophy, identifying and filling lacunae with comparisons to later thinkers. The second is the gentle rebuke to the long-prevailing practice of reconstructing a given philosopher and purifying them of their contradictions, opacities and paradoxes. Instead, what Balibar identifies is another method of approaching the history of philosophy, combining forensic readings of primary and secondary texts with a generous and creative approach to conceptual difficulties. This collection is a masterclass in this approach. It will be of great service to anyone interested in Balibar’s wider thought or in the study of Spinoza’s ethics and politics.

As Jason Read outlines in his introduction, for most Anglophone readers there will be two images of Balibar: the student of Althusser and co-editor of Reading Capital (1965), whose wide-ranging work has electrified debates around citizenship, violence, borders, secularism, Europe and ‘equaliberty’ (perhaps we have two Balibars here). In the smaller sphere of Spinoza studies, there is another Balibar, author of Spinoza and Politics (1985, 2008 in English), a wonderful and deceptively accessible text that contributes a novel way of reading Spinoza’s philosophy as one of communication, concerned with ‘as many as possible, thinking as much as possible’. Under Balibar’s brush Spinoza is portrayed as inherently democratic, pluralistic, alert to the causes of societal breakdown and despotism but envisioning a form of human flourishing premised on our interdependence and relations with others. While leftist approaches to Spinoza by Antonio Negri, Gilles Deleuze and more recently Frédéric Lordon have become better known, with their emphasis on the multitude, the joyous affects and the imagination respectively, Balibar’s work is distinct in this emphasis on pluralism, its interest in metaphysical individuation and its political consequences, and in choosing the path of the affections, and not the affects, to think through a liberatory politics in Spinoza.

Since 1985, Balibar has continued working on this problem of the individual and their relations in Spinoza through a series of incisive but hitherto inaccessible essays, either out of print, untranslated or published in specialist journals. This fascinating collection at last brings these materials together to an Anglophone audience. Spinoza, the Transindividual collects four written between 1986 and 2018, accompanied by an introduction by Jason Read. The collection is partly adapted from the larger volume Spinoza politique. Le transindividuel [Political Spinoza: The Transindividual], out in 2018 that combined Spinoza and Politics with seven additional essays on Spinoza. While the French volume gives the sense of a retrospective anthology, this edition seeks a ‘reintroduction’ of Balibar into Anglophone political thought (xii).

The title alone indicates the stakes: the transindividual is not a concept found in Spinoza but in the work of the twentieth century French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, who uses it overturn traditional concepts of the individual as something fixed, essence-like, interior, like in the classical Aristotelian schema of species and genus, and instead as the product of a continual process of individuation in response to its environment. For Simondon, this means approaching being in its relationality, ‘as a relation in being, a relation of being, a way of being’ (Simondon 1989: 23-4; my translation). Balibar’s challenge, fundamentally, is that we need this concept to understand Spinoza’s metaphysics. Indeed, the concept of the transindividual has begun to excite new interest in Spinoza from across the globe, particularly for scholars with backgrounds in critical theory and affect theory. But what is a transindividual precisely, and to what extent does this anachronistic concept apply to Spinoza? What necessitates it, and what poses a challenge to it?

For readers seeking an immediate and accessible outline to this question, chapters 2 and 4 are best, and will be summarised below. But the value (and difficulty) of this collection is that we are forced to think with Balibar in these essays, which each provide a series of fascinating considerations and forking paths which often conclude without dogmatic resolution.

Chapter 1, ‘Individuality, Causality, Substance: Reflections on Spinoza’s Ontology’, is from a 1990 conference publication, not included in the French anthology. It is an opportunity to sit inside Balibar’s workshop and observe the formation of the roughly shaped but still unnamed transindividual. It deals with the ‘enigma’ of ‘Spinozist ontology’ (3), by which Balibar means the account in Ethics, Parts I and II, of substance monism (and rejection of Cartesian mind-body dualism and free will), the parallel nature of the attributes of Thought and Extension, which share the same order and connection yet cannot effect one another, and the nature of the finite modes, said by Spinoza to constitute in their entirety this single substance (referred to memorably later as ‘God or Nature’). For readers of Spinoza, many puzzling consequences follow: what is the status of freedom without free will? What does it mean to be an individual, if one is merely a finite mode whose existence is merely an effect of innumerable prior causes and forces that eddy one about like a leaf on the sea?

While the discussion is abstract and technical, Balibar raises his standard. ‘[T]he object of the Spinozist ontology is individuation, or the difference between activity and passivity as such’ (4). Unlike in Aristotle or Descartes, this individual is not a fixed simple nature, essence or substantial form, but one constantly modified by their bodily interactions with others (their ‘affections’). Yet that doesn’t mean that the individual can somehow dissolve into some mystical collective Whole or unity (e.g. ‘Nature’, conceived as something with a fixed order and telos). The transindividual is not a collective individual: it accounts for both the relational and interdependent nature of individuation as a continual process and the irreducibility of the individual to the whole. An ontology of relations is sketched here, becoming key to the transindividual later.

Chapter 2, ‘Individuality and Transindividuality in Spinoza’, offers a new translation of a text previously available in a small-circulation pamphlet in 1997. This is a wonderful essay and is where new readers of the transindividual should begin. It begins with the same problem: what is the essence of the human individual in Spinoza? In Ethics Part III, Proposition 9, Spinoza tells us it is their desire, being their ‘consciousness’ of their bodily conatus (or striving to persist in being which determines them to act). But what exactly is this consciousness or determination? Where lies this essence? Characteristically, Balibar uses a difficulty in interpretation to subtly advance a radical new thesis. The real challenge is in how Spinoza destabilises traditional ideas of the individual, premised on an exaggerated distinction of interior vs exterior, individualism vs organicism/holism, which is ultimately founded on mind-body dualism. Instead, Spinoza’s philosophy is ‘irreducible’ to the ‘standard dualisms of the history of ideas’, an irreducibility not accidental but ‘the basis of his theory of finite modes and their natural production’ (41). Whereas traditional philosophers have looked for a fixed, abstract essence of this individual, for Spinoza this individuality is founded on ‘relation and communication’ (43).

These formulations are abstract and concentrated on Spinoza interpretation, but subtly the transindividual appears. Individuality is fundamental to Spinoza: but the individual is herself a unity of parts, and is defined by her relations to other individuals. No one is entirely self-sufficient; what makes us autonomous also makes us interdependent. Thus we should speak of the transindividual then, which is to conceive of the being of the individual as in her relations through which she affects and is continually affected, modifying and being modified by her environment in a singular way. Such relations are neither simply ‘in’ each individual nor do they exist solely outside, classifying and defining them. Instead individuation is in a continual state of passage.

The remainder explores this through a close study of the Ethics. Note that the transindividual is a metaphysical (and not an affective or imaginative) concept: it proceeds from an understanding of causality to its determination of individuals, who not only act but become integrated with others (and are themselves composites of integrating parts). Thus the individual as an autonomous, singular thing is a continual process of what he calls recomposition and decomposition (it would be tempting to use the old phrase becoming here, but Balibar avoids it), relationally ‘oscillating’ between activity and passivity. Individuality is not a specifically human quality. Nor does individuality rest in our ‘higher’, rational natures: the final part of Balibar’s ambitious essay is to demonstrate how the human individual (and quasi-individual political and social groups) is constituted by an integration of both reason and the imagination, which together serve our flourishing.

Throughout, Balibar outlines questions rather than doctrines, yet there are some intriguing sleights of hand. Spinoza becomes a dialectician, closer to Hegel than Hobbes. Double processes, syntheses and polarities between opposites abound. While Simondon is the obvious reference, two other contexts matter. First, the intellectual presence of Matheron, whose 1969 Individu et communauté chez Spinoza [Individual and Community in Spinoza] authoritatively sets out an ontology based on a polarity between these two terms, into which the human individual can become integrated and even part of one collective individual with others, a ‘communism of minds’. Balibar’s aporia challenges that, identifying a third term between individual and collective that destabilises both. Readers will observe an underlying commitment to alterity and difference, sometimes in the hues of Deleuze, sometimes reminiscent of Arendt.

Second, what C.B. Macpherson called ‘possessive individualism’: a tradition contextualising Hobbes and Locke to the emergence of modern capitalism which bases identity and autonomy on individual property rights. Macpherson was translated into French in 1971, and these debates continued across the 1980s and 1990s as France responded to the rise of Thatcher-Reagan neoliberalism and the disappointing tenure of François Mitterand. Balibar scolds a ‘prejudice, typical of a certain Anglo-American tradition’ which posits as self-evident a ‘theoretical convergence between methodological individualism and socio-political individualism’ (107). Metaphysical commitments have political consequences. It matters where human societies are regarded as merely loose aggregates of rationally egoistic, competitive individuals, or more tightly bonded collective quasi-individual political units, sharing in a common life.

What is the status of the collective then? This is addressed in chapter 3, ‘Potentia multitudinis, quae una veluti mente ducitur’ [‘the power of the multitude, as if led by one mind’]. Previously translated by Stephen Daniel in 2005, this new translation uses an enigmatic formulation in Spinoza’s Political Treatise to reassess claims of the collective individuality of the multitude (Negri) or the State (Matheron). What does Spinoza mean by a union of bodies or minds? For Balibar, collectivity is subject to the same processes of recomposition and decomposition as before, a fluctuation in which the multitude can become more imaginatively and rationally integrated into a democratic life of common flourishing (as it can equally disintegrate).

Chapter 4, ‘Philosophies of the Transindividual: Spinoza, Marx, Freud’ (2018), provides a helpful recap of his arguments in Spinoza and Politics and in chapter 2, now anchoring the transindividual to Marx’s sixth thesis on Feuerbach on the ‘human essence’ as an ‘ensemble of social relations’. For Balibar, what binds the Marxian ensemble to the Spinozan transindividual is this horizontality of relations, indefinite openness, and heterogeneous multiplicity, allowing multiple kinds of social relation. All philosophers of the transindividual effect ‘a procedure of double rejection of the ‘abstractions’ that force anthropology to locate the essence of man, be it in the individual, to the detriment of the community […] or be it in social being, to the detriment of the individual’ (140-1). The transindividual is a ‘neither/nor’, neither individual nor collective, but existing on a polarity between. It is not merely that the individual constitutes the collective, or vice-versa; rather, Balibar’s hypothesis is that ‘the social or social being must be grounded in the category of the relation […] but that there are several ways of positing the relation’ (142).

Fascinating implications follow. For one, every individual is a transindividual, which is to say, ‘a ‘finite’ relational mode’ (157). Balibar is also careful not to establish a dogmatic interpretation or school, instead presenting a negative theology of the individual, that neither/nor, a ‘line of flight’ or journey to the ‘edge’ (dare we say aporia), opening space for new approaches.

Overall, this collection is a rich, fascinating and important one. But with some caveats. In its current form, this is ultimately a work of Spinoza interpretation. New readers will struggle without intermediate familiarity with Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza is often directly quoted in the Latin (as in Balibar’s original) whereas immediate translations better serve new readers. Some chapters (like 1 and 3) might have been better organised as a Part II or Appendix after the key ones. Although rights clearance would probably have been a nightmare, excerpts from Spinoza and Politics (e.g. chapter 4 or 5) and The Philosophy of Marx (e.g. Appendix) would have enriched the account. In addition, I would have liked a more extensive introduction that set out the contexts of Spinoza, French Spinozism and the relation of the ‘transindividual’ to better-known approaches say by Negri and Deleuze, or in emerging fields like relational autonomy. Perhaps even the inclusion of an interview at the end, with Balibar cross-examined on these questions of contexts, on the role of the affects and ingenia, and on the necessity of the transindividual (and not say reiterating the well-known social aspects of Spinoza’s ethics).

But this collection marks an important new direction in Spinoza studies and puts the problem of individuality and relationality squarely before us. Well translated, it will be of service to scholars of Balibar and of Spinoza for many years to come.

23 January 2021


  • Simondon, Gilbert 1989 L’individuation collective et psychique Paris: Aubier.

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