Research

My primary research interests are in early modern political thought and history of ethics. Much of my work has been on Spinoza, but I have also written about Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Hume, among others. I am also quite interested in moral psychology, having written pieces on empathy, humility, and the psychology of tolerance, and I am currently working on a manuscript that will be an interpretation and (qualified) defense of Spinoza’s accounts of belief-formation, emotion, motivation, and agency. In addition to this project, I am also editing a volume of essays on humility (Oxford Philosophical Concepts) and am co-editing (w/ Karolina Hübner) The Cambridge Spinoza Lexicon.

A brief video about my recent book Spinoza's Political Psychology can be found here


Spinoza’s Political Psychology: The Taming of Fortune and Fear, Cambridge University Press, 2018.


Reviews:

"Justin Steinberg’s excellent book, Spinoza’s Political Psychology, focuses on the role of affect management in bringing about this delicate balance [of individual and civic flourishing]....We can, and should, engage with the important implications of Steinberg’s book, which allows us to see Spinoza’s state as having an affective purpose, and key epistemic and ethical roles. In this respect, Steinberg’s outlook is more aligned with the French tradition of Spinoza interpretation than the Anglo-American one. It is to his credit that he draws substantially on both literatures, to reveal Spinoza’s political theory as something unique, both gesturing back to Renaissance humanism and reaching into our own troubled present"


Beth Lord (Aberdeen) in Philosophical Quarterly.


"This ambitious, successful book presents an interpretation of Spinoza's views on politics as they occur, principally, in the Ethics, the Theological-Political Treatise (TTP) and the Political Treatise (TP)...Steinberg presents a strong case, grounded in history, philosophy, and political theory, for finding a view about politics in Spinoza that is, in its basic commitments, coherent and unchanged across Spinoza's works. The book is an excellent starting point for advanced students and scholars of Spinoza's political thought"


Michael LeBuffe (Otago) in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Full review here


"In this ambitious and important book, Justin Steinberg attempts to explain the significance of the project for both contemporary political philosophy and the history of political thought....Steinberg has written one of the best books on Spinoza's politics in recent years. The details of the interpretations will be of great interest to all Spinoza scholars, and the overall argument makes an important contribution to a broader discussion of early modern political theory"


Michael Rosenthal (Toronto) in the Journal of the History of Philosophy.


Spinoza (Classic Thinkers Series), Polity Press, 2020. Co-Authored with Valtteri Viljanen (Turku).


Reviews:

“I never recommended a book about Spinoza until now. Steinberg and Viljanen’s Spinoza neatly presents this grand thinkers abominable and monstrous metaphysical philosophy, cleanly tying it to his ethics and political theory. Excellent for professionals and amateurs alike.”

Steven Barbone, San Diego State University

“In its comprehensiveness, Steinberg and Viljanen’s book rivals the great encyclopedic studies of the nineteenth century, while drawing upon the latest historical discoveries and interpretative work. It is a comprehensive and readable introduction to the best current knowledge of Spinoza.”

Alexander Douglas, University of St Andrews


2022. “The Affirmative Mind: Spinoza on Striving under the Attribute of Thought,” Ergo.

In the Ethics, Spinoza advances two apparently irreconcilable construals of will [voluntas]. Initially, he presents will as a short-hand way of referring to the volitions that all ideas involve, namely affirmations and negations. But just a few propositions later, he defines it as striving when it is “related only to the mind” (3p9s). It is difficult to see how these two construals can be reconciled, since to affirm or assent to some content is to adopt an attitude with a cognitive (mind-to-world) direction of fit, while to strive to persevere in one’s being would seem to be to adopt an attitude with a conative (world-to-mind) direction of fit. I defend the consistency of Spinoza's account by defending the view that what it means to strive under the attribute of thought is just for an idea to affirm the existence of its object. This account of affirmation coheres with established accounts of affirmation in early modern philosophy and preserves the systematicity of Spinoza’s account of mind in ways that other interpretations do not.


2022. “Spinoza’s Dynamic Theory of Mind in the 21st Century,” Journal of Spinoza Studies (inaugural volume, invited submission).

In this paper I maintain that Spinoza systematizes independently credible accounts of belief-formation, affect, and desire into an intriguing general theory of how the mind works. His account also explains disparate downstream psychological phenomena, including: (1) emotional responses to fiction; (2) belief perseverance; (3) the reduction of cognitive dissonance; (4) epistemic conservativism that opens us up to confirmation bias, identity protection, and intolerance. Given the promise of Spinoza’s program, I conclude with a plea for further philosophical engagement.

2022. “Solomon,” in The Bloomsbury Companion to Spinoza, second edition, eds. Wiep van Bunge, Henri Krop, Piet Steenbakkers, and Jeroen van de Ven (Bloombury).

2021. “Striving, Happiness, and the Good: Spinoza as Follower and Critic of Hobbes,” in A Blackwell Companion to Hobbes, ed. Marcus Adams (Wiley-Blackwell Press), 431 – 447.


It is often noted that Spinoza’s conception of striving (conatus) reflects the influence of Hobbes. While this is undoubtedly true, in this chapter I explore how an important difference in how Hobbes and Spinoza understand “striving” drives a wedge between them, resulting in remarkably different views of goodness, happiness, liberty, and the function of the state.

2021. “ ‘Stop Being So Judgmental!’: A Spinozist Model of Personal Tolerance,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Toleration, ed. Mitja Sardoc (Palgrave Press), 1077 - 1093.

This chapter considers the challenges to, and the resources for, cultivating a personal capacity for tolerance in light of the "Spinozist" account of belief-formation. After articulating two main components of personal tolerance, I examine the features of Spinoza’s theory of cognition that make the cultivation of tolerance so difficult. This is followed by an analysis of how such intolerant tendencies might be overcome. Ultimately, I argue that the capacity of individuals to be tolerant depends crucially on the establishment of conditions of trust, conditions that are conspicuously lacking in many modern democracies.

2020. "Spinoza on Security and the Value of Hope,” part of critical exchange, “Spinoza: Thoughts on Hope in our Political Present,” ed. Moira Gatens, Contemporary Political Theory, 20, 200 – 231.


In my part of this critical exchange, I explore different conceptions of hope-- an unstable hope buoyed by fear and anxiety, a form of hope that is a mere indicator of wellbeing, and a form of hope that is at once intrinsically good and supportive of agential capacities-- showing that Spinoza appreciated the differences between these forms of hope and sought to advance the ideal of an intrinsically good and empowering form of hope. I conclude with a plea for a kind of proleptic hope in dark political times, since it is only by acting hopefully in bleak circumstances we can create conditions that might one day justify this hope.

2020. Politics as a Model of Pedagogy in Spinoza,” Ethics and Education, 15(2), 158 – 172.


In this paper, I argue that Spinoza’s political theory gives us a model for how he might have approached a treatise on moral education. Indeed, his account of the method and aims of politics resembles Renaissance humanist rhetorical approaches to pedagogy – particularly, the work of sixteenth century Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives – so strongly that it is hardly an exaggeration conclude that, for him, politics is education writ large. For Spinoza and for Vives, the governoror-

instructor must study the prevailing character, or ingenium, of the subject and adopt means that promote the cognitive and emotional development of the subject, which can be accomplished only to the extent that subjects willingly participate in their own governance-or-instruction. Spinoza joins this rhetorical procedure to a Hobbesian scientific approach to studying ingenia, resulting in a political method that is part science, part art.

2019. Spinoza on Civil Agreement and Bodies Politic,” in Spinoza and Relational Autonomy: Being with Others, eds. Aurelia Armstrong, Keith Green, and Andrea Sangiacomo (Edinburgh University Press), 132 – 148.


In this paper I seek to shed light on Spinoza’s understanding of the relationship between the citizen and the state by briefly examining two interpretative questions: (1) Is the state an individual? (2) What grounds Spinoza’s claim that the human individual ought always to comply with civil laws? Several scholars, whom I refer to as Restrictive Individualists, have worried that answering (1) in the affirmative would entail an intolerable understanding of (2), according to which the human individual would be engulfed in the functioning of the state. I argue that (1) should be answered affirmatively and that the worries of the Restrictive Individualists are unfounded. I then propose a way of answering (2) that is consistent with the normative priority of the human individual.


2019. Spinoza’s Political Philosophy,Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta.

2018. “Spinoza and Political Absolutism,” in Spinoza’s Political Treatise: A Critical Guide, eds. Hasana Sharp and Yitzhak Melamed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 175 – 189.


Spinoza’s treatment of absolute sovereignty raises a number of interpretative questions. He seems to embrace a form of absolutism that is incompatible with his defense of mixed government and constitutional limits on sovereign power. And he seems to use the concept of “absolute sovereignty” in inconsistent ways. I offer an interpretation of Spinoza’s conception of absolutism that aims to resolve these problems. I argue that Spinoza is able to show that, when tied to a proper understanding of authority, absolute sovereignty is not only compatible with, but actually necessitates, power-sharing and constitutionalism.


2018. “Two Puzzles Concerning Spinoza’s Conception of Belief,European Journal of Philosophy, 26(1), 261 – 282.


Spinoza's account of belief entails that if A has two ideas, p and q, with incompatible content, A believes that p (and not that q) if the idea of p is stronger than the idea of q. This seems to leave little space for dominant non-beliefs, or cases in which there is discord between one’s beliefs and one’s affective-behavioral responses. And yet Spinoza does allow for two classes of dominant non-beliefs: efficacious fictions [fictiones] and ideas that conduce to akrasia. I show how Spinoza can account for dominant non-beliefs within his model of cognition by distinguishing between the doxastic and the affective powers of ideas and by suggesting that doxastic power is best understood diachronically. While other scholars have stressed the elegance of Spinoza’s account of ideas, this paper highlights the sophistication and flexibility of his account.


2016. Affect, Desire, and Judgement in Spinoza’s Account of Motivation,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 24(1), 67 – 87. Selected as runner up for the Rogers Prize for the best article published in the BJHP in 2016.


Two priority problems frustrate our understanding of Spinoza on desire [cupiditas]. The first problem concerns the relationship between desire and the other two primary affects, joy [laetitia] and sadness [tristitia]. Desire seems to be the oddball of this troika, not only because, contrary to the very definition of an affect, desires do not themselves consist in changes in one’s power of acting, but also because desire seems at once more and less basic than joy and sadness. The second problem concerns the priority of desires and evaluative judgements. While 3p9s and 3p39s suggest that evaluative judgements are (necessarily) posterior to desires, Andrew Youpa has recently argued that for Spinoza rational evaluative judgements can give rise to, rather than arise out of, desires. I offer solutions to these problems that reveal the elegance and coherence of Spinoza's account of motivation. Ultimately, I claim that whereas emotions and desires stand in a non-reductive, symmetrical relationship to one another, evaluative judgements must be understood as asymmetrically dependent on, and reducible to, emotions or desires. This interpretation sheds light on our understanding of Spinoza’s cognitivist account of emotion. For Spinoza, while emotions are representational, they are not underpinned by evaluative judgements. Rather than inflating emotions to include evaluative judgements, he deflates evaluative judgements, treating them as emotions, or valenced representations, and nothing more.

2014. “Following a Recta Ratio Vivendi: The Practical Utility of Spinoza’s Dictates of Reason,” in Essays on Spinoza’s Ethical Theory, eds. Matthew Kisner and Andrew Youpa (Oxford University Press), 178 – 196.

In recent years, a number of commentators have expressed dissatisfaction with Spinoza’s account of practical reason. In this paper, I defend his account against the most prominent objections, showing that the dictates of reason play an important role in guiding thought and action. However, against the standard interpretation, I propose that we view these rules not as exceptionless, instrumental prescriptions—hypothetical imperatives with necessary antecedents, as Curley memorable put it—but rather as adaptable guideposts that aid us in the complex, dynamic process of acquiring a habit of virtue. The dictates of reason are best understood as defeasible policies that help to orient one in the ars vivendi.


2014. An Epistemic Case for Empathy,Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 95, 47 – 71.


Much recent work on empathy assumes that empathy is justificatorily primitive—that is, one cannot give non-question-begging reasons for empathizing. In this paper I argue that there are independent epistemic reasons for cultivating empathy. In the first section, I present a basic account of empathy, maintaining that it requires the satisfaction of two conditions: (1) the Affective Re-enactment Condition [ARC] and (2) the Apprehension Condition [AC]. In the second section, I consider whether the information that one gains through empathy is uniquely tied to this mode of apprehension, concluding that while an affirmative response would strengthen the epistemic case, one can build a strong epistemic argument while remaining agnostic. In section three, I discuss two ways of analyzing the merits of information, namely, in terms of the notions of relevance and user-friendliness. I proceed to defend empathic information in light of these axes of evaluation, showing first why empathic information fosters the achievement of basic cognitive goals, then indicating how this account can be strengthened by appealing to empathy’s contribution to social epistemology and the satisfaction of democratic goals. In the fourth and final section, I raise and respond to challenges to the preceding account.

2013. Imitation, Representation, and Humanity in Spinoza’s Ethics,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 51(3), 383 – 407.


In Ethics IVP50S, Spinoza claims that “one who is moved to aid others neither by reason nor by pity is rightly called inhuman. For (by IIIP27) he seems to be unlike a man." At first blush, the claim seems implausible, as it relies on the dubious assumption that beings will necessarily imitate the affects of conspecifics. In the first two sections of this paper, I explain why Spinoza accepts this thesis and show how this claim can be made compatible with his account of representation. In the third and final section I offer an auxiliary defense of the thesis, showing that, according to Spinoza, to be human is to be sociable, and sociability depends on the imitation of the affects.

2011. Spinoza on Human Purposiveness and Mental Causation,” in Logical Analysis and the History of Philosophy, Special Volume on Teleology, 51 – 70.


In this paper I present the problem of mental causation for Spinoza and consider two recent attempts to respond to the problem on Spinoza’s behalf. While these interpretations certainly shed some light on Spinoza’s account of cognitive economy, I argue that both fail to point the way out of the problem because they fail to differentiate between two forms of representation, one of which is causally efficacious, one of which is not. I close by suggesting that there is reason to believe that Spinoza’s account of mind avoids some of the problems typically associated with mental causation.

2010. “Spinoza’s Curious Defense of Toleration,” in Spinoza’s ‘Theological-Political Treatise’: A Critical Guide, eds. Yitzhak Melamed and Michael Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 210 – 230.


This essay examines the grounds of Spinoza’s defense of the freedom to philosophize, considering why Spinoza doesn’t think that we should attempt to snuff out irrationality and depravity with the law’s iron fist. In the first section I show that Spinoza eschews skeptical, pluralistic, and rights-based arguments for toleration. I then delineate the prudential, anticlerical roots of Spinoza’s defense, before turning in the final section to consider just how far and when toleration contributes to the guiding norms of governance: peace and empowerment. Once we see how the defense of toleration is anchored in these norms, we form a clearer picture of Spinoza as a liberal perfectionist for whom the bounds of political toleration depends on pragmatic and circumstance-specific assessments of what conduces to the flourishing of the state. This illuminates what is distinctive—and attractive—about Spinoza’s form of liberalism.

2010. Benedict Spinoza: Epistemic Democrat,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 27(2), 145 –164.


In this paper, I maintain—contrary to those commentators who regard him as a principled republican—that at the core of Spinoza’s political theory is an instrumental, rather than an intrinsic, defense of democratic procedures. Specifically, Spinoza embraces democratic decision procedures primarily because they tend to result in better decisions, defined relative to a procedure-independent standard of correctness or goodness. In contemporary terms, Spinoza embraces an epistemic defense of democracy. Spinoza's epistemic case for democracy not only anticipates contemporary argument, but also includes largely neglected lines of argumentation that reveal both the potential epistemic advantages and disadvantages of democracy.

2009. Spinoza on Civil Liberation,Journal of the History of Philosophy, 47(1), 35-58. Winner of JHP award for best article of 2009.


In the final chapter of the Tractactus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza declares that: “the purpose of the state is, in reality, freedom.” While this remark obviously purports to tell us something important about Spinoza’s conception of the commonwealth, it is not clear exactly what is revealed. Recently a number of scholars have interpreted this passage in a way that supports the view that Spinoza was a liberal for whom civic norms are rather more modest than the freedom of the Ethics. Against this view, I provide an interpretation of Spinoza’s account of civil liberation that enables us to view the political writings as an extension of his larger ethical enterprise. Specifically, I show that, according to Spinoza, the state can promote robust liberty in a variety of ways, not least by influencing the behavioral patterns and affective dispositions of its citizens.

2008. On Being Sui Iuris: Spinoza and the Republican Idea of Liberty,History of European Ideas, 34(3), 239-249. Reprinted in Spinoza and Law, ed. André Santos Campos (London: Ashgate), 2015.


Spinoza’s use of the phrase “sui iuris” in the TP gives rise to the following problem. On the one hand, one is said to be sui iuris to the extent that one is rational, and to the extent that one is rational, one will steadfastly obey the laws of the state. However, Spinoza also states that to the extent that one adheres to the laws of the state, one is not sui iuris, but rather stands under the power [sub potestate] of the state (TP 3/5). This seems to yield the paradoxical conclusion that one can be sui iuris only if one is not sui iuris. In this paper I offer an interpretation of Spinoza’s notion of being sui iuris that enables us to overcome this paradox and sheds light on Spinoza’s relationship to the republican tradition. To overcome the paradox, we must distinguish between two ways in which Spinoza uses the expression sui iuris,” which correspond to two different conceptions of power: potentia and potestas. This distinction not only allows us to save Spinoza from internal inconsistency, it also enables us to see one important way in which he stands outside of the republican tradition, since he conceives of liberty not as constituted by independence, or citizenship in a res publica, but as being powerful.