Out of Control

Confrontations between Spinoza and Levinas

By Richard A. Cohen

Subjects: Philosophy, Jewish Philosophy, Jewish Studies, Ethics, Politics
Series: SUNY series in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Paperback : 9781438461106, 370 pages, January 2017
Hardcover : 9781438461090, 370 pages, June 2016

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Table of contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
List of Abbreviations

1. Levinas, Spinozism, Nietzsche, and the Body

2. Prophetic Speech in Levinas and Spinoza (and Maimonides)

3. Levinas and Spinoza: To Love God for Nothing

4. Levinas and Spinoza: Justice and the State

5. Spinoza’s Prince: For Whom Is the Theological-Political Treatise Written?

6. Levinas on Spinoza’s Misunderstanding of Judaism

7. Thinking Least about Death: Mortality and Morality in Spinoza, Heidegger, and Levinas

8. Spinoza’s Spleen: “Babies, Fools, and Madmen”

Works Cited

Explores the fundamental confrontations between Spinoza and Levinas in ethics, politics, science, and religion.


After the end of superstitious religion, what is the meaning of the world? Baruch Spinoza's answer is truth, Emmanuel Levinas's is goodness: science versus ethics. In Out of Control, Richard A. Cohen brings this debate to life, providing a nuanced exposition of Spinoza and Levinas and the confrontations between them in ethics, politics, science, and religion.

Spinoza is the control, the inexorable defensive logic of administrative rationality, where freedom is equated to necessity—a seventeenth-century glimpse of Orwellian doublespeak and Big Brother. Levinas is the way out: transcendence not of God, being, and logic but of the other person experienced as moral obligation. To alleviate the suffering of others—nothing is more important! Spinoza wagers everything on mathematical truth, discarding the rest as ignorance and illusion; for Levinas, nothing surpasses the priorities of morality and justice, to create a world in which humans can be human and not numbers or consumers, drudges or robots.

Situating these two thinkers in today's context, Out of Control responds to the fear of dehumanization in a world flattened by the alliance of positivism and plutocracy. It offers a nonideological ethical alternative, a way out and up, in the nobility of one human being helping another, and the solidarity that moves from morality to justice.

Richard A. Cohen is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Jewish Thought at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. His books include Ricoeur as Another: The Ethics of Subjectivity (coedited with James L. Marsh) and Face to Face with Levinas, both also published by SUNY Press.


"This is an incisive, deep analysis of two philosophers, offering important critiques of Spinoza in particular; its thinking points about different ways of prioritizing such issues as the state, human relations, the body, and religion are potent and vital, from which many readers will benefit." — H-Net Reviews (H-Judaic)

"Cohen's work here is nothing short of spectacular. His analysis of the mathematical and scientific foundations of Spinoza's philosophy is exemplary. Lucidly, meticulously, and with very disciplined analysis he conveys the force, power, and influence of Spinoza's philosophy on contemporary religious thought." — Richard I. Sugarman, University of Vermont

"Richard Cohen has managed to not merely bring these two notoriously difficult philosophers into conversation with each other, but to do so in an extremely readable way. Indeed, he is able to explain extremely difficult philosophical disputes with clarity and to convey a palpable sense of excitement." — Robert Erlewine, author of Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason