Spinoza & the Arts
Passionate Reason — Symposium
04.10.2019 — 05.10.2019
Katja Diefenbach
Is There a Politics of the Third Kind?

Spinoza's Ethics is almost entirely written in common notions. Common notions enable individuals to overcome limitations by understanding the compositions and decompositions of social processes. This production of intellectuality develops through imaginations and affects, that, in their joyful variants, do not constitute an obstacle but a resource of thought, because the affects imply social combinations of forces whose excessiveness can be rationally absorbed. Analysing the transindividual production of thought, Spinoza refuses to banish the masses from the stage of history and instead attributes to them the ability to learn to govern themselves. But the Ethics does not end with the doctrine of common notions. In a burst of speed, its final propositions take us into a third life and a third knowledge, determined by the concepts of singular essences, love without hatred and an inner joy that no longer knows ambivalences. This late layer of the Ethics, marked by aporiae, teleologies and mysticisms seems to be furthest away from materialist traditions to which Spinoza has been associated in a genealogy leading from Machiavelli to Marx. Nevertheless, (post)-structuralist authors have persistently attempted to bring ontological and political sense to the knowledge of the third kind. By comparing divergent readings, I will ask whether there can be a ‘politics of the third kind’ and to what degree this can be brought together with the materialist principles of Spinoza’s philosophy – a theory of plural time, an attention to sad affects, an affirmation of the human capacity of self-government beyond any totalisation of history and subjectivity?

Moira Gatens
Living on the Gallows?

In a famous correspondence with Blyenbergh, Spinoza lays out some of his most important ideas about freedom, virtue, and the problem of evil. Spinoza’s metaphysics was prescient, having more in common with contemporary naturalism than the thought typical of his own time. Blyenbergh was a god-fearing man of his times and slow to grasp the point that ethics does not require the existence of a transcendent power to reward or punish human actions. But if that is so, he worries, then why would anyone choose to act virtuously? Those of us who endorse an immanent naturalism are obliged to have a response to Blyenbergh’s question – a question that perhaps looks less naïve today due to the overwhelming cynical pragmatism of our governments, our employers, maybe even our families and friends. We seem to be living in an age where knaves thrive. Spinoza’s riposte to his correspondent is that if a liar or a cheat finds that he can live a more perfect life through expressing his vices then he would be foolish not to do so. But, to Spinoza, this idea is as ridiculous as if one posited an individual who, by nature, would prefer to ‘live on the gallows’. What kind of perverse nature would that be? Is the contemporary world dominated by such perverse natures? Are many preferring to live on the gallows, hanging themselves in a tangled web composed by climate change denial, post-truth opportunism, and post-virtue? Spinoza’s philosophy can help us to think these issues anew. Moreover, his method of passionate reason offers hope for imagining our future otherwise.

Mogens Lærke
Who is Spinoza’s ‘best citizen’?

In chapter 20 of his Tractatus theologico-politicus, Spinoza explains that ‘if someone shows that a law is contrary to sound reason, and therefore thinks it ought to be repealed, if at the same time he submits his opinion to the judgment of the supreme power (to whom alone it belongs to make and repeal laws), and in the meantime does nothing contrary to what that law prescribes, he truly deserves well of the republic, as one of its best citizens.’ This description of the ‘best citizen’ is paradigmatic for the way Spinoza believes that the ‘freedom of philosophizing’ should be politically exercised within a democratic state. At the same time, the description bears a striking resemblance to the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’ use of reason—foundational for any conception of a modern public sphere—that Immanuel Kant makes in his famous essay of 1784, the Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?, when arguing how ’it would be very unfortunate if an officer on duty and under orders from his superiors should want to criticize the appropriateness or utility of his orders. He must obey. But as a scholar he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment.’ In this presentation, I want to explore who this ‘best citizen’ is for Spinoza, what her characteristics are, what authority she wields, how she operates within the public sphere, and how to produce her.

Beth Lord
Fear of our own power: Spinoza and the climate crisis

In this paper I would like to explore what Spinoza can contribute to our thinking about the climate crisis, and specifically, our thinking about the emotions generated by it. For Spinoza, that which increases human action and thinking is good: on this definition, deriving energy from fossil fuels has been a very great human good over the past 400 years. We now understand our reliance on fossil fuels to be bad for our flourishing and that of other forms of life on earth. We can no longer rejoice in the consideration of collective human power: instead, we now fear its devastating predicted effects. What are the implications of this ‘fear of our own power?’ What confusions does this fear emerge from? And how can we correct and clarify our emotional response to the climate crisis? Spinoza’s philosophy suggests that emotions of guilt, repentance, and self-hatred arise from a deep misunderstanding of our place in nature. How can our vision of the future be altered by understanding that we have not changed nature, but rather that ‘we are nature changing itself?’

Andrea Sangiacomo
Spinoza on oppressive societies and the striving towards rational agreement

Recent Spinoza scholarship acknowledges the importance of social life for moral and ethical development. Living in a well-organized and rational society is a necessary condition for human individuals to flourish and develop their power of acting. However, Spinoza’s political science stresses that human societies are often far from being led by reason and often foster oppression and superstition. From a Spinozist perspective, society and political life are thus both necessary conditions for developing a moral life and potential threats to it. In this talk I argue that Spinoza’s political theory is able to identify antidotes to oppression within the affective dynamics of oppressive societies themselves. In particular, I draw attention to the way in which the formation of dominant groups within a society also creates other groups of non-aligned individuals who have a direct interest in fostering the overall rationality of the State in order to secure their own survival. The talk explores this possibility from both a theoretical and historical point of view in order to distil a Spinozist approach to the problem of oppression.

Torkild Thanem
Reason and Unreason in Contemporary Business and Management

The performance cultures that prevail in many of today’s business organizations are an odd mix of rationality and prophecy. While the optimization of profitability, sales and other business goals is routinely managed through systematic measurement, continuous feedback schemes and key performance indicators, it is difficult to imagine them without their visions, dreams and desires. Whether ‘endowed with… a more vivid power of imagination’ (TTP2.1) or simply a relentless thirst for power, their executives are prophets who regularly promise employees and consumers, investors and politicians that the future is wide open, that there are no limits, and that, as long as you do what it takes and give them what they need, the impossible is possible. In this talk, I will share some examples from my fieldwork in Swedish sportswear company Björn Borg to show how prophecy and rationality may combine in contemporary business and management. Doing so, I will draw on Spinoza’s work to discuss how their performance culture and its leadership nurtures, exploits and conflates joyful and sad affects in ways that enhance and diminish what people can do. Furthermore, I will ask what attracts people to such organizations and to their leaders, and what implications this may have for how people relate to leaders more broadly, in politics and government. At the end of this theological-political exercise, I will ask if a more reasonable organization of business is at all possible.