This book offers a detailed study of the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza, focussing on their concept of power as potentia, concrete power, rather than power as potestas, authorised power. The focus on power as potentia generates a new conception of popular power. Radical democrats–whether drawing on Hobbes's 'sleeping sovereign' or on Spinoza's 'multitude'–understand popular power as something that transcends ordinary institutional politics, as for instance popular plebsites or mass movements. However, the book argues that these (...) understandings reflect a residual scholasticism which Hobbes and Spinoza ultimately repudiate. Instead, on the book's revisionist conception, a political phenomenon should be said to express popular power when it is both popular (it eliminates oligarchy and encompasses the whole polity), and also powerful (it robustly determines political and social outcomes). Two possible institutional forms that this popular power might take are distinguished: Hobbesian repressive egalitarianism, or Spinozist civic strengthening. But despite divergent institutional proposals, the book argues that both Hobbes and Spinoza share the conviction that there is nothing spontaneously egalitarian or good about human collective existence. From this point of view, the book accuses radical democrats of pernicious romanticism; the slow, meticulous work of organizational design and maintenance is the true centre of popular power. Three minute video summary available via HPBin3. Extended discussion on The Political Theory Review podcast. First chapter open access available via Oxford Scholarship Online. Videos of book talks at National University of Singapore (Centre for Legal Theory) and Universidad de Buenos Aires (Instituto de Investigaciones Gino Germani) available via YouTube. (See links below.). (shrink)
Thomas Hobbes has been hailed as the philosopher of power par excellence; however, I demonstrate that Hobbes’s conceptualization of political power is not stable across his texts. Once the distinction is made between the authorized and the effective power of the sovereign, it is no longer sufficient simply to defend a doctrine of the authorized power of the sovereign; such a doctrine must be robustly complemented by an account of how the effective power commensurate to this authority might be achieved. (...) Nor is this straightforward: for effective political power can fluctuate, sometimes severely. In this light, the prevalent juridical reading of Hobbes’s political philosophy is inadequate. (shrink)
ABSTRACT Genevieve Lloyd argues that when we follow Spinoza in understanding reason as a part of nature, we gain new insights into the human condition. Specifically, we gain a new political insight: we should respond to cultural difference with a pluralist ethos. This is because there is no pure universal reason; human minds find their reason shaped differently by their various embodied social contexts. Furthermore, we can use the resources of the imagination to bring this ethos about. In my response, (...) I offer a friendly challenge to Lloyd’s characterisation of the lessons of Spinoza’s philosophy. I argue that Lloyd’s Spinoza remains excessively unpolitical, even in the moment that he is brought to bear on contemporary politics. An unpluralistic attitude may well be rationally inferior, but is it really explained by insufficient or inappropriate imagination? To the contrary, a properly Spinozist account of reason must include an account of the concrete determinants of reason’s imperfect realisation in the world. In Spinoza’s own oeuvre, this is carried out through an ever-increasing—and ever more sociological—interest in the political structures within which individual reason flourishes or withers. (shrink)
Negri celebrates a conception of democracy in which the concrete powers of individual humans are not alienated away, but rather are added together: this is a democracy of the multitude. But how can the multitude act without alienating anyone’s power? To answer this difficulty, Negri explicitly appeals to Spinoza. Nonetheless, in this paper, I argue that Spinoza’s philosophy does not support Negri’s project. I argue that the Spinozist multitude avoids internal hierarchy through the mediation of political institutions and not in (...) spite of them; nor do these institutions merely emanate from the multitude as it is, but rather they structure, restrain and channel its passions. In particular, the required institutions are not those of a simple direct democracy. There may be other non-Spinozist arguments on which Negri can ground his theory, but he cannot legitimately defend his conception of the democratic multitude by appeal to Spinoza. (shrink)
According to a recent interpretive orthodoxy, Spinoza is a profoundly democratic theorist of state authority. I reject this orthodoxy. To be sure, for Spinoza, a political order succeeds in proportion as it harnesses the power of the people within it. However, Spinoza shows that political inclusion is only one possible strategy to this end; equally if not more useful is political exclusion, so long as it maintains what I call the depoliticised acquiescence of those excluded.
Hobbes’s science of politics rests on a dual analysis of human beings: humans as complex material bodies in a network of mechanical forces, prone to passions and irrationality; and humans as subjects of right and obligation, morally exhortable by appeal to the standards of reason. The science of politics proposes an absolutist model of politics. If this proposal is not to be idle utopianism, the enduring functioning of the model needs to be compatible with the materialist analysis of human behaviour. (...) In this paper, I argue that Hobbes's attempts to render his science of politics compatible with his materialism are only partly successful; a fuller compatibility is achieved in the political writings of Spinoza. -/- Published with reply: Luke O'Sullivan, 'Sovereigns and citizens: a response to Field', ibid., 221-224. Reprinted as: Sandra Field (2015), 'Hobbes and human irrationality', in T. Nardin (ed.) Rationality in Politics and its Limits, Abingdon: Routledge, 31-44. With reply: Luke O'Sullivan, 'Sovereigns and citizens: a response to Field', ibid., 45-48. (shrink)
It is common to assimilate Marx’s and Spinoza’s conceptions of democracy. In this chapter, I assess the relation between Marx’s early idea of “true democracy” and Spinozist democracy, both the historical influence and the theoretical affinity. Drawing on Marx’s student notebooks on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, I show there was a historical influence. However, at the theoretical level, I argue that a sharp distinction must be drawn. Philosophically, Spinoza’s commitment to understanding politics through real concrete powers does not support with Marx’s (...) anti-institutional conception of true democracy. And as a matter of social theory, the gap between civil society and the state which so troubles Marx is a development of modernity that has not entered Spinoza's premodern field of view. Marx’s true democracy was also influenced by his study of Rousseau, and theoretically, it is just as close if not closer to Rousseau as to Spinoza. (shrink)
In this chapter, the author articulates two Hobbesian models of interpersonal power relations that can be used to understand gender relations: what he will call the dominion model and the deference model. Hobbes himself analyses the relation between men and women through the dominion model. The author lays out Hobbes's model of interpersonal power relations as dominion, including his application of the model to the case of gender relations. The centerpiece of Hobbes's method is his “state of nature” thought experiment. (...) Hobbes's analysis is radical insofar as he understands familial relations according to the general model of interpersonal relations just outlined, without any reference to sui generis principles. The author indicates some shortcomings of the dominion model for grasping contemporary social life. The much‐celebrated social contract between equal male citizens is quietly underpinned by the sexual contract, a contract of domination between men and women. (shrink)
Spanish translation of Field, S. L. (2012). 'Democracy and the multitude: Spinoza against Negri'. Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, 59(131), 21-40. Translated by María Cecilia Padilla and Gonzalo Ricci Cernadas. Negri celebra una concepción de la democracia en la que los poderes concretos de los individuos humanos no se alienan sino que se agregan: una democracia de la multitud. Pero ¿cómo puede actuar la multitud sin alienar el poder de nadie? Para contestar esta dificultad, Negri explícitamente apela (...) a Spinoza. Sin embargo, en este trabajo, sostengo que la filosofía de Spinoza no respalda el proyecto de Negri. Por el contrario, argumento que la multitud spinozista evita la jerarquía interna por medio de la mediación de las instituciones políticas y no a pesar de ellas; de la misma manera, estas instituciones tampoco simplemente emanan de la multitud tal cual es, sino que estructuran, contienen y canalizan sus pasiones. En particular, las instituciones requeridas no son las de la democracia simple y directa. Puede ser que existan otros argumentos no spinozistas en los cuales Negri pueda basar su teoría, pero no puede defender legítimamente su concepción de la multitud democrática apelando a Spinoza. (shrink)
I propose a theory of popular power, according to which a political order manifests popular power to the extent it robustly maintains an egalitarian basic structure. There are two parts to the theory. First, the power of a political order lies in the basic structure's robust self-maintenance. Second, the popularity of the political order’s power lies in the equality of relations between the society's members. I will argue that this theory avoids the perverse consequences of some existing radical democratic theories (...) of popular power which focus on mass expression, either in plebiscites or in social movements, as popular power's canonical instances. In particular, my theory does not valourise momentary expression over durable effect, and it offers a ready framework for conceptualising the sometimes-oligarchic substructure of the supposedly canonical instances of popular power. I will show that this theory has strong precedents within a certain republican tradition of political philosophy. (shrink)
At the centre of Powers' (2019) China and England is an extraordinary forgotten episode in the history of political ideas. There was a time when English radicals critiqued the corruption and injustice of the English political system by contrasting it with the superior example of China. There was a time when they advocated adopting a Chinese conceptual framework for thinking about politics. So dominant and prevalent was the English radicals' use of this framework, that their opponents took to dismissing their (...) points as 'the argument from the Chinese'. In my review of Powers' book, I welcome the profound reconfiguration of our political understandings that knowledge of this historical episode brings. However, I question Powers' framing presumption that the generic problems of any complex society lead to convergence on a single master political value of 'social justice'. Surely there are deep and enduring differences amongst thinkers of political value, even within a single society, let alone across different societies. Taking this point seriously would challenge the simple linear directionality of Powers' story of moral and political progress. (shrink)
In this review, I propose that the core contribution of Skeaff's book is to supplement existing discourses of non-domination and agonistic politics with the distinctly Spinozist concept of immanent normativity. However, I question whether this immanent normativity is so clearly and efficaciously democratic as Skeaff presumes.
In May 2021, Alan Bechaz, Racher Du, Will Cailes and Thomas Spiteri interviewed Sandra Leonie Field for UPJA’s Conversations from the Region. A series of discussions that invites philosophers from or based in Australasia to share their student and academic experiences. The segment looks into what inspires people to study philosophy, how they pursue their philosophical interests, and gives our audiences a better idea of philosophy as an undergraduate.
In this review, I discuss the justifications for focussing on Hobbes's On the Citizen (De Cive), the middle recension of his political philosophy, separately from his better known Leviathan. I provide an overview of the collection's chapter contents, and I close by calling for further research regarding the impact of this text on later European political philosophy (such as Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant).
The European Hobbes Society Online Colloquium featured my book, Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics, with critical commentaries from Alissa MacMillan, Chris Holman, and Justin Steinberg. This is my response to their commentaries.
Integrity is often conceived as a heroic ideal: the person of integrity sticks to what they believe is right, regardless of the consequences. In this article, I defend a conception of ordinary integrity, for people who either do not desire or are unable to be moral martyrs. Drawing on the writings of seventeenth century thinker Huang Zongxi, I propose refocussing attention away from an abstract ideal of integrity, to instead consider the institutional conditions whereby it is made safe not to (...) be servile. (shrink)
In this review of Abizadeh's book, I question whether identifying a human 'capacity for reason' really resolves the problems with Hobbes's philosophy's distinctive combination of mechanistic materialism and moral normativity.
Political protesters often don’t play by the rules. Think of the Occupy Movement, which brought lower Manhattan to a standstill in 2011 under the slogan, “We are the 99%”. Closer to home, think of the refugee activists who assisted a breakout from South Australia’s Woomera detention centre in 2002. Both are examples of contentious politics, or forms of political engagement outside the institutional channels of political decision-making. The democratic credentials of contentious politics are highly ambivalent. On the one hand, contentious (...) politics appears to have insufficient respect for democratic decision. Protesters are often forceful, uncivil and rowdy, aiming to disproportionately influence policy. But shouldn’t proposals be put forward with civility through the proper channels? And shouldn’t their proponents accept with good grace if they are democratically rebuffed? A closer look at the history of political thought can provide us with the framework to assess the case for and against the democratic reasonableness of contentious politics. (shrink)
Students often have difficulty connecting theoretical and text-based scholarship to the real world. When teaching in Asia, this disconnection is exacerbated by the European/American focus of many canonical texts, whereas students' own experiences are primarily Asian. However, in my discipline of political philosophy, this problem receives little recognition nor is it comprehensively addressed. In this paper, I propose that the problem must be taken seriously, and I share my own experiences with a novel pedagogical strategy which might offer a possible (...) path forward. Recent scholarship has championed an active learning approach, where students engage in their own research, and deliver outward-facing products that have a meaning and purpose beyond the confines of the student-professor relationship. In this spirit, I have put into practice a strategy of course design, where active learning is used to overcome students' disconnection with the course content. In particular, as a major component of course assessment, students are required to write an 'opinion piece', which is then showcased on a public website. The opinion piece must address a real-world issue which the student himself or herself selects and deems important; furthermore, it must build on the theoretical tools of the course and be written in a style which makes it accessible to a wider audience. I discuss the implementation of this strategy in two political philosophy courses, including strategies to avoid 'dumbing down' and ‘diluting’ the process of critical thinking. While no formal analysis of impact of the strategy on learning outcomes has been conducted, an anonymous pedagogical survey has yielded an overwhelmingly positive response for students' self-reported perceptions of the curricular innovations. (shrink)
In this review, I outline Lærke's interpretation of Spinoza's freedom of philosophizing as a rich, positive freedom, encompassing but extending far beyond mere legal permission for free expression. Lærke's book takes on the challenge to explain how such freedom is to be brought about. I suggest that Lærke's reconstruction overlooks a central plank of Spinoza's approach: the role of good institutional design in supporting freedom. The longer version is the original author submission; the shorter version was trimmed on the journal's (...) request. (shrink)
Is there something about the deep logic of democracy that destines it to succeed in the world? Democracy, the form of politics that includes everyone as equals – does it perhaps suit human nature better than the alternatives? After all, surely any person who is excluded from the decision-making in a society will be more liable to rise up against it. From ancient thinkers like Seneca to contemporary thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, we can see some version of this line of (...) thought. Seneca thought that tyrannies could never last long; Fukuyama famously argued that liberal democracy is the end of history. I want to focus instead on the person credited with giving the most direct and uncompromising statement of this thought: Benedict de Spinoza. However, in this article, I argue to the contrary that Spinoza’s view of aristocracy should give pause to radical democrats. He does not see a historical movement towards democracy, nor does he see the superiority of democracy as written into human nature. (shrink)
The concept of imperium is central to Spinoza's political philosophy. Imperium denotes authority to rule, or sovereignty. By extension, it also denotes the political order structured by that sovereignty, or in other words, the state. Spinoza argues that reason recommends that we live in a state, and indeed, humans are hardly ever outside a state. But what is the source and scope of the sovereignty under which we live? In some sense, it is linked to popular power, but how precisely, (...) and how is this popular grounding to be reconciled with the absolutist elements in Spinoza's texts? Against prominent liberal and radical democratic interpretations, I argue that Spinoza's insistence on linking imperium to the power of the people amounts to a normative attitude towards politics in which the formal features of a political system are less significant than the concrete everyday functioning of that system. Furthermore, I argue that its good functioning is importantly a product of an institutional order which does not simply defer to human individuality or to the primordial multitude, but instead, actively shapes them. While it may be worthwhile railing against monarchy and aristocracy and demanding liberal or radical democracy, the prior and more important challenge is to increase the robustness and resilience of the multitude within whatever form of state presents itself, through boring, meticulous, and incremental institutional design. For Spinoza, it is a robust and resilient political order that truly merits being called absolute. (shrink)
The central argument of Youpa's book is that Spinoza's moral philosophy offers a distinctive variety of moral realism, grounded in a standard of human nature. In this review essay, I provide an overview of Youpa's remarkably lucid interpretation of Spinoza. However, I also critique Youpa's conception of the 'free man' as an objective standard of perfection which (a) applies equally to all humans, and (b) which has objective moral force in the sense that it ought to be approached. I sketch (...) an alternative reading of Spinoza which denies a shared human essence, and which denies that an individual ought to become more perfect than they in fact are. I argue that Youpa's reading rests on the conflation of Spinoza's concepts of active power and adequate causation. I then suggest that Youpa's resultant excessive focus on a rational human essence as 'what we fundamentally are' leads him to downplay a more developmental and imaginative dimension to Spinoza's moral philosophy. (shrink)
In this article I provide a Spinozist perspective on popular power. It is written as a blog post for a popular audience, and draws on my book, Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics (OUP: 2020).
This article offers an entry into Spinoza's political philosophy for a popular audience. In it, I lay out what is–to me–most distinctive about his political philosophy: his deep disinterest in the question of the justifiability of political resistance.
Sandra Field, Jeffrey Flynn, Stephen Macedo, Longxi Zhang, and Martin Powers discussed Powers’ book China and England: The Preindustrial Struggle for Social Justice in Word and Image at the American Philosophical Association’s 2020 Eastern Division meeting in Philadelphia. The panel was sponsored by the APA’s “Committee on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies” and organized by Brian Bruya.