Thuistezien 290 — 08.06.2021

Andrea Sangiacomo
Spinoza and the Arts

How can Baruch Spinoza’s metaphysics, epistemology and ethics be used to reshape society and foster narratives to make society better? Philosopher Andrea Sangiacomo shares his interpretation on the problem of oppressive societies and the striving towards rational agreement, using the philosophical toolkit provided by Spinoza. Spinoza’s fundamental moral dilemma is about how one can reach the ‘Supreme Good’. Here, the supreme good is generally assumed to be knowledge. Yet, when we know what we should aim at, why is it so difficult to get there? The obstacle to this endeavour is the problem of society as inherently oppressive. Any collective effort is, according to Sangiacomo, deluded and formed by craving, oppression and power struggle to prevent knowledge from arising. Collectives survive and thrive by repressing knowledge. So, there is a need for an alternative to society, one where social cooperation fosters agreement and minimises disagreement. What follows is looking under which conditions society can really be beneficial.

In Spinoza’s thought, human often acts based on their passions, which are elements of inadequate knowledge and have a bodily root, such as glory or ambition. Irrational in essence, some combinations of passions may have an instrumental role in fostering rationality. We have an innate tendency to develop intellect and master our passions (also called ‘connatus’), but in order to do that, the right conditions need to be in place - by society. Sangiacomo specifically emphasises how every causal interaction has a degree of activity and passivity, agreement and disagreement with nature. Passions are inherently passivity, but can be used to find shared common notions, which is a reasonable activity. As a citizen of certain states, you can share certain affects that are not possible in other states or groups. For example, if you are angry at your neighbour for cutting down a tree, this entails a shared affect of you caring about someone being your neighbour. As such, we can move towards the supreme good by transitioning lower degrees of agreement to higher degrees.

On a societal scale this would signify the following: In an oppressive society there is a dominant leader that uses power to enforce a preference, driven by the passion of glory and ambition. The dominant group, then, forms an imitation of affects towards the leader and each other. However, passions can never produce 100% agreement, since it consists of passivity. This means there will necessarily be non-aligned individuals in such a group, those who do not comply with the dominant affective conditioning. They are strong enough to resist the dominant conditioning and be regarded as a potential threat, yet not strong enough to overthrow it. Their only chance of survival is to increase their agreement with the political body. Note that this does not imply a surrender, but rather making the whole political body more rational by emphasising common properties, and hence ‘inclusive’. It is the minority group of non-aligned individuals that have a direct interest in a more rational political life, and their survival is dependent upon overall agreement. Thus, they are an internal antidote against oppression and an active force to find strategise to maximise agreement. The solution to the problem of how to reach the supreme good now is a political solution.

Angiocomo gives the example of religious fanaticism. The shared principle which binds all individuals within the group is the love for holy scripture. But at the same time, the shared common property holds the instability of the dominant group which is also driven by the passion of glory. Rational notions are relatively stronger, since they are supported by more causes, which can create a pressure on the other properties and disempower them. Of course, as mentioned in the discussion, truly oppressive regimes exterminate non-aligned groups. The crux is being aware that horrible things may always happen; our internal resource can make us think about external conditions to more systematically prevent disagreement.

In the discussion is furthermore debated how this would translate to short-term urgency, for example of the climate crisis, and long-term striving to the supreme good. Angiocomo responds with the particularity of multiple levels of social groups. Social conditioning works on different layers, and in every group and network there are non-aligned individuals. Working on a problem, subsequently, doesn’t proceed in a linear way. Moreover, passions (which inherently cause oppression) can’t be rid of - it is about how to work with them and eternally strive to affirm activity in causal interactions.

Andrea Sangiacomo is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at Groningen. He’s PI of the ERC Starting Grant project ‘The Normalization of Natural Philosophy’ and former NWO-veni laureate. He’s also coordinator of the Groningen Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Thought. He devoted significant part of his research to Spinoza.

Text: Yael Keijzer