Dissertation Abstract

A Spinozist Reading of Critical Theory

Evaluating the normative standpoint of social criticism through a lens inspired by seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, I put his view of substance to critical ends by attending to contemporary trends in critical theory. 

“Chapter 1: The Crisis of Reason” outlines the intuitive principle of sufficient reason (i.e., everything happens for a reason) in the Enlightenment. Next, I analyze Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s arrival at critical conclusions about the use of reason. Rationality guides (1) the domination of nature (e.g., deforestation, fracking) which leads back to (2) the subjugation of others, the domination of man (e.g., slavery, exploitation), as mere parts of nature. I see the everyday commitment to the intelligibility of nature as causally connected to human reification.

“Chapter 2: The Grounding Problem” builds on Chapter 1 by introducing what I call the grounding problem concerning the normative foundations of social criticism. Consistent social critics must (a) prescribe ameliorative/restorative ethical principles but also (b) admit uncertainty regarding their advice. An absolutist approach compares our social reality against objectively valid moral principles, e.g., the categorical imperative (Immanuel Kant’s supreme principle of morality) or John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness. Alternatively, relativist critics reason without the deployment of any normative principles, e.g., Michel Foucault’s genealogical critique. I argue we should consider social reality alongside social criticism through a method called immanent critique (deployment of latent social norms) because absolutism and relativism both reject important elements of history and normative principles (respectively) for convincing others. Thus, I propose we draw on the normative promise behind situated ideals, e.g., ‘liberty and justice for all,’ for social critique. 

“Chapter 3: Immanence and Tolerance” argues that Spinoza models immanent critique in his Ethics. Ultimately, Spinoza breaks down the traditional distinction between (i) created substances and (ii) the self-sufficient substance, God. Spinoza argues all things must exist within God because of God’s conceptual completeness. Thus, God is the immanent and not transitive cause of all things. Spinoza’s view has many downstream consequences for social philosophy. I argue for a new, notably metaphysical account of tolerance in Spinoza’s Ethics as exemplified by the ability to “patiently bear whatever happens to us” (4AppC32) and intolerance as ambition [ambitio], or flattery. Spinoza’s conception of God as the one true substance calls for toleration of each of God’s modes, individual things which require God as their generative and sustaining cause. Understanding God, on Spinoza’s view, includes understanding our place within God as limited beings among other finite things.

“Chapter 4: Social Organicism” defends the history of thinking about society as an organism. Analogies between individuals and societies are common in philosophy. Plato’s Republic considers the individual soul as a microcosm of society. Hobbes’ Leviathan is the “body-politic” and in De Cive he defines the commonwealth as one person with a collective will. How seriously we should take these comparisons is unclear. Thus, I pose the question: can societies become sick? Spinoza’s immanent approach justifies a strong analogy between individuals and their societies because it is the norms inherent to social landscapes of our creation which are relevant targets of criticism. Since everything exists within God, individual power is just a portion of God’s power. A state’s power hence comes in degrees through collections of individuals who are guided, “as it were, by one mind.”