Benedict Spinoza: Epistemic Democrat

History of Philosophy Quarterly 27 (2):145-164 (2010)
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In this paper, I maintain—contrary to those commentators who regard him as a principled republican—that at the core of Spinoza’s political theory is an instrumental, rather than an intrinsic, defense of democratic procedures. Specifically, Spinoza embraces democratic decision procedures primarily because they tend to result in better decisions, defined relative to a procedure-independent standard of correctness or goodness. In contemporary terms, Spinoza embraces an epistemic defense of democracy. I examine Spinoza’s defense of collective governance, showing not only how it differs from other accounts of his time but also how it might contribute to current debates about the epistemic standing of popular governing bodies. In the opening section I defend the thesis that has been contested in recent years that Spinoza was, in fact, a consistent democrat. The second section focuses on procedural (i.e., intrinsic) defenses of democracy, paying particular attention to the republican version of proceduralism that was prominent in Spinoza’s time. And in the final section I present my case for reading Spinoza as an epistemic democrat, comparing his epistemic defense with contemporary versions. What we find are not only striking anticipations of contemporary arguments, but also largely neglected lines of argumentation that reveal both the potential epistemic advantages and disadvantages of democracy.
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