Spinoza's Social Sage: Emotion and the Power of Reason in Spinoza’s Social Theory

Revista Conatus 9 (17):23-41 (2015)
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Far from his ‘rationalist’ image, Spinoza recognizes that we do not emerge from the ground as fully formed rational agents. We are born and develop in social worlds, where our affects, values and conceptions of the world are formed. For Spinoza, even the ‘free’ individual or sage is affected by the social and emotional worlds in which he argues they ought to live. Yet, Spinoza is ambivalent about the social emotions. These socially conditioned affects and values may be harmful to the individual and to the community. Although they are harmful, these affects may exert a kind of physical force -- an affective force -- that binds individuals to them even when they recognize their harm. If these values and affects are what unify the community, then questioning them may be perilous. Spinoza’s social theory brings light to the question of the ‘dissenter’ in the form of the sage. If the sage seeks ‘reason’, and the norms of the community may be harmful or ‘against reason’, then the sage is in a precarious position. What happens when one can no longer follow the norm of one’s community? What happens when one is at odds with one's culture? What can one do if one recognizes that the norms of one’s community might be bad for one or for all? This question interested Spinoza philosophically and personally. Spinoza advocates reforming harmful and irrational community norms; however, he recognizes the difficulty and danger of reform both for the community and for the reformer.

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Ericka Tucker
Marquette University


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