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Article: A Pragmatics of Political Judgment: Hobbes and Spinoza

Oliver Feltham: ‘A Pragmatics of Political Judgment: Hobbes and Spinoza’, Philosophy Today, 60, 1 (2016).

Abstract: The question of political judgement is usually addressed within a normative or epistemological framework. In contrast in this paper the approach is that of a pragmatics of judgement. The leading questions are what does political judgement do and how does it operate? This enquiry, carried out through an examination of political judgement in Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, is shown to ineluctably lead to an ontology of action. These philosophers’ contrasting ontologies give rise to two different frameworks for political judgement whose avatars are still with us today: Hobbesian functionalism and Spinozist affirmationism. Finally these competing frameworks of judgement are put to the test of resolving—or at least treating—the very problem that gave rise to them in the first place in Hobbes and Spinoza’s philosophies, the problem of political conflict. The singularity of Spinoza’s affirmationist framework for judgement is identified as its capacity to pose the reflexive question of who the subject of judgement is for the object of judgement in the actual action of judgement. The hypothesis is that this question opens a way for both subject and object of judgement to increase their power to act and think.

Book: Secular Powers: Humility in Modern Political Thought

Julie Cooper,  Secular Powers: Humility in Modern Political Thought (University of Chicago Press, 2013)

About this Book: Secularism is usually thought to contain the project of self-deification, in which humans attack God’s authority in order to take his place, freed from all constraints. Julie E. Cooper overturns this conception through an incisive analysis of the early modern justifications for secular politics. While she agrees that secularism is a means of empowerment, she argues that we have misunderstood the sources of secular empowerment and the kinds of strength to which it aspires.

Contemporary understandings of secularism, Cooper contends, have been shaped by a limited understanding of it as a shift from vulnerability to power. But the works of the foundational thinkers of secularism tell a different story. Analyzing the writings of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau at the moment of secularity’s inception, she shows that all three understood that acknowledging one’s limitations was a condition of successful self-rule. And while all three invited humans to collectively build and sustain a political world, their invitations did not amount to self-deification. Cooper establishes that secular politics as originally conceived does not require a choice between power and vulnerability. Rather, it challenges us—today as then—to reconcile them both as essential components of our humanity.