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15 May 2013

Apologies for this most recent spate of silence. End-of-term time teamed up with an unprecedented flare up of a chronic condition to make blogging a distant dream for a couple of weeks. I return, tired but kicking, with some further thoughts on one of the topics I raised in my last post. I am also pleased to point out that this post’s title is a play on words!

I’m currently working on a paper on Spinoza’s theory of ‘natural law’ (the reason for the single quotes will become apparent). The paper is coursework but is forming part of the groundwork for my research on the moral ontology of rights in the early modern period. Spinoza, as I mentioned in my previous post, theorised what I am calling a ‘conatus thesis of rights:’ rights which proceed ontologically from conatus and thus from power. Spinoza wasn’t the only theoriser of conatus, of course, and investigating this thesis may involve reading well outside my usual geographical remit (including my least favourite early modern thinker, Hobbes), but for now he is the sole object of my study on the topic.

In the conatus thesis as it is to be found in Spinoza, a rights-statement is reducible to a power- or potency-statement. “Socrates has a right to free speech” is an equivalent statement to “Socrates can speak freely,” in an ontological as well as a semantic sense. That is to say that ontologically there is no distinction between Socrates’ ‘right’ to free speech and his potency or power to speak freely. The equation of right and power entails, as I mentioned last week, an ontological inalienability of right and thus an indispensable performatism in the actualisation of the social contract, since the complete surrender of rights which Spinoza describes is not ontologically possible. One cannot simply surrender one’s potencies. Thus in the social contract one must ‘perform’ the surrender of rights which brings about the new individual (Spinoza’s ontology is a peculiar one and, to be frank, I’m not always certain I understand it, though I suspect that his tendency to be less than consistent in his theories may be part of the problem) that is the state, which wields the new type of right (or power) known as ‘democracy.’

A complicating factor in this analysis is Spinoza’s novel definition of the ever and famously nuanced ius. Spinoza subordinates ius to lex. The latter he makes into the ontological necessity by which things or types act in fixed ways. Ius is defined as a sort of lex which depends upon a human decision (the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy edition actually translates ius as ‘decree,’ the most egregious of its numerous bizarre translation choices). Spinoza does not apply his terms and definitions consistently, however. At times he refers to rights in the then-mainstream Grotian mode, literal ownership-claims over objective categories of ‘right’ (which, you may recall, I am calling the ‘chattels thesis’). This confusing and confused use of terms may speak to some internal inconsistencies in Spinoza’s theory of rights or, as I have posited on a few occasions, a simple failure to think through the ontological implications of his ideas, made rather more forgiveable by the fact that ‘moral ontology’ was not a category of thought in Spinoza’s day, nor were ‘rights’ as we understand them.

If anyone has any thoughts or questions on my proposed ‘conatus thesis of rights,’ I would love to hear them.

Post Scriptum

The research I’ve been discussing here will, I am sad to say, have to be shelved once the term is done. The reason for this is a happy one, though. I will be too busy to pursue it alongside my dissertation because I will be pursuing another (perhaps more ambitious) project. My paper and the panel it is on was accepted for this year’s Sixteenth Century Society and Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. My extra-dissertation time will thus be taken up by topic-modelling, natural language processing, and other exciting digital humanities things. Once that paper is presented and my dissertation turned in, I will return to this topic in the hopes of preparing a paper or two over the first year of my doctorate. Expect one or two more reports before it’s shelved, though.

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