Spinoza's Metaphysics of Power and Action
Sandra Field (Yale-NUS College)

September 5, 2023, 3:30pm - 5:00pm
PHI research group, Deakin University

C2.05 Burwood Campus
Deakin Burwood Campus
Melbourne 3021

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Deakin University

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Spinoza's Metaphysics of Power and Action

Sandra Leonie Field

Monash University


What is Spinoza's conception of active power? In this paper, I'll first try to pinpoint the meaning and theoretical structure of active power in Spinoza's philosophy, then I'll lay out some reasons why the Spinozist conception might be interesting or useful in the present.

I'll situate Spinoza's metaphysics of power in a double contrast, to both Scholastic and Hobbesian conceptions of power. For the scholastics, power is deep: each proper thing is endowed with an essential power which generates but remains distinct from its characteristic actions. For Hobbes, power is surface: nature is made up of mechanically interacting bodies in motion, and power is just another word for efficient causality. Spinoza's metaphysics lies somewhere in between: a thing's active power is tied to its essence, but this essence is not a species essence, and power is always fully actualised. I'll defend a particular 'emergentist' interpretation of Spinozist active power which lands firmly in this middle ground, against some scholarship which (I'll argue) loses the distinctiveness of Spinoza's view.

What is the merit or use of the Spinozist conception of active power? Social theory often requires a distinction between acting from one's own power and acting under the influence of another. But drawing that distinction is vexed: I'll sketch why neither the Scholastic nor the Aristotelian approach are satisfactory. Spinoza's 'emergentist' conception of action offers a way forward.

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