The Desiring Constitutions of Community: A two-fold reading of Spinoza’s social philosophy in the Ethics




Politics, Community, Friendship, Agreement, Similarity, Imitation of affects, Étienne Balibar


This paper argues that we find a double deduction of the origin of society in Spinoza’s philosophy. The site of this doubleness is in E4p37, where Spinoza offers two distinct demonstrations for the same phenomenon. Paying close attention to this double articulation highlights important features of Spinozian social and political philosophy. As Étienne Balibar noted, the two demonstrations operate according to two dimensions of human existence, namely rationality and affectivity. Through rationality, human beings are necessarily in harmony; through affectivity, human beings are in an ambivalent relationship towards one another. The root of this ambivalence, Balibar argued, is the structure of imitation that rules human interactions. Accordingly, the task of politics is to avoid the inimical tendencies of the said ambivalence through artful strategies. In this paper, I aim to sharpen Balibar’s reading by proposing a reading of E4p37 that focuses on a little-discussed distinction between commonality and similarity. This distinction bleeds into social life and becomes the difference between the apolitical community of friends and the political society of citizens.  In other words, through a close re-reading of E4p37 that puts it in relation with Spinoza’s political works, I argue that rationality cultivates harmony under the guise of friendship, while politics is an art that shapes the category of the similar, thus drawing the contour of the fellow-citizen. Hence, politics seeks to imitate friendship, and it can only do so by shaping our judgement concerning the similarity of the other.