I investigate how Baruch de Spinoza and Friedrich Nietzsche conceive of difference as bearing a distinctive normative significance for modern social and political life. Both Spinoza and Nietzsche ascribe special importance to the difference embodied by exceptional individuals, and to the attitudes towards difference that such individuals avow when they interact or cooperate with other individuals in society. I then reanimate this neglected aspect of their writings in my own constructive proposal. In particular, I argue that by inhabiting and harnessing our differences, we can realise new yet unknown possibilities that make for deep and meaningful social change.
According to Spinoza, exceptional individuals--namely, free men or those who live solely by the guidance of reason--avow the attitude of generosity towards individuals they engage. That is to say, the free man actively seeks to establish close friendships with other individuals in society, so that he may increase their power of acting through direct and dynamic interactions. In such interactions, the free man initiates others to the life of reason by getting them to directly experience what it is like to exercise their own powers of thinking, feeling, and acting. Nietzsche criticises Spinoza for diluting the depth and richness of human experience with the formulas and categories of logic, reason, or conscious thought. For instance, Spinoza credits his own affirmative stance towards all things to logical necessity, thus eliding what Nietzsche takes joyful affirmation to involve, namely, experiencing every moment of one's own existence "as good, as valuable, with pleasure." For Nietzsche, we modern individuals have come to develop ways of thinking and feeling that preclude us from harnessing our own lived experiences, and thus the expanse of difference between any one self and another. We have instead become inclined to affects like envy, pity, vanity, or ressentiment, whereby we gain our sense of well-being or power by placing ourselves on par with the persons with whom we associate. To these affects, he contrasts the pathos of distance, in which the lure or influence of one's value perspectives derives from the depth of one's immersion in one's own lived experiences and from the expanse of the difference between oneself and others. Nietzsche nonetheless believes that the pathos of distance can only thrive in an aristocratic social order, with its living hierarchy of rank and value distinctions.
I argue that we need not follow Nietzsche in this. I develop an alternative account of the pathos of distance as an affect whereby the difference one embodies engenders neither opposition nor exclusion, but rather triggers the drive for self-overcoming in those who are receptive to it. On my account, exceptional individuals cultivate and embody a way of life that wields a nourishing and life-transfiguring effect on other individuals, albeit only to the extent that they also value one another's singularities or differences. Exceptional individuals still play a distinctive role in society but not through "living structures of domination."
To illustrate this account, I present and analyse a specific kind of social change, in which people who are disadvantaged and oppressed harness their own lived experiences, with the help of exceptional individuals, to drive deep and creative forms of social change. I call this `organic social change.' Through this analysis, I inaugurate an attitude towards difference that I call `inhabiting difference.' In relation to our own specificity, we inhabit our own difference when we harness the hitherto latent powers and inchoate possibilities that our own lived experiences afford. In relation to the specificity of others, we inhabit their difference to the extent that we avow an attitude of open and abiding patience towards the singularity of their lived experiences, and cultivate direct and dynamic relationships in which they may harness powers and possibilities out of their own lived experiences. To establish the distinctive importance of inhabiting difference, I show how it facilitates empowering modes of social cooperation, and thus helps us realise new yet unknown social and political possibilities.
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