Overview on Baruch Spinoza and CMS
by Sverre Spoelstra
According to Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza is ‘the Christ of philosophers’. It is possible that this is an exaggeration. But if we descend a bit on the ladder of the sciences, and step off just before mainstream management studies and positive psychology, we enter a world in which Spinoza could deservedly be called Christ. This is the world of critical management studies.
Spinoza is the Christ of critical management studies because of the hope he offers to a field that is dominated by fear and critique. Critical management scholars know how dangerous organizations can be: they oppress people according to abstract principles such as Return on Investment, Customer Satisfaction and Total Quality, and they consider human beings to be a resource to be utilized for their sad ends. Spinoza also knows all this, but insists on the possibility of good organizations, and his whole philosophy is a way of asking the question, ‘What is a good organization, and how do we establish it?’
The first part of the question is relatively straightforward for Spinoza, and can be found in his book The Ethics: there is just one organization that is good, and it is called Deus sive natura, God or nature.
This ultimate organization, God (or nature), is the only thing that can be understood on its own terms, and therefore the only thing that can be said to truly exist. This could be surprising for critical management researchers: schooled in critical theory and poststructuralism, they might ask, ‘Is it not essentialist - even totalitarian - to reduce everything that exists to one absolute organization?’ This is not the case: the concept of God does not reduce everything to one abstract essence, but makes us see how the essences and abstractions of actualized reality are, in Spinoza’s terms, ‘inadequate’ and ‘sad’.
To understand how this works, the distinction between substance (God) and modes (organizations) is crucial. While God is the only thing that can truly be said to exist, its existence is not actualized in established forms: God exists but does not actually exist. Actualized organizations or modes - which includes phenomena as diverse as human beings, business organizations, stones and ideas - are only a partial and temporary expression of substance. We may say that Spinoza’s God breathes life into actualized organizations, rather than taking life away by reducing something to a principle, law or essence.
Where, then, does ethics come in? If organizations do not act out of an inner cause and simply follow the laws emanating from God or nature, how can we still speak of an ethics of organization? Spinoza answers this question by saying that finite organizations express infinite substance to a variable extent: the more they express God or nature, the better they are.
We can now turn to the second part of Spinoza’s question: how to form an organization that expresses God to the greatest possible extent? This time Spinoza’s answer is less straightforward. In his Political Treatise, Spinoza refers to this organization as ‘absolute democracy’, but he died when he was in the middle of writing the chapter that was supposed to explain to us how we would get there.
We now understand why it is because of Spinoza’s untimely death that critical management studies exist today. We are still figuring out how to solve the problem that Spinoza has created for us, and if heaven allows, i.e. if Human Relations and Journal of Management Studies allow, we will continue to climb on Spinoza’s ladder.
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Spoelstra, Sverre (2007) What is Organization? Lund: Lund Business Press. [Chapters 5 and 6]