Spinoza in the charity and policy sector

We met this week with three groups that we hope to include in our project Advisory Panel: the New Economics Foundation, a UK think-tank promoting social, economic, and environmental justice; housing and homelessness charity Shelter; and The Equality Trust, which campaigns for greater income equality in the UK. All three do important work on equality, wellbeing, and housing, though in different ways.

For me, one of the most interesting things to emerge from our discussions was the assumptions that underlie new housing developments in Britain. Much new housing is designed to be suitable for two people or four people (for example), and does not include either the recognition that changed circumstances may lead to different occupancy, or the flexibility to allow living space to expand or contract according to circumstances. This seems to me to be based on certain assumptions about individuals – that they are fixed, rational choosers in a free market who are unencumbered by changing circumstances. The same assumption underlies many drivers of inequality. How might housing design change if we started with a different (Spinozistic) understanding of the individual, defined by its waxing and waning power in relation to other powers and the whole community? How might outcomes – including housing inequality and overcrowding – change?

The meetings were positive and productive, and we look forward to working with these groups further. It was also apparent that there are challenges of knowledge-exchange between philosophy and the charity/policy sector. I found it difficult to explain the project in terms that made it seem significant and worthwhile for those who work with empirical data and political realities. I need to think more about how best to translate the research and identify what, within it, could be useful. Meanwhile, we discovered this week the delightfully named Fabrique Spinoza, a French think-tank focused on wellbeing based on Spinoza’s philosophy. Aside from the uncanny similarity to our project, it’s great to see an example of philosophy at the heart of public policy-oriented research. In France, philosophy tends to be embedded in public life from the start; in the UK, we have to try to make the connections later on.

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