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Under the Spell of Sympathy: Forging Concepts for a Radical Society with José Eisenberg

One of the biggest challenges in modern ethical theory has been to find a language for politics that can be emancipatory in its concepts and persuasive in its capacity to foster a radical imagination.
This seminar will address four concepts that have been ambiguously appropriated by the discourse of the left in its critique of capitalist society. Each in their own way has found a way of mitigating the power of radical politics.

Loyalty, truthfulness, reciprocity are amongst a series of values derived from chivalry in the middle ages that have become part of the vocabulary of the left. The first session will approach the medieval origins of the state and how antagonism in capitalist societies left the left ethically deprived of a language for speaking of the virtues of struggle and conflict as means for achieving fairness and equality.

The second session focuses on the very nature of capitalist production and its emphasis of the productivity of labor. While the critique of political economy led to a new conception of capitalism, the left has not found an adequate substitute for the ethical value placed on the productivity of labor. In Weberian terms, the left remains protestant in this regard.

Universalism is the culprit of the third ethical dilemma discussed in this seminar. While humanism has always been an integral part of left ethics, the humanitarian paradox that underlies a blind adherence to humanism has imperialistic outcomes. The ethical reasoning grounded on solidarity that led the left to advocate humanitarian intervention in sovereign nations for almost the entire twentieth century requires a revision in light of the redesign of the relationship between economic agents and national entities.

Finally, the last session of this seminar will discuss how communitarian discourse has pervaded progressive ethics and converted civic virtues into intrinsic values in the context of class struggle. The main consequence of this communitarian bias has been a diminishing role in radical discourse for civic values based upon adversarial, conflict-oriented and ultimately dialectal premises.

This four-week seminar will meet on every Thursday, from October 19th through November 9th; 6:30–8:30pm. Locations of the seminar will be posted on our Calendar of Events page.

Outline of Seminar Sessions and


Session 1 — Loyalty: chivalry and the medieval origins of the capitalist state
Sombart, Werner, The Quintessence of Capitalism: a study of the history and psychology of the modern business man (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1915). 

Available at:

Seward, Desmond, The Monks of War: the military religious orders (London: Penguin Books, 1972), chaps. 4 thru 7.

Session 2 — Productivity: neither homo laborans nor homo faber
Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), Parts 3 thru 6.

Session 3 — Solidarity: universalism and the humanitarian paradox
Marx, Karl, On the Jewish Question, various editions.

Kant, I., The Idea of a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose, various editions.

Agamben, Giorgio, State of Exception (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005)

Davidson, Joanna, Humanitarian Intervention as Liberal Imperialism: A Force for Good?,

Available at:

Session 4 — Community: civic virtues and class struggle
Dagger, Richard, Civic Virtues: rights, citizens, and republican liberalism, (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), chap.4.

Held, Virginia, “Mothering versus Contract” in Mansbridge, J. (ed), Beyond Self-Interest (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990)

Aronowitz, S. and H. Gautney, Implicating Empire: globalization & resistance in the 21st century world order (New York: Basic Books, 2003), selected chapters.

$40 for all sessions or $10 per individual seminar session