Frames /sing

kvond

Category Archives: Ethics

A Book that Explodes All Books in the World – Ethica

…if a man could write a book on Ethics…

In my recent post, Wittgenstein’s Mysticism: One World or Two?, I wrote on Russell Nieli’s review of James Atkinson’s The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings. There Nieli makes the determinative point that Wittgenstein’s so called “Lecture on Ethics” is central to understanding early Wittgenstein’s commitment to a two-world mystical view. The lecture is available here or can be downloaded as a Word.doc here: Lecture on Ethics). This is certainly an interesting claim, and it lead me to read the lecture which I had not considered before. While I am unsure of how much of the ethical position remains in the latter-day Wittgensteinian language game depictions, I presume a great deal of it is intact, since the very same Humean dichotomy between “the relation of ideas” and the “relation of facts” presents itself in Wittgenstein’s Grammatical and Empirical categorization. I write on the problems of such a “fork” and the related is/ought distinction here: A Spoonful of Ought.

The Explosive Book

But what really drew my focus was the way in which Wittgenstein seemed be addressing Spinoza’s Ethics directly in his essay. In fact he appears to bring the full force of Hume’s dichotomy directly down upon Spinoza’s text, but, as Wittgenstein is so able to do, in such a way that it has only oblique effect. Look at how he characterizes the possibilities of writing a book that would make a science of Ethics, that is, a book which would make of Ethical truths an objective study and explication.

And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.

Its hard for me to deny that Wittgenstein is considering Spinoza at his purest. For while Wittgenstein by virtue of his Hume Doctrine of ideas vs. facts claims that ethical matters can only be approached metaphorically, an echo of his famous tractarian proposition “Where (or of what) one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence”, Spinoza’s book Ethica distinctly avoids almost ALL metaphors and similes, and attempts to speak of Ethics entirely of literal terms. If there was such a book (and there certainly is an attempt by Spinoza to have written one), Wittgenstein tells us that it would “destroy all books”.

Amazing.

The Cold Wind Between Is and Ought

Wittgenstein positions Spinoza’s Ethics as either one great confusion (treating things that can only be approached metaphorically, literally, objectively), or as a book that can and has detonated all other books ever written. What is remarkable about this that that in this metaphor Wittgenstein seems to capture something of the excitment that Spinoza enthusiasts feel for the book the Ethics. There is a certain sense in which the Ethics achieves just this, like some logically labyrinthian Borges library, the recursive, interlaced networks of propositions, proofs and scholia works as a time bomb to all other texts. This is the “cold wind” that Deleuze tells us blows through the book, unweaving everything that is woven, so that it can be woven again.

Wittgenstein stakes the impossibility of such a book as the Ethics upon the well-known, but by him uncited Humean Is/Ought distinction. Questions of “is” (what Wittgenstein calls questions of fact, or questions of “relative value”) can never bring you to questions of “ought” (what Wittgenstein calls “absolute value”). The “good” or “right” in relative terms is always specifiable:

The essence of this difference seems to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying “This is the right way to Granchester,” I could equally well have said, “This is the right way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time”; “This man is a good runner” simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, etc.

Now what I wish to contend is that, although all judgments of relative value can be shown to be mere statement of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value.

What Wittgenstein has in mind is that there can always be a reference to criteria, and that if we get outselves to criteria we can agree upon, we can then get down to the goodness or rightness of a thing or situation, (or at least the very nature of our disagreement). As I have argued in the above referenced article, there is no pure Is/Ought distinction, and there is always an “ought” that underwrites any descriptive claim. But it is more than this which give Spinoza’s thinking a life over and above the quiet distinctions Wittgenstein is trying to put forth, or rather, the very nexus of the Is and the Ought gives clue to the way that criteria are organized and distributed, the ways in which we come to agree upon criteria in the first place.

The first point is that Spinoza wholly grants the relative value of things to purposes. In fact any sense of good and bad has to be brought down to the goodness or badness of things to “us” or “me”. In this way anything that is ethically good is pursued entirely out of selfishness itself, the impetus to preserve oneself and increase one’s power and joy. If a kind of action or a kind of thinking is not “good” it means that it is destructive to or weakening to me. And Wittgenstein’s entire matrix of the facts of benefit or harm, and their criteria come into play here. But, there is both an imaginary and a rational dimension upon which the interpretation and communication of these facts rests. And this is: 1). In order to objectively read the world as sense-making we regularly have to take others to be like ourselves, and that because of this there is an imaginary affective bed of mutualities which promote a criteria-less (or at least non-criteria referencing) understanding of “good” and “bad” such that a good thing to another is understood to be a good thing to me based on a primary assumption of sameness. In this way, “This is a good road” may indeed be qualified by reference to all sorts of criteria, but the experience and effect of which is not reducible to such criteria referencing (which does not make it metaphorically good, but only affectively performed and imaginarily understood). And 2). There is a ratio-pramatic consequence of human beings sharing a similar nature and interdepency such that the liberation of another human being possesses an absolute value (non-criteria referencing) of benefit such that liberation is a “good” without qualification (Balibar outlines this expertly, here). Because “man is a god to man” as Spinoza puts it, our selfishness leads us rationally to the realization that when I am helping other person or thing, or environment, I am helping myself – myself under a radical defition. In this way, both on the imaginary level and on the rational level, Wittgenstein’s exclusionary Is/Ought is effectively collapsed at least as an absolute categorial distinction.

In fact the scientific or at least objective way in which Spinoza presents his edifice of the Ethica contains in terms of content nothing of the book that Wittgenstein imagines (a book wherein is written every single fact in the world), but it does refer to a kind of ontological dimension of such a book. Spinoza’s Substance, God, Nature is very much like the ominscience that Wittgenstein conjures up (without the reflexive anthropomophism):

Let me explain this: Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment. It would of course contain all relative judgments of value and all true scientific propositions and in fact all true propositions that can be made. But all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level and in the same way all propositions stand on the same level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial.

But instead of propositions that have been written down, there are only expressive states, along the extensional and ideational attributes. This totality of Substance in a sense “knows” all things because all things are an expression of it. But the question is, do any of the absolute value propositions contained in the Ethica stand in relation to, or “on the same level” as, all the statements of fact in the world? To answer this one would have to assess whether any of the propositions of the Ethica qualify as absolutely adequate ideas? There is some evidence to suggest that strictly so, even though the propositions of the Ethica are certainly more adequate than others, marked by their very inter-dependent, logical relations, none of them are wholly adequate ideas due to their finite, linguistic expression. But this does not make them metaphorical either. Instead they participate in and are an expression of the very power of rational, material and imaginary combination that makes up both our factual and ethical world, meant as devices of provoked Intuitional knowledge, the knowledge by which all of us know things. The criteria of their goodness is the very capacity for power, joy and coherence in the first place. Which is to say that they are properly metaphysical. Because the Humean severance between idea and fact is refused at the ontological level, so is the ultimate barring of the Is and the Ought. As such Spinoza’s Ethica indeed could be seen as working to explode all other books ever written, or better yet, all other thoughts ever thought. But because of the limited nature of human knowledge, and the necessarily finite expression of our knowledge (even Spinoza’s knowledge), it acts as an incendiary device with a time-delay fuse.

As an amusement, one wonders of course whether Wittgenstein’s criteria for a book that would be explode all books in the world itself would be written in the book of omniscience that contains all propositions of fact.

What is the Registry of Song?

Or, to put it another way: What is the ethical standing of the affective capacities which get put into effect in HAL’s regressive singing of “Daisy Bell”?

A Spoonful of Ought

Some Thoughts on the Is-Ought Distinction

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hume famously said that he noticed something very peculiar in the arguments of those making moral arguments. They would always conducted this curious kind shift, from “is” statements to “ought” statements. This is how he put it:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not,that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

- A Treatise of Human Nature

At first this seems quite formidable, for there does seem some kind of slippage. Suddenly one kind of thing seems to be talked about, and then another. And the assumption here is that these are really two kind of mutually exclusive things, that one really can’t go from one to the other. That is, one is really reefed on the one side of “is”, getting a glimpse of the sandbar of “ought” but just can’t agumentatively swim the distance.

 

But to change the metaphor (always exciting to mix metaphors, it makes the world turn), this apparent insolution is based a bit on a fork in the road, the so-called “Hume’ Fork”. He puts it this way:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.  

- An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

 

Moral “oughts” just don’t have place in this dichotomy of “objects”. There are, by his assertion, no “moral objects”. One can see floating behind such a fork the Analytic truths distiction which Quine worked to undo. The question is, if this strict and categorical distinction is not maintained, can the from is-to-ought (and from ought-to-is ) prohibition be maintained? Is there really such a fork in the road? As a side note, Wittgenstein went far in this direction turning “Relation of Ideas” into the “grammar” of words but also relatedly, the realm of criteria referring reasons, but was this When one starts treating the grammatical or criteria as if one is treating “facts”, Wittgenstein wants us to see that one approaches a kind of non-sense. But I would like to keep my eye upon the is-ought distintion.

I would say that what one has to understand is that this difference between “is” and “ought” is not a matter of deduction, that is, one can differentiate claims into kinds, but not make them mutually exclusive. That is, again, knowledge is not something that we “get” from an environmental “is” which then we do stuff to (empiricism). No sense data enters into our brains, which then gets mashed up into different forms by ideas and concepts, which eventually gets transformed (appropriately, or inappropriately) into “oughts”. If this were the case, this would be an empirical picture of the world, and in such a picture one can get the sense that is and ought do not coincide. But because the analytic (saying something about ideas alone) and emprical (saying something about the world) distinction does not strictly hold (beliefs and criteria must always be included in statements of fact about the world), the normative cannot be categorical excluded from any “is”. Further any “is” statement, pulls along with it a communitarian inforcement quite related to “ought”.

 

To show this conceptual inter-relationship: “That is a ‘cat’.” (A simple ostensive defintion), is certainly differentiatable from “You ought to call that a ‘cat’”. But the second form is wrapped up in the first. I certainly can tell the differences between them, but I can also see that the two are intimately related. Now, there is a very long way from “You ought to call that a ‘cat’” to “You ought not to murder”, but the essential, thought-to-be-unbreakable transition is already there. Prescription lies at the heart of description.

As one employs these ostensive, and otherwise established criteria, to describe the world, the normativity of use is subsumed in the process.

To argue the length of it, from the one (of use) to the other (of murder) is a perhaps worthy but lengthy task. One that I would not readily engage in this particular post, under this particular question. If one wants to get a taste of it, one can visit Spinoza’s Ethics. One can, as I have done elsewhere, put his “imitation of the affects” principle which governs sociability and conflict,

If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

Spinoza, E3, Proposition 27:

in close relation to Davidson Principle of Charity and Triangulation (more on this in essay “Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets: A Menagerie of Change in Transgender Identification“). If one does, I believe they will see that because the Principle of Charity is not a wise adage, but a componented part of all interpretability and sense making, any description presumes a prescriptive. Any communicability of what “is” draws in with it the normatives of community, which enable it. The Deontic is a folded into the Ontic, so to speak. First at the level of performative force, secondly at the level of affective binding. The mistake is, of course, to think that any ONE prescriptive has deontological standing, which cannot be violated (this was Kant’s mistake of universal law-making). Just like beliefs where any particular belief can be false, but all beliefs cannot be false, any one rule can be broken, but not ALL rules can be broken, and one still remain a describer of the world.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 55 other followers