Frames /sing


Spinoza’s Chicken, a nomological concern


In looking at other matters I came across this interesting contention of Spinoza’s, which reminded me of some of Wittgenstein’s arguments (in particular I thought of PI 151, and the capacity of someone to know the formula which generates a number series). What is interesting is that Spinoza makes a nomological issue of most, if not all disagreement:

Many errors, in truth, can be traced to this head, namely, that we do not apply names to things rightly. For instance, when a man says that the lines drawn from the centre of a circle to its circumference are not equal, he then, at all events, assuredly attaches a meaning to the word circle different from that assigned by mathematicians. So again, when men make mistakes in calculation, they have one set of figures in their mind, and another on the paper. If we could see into their minds, they do not make a mistake; they seem to do so, because we think, that they have the same numbers in their mind as they have on the paper. If this were not so, we should not believe them to be in error, any more than I thought that a man was in error, whom I lately heard exclaiming that his entrance hall had flown into a neighbour’s hen, for his meaning seemed to me sufficiently clear.

Very many controversies have arisen from the fact, that men do not rightly explain their meaning, or do not rightly interpret the meaning of others. For, as a matter of fact, as they flatly contradict themselves, they assume now one side, now another, of the argument, so as to oppose the opinions, which they consider mistaken and absurd in their opponents. (E2P47schol.)

He makes two primary examples of disagreement: one in which we consider whether someone has made an error in a mathematical problem, by assuming (or naming) that the numbers in one’s head are the same that are on the paper—perhaps indeed the person added different numbers in their head, coming up with the right sum, rather than adding the same numbers and coming up with the wrong sum; second in which someone yelled “My courtyard has flown into my neighbor’s hen!”, which indeed are the wrong words for the same thoughts that Spinoza and his neighbor was having.

Like Wittgenstein, Spinoza seems to allow a kind of “I can go on” measure of interpretation, whereas for Spinoza, the larger “I can go on” is part of an entire metaphysical project of the rational capacity to do. What is interesting to me is that Spinoza does not privledge first person report for what is going on in one’s mind (you might claim that you had the same numbers that are on the paper in your mind, but this is not necessarily the case).

What is the case if disagreement were reduced to a nomological question. If when in disagreement we either have the same thoughts in our minds, but are only naming them incorrectly (Spinoza’s Chicken), or have different thoughts and are naming them incorrectly (Spinoza’s math student)? What Spinoza’s view imagines is that there is a rational expression of thought at all times, which suffers a nomological chasm at times of controversy.

Does this not presuppose a normative imagination of the other as the same as us behind any epistemic concern, and make of any disagreement a nomological disjunction? And since naming is really a practice, cannot empathic imagination and practice (use) ground most, if not all of our agreements?

See also Donald Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (1986).

[written August 31, 2007]

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