Frames /sing


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”.


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.

20 responses to “A Book that Explodes All Books in the World – Ethica

  1. Paul August 16, 2009 at 5:53 am

    The Cold Wind Between Is and Ought

    I’m sure you have come across Hans Jonas’ ‘the imperative of responsibility’ where he writes of the child/infant that is an is and ought. I think Guattari mentions this in Chaosmosis….

  2. kvond August 16, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks Paul I had not run into that. I have to say that giving it five minutes I both thrilled at the subject matter, but the writing style was needlessly dense. Where it needed more speed, he slowed down. Where he needed to expand or particularize he simply stayed on the same point and repeated. Perhaps it is only my frame of mind, but I had a hard time breaking through to it, will try later.

    But it of course brought to mind the D and G (G and D) becoming-girl, becoming-child.

  3. Paul August 16, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Yes, ‘needlessly dense’ became almost de riguer somewhere along the line with lit theory – altho jonas is prob dense for diff reasons (serious german). I find a great deal of ‘phil’ unreadable.

    Guattari excels in this – I have seen essays in his Cartographies Schizoanalytiques’ that are untranslatable (for me anyway).

    Have you looked at this bk ‘After Finitude’ a little birdy who I respect suggested it was exceedingly over-rated

    • kvond August 16, 2009 at 4:04 pm

      It seems that there are a chorus of birds on “After Finitude”. No, I have to say that SR is proving rather deadended for me, but perhaps it is only that Harman’s Enron-like pumping up of its stock has ruined the whole portfolio. I generally find these fellows (and alternately Badiou) unproductive.

      As to “needlessly dense”, I have to say that I do appreciate density. I believe that density has some very good uses, but it has to pay off, or be asethetically achieved. If you are going to make me swim upstream, or chisel through rock, please give me something worth the effort. Let it be a process.

      But I write ridiculously, so who knows how others read things. It was just my response to the ideas he was presenting.

      Its an interesting contradiction of forms, a “serious, (dense) German” writing about the “infant” between is and ought. I appreciate the link.

  4. Paul August 16, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Aesthetic seduction

    Yes, density can be valuable. Isabelle Stengers is dense but interesting. Sometimes even fascinating! We were once corresponding about some material and she said ‘interesting but not fascinating.’ Her bk on Whitehead is dense and yet quite clear. Not sure if it’s out yet in English ‘Thinking with Whitehead.’ If you’re not familiar with her writing give it a go (smile).

    You mention chiseling thru rock. I once knew a lecturer who referred to his students’ essays as ‘concrete writing.’ There was hardly any way of entering the overloaded text.
    Btw, Jonas did write an essay on ‘Spinoza and the theory of organism’ (Journal of the hist of phil 3: 43-74). I mention it in Primacy of Semiosis (PoS).21-2.
    You are ‘widely read’ – have you covered all this territory in 10yrs!!

  5. kvond August 16, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    I don’t know Stengers at all (!), so I will keep an eye out for the book.

    All this discussion of density recalls for me a very recent discussion I’ve had at a newish blog over the question of “clearing up” Deleuze and getting rid of the confusions. You know Deleuze well, so you very much might like to look it, and the blogsite over:

    I would love to read the Spinoza and organism article, as I am still thinking along these lines, but I have no JSTOR.

    As for how well-read I am, its a production certain tunneling manias. I read very very deeply along a certain vein found in the rock, but because it is not a product of a particular, systematic, thematized university pedagogy, rock that lies very close by may remain untouched. To switch analogies, perhaps I am a termite nest to wood beam. One day the epistemic house collapses, and what do you have left…a bunch of insects (not necessarily to be confused with ANTS).

  6. Paul August 16, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    I translated the first collection of Stengers essays in English: Power and Invention: situating science, Minnesota, 1997 (Theory out of bounds series). She’s written a lot – before and since then. Was close to Deleuze and most famously Ilya Prigogine. I think she’s brilliant and funny and a little birdy. Unfortunately a lot of her work isn’t translated. But I know the Whitehead bk is in translation (must check and see if its out).
    You might like her essay ‘Diderot’s Egg’ somewhere online. She now writes occas in English.

  7. kvond August 16, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Ha. You tell me about Stengers, and 20 minutes later I run into a quote from her in The Scientific Way of Warfare (!) Isn’t that just how it is.

  8. Paul August 16, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    I don’t know that title. Just been for a walk on an empty beach facing the v big pacific. I think Isabelle Stengers is one of the most nuanced thinkers around…

    • kvond August 16, 2009 at 9:00 pm

      You might like it (its not as militant as it sounds). It explores the way that device paradigms (the clock, the engine, the computer, the network) organized the way we see the world, and in some Delandian sense, how war has been organized and fought. The first two, clock and engine are only very thinly treated, with not much historical scholarship investigative depth, but the last two are very interesting.

      Empty beach and pacific is really nice. Here with the Blue Heelers and the cat, listening to cicadas or crickets of prodigious volume, waiting for the wife to get home!

  9. Paul August 16, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    sound totally australian (spent 20yrs there). Cicadas can be intense. One of Isabelle’s essays in ‘Power and Invention’ is precisely on clocks: ‘time and representation’ it was the most diff to trans. All this stuff on foliot mechanisms and pendulums.
    Termites all also called ‘white ants’. Horrific in oz.

  10. kvond August 16, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    I’ll see what I can get of hers since I am interested in exploring the non-linear aspects of Spinoza’s thinking, and she seems pretty good on that from the references I just read.

    White ants, I like that. The opposite of Hegel’s Black Cows.

  11. Paul August 16, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    Stengers is tres au fait with the non-linear but most of that would be in ‘Order out of Chaos’ with Prigogine. There is other stuff in ‘Cosmopolitiques’ but sadly not in trans.

  12. kvond August 16, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    Hmmm. I suppose that puts a little Chaos in my Order…I’m reading now about John Boyds OODA loop. Damn if you don’t learn something really fascinating even minute of the day.

  13. Paul August 16, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    enjoying the deontology chat. great comments – look forward to next bit. (
    This essay by Isabelle on ‘What is Phil?’ might be of interest:

  14. amy melson August 17, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    “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.”

    I was just wondering what the philosopher’s word for wisdom was, and think I’ve found it. It’s strange and pleasant that Wittgenstein represented such a specific ratio, isn’t it? Those ratios are still fairly proportional. I was thinking in terms of teapot to ocean, barrel to Niagra.

    By the way, your writing isn’t ridiculous Kvond, or if it is, then it’s the perfect madness. I still often consider statements you’ve placed in various places which still resonate, for instance, that faces bloom, and that there is no negative. I’m beyond delighted about what you write, think and intuit.

  15. Billy McMurtrie November 18, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    I’ve been thinking about the Wittgenstein- Spinoza relationship recently, partly because there seem to be obvious structural similarities between the Tractatus and the Ethics, a common more geometrico. And there’s maybe a peculiar relationship of inversion here. if Wittgenstein says ‘the meaning of the world must lie outside the world, outside all happening and being so’, then a good enough definition of Spinoza’s immanence might be: the meaning of the world must lie within the world, must lie with happening and being so’.

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