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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.

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