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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”.


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.


More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Let the Nuptials Commence

Malebranche and Hume as One

I have posted several comments in critique of, and at times in synthesis with, Graham Harman’s admittedly provisional theory of Causation, partly because it is so damn alluring, so to speak. It practically begs to be questioned for the very boldness of is claims to explain the weirdness of caustion. Here I examine the final pages of his essay “On Vicarious Causation” because it was thesethat defied me a bit, for it seemed that somehow I had missed just the precise kind of connection that Graham proposes, having understood generally what he was outlining.

Nicolas Malebranche

Nicolas Malebranche

David Hume

David Hume

Two Sides of a Misunderstanding
Below I post from the informative conclusion from Graham Harman’s essay, one in which he seeks to bring Hume and Malebranche into complementary contact with each other in such a way to explain the nature of the result he is after. He seems to feel that if we simply let go of Malebranche’s fear of blasphemous atheism, his occasionalism fits hand and glove with Hume’s empiricism and somehow they would work to explain each other:

Hume and Malebranche face opposite versions of the same problem. Although Hume supposedly doubts the possibility of connection, note that for him a connection has actually already occurred: he is never surprised that two billiard balls lie simultaneously in his mind, but doubts only that they have independent force capable of inflicting blows on each other. In this sense, Hume actually begins with connection inside experience and merely doubts any separation outside it. Conversely, Malebranche  begins by assuming the existence of separate substances, but doubts that they can occupy a shared space in such a way as to exchange their forces – leading him to posit God’s power as the ultimate joint space of all entities. Like Hume, we can regard the intentional agent as the vicarious cause of otherwise separate phenomena. The tree and its mountainous backdrop are indeed distinct, yet they are unified insofar as I am sincerely absorbed with both. But more than this: when the parts of the tree fuse  to yield the tree with its single fixed tree-quality, I too am the vicarious cause for the connection of these sensual objects. Even if I merely sit passively, without unduly straining eyes or mind, it is still for me that theseparts have combined. Here, a real object (I myself) serves as the vicarious cause for two or more sensual ones. In the inverted case of Malebranche, we cannot accept the pistol shot of the deity as our vicarious cause, since no explanation is given of how God as a real object could touch other real objects; fear of blasphemy is the sole protection for this incomplete doctrine. Instead, just as two sensual objects are vicariously linked by a real one, two real objects must be vicariously linked by a sensual one (220)

Graham has indeed identified an important nexus in the split between Idealism and Empiricism, and even brought forth suitable candidates for each school of thought. The problem of course is that I can’t see how he connects these two complimentary visions of the world, but rather leaves them floating there as two mirror reflections which simply do not touch.

One sees this in the paragraph before where he treats the accidents of sensuous objects in our mind. Due to the amphibious quality of accidents of sensuous objects, both belonging to the object and not,  they are the means by which one object able to somehow connect to, and fuse  with other sensuous object in our mind, crossing over whatever buffer had restrained them before:

“Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.”

This presumably is happening within the Hume side of the equation (though we will see that it might fit better within Malebranche’s representationalism); yet it should be noted, it seems that here it is not human beings or their minds that are doing the fusing, but that it is the sensuous objects themselves, dangling their red lanterns in our mental street, are doing this. Sensuous objects through the power of their allurements, produce the fusion.

This is inner action is for Graham equally complimented by an occasionalist reality of real objects whose parts are not encrusted to it from the outside, (thus creating that sensuous object), but rather whose parts are on the inside  of them, composing them:

“A real object, too, is formed of parts whose disappearance threatens its very existence. The difference is that the parts of a sensual object are encrusted onto its surface: or rather, certain aspects of those parts are fused to create it, while the remainder of those parts emanates from its surface as noise. By contrast, the parts of a real object are contained on the interior of that object, not plastered onto its outer crust.” 

And how do these real, internal parts cohere together so as to make an object? One presumes through each of them, each part holding an accident-driven fusion of their own inner, sensual objects such that they come in contact with other parts. I.e., inside each extrinsically organized object are other extrinsic parts (the occasionalism of Malebranche); and outside each sensuous object are “parts” which are the qualities and accidents which compose it in the perceptual space of an asymmetrical relation, the Intention-as-a-whole, which is a real object. These internal relations are intrinsic to an object (and at least in the first paragraph quoted, marked by a possible Humean explanation).

What is left behind is the very mechanism which actually connects these two, perfectly positioned but unassailable worlds. What is it that makes the sensuous objects which dangle their accidents in order to produce a fusion/connection with other sensuous objects (a processes exemplified by metaphorization), have traction? What makes one fusion of sensuous objects in our mind more powerful, or better than another? What causes the actions or states of a senuous object (is Graham satisfied with the bundling of qualities)? 

An Answer: The Cleaving of Malebranche and Hume

An answer to this proposed marriage between Malebranche and Hume worlds seems obvious. One has to begin from a place in which both the mental inner activity of objects (the sensuous combination of vicars), and the material, real object combinations, are part of one  expressive relation. That is, the insides and outsides are already powerfully and significantly connected, from the beginning: there is no fundamental split into realms.

In order to see how this is philosophically possible or even likely I believe we need to look at is the first half of Graham’s dichotomy, Malebrache. In particular, it is the extensive Malebranche/Arnauld debate that proves pivotal to explaining how contemporary and creative philosophers like Graham can end up with two halves of a mirror without any connection between them. (I follow here the excellent exposition of the debate written by Steven Nadler, Arnauld and the Cartesian philosophy of ideas (1989)).

Antoine Arnauld

Antoine Arnauld

As Nadler points out it was in their dispute over just how to interpret the concept of “idea” principally in relation to the philosophical innovations of Descartes, that eventually lead to modern philosophy reading “Idea” as a mediating form between the mind and the world, producing the concordant “veil of ideas” problematic that characterizes much if not all of Idealism, including it seems, its distant descendant Object-Oriented Philosophy.

To put it most briefly, Nicolas Malebranche argued that for Descartes, and properly for philosophy, ideas were indeed mediating representations, literally objects before the mind:

The word idea is equivocal. Sometimes I take it as anything that represents some object to the mind, whether clearly or confusedly. More generally I take it for anything that is the immediate object of the mind. But I take it in the most precise and restricted sense, that is, as anything that represents things to the mind in a way so clear that we can discover by simple perception whether such and such modifications belong to them. (Rech. Eclaircissement III: OC III, 44; LO, 561, as cited by Nadler, 61)

Under such a conception we can immediately see the framework for Graham Harman’s vicars, and even the possibilities of his synthesizing, fusing accidental lures. Malebranche though makes a significant distinction when thinking about ideas: they are quite distinct from “sensations”. Sensations leave us only circulating  within the bare parameters of our soul, with no way out. It is ideas are the very intelligibility, the God-given capacities of representation, through which we are able to pierce through our sensations and connect to the intelligible world. So we see from the start that, far from a simple fear of blasphemy, not only is it God that keeps objects in contact with each other in Malebranche’s occasionalism of change, it is divine intelligibility which also allows us to break through the sensual world, the very same sensual world that Graham Harman is trying to connect to the outside world. When you take away Malebranche’s God, not only do objects not connect to each other, but souls do not connect to the world.

As he characterized the debate,

What is the issue at hand? Mr. Arnauld insists that the modalities of the soul are essentially representative objects distinct from the soul, and I maintain that these modalities are nothing but sensations, which do not represent to the soul anything different from itself(Repose V; OC VI, 50; Nadler 82 ).

Antoine Arnauld, a French Roman Catholic theologian, on the other hand argued (with some inconsistency) that ideas were not representations distinct from our sensuous perceptions, not mediating forms of some intelligibility kind, but rather were actions of the mind in direct perception of the world. As Arnauld summed his understanding of Malebranche’s position, we can detect the roots of Graham Harman’s problem of connection:

At first, he [Malebranche] supposes that our mind does perceive material things. The trouble is only in explaining how: whether it is by means of ideas or without ideas, taking the word ‘idea’ to mean a representative entity distinct from perception. After much philosophizing on the nature of these representative entities, after having marched them around everywhere and having been only able to place them in God, the only fruit that he gathers from all is not an explanation of how we see material things, which alone was what was sought, but rather the conclusion that our mind is incapable of perceiving them, and that we live in a perpetual illusion in believing that we see the material things that God has created when we look at them, that is to say when we turn our eyes towards them; and meanwhile seeing, instead of them, only intelligible bodies that resemble them(VFI, 229, cited in Nadler 89 )

Contrary to this, for Arnauld the mind did not look on and stare at mental objects, intelligible bodies distinct from our sensations, but rather ideas were the very workings of a mind connected already to the world, a position which Steven Nadler calls “Direct Realism”. As Arnauld writes, he makes no distinction in kind, but onlly in relation, between a perception and an idea (a distinct that Malebranche maintains as one of kind):

I have said that I take the perception and the Idea to be the same thing. Nevertheless, it must be remarked that this thing, although single, stands in two relations: one to the soul which it modifies, the other to the thing perceived, insofar as it exists objectively in the soul. The word perception more directly indicates the first relation, the word idea, the later(VFI, 198; Nadler 109 )

There are not two different entities here [perception and idea], but one and the same modification of our soul, which involves essentially these two relations; since I cannot have a perception which is not at the same time my perceiving mind’s perception and the perception as something as perceived (VFI, 198 )

Nadler then traces how it was Thomas Reid, a Scotish contemporary of David Hume, who then (mis)characterized all of philosophy stemming from Descartes as lumpedly conditioned by Malebranchean mediating “ideas” between the mind and the world, adopting Malebranche’s veil of ideas (or “palace of idea” as Arnauld called it) interpretation of Descartes theory. Reid saw himself as the first to break from a philosophy that had been thus plagued by the problem of skepticism,

Modern philosophers…have conceived that external objects cannot be the immediate objects of our thought; that there must be some image of them in the mind itself, in which, as in a mirror, they are seen. And the name “idea”, in the philosophical sense of it, is given to those internal and immediate objects of our thoughts. The external thing is remote or mediate object; but the idea, or image of that object in the mind, is the immediate object, without which we could have no perception, no remembrance, no conception of the mediate object (The Philosophical Works of Thomas Reid, 226, cited by Nadler 8 )

“Des Cartes” system of the human understanding, which I shall beg leave to call the ideal system, and which…is not generally received, hath some original defect; that this skepticism is inlaid in it, and reared along with it (Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (Chapter 1, section 7; 1764, Glasgow & London)

Through the bottleneck of Reid’s historical interpretation the very possibility of Arnauld’s or Descartes’ “Direct Realism,” which would feature ideas to be read as actions of the mind and not mediating representations, become lost to Idealism’s Representational Cartesianism, of which Husserl remains a positive exemplar.

The Solution: One World, One Process 

My point to Graham’s Hume/Malebranche compliment of each other is that the very dichotomy that Graham finds himself split over, is of a historical creation, in particular one that imposes a separation of worlds, realms or objects, but one that may not even have traction in Descartes its reported origin. Key to a way forward, when considering the transmission of the Idealist problematic, is the kind of direct realism that Arnauld favored, one in which ideas of the mind are taken to be the actions of the mind engaged in perception. Actions of the mind are distinguishing in such a way that they face both outwardly and inwardly. They are unto the horizon of the object/body recursively defined as “ideas” (or semiotic differences), but also understood to be directly caused through interaction with the world.

Arnauld’s reading of ideas though is still tainted to some degree with the essential notion of idea as representation, a picture or image of reality, a functional difficulty which would remain a problem of the Idealism what would inherit Reid’s characterization. And Arnaud is not really consistent on this matter. While he got it right that for Descartes ideas should be best seen as actions of the mind already directly engaged with the world, what was needed was a metaphysical vision in which the kinds of connections that bind objects together in the real world “out there” were the very same kinds of connections that were going on when mental actions were taking place, binding us to the world, connecting that is “out there” to what is “in here”.

And this is exactly the connection between inside and outside that Graham is seeking to establish, although perhaps the best that can be done within the Idealist framework is simply place Hume and Malebranche on two sides of the same miror, such that they cannot touch. But it seems more that Graham has not only adopted Malebrache’s occasionalism of objects, but also places himself well within the heritage of Malebranche’s “palace of ideas” theory of cognition, robbing each of them of their explanatory lynchpin, the very thing each was designed to fortify…God. One is left with objects that do not touch or change with any explanation, and mental objects which serve as representations, but whose means of connection to the world remains opaque.

It turns out though there wasa philosopher who proposed that Ideas were just that, not representations of the world, but actions of the Mind (in my view, making them semiotic). And because his metaphysics was a metaphysics of panpsychism, our internal events were necessarily already external events, all things had an inner life of mental action (precisely what Graham is seeking to connect in his theory of vicarious causation). This philosopher of ideas as mental actions (what he characterized as affirmations of aspects of the body which manifested a degree of power, reality or perfection), was perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the generation that followed the birth of that philosophy, at the cusp of a breaking wave into modernity….the marano, ex-communicated Jew and maker of telescopes Baruch Spinoza.

Each perception is already a belief, it does not come into the human mind neutral, but is an action of the mind, and thus the organism, the object. Each perception, or even imaginary conjuration, is a material change in the ontological sinews which connect that object/body to all others, and expresses both the internal relations of that body, and its causal links to the world. One does not have to pierce  through the veil of ideas or even of sensuous vicars, to get to the world, because one is already part of the world, and each mental action is a change in one’s position in it. There is no veil. There is only strength of action.

Conclusion: We Follow the Body, not the Object

Now to be fair, whereas Malebranche  wanted to separate out ideas from sensations because sensations were the animal half of us, and his intelligibility of ideas was meant to carry us beyond the inner limits of our animal bodies. This is the opposite of where Graham wants to go. His vicars, his representations drip with the sensuous. Their very animal richness is that he suspects provides the link between their internal object nature and real causation (though the mechanism of this link remains as yet unexplained). In a sense it is the presence of the sensation, the way that it supersedes the ideal “essence” of the object that it helps construct, that joins the real body to other bodies. It is this priority in Graham’s philosophy, the way that sensation may clue toward the connection itself, that I believe will break through the mirrored universes of objects he has set up. It is my hope that the great tension between his cornerstone discovery of dual objects (Heidegger/Husserl), and the firm desire to give rightful place to all things which are not objects per se, (qualities/accidents), and create a non-human-centric metaphysics giving rights to even the smallest of things, will produce a rift which will force an abandonment of the concepts of mental action as essentially an act of Representation, and isolation/severance/retreat as a fundamental pre-condition of all ontology. The key, I believe, is recognizing the nature of the connections that already exist, a cognizance which empowers, and not looking to pierce through barriers which produce the illusion of dis-connection. Every wall necessarily is a link.

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.