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Spinoza and Language Author(s): David Savan Source: The Philosophical Review, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Apr., 1958), pp. 212-225 Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical Review Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2182614 Accessed: 20/10/2010 10:45
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however. mathematics. Nor again is it just that he occasionally formulates philosophical theses in syntactical terms. historical and Biblical criticism. or that nearly every one of his writings attempts some analysis of language and mathematics. 2 Spinoza (London. considerably more important in the shaping of his thought and writings than Hampshire indicates. held at Boston University. Any such expectations have so far been largely disappointed. I8-20. aphorism. Nor is it just that he experimented with a variety of literary forms in the exposition of his thought. as well as the method of geometrical demonstration. and logic have affected their thought and its formulation. autobiography. It might be expected that such historical studies would consider how the views which philosophers have held on language. It is not just that Spinoza wrote a treatise on a natural language. It is also that Spinoza holds that both language and mathematics are fundamentally inadequate to the formulation or direct expression of philosophical truths. Stuart Hampshire points out that Spinoza hoped to emulate the example of the geometers in freeing language of its intimate connection with the imagination so that it might be employed to express clearly and distinctly the ideas of a true philosophy. Hampshire's view. Eastern Division. 93I95I). I shall argue that Spinoza's views on words and 1 A version of this paper was read to the meeting of the American Philosophical Association. I believe. wrong. 2I2 . pp. Mr.2 Spinoza's interest in language and in the bearing of language upon philosophy is. using dialogue. 1955. In his recent and lucid exposition of Spinoza.SPINOZA AND LANGUAGE1 I PHILOSOPHICAL analysts have made a number of moves toward a reassessment of the history of philosophy. 23-24. December 27-29. widely shared-that Spinoza thought words could divorce the imagination in order to marry true philosophy-is.
but substantially the same views are to be found in the Improvementof the Understanding. E. 2.SPINOZA AND LANGUAGE language make it impossible for him to hold that his writings (or anyone else's) can be a direct or literal exposition of philosophical truth. Ep.-pol. desires. and interests. and (2) "signs" or "hearsay. since it can be properly understood only in conjunction with the ideas of the external motions which induced it. In later citations the following abbreviations will be used for Spinoza's titles: Ethics." as "when we hear or read certain words. TdIE.. The number and significance of the differences thus canceled out will vary directly with the number of images with which a word is asso3Ethics. The soldier may connect with the word "horse" the image of a war horse. armored. II Spinoza states clearly enough that imagination or opinion... Further. Letters. II." or images proper. is of two species: (i) "vague experience. Tractatus theologico-politicus. 2I3 . in company with their attendant circumstances. In this way words arise from experience and refer to experience. Theol. Bodily motions which have once occurred together will tend to recur together. S. They express the constitution of our own body rather than the nature of external bodies. These attendant circumstances include our purposes. I shall conclude with a suggestion as to what Spinoza intended his writings to accomplish and how he thought they could do it. The following account of words is based primarily on Book II of the Ethics. XL. Improvementof the Understanding. C. and in battle. knowledge of the first and lowest kind. Since we do not know its cause we will either suppose it to be uncaused or to be induced by some final cause. confused. Tr. and inadequate. Words are nothing more than bodily motions. The idea of such a motion will be mutilated. while the farmer will call up the image of a slow and heavy animal plowing the fields. the limitations of the human body ensure that as a word is associated with a growing number of images the differences among the images will increasingly be overlooked. m. These motions are the responses of the human body to the action upon it of external bodies."3 His theory of words is in its outlines a familiar one. Cogitata metaphysica.
all images will be conflated.or ill-adapted to the purposes of those who frame them. fiction. Such definitions are not so much true or false as well. horse. in Spinoza's view. All languages. In the case of universals the selection of differences to be overlooked and resemblances taken into account will vary from individual to individual. however. when Spinoza speaks of words. and so forth. While words are joined through syntax. The imaginative. fiction. the material flow of language in speech is conceived by him as a kind of dreaming. dog. thing. A lesser degree of the same confusion is illustrated by universal terms like man. and madness are ranges-perhaps there are others-of a dream madness continuum. In the lower ranges of this continuum-in and dreams proper-we are almost entirely unaware of the external motions which stimulate our own bodily motions and their images.DAVID SAVAN ciated. tends to treat adjectives as nouns. in these cases. and the terms will be utterly confused. is the image of sleeping and dreaming. It is rather the necessary consequence of the action of external bodies upon our body. Speech. So some will imagine man as a featherless biped. To do this properly he must have some knowledge of the factors determining memory 214 . In the same way we necessarily continue to imagine the sun as near even after we know its true distance. and something are associated with every image without exception. not contingent or accidental. Such transcendental terms as being. and confused character of words is. only just off stage. exhibit this same tendency to some extent. It is easiest to fall into the error of supposing our motions and images to be true of the external world when we speak a language which. error. Hovering in the wings. all differences will be canceled. No purgative can eliminate the imaginative and confused generality of words. and some as a rational animal. according to the desires and interests which each person imagines. and speech-we are aware of the external motions in a confused way but wrongly attribute our own images to them. In the upper ranges-in error. like Hebrew. Hence. general. and it is the task of the philosopher to reverse the process as far as possible. It is not the result of ignorance and cannot be eliminated by knowledge. some as an animal capable of laughter.
XXVIII. 7Ep. E. "Peter exists.. If Peter exists and without knowing this I happen to assert. whether finite or infinite. 25. xv.SPINOZA AND LANGUAGE and recollection. io and TdIE." It is clear that on Spinoza's view the sentence "Peter exists" is in these circumstances not true." This is the situation to which the writings of the philosopher are condemned by the imaginative and dreamlike character which. or to say that I know that 4Ep. It is one thing to know that God exists and quite another to dream that I know. Spinoza opposes true ideas to words. words are uncertain. Spinoza explicitly rejects the semantic theory of truth. "Peter exists" or dream that I say. XLIII.-pol. 8 TdIE..5 Whereas ideas and their ideata are singular and unique. It is no more possible for us to discover and express true knowledge through language than it is for a somnambulist to communicate intelligently with the waking world. words are connected with contingency and time. common notions. also Ep. II. par.. on Spinoza's view."7 words are corruptible. 2I5 . and properties are in a sense general. "Peter exists. An idea is not an image and does not consist of words. S. cf. Cf. 69. Cf. for experience can give no know edge of essences. 76. to imagine that I know. Theol. also Tr.. 6 Although common motions. So sharply does Spinoza separate words from adequate ideas that it is difficult to make out for language any useful philosophical function at all. ch. Whereas an idea is certain. 40. upon which speech in part depends.40. Without this knowledge he is like an amanuensis who reproduces a book written in a script and language which he does not understand. that I know that he exists. 37. or real properties of such modes. Ep. can never be depraved or corrupted. Now.6 rds are inherently general and applicable to an indefinite multitude. in this example. 5 Ep.4 In nearly every important respect. A true idea can neither arise from experience of words and images nor can it be verified through such experience.8 Now suppose that Peter exists. E. V. is necessary to language. par.. they are nevertheless either singular modes. and that while I am sound asleep I either say." my assertion is not true. Whereas "that true Word of God which is in the mind . substitute "God" for "Peter. And whereas it is of the nature of reason to consider things as necessary and under a certain form of eternity.
The radical inadequacy of words is something which Spinoza points out emphatically and repeatedly in most of his writings. and of course the particular difficulty with which I am concerned will not arise in a more adequate theory of language. in view of the evidence of his writings. he would expect contradictory statements to appear in his exposition. often in such close proximity to one another that it is hardly believable that so careful a writer as Spinoza was not aware of them. that this difficulty is hardly a novel one. distinct. substance. 9 The inadequacy of Spinoza's theory of language will be obvious to the reader today. Its lineage can be traced at least to the Parmenidesof Plato. or formulate the clear and distinct ideas of the true philosophy? After separating the two so radically Spinoza appears to show no interest in explaining how they may be brought together. then he cannot have intended that the Ethics should be a simple and straightforward exposition of his philosophy. and unique ideas of a true philosophy in the net of a language which is inherently vague and general. If Spinoza were trying to catch the clear. Many such statements do occur in the Ethics. The contradictions to which I refer may be classified as follows: (a) those arising from the attempt to define in words the nature of the unique entity. The most telling evidence that Spinoza was aware of this difficulty is to be found in the contradictions which abound in his Ethics. however. 2i6 . (b) those arising from the attempt to define or describe the unique properties of substance. Since he allows the contradictions to stand it is to be presumed that he did not intend the Ethics to be a simple exposition of truth.9 III Was Spinoza aware that his views made it difficult to accept any verbal account as a direct exposition of the true philosophy? It would be strange if he were not. and (c) those arising from attempts to define or describe modes or modal essences.DAVID SAVAN God exists. If he was aware of this situation. as well as in his other writings. express. It should be noted first. How then can language represent.
When he writes that "the reason why we do not possess a knowledge of God as distinct as that which we have of common notions is .) II. singular. S. etc. par 55. E. S. E. For by conceivehe wishes "to express the action of the mind. S. he writes. "In the mind there exists no absolute faculty of understanding. 14 E. def. existence is general. abstract.. 16 E. are either altogether fictitious. 13 1 E.. that he is willing to use language which he regards as radically inadequate. II. II. and unique. ." It has already been pointed out that Spinoza rejects the term being.15 It is obvious that Spinoza wishes to refer his readers to a being and an existence which is concrete. which we are in the habit of forming from individual cases. It is clear also. viii. IV. therefore. loving.. is meant "absolute affirmation of existence of some kind. 6."'14But he equates existence with the transcendental. [that] we have attached the name God to the images of things which we are in the habit of seeing. however. God is defined as "being absolutely infinite. or else are nothing but metaphysical or universal entities. an error we can hardly avoid. is called by Spinoza "in the highest degree confused. Substance "is in itself and conceived through itself. 1. 3. desiring.'"13As to being conceived throughitself.By "infinite.SPINOZA AND LANGUAGE (a) Are the definitions of substance and God10 intended by Spinoza as adequate formulations of our knowledge? Yet he disowns the terms used in these definitions. def. S." that is to say. XLVIII. 15 TdIE. together with the other transcendental. S. understanding. II. XLVII. xxiii if..." the other important word in this definition."16 he is speaking of philosophical as well as of popular uses of the word "God. 1. however. I. being.. Like being."1 The term conceiveis a universal term only somewhat less general and confused than being. XLV. I. iii.12 But. cf. the purity of this notion is at least compromised by Spinoza's repeated attempts to conceive the activity of substance through something else-namely. II. and E. 12 E..." The term being. through geometry. and confused." (b) A second and more obvious set of contradictions occurs in 10 E. 2I7 . XL. These and the like faculties.
"'18 Again. I. joy. The demonstration that God is one-both single and simpleis listed by Spinoza in the Appendix to Book I of the Ethics as a major conclusion. E.. 50. and xxxvi."20 Since he has defined love as involving pleasure..DAVID SAVAN the discussion of the properties of substance or God. or is speaking of him inappropriately. 2. Nevertheless." Other properties of God. and C. I. xvii. and perfection. I. VIII. I.... XVII. he identifies it as only a mode of thought. 6. E.. V. . are all both explicitly affirmed and explicitly denied of substance. C. he attempts to demonstrate that "God loves himself. loves men." and that "God . V. E. xvii.."17 What this means in regard to substance or God is as stated more explicitly in the early Cogitata metaphysical well as in a letter written late in Spinoza's life. Ep. 2I8 . In the Ethics unity. a few propositions later. E. love. S. 22 E."21 With respect to will and intellect. when he discusses the origin and meaning of the word in the Preface to Book IV of the Ethics."19 Yet. 2." But he goes on to contradict himself by writing that "the nature of God delights in infinite perfection" and that God's love "is joy [granting that it is allowable to use this word]. "It is certain that he who calls God one or single has no true idea of God. an ens rationis formed through the comparison of particular things and sharing the generality and confusion previously ascribed to "being. S. such as freedom 17 18 19 20 21 E. will. S. accompanied with the idea of Himself. V. he writes that "properly speaking. in Book I he also writes that "a definition does not involve or express any certain number of individuals. God loves no one. intellect. and in the same book of the Ethics.. xxxiii. Nevertheless. to speak of God's intellect and will. m. C. xxxv and xxxvi. . S. he attempts to demonstrate that God "cannot be affected with any affect of joy or sorrow.22 Although Spinoza follows tradition in calling God perfect. xxxv. we are offered a demonstration that they can no more be ascribed to God than flesh and blood can be ascribed to the constellation of the Dog. he continues.
. it is evident from the definitions of the words "free.. adequate.. V.. and certain. LXVI ff. IV. Furthermore.. (c) In discussing modes and natura naturataSpinoza's theory of words leads him into two kinds of difficulties.. xiv ff. E. and desire which springs from reason is the essence of the human mind insofar as it acts.27 Nevertheless. S. Desire.24 To apply to a mode a term which applies to natura naturansis like expecting the constellation of the Dog to bark. E.. he ascribes to some modes properties previously defined by him as applicable only to natura naturans. XL. xxiii.. Xvii. E. and will as either altogether fictitious or else as metaphysical or universal entities. indeed." and "necessary. This in turn is nothing other than the effort to understand. First." and is general or universal.25 But we have pointed out above that Spinoza regards desire. I. understanding. insofar as they designate characteristics which are common to a number of modes. IV.. IV. LXI." "eternal. II.28 In fact. He demonstrates. E. E.. and Appendix.. App. E. is the essence of man. infinite. E. def. S. he writes also that the notion good is an "entity of the imagination. IV. already discussed above... I. xxxvii. ." He speaks also of necessary. that "God alone is a free cause" and that he differs radically in essence and existence from every mode.. and eternal modes which exist under every attribute of God. when Spinoza applies to modes terms which are proper to natura naturatahe again contradicts himself." Spinoza speaks of knowledge of good (and of evil) which is true. LXII. IV.. he states. E. "if men were 23 25 26 27 28 24 E. IV. E." "infinite. 2I9 .. that these words can apply only to God as naturanaturals.. E. III. xxvii ff.26 Consider next the word "good. S. they cannot form the essence of any individual mode.SPINOZA AND LANGUAGE and eternity.. IV. ix. So he speaks of man as free and man's mind as an "eternal mode of thought. xxi-xxIIi." given at the beginning of the Ethics." "indicates nothing positive in things considered in themselves. LIX. E. Pref. XXVI. 1..23 Nevertheless. are explained through the notion of existence. E. Second.
in Spinoza's discussions of substance."29 A similar difficulty arises in Spinoza's discussion of the passions. E. and consistent verbal account of the true philosophy was possible.. xxxi.. E. and confused. . . they would form no conception of good and evil. one and the same man is affected in different ways towards the same object. . and its modes. LVI. IV. they may be understood through their causes and properties. S. Spinoza writes.. cf. xxxiii. and. LXIV. cf. . . precise. V. cannot follow from mutilated and confused ideas. which are related to the first kind of knowledge. general. Although these are inadequate and confused ideas."'31 Yet only three propositions earlier Spinoza had written that "ideas which are clear and distinct in us . that "there are as many kinds of each affect as there are kinds of objects by which we are affected. It would appear. that the discussion of the passions in Book III of the Ethics is a direct statement of our knowledge of the passions. Finally. 220 .. . men are affected in different ways by one and the same object . . therefore. . IV. it is to be noted that Spinoza admits that even in his discussion of the third and highest kind of knowedge he must speak in terms of time and change-that is to say. Spinoza's discussion is in terms of words which are abstract. LVII. E. That is to say. contradictions and difficulties occur so frequently and so clearly that it is probable that Spinoza was aware of them. we can nonetheless form some clear and distinct conception of them. its properties. III. overlook and confuse together the specific differences among the actual affects." In sum."30 His analyses and definitions must. because his theory of language led him to believe that no simple. They follow with the same natural necessity as do other modes.. then. 29 30 31 E. then. . E. however. in terms of the imagination-"in order that what we wish to prove may be more easily explained and better understood. direct..DAVID SAVAN born free [and were led by reason alone]. He allowed them to stand. LXVIII. I suggest. IV. finally . and the method pursued in the discussion of God and the mind is to be applied to them. LI.
221 . in their specific connection with substance. So we find it easier to remember things if we can group them together in such classifications as genus and species. I.32 An entity of reason is "a mode of thought which serves to make what has been understood the more easily retained. Pref. and imagined. hypostatize them and ascribe to them some reality outside of the mind. E. explained. be assimilated to ratio. They are of use to us only if they function as tools or mental aids and are not treated as if they had some independent status. I. 50."33 Such an entity has no existence outside the intellect. Epp. 33 C. 83 and E. 19. misled by the words associated with entities of reason.34 Entities of reason originate because it is easier for our minds to imagine things abstractly than to conceive things as they are. Be that as it may. the strongest argument against the thesis of the first part of this paper. Is 34 Hence entia rationiscannot second kind. or knowledge of the M.SPINOZA AND LANGUAGE IV How is the Ethics to be understood? Spinoza's theory of language is inadequate.. Since it has no extramental object which could be clearly and distinctly conceived. that Spinoza was aware of the difficulties in which he was involved through his theory of language.. The fact that Spinoza makes no attempt to deal with this question in the Ethics is. IV. He is so concerned to associate words and language with imagination that he offers no theoretical account of how words can convey ideas (in his sense of "idea") or of the proper function of language in the communication of philosophical truth. So too we imagine extension 32 physica. App. perhaps. I wish to point out briefly that Spinoza does explicitly hold a general theory of entities of reason and that it is this theory of entia rationis which underlies his method in the Ethics. Spinoza denies that it is an idea or that it can be called true or false... It is a characteristic error that philosophers. The following account of entia rationis is based upon the Cogitata meta12.
attributes. philosophical entities of reason such as the distinction of God's essence from God's existence. and infinite modes upon which they depend and then try to explain the resultant images by using factitious instruments like time and numbers to assist us in comparing the images. good. I shall return to this point in a moment. entities of reason may assist the philosopher in at least three ways. When these aids are clearly understood to be abstractions. Or again we may abstract finite modes from the substance. through not distinguishing the imagination from the intellect clearly enough. Correctly employed. the modalities. for it is the clue to the correct understanding of the Ethics. order. opposition. as well as of Spinoza's writings on natural science. (i) When one image is compared with another they may enable the intellect to discover that 222 . and Biblical criticism. words have a proper role to play in their formulation. perfection. to two kinds of error: (a) they have often given unsuitable or misleading verbal descriptions of their entities of reason." Properly defined and properly understood as abstractions. conjunction. power. When he encounters this latter confusion. relation. however. (b) even worse. In particular. they have supposed that the words they used were names of entities existing outside the intellect. genus and species. Spinoza prefers to speak of "entities of the imagination" rather than of "entities of reason. and evil all these arise through verbalcomparisons of modes given to us through the imagination. as it were. like words. the entities of reason may serve the philosopher (as they do the mathematician) as eyes. the notions of nonbeing.DAVID SAVA. Philosophers have been particularly prone. the transcendental. through which the intellect may see more clearly what is presented confusedly in the imagination. Since entities of reason are. apart from the substance of which it is an attribute-and then try to explain this abstract extension by comparing one part of it with another through the aid of measure and geometrical figures. accident. functions of the imagination. Hebrew grammar. then. existing only in the intellect-as they are by all good mathematicians-they can assist us to discover and formulate such truth as is proper to the imagination. and other properties.N abstractly-that is. therefore.
extension.. 223 . V.. and falsehood we may hold more firmly to the positive content of the clear ideas which are native to the intellect. XLVIII. (2) In the Preface to Book IV of the Ethics Spinoza states that he wishes to form an idea of man which can serve as a model or exemplar of human nature.36 To construct this universal idea of man he has used such entities of reason as good and evil and such "metaphysical" entities (i. S. (i) By comparing our experiences. Ep. We are thereby enabled to see that our image of the sun as small and near is our response to external motions and thus a sign of our native strength and power.. We will not then confuse them with the verbal entities and verbal distinctions of the traditional philosophers. S. and will. LV.37 The value of this method. scientists have discovered the true size and distance of the sun. desire.SPINOZA AND LANGUAGE truth which is resident in imagination. Spinoza's resort to a posteriori argument is not an inconsistency but an integral part of his method. They enable us to see how our adequate ideas of substance. entities of reason) as understanding. In other places in the Ethics Spinoza speaks of this idea of man as universal and of the proofs concerning it as general. corresponding to nothing outside the intellect. i9. and with the assistance of mathematical and philosophical entities of reason. is that these entities of reason. III.e. and E.35 In a letter of i665 he points out that the abstract and general definition of man by which all who have a similar external appearance are classed together is an entity of reason. So too in his discussion of the passions Spinoza compares a variety of experiences in order to show the limitations and the positive strength of the passions.. enable us to use words correctly in comparing the experiences which our imagination provides us. which occupies a major part of the Ethics. XXXVI. (2) By constructing certain general models or exemplars we may see how a collection of things whose detailed natures we do not understand may nevertheless in general exemplify our adequate ideas of infinite modes and attributes of substance. E.. II. S. thought. (3) By recognizing the abstract character of such negative entities of reason as nonbeing.limit. 35 36 37 E.
there is a third way in which entities of reason can assist the philosopher. and in God essence. to distinguish God's essence from his existence is to confuse truth with falsehood. Hence God is unique. existence. limitation. Ep. When we come to see. for they are only entities of reason. however. 41 Ep."39 In the Preface to Book IV of the Ethics Spinoza also gives a detailed account of the genesis and growth of another entity of reason. and E. ViII. essence from existence. XXXIII. and action of every mode which we experience. is what Spinoza means when he writes that "demonstrations are the eyes of the mind by which it sees and observes things. Negation. This. considered in terms of its own essence and activity. and so on. 17. and freedom are one and the same. as we know from experience. or necessity from freedom. xxiII. perfection. for. in all things it follows the traces of the intellect and concatenates its images and words in a certain order. essence. we recognize it as an aid to the consideration of the specific reality. just as the intellect does with its demonstrations.. is perfect. E. we confuse perfection with the final cause of a thing. He seeks to show how. however. and interconnects them. we cannot distinguish one substance from another. Every individual thing.. also Epp.4' Philosophers and theologians have been confused by words into supposing these distinctions in God's nature to be real. power. S. cf. They can be distinguished only verbally.DAVID SAVAN motion and rest. determination. 2i and 23. through the comparison of our experiences and with the mediation of words. I. 2. A large part of the task of the Ethics is to show the philosophers how 38 39 40 E. and falsehood cannot be ascribed to God.. power from action. As Spinoza puts it. 2. S."38 In a letter of i664 he puts it thus: "We see that the imagination is also determined to a great extent by the constitution of the soul. that perfection is an entity of reason. S. ideas which are native to the intellect. V. I would suggest. I. necessity. operate within our experience. existing nowhere outside the mind. i9. Without introducing negation or determination in some form. 224 .40 (3) Finally.
in confusing the intellect with the imagination. inasmuch as truth. Theol. It is Spinoza's view.. If. straightforward prose narratives. then. spontaneously toward him. that "a thing is understood when it is perceived simply by the mind without words and images.ch. The several arguments in demonstration of a single proposition are different ways of deploying the entities of reason."43 DAVID SAVAN Universityof Toronto 42 Tr. according to the standard of the original true idea.-Pol. 225 43 6 . par. Spinoza concludes the Ethics with the warning that he has shown us a road which is difficult to travel. makes itself manifest. But in order to know what is true and what is false in one's dreams one must first wake and understand that dreams have their own laws. The definitions of substanceand modedo not involve reference to any positive ideas. iv. as it were. just as one may dream of gray elephants as well as of pink elephants. The positive task of the Ethics is to show that once the limitations of language are recognized we can conceive of substance and its modes through their own living ideas.44. and all things would flow.SPINOZA AND LANGUAGE many of their errors originate in the confusion of entities of reason with entities existing outside the intellect. dIE. as we have shown. They cannot be read as simple. he would never have doubted of the truth of his knowledge."42 So far is he from supposing that words can be disengaged from the imagination in order to represent true ideas. A comparison of the rules for defining created and uncreated things (given in the Improvement the Understanding)with of the definitions of the Ethics will show that the latter simply translate the formal rules into the material mode. that is. Language may indeed express philosophic truth. anyone "had acquired new ideas in the proper order. however.