Timothy S. Murphy, murphyx@ucla.edu

…we find ourselves faced with Blyenbergh’s two objections. The first concerns the point of view of nature in general. It comes down to saying to Spinoza that it’s very nice to explain that every time a body encounters another there are relations that combine and relations that decompose, sometimes to the advantage of one of the two bodies, sometimes to the advantage of the other body. But nature itself combines all the relations at once. Thus in nature in general what doesn’t stop is the fact that all the time there are compositions and decompositions of relations, all the time since, ultimately, the decompositions are like the other side of the compositions. But there is no reason to privilege the composition of relations over the decomposition since the two always go together.
For example: I eat. I compose the relation with the food I absorb. But this is done by decomposing the food’s own relations. Another example: I am poisoned. Arsenic decomposes my relation, okay, but it composes its own relation with the new relations into which the parts of my body enter under the action of the arsenic. Thus there is always composition and decomposition at once. Thus nature, says Blyenbergh, nature such as you conceive it is nothing but an immense chaos.
Under the objection Spinoza wavers.
Spinoza sees no difficulty and his reply is very clear. He says that it is not so for a simple reason: it’s that from the point of view of the whole of nature, one cannot say that there is composition and decomposition at once since, from the point of view of the whole of nature, there are only compositions. There are only compositions of relations. It’s really from the point of view of our understanding [entendement] that we say that such and such relations combine to the detriment of another such relation, which must decompose so that the two others can combine. But it’s because we isolate a part of Nature. From the point of view of the complete whole of Nature, there is never anything but relations that combine with each other. I like this reply very much: the decomposition of relations does not exist from the point of view of the whole of nature since the whole of nature embraces all relations. Thus there are inevitably compositions, and that is all [un point c'est tout].
This very simple, very clear, very beautiful reply sets up another difficulty. It refers to Blyenbergh’s second objection. Let us suppose, at the limit, that he concedes the point on the problem of the whole of nature, so then let’s approach the other aspect, a particular point of view, my particular point of view, that is to say the point of view of a precise and fixed relation. Actually, what I call ME [Moi] is a set of precise and fixed relations which constitute me. From this point of view, and it’s solely from a particular, determinable point of view, you or me, that I can say that there are compositions and decompositions.
I would say that there is composition when my relation is conserved and combined with another, external relation, but I would say that there is decomposition when the external body acts on me in such a manner that one of my relations, or even many of my relations, is destroyed, that is, ceases to be carried out [effectuŽs] by the current parts. Just as from the point of view of nature I was able to say that there are only compositions of relations, as soon as I take a particular determined point of view, I must say that there are decompositions which are not to be confused with compositions. Hence Blyenbergh’s objection, which consists in saying that ultimately what you call vice and virtue is whatever suits [arrange] you. You will call it virtue every time you compose relations, no matter what relations you destroy, and you will call it vice every time that one of your relations is decomposed. In other words you will call virtue whatever is agreeable to you and vice whatever is not agreeable to you. This comes down to saying that food is agreeable to you and poison is not agreeable to you. But when we speak generally of vice and virtue, we appeal to something other than such a criterion of taste, that is, what suits me and what doesn’t suit me. This objection is distinct from the preceding one because it is made in the name of a particular point of view and no longer in the name of the whole of nature. And it is summarized in this line that Blyenbergh constantly repeats: you reduce morality to a matter of taste.
Spinoza is going to throw himself into an endeavor to show that he preserves an objective criterion for the distinction of the good from the bad, or of virtue from vice. He’s going to attempt to show that Spinozism offers us a properly ethical criterion of the good and the bad, of vice and virtue, and that this criterion is not a simple criterion of taste according to what suits me or doesn’t suit me. He is going to try to show that, from a particular point of view, he doesn’t confuse vice and virtue with what suits me. He is going to show it in two texts which, to my knowledge, are Spinoza’s strangest, to the point that the one seems incomprehensible and the other is perhaps comprehensible but seems very bizarre. In the end, everything is resolved in a marvelously lucid way.
The first is in the letters to Blyenbergh (letter 23). He wants to show that not only does he have a criterion for distinguising vice from virtue, but that this criterion applies in cases that appear very complicated, and that further it is a criterion of distinction, not only for distinguishing vice from virtue, but if one comprehends this criterion well, one can make distinctions in cases of crime.
I’ll read this text:
"Nero’s matricide, insofar as it contained anything positive, was not a crime." You see what Spinoza means. Evil isn’t anything. Thus insofar as an act is positive it cannot be a crime, it cannot be evil. Therefore an act as a crime, if it is a crime, it’s not so insofar as it contains something positive, it’s from another point of view. Very well, we can comprehend it abstractly. "Nero killed his mother. Orestes also killed his mother. Orestes was able to accomplish an act which, externally, is the same, and at the same time intended to kill his mother, without deserving the same accusation as Nero." Actually, we treat Orestes in a different way than we treat Nero, even though both of them killed their mothers intentionally. "What, therefore, is Nero’s crime? It consists solely in the fact that, in his act, Nero showed himself to be ungrateful, unmerciful and disobedient." The act is the same, the intention is the same, there is a difference at the level of what? It’s a third determination. Spinoza concludes, "none of these characteristics expresses anything to do with an essence."
Ungrateful, unmerciful, none of these characteristics expresses anything to do with an essence. One doesn’t know what to think. Is this a reply to Blyenbergh? What can one get out of a text of this sort? Ungrateful, unmerciful and disobedient. So then if Nero’s act is bad, it’s not because he killed his mother, it’s not because he intended to kill her, it’s because Nero, in killing his mother, showed himself to be ungrateful, unmerciful and disobedient. Orestes kills his mother but is neither ungrateful nor disobedient. So one keeps searching. One comes across Book IV of The Ethics, and one comes across a text which doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the previous one. One gets the impression that Spinoza has acquired a kind of diabolical humor or has gone mad. Book IV, proposition 59, scholium:
The text of the proposition already does not appear simple. It involves demonstrating, for Spinoza, that all the actions to which we are determined from a feeling which is a passion, we can be determined to do them without it (without the feeling), we can be determined to do them by reason. Everything that we do when pushed by passion, we can do when pushed by pure reason.
Then comes the scholium:
"These things are more clearly explained by an example. The act of beating, insofar as it is considered physically, and insofar as we attend only to the fact that the man raises his arm, closes his fist, and moves his whole arm forcefully up and down, is a virtue, which is conceived from the structure of the human body." He does not cheat with the word virtue, it’s an exercise [effectuation] of the power of the body, it’s what my body can do, it’s one of the things it can do. This makes it part of the potentiae of the human body, of this power [puissance] in action, it’s an act of power, and for that very reason this is what we call virtue. "Therefore, if a man moved by anger or hate (i.e. by a passion) is determined (determined by the passion) to close his fist or move his arm, that, as we have shown in Part II, happens because one and the same action can be associated with any images of things whatever." Spinoza is in the process of telling us something very strange. He is in the process of telling us that he calls the determination of the action association, the link that unites the image of the action with an image of a thing. That is the determination of the action. The determination of the action is the image of a thing to which the image of the act is linked. It’s truly a relation that he himself presents as being a relation of association: one and the same action can be associated with any image of a thing whatever.
The citation from Spinoza continues: "And so we can be determined to one and the same action both from those images of things which we conceive confusedly and from those images of things we conceive clearly and distinctly. It is evident, therefore, that every desire which arises from a feeling which is a passion would be of no use if men could be guided by reason."
That is to say that all the actions that we do determined by passions, we could just as well do determined by pure reason.
What is this introduction of the confused and the distinct? There it is, what I recall from the text and it’s in the text to the letter. He says that an image of action can be associated with images of very different things. Consequently the same action can be associated just as well with images of confused things as with images of clear and distinct things.
So I bring my fist down on my mother’s head. There’s one case. And with the same violence I bring my fist down on the head [membrane] of a bass drum. It’s not the same gesture. But Spinoza suppressed [supprimŽe] this objection. He replied to it in advance. Actually, Spinoza posed the problem in conditions such that this objection could not be valid. In effect, he asks us to consent to an extremely paradoxical analysis of action as follows: between the action and the object on which it bears there is a relation which is a relation of association. Indeed, if, between the action and the object on which it bears, the relation is associative, if it’s a relation of association, then Spinoza is quite right. That is, it’s clearly the same action, whatever the variants might be, which in one case is associated with my mother’s head and in the other case is associated with a bass drum. Thus the objection is suppressed.
What difference is there between these two cases? One senses what Spinoza means and what he means is not nothing. Let’s return to the criterion we’re sure of: what bad is there when I do this thing that is an exercise [effectuation] of the power of my body and which, in this sense, is good? I do that, I simply give someone a blow on the head. What is bad: that I decompose a relation, namely my mother’s head. In beating like that on my mother’s head I destroy the constituent relation of the head: my mother dies or passes out under the blow. In Spinozist terms, I would say that in this case I associate my action with the image of a thing whose relation is directly decomposed by this action. I associate the image of the act with the image of something whose constituent relation is decomposed by this act.
When I bring my fist down on a bass drum? The drumhead is defined how? The tension of the head will also be defined by a certain relation. But in this case here, if the power of a head is to produce harmonics, here I’ve associated my action with the image of something whose relation combines directly with this action. That is, I have drawn harmonics out of the drumhead.
What’s the difference? It’s enormous. In one case I associated my action, once again, the image of a thing whose relation combines directly with the relation of my act, and in the other case, I associated my act with the image of a thing whose relation is immediately and directly decomposed by my act. You grasp the criterion of The Ethics for Spinoza. It’s a very modest criterion, but here, Spinoza gives us a rule. He liked the decompositions of relations very much, he adored the battles of spiders, that made him laugh. Imagine your everyday actions: there are a certain number of them which are characterized as being associated with an image of a thing or being which combines directly with the action, and others which, on the contrary (a type of action), are associated with images of things whose relation is decomposed by the action.
So by convention the actions of direct composition will be called GOOD and the actions of direct decomposition will be called BAD.
We are still floundering among many problems. First problem: what is there in the text of The Ethics that can cast a glimmer of light for us on the text of the letter, the difference between Orestes and Nero. In the letter, it involves two actions which are both crimes. Why is what Nero did something bad, while according to Spinoza one can’t even say that Orestes, in killing his mother, has done something bad? How can one say such a thing? One can say such a thing according to the following: we now have the method of the analysis of action according to Spinoza. Every action will be analyzed along two dimensions: the image of the act as power of the body, what a body can do, and the image of the associated thing, that is to say the object on which the act bears. Between the two there is a relation of association. It’s a logic of action.
Nero kills his mother. In killing his mother, Nero associated his act directly with the image of a being whose relation would be decomposed by this act: he killed his mother. Thus the relation of primary, direct association is between the act and an image of a thing whose relation is decomposed by this act.
Orestes kills his mother because she killed Agamemnon, that is to say because she killed Orestes’ father. In killing his mother, Orestes pursues a sacred vengeance. Spinoza does not say vengeance. According to Spinoza, Orestes associates his act, not with the image of Clytemnestra whose relation will be decomposed by this act, but rather he associates it with the relation of Agamemnon which was decomposed by Clytemnestra. In killing his mother, Orestes recomposes his relation with the relation of his father.
Spinoza is in the process of telling us that, okay, at the level of a particular point of view, you or me, there is always composition and decomposition of relations at once; does that mean that the good and the bad are mixed up and become indiscernible? No, replies Spinoza, because at the level of a logic of the particular point of view there will always be a priority [primat]. Sometimes the composition of relations will be direct and the decomposition indirect, and sometimes, on the contrary, the decomposition willl be direct and the composition indirect. Spinoza tells us: I call good an action that implements [opre] a direct composition of relations even if it implements an indirect decomposition, and I call bad an action that implements a direct decomposition even if it implements an indirect composition. In other words there are two types of actions: actions in which the decomposition comes about as if in consequence and not in principle, because the principle is a composition - and this has value only for my point of view, because from the point of view of nature everything is composition and it’s for that reason that God knows neither evil nor the bad - and inversely there are actions which directly decompose and imply compositions only indirectly. This, then, is the criterion of the good and the bad and it’s with this that it’s necessary to live. Spinoza is an author who, whenever he encounters the problem of a symbolic dimension, continually expunges it, hunts it down, and tries to show that it was a confused idea of the worst imagination. Prophetism is the act by which I receive a sign and by which I emit signs. There is clearly a theory of the sign in Spinoza, which consists in relating the sign to the most confused understanding and imagination in the world, and in the world such as it is, according to Spinoza, the idea of the sign does not exist. There are expressions, there are never signs. When God reveals to Adam that the apple will act as a poison, he reveals to him a composition of relations, he reveals to him a physical truth and he doesn’t send him a sign at all. It’s only to the extent that one comprehends nothing of the substance-mode relation that one invokes signs. Spinoza says a thousand times that God makes no signs, he gives expressions. He does not give a sign which would refer to a signification or a signifier (a crazy notion for Spinoza), he expresses himself, that is to say he reveals his relations. And revealing is neither mystical nor symbolic. Revealing is giving something to comprehend. He gives relations to comprehend in the understanding of God. The apple falls, it’s a revelation of God, it’s a composition of relations… If there is an order of filiations in Spinoza, it’s obviously not a symbolic order, it’s an order that, step by step, makes up Nature, and Nature is an individual, an individual which encompasses all individuals, there is an order of compositions of relations and it’s quite necessary that all the relations be carried out [effectuŽs]. The necessity of Nature is that there will not be relations that are not carried out. Everything possible is necessary, which means that all relations have been or will be carried out.
Spinoza wouldn’t do the Eternal Return, the same relation will not be executed [executŽ] twice. There is an infinity of relations, the whole of Nature is the totality of executions [effectuations] of all possible, and thus necessary, relations. That is identity in Spinoza, the absolute identity of the possible and the necessary. On prophetism, Spinoza says something very simple which will be taken up again by Nietzsche, by all those authors of whom one can say that they are, in this sense, those who have pushed positivism as far as possible. Here, broadly speaking, is the idea that they get: okay, there are laws. These laws are laws of Nature and thus when one speaks of divine revelation there is nothing mysterious. Divine revelation is the exposition of laws. Spinoza calls a law a composition of relations. This is what will be called a law of nature. When one is very restricted one cannot comprehend laws as laws. How does one comprehend them? 2 + 2 = 4 is a composition of relations. You have the relation two plus two, you have the relation four, and you have the relation of identity between the relation two plus two and the relation four. If you comprehend nothing, you hear this law as an order, or as a commandment. The little child at school comprehends the law of nature as a moral law: it is necessary that it be so, and if he says something else he will be punished. It proceeds like that according to our restricted understanding. If we were to grasp the laws as what they are, as physical compositions of relations, compositions of bodies, then notions as strange as command and obedience would remain completely unknown to us. It’s to the extent that we perceive a law that we don’t comprehend that we apprehend it as an order; God forbade absolutely nothing, Spinoza explains on the subject of Adam. He revealed a law to him, namely that the apple combines with a relation that excludes my constituent relation. Therefore it’s a law of nature. It’s exactly like arsenic. Adam comprehends nothing of any of this, and instead of grasping it as a law, he grasps it as one of God’s prohibitions. So when I grasp things under the form command-obedience, instead of grasping them as compositions of relations, at that very moment I start saying that God is like a father, I demand a sign. The prophet is someone who, not grasping the laws of nature, will just ask for the sign that guarantees to him that the order is just.
If I comprehend nothing in the law, I demand on the other hand a sign in order to be sure that what I am ordained to do is really what I am ordained to do. The first reaction of the prophet is: God, give me a sign that it is really you who speaks to me. Later, when the prophet has the sign, he is going to emit signs. This will be the language of signs.
Spinoza is a positivist because he opposes expression to the sign: God expresses, the modes express, the attributes express. Why? In logical language, one would say that the sign is always equivocal, there is an equivocity of the sign, that is to say that the sign signifies, but it signifies in several senses. In contrast, expression is uniquely and completely univocal: there is only one single sense of the expression, and that is the sense following which the relations combine.
According to Spinoza, God proceeds by expression and never by sign. The true language is that of expression. The language of expression is that of the composition of relations to infinity.
All that Spinoza will consent to is the fact that, because we are not philosophers, because our understanding is restricted, we always have need of certain signs. Signs are a vital necessity because we comprehend only a very few of the things in the world. That’s the way Spinoza justifies society. Society is the institution [instauration] of the minimum of signs indispensible to life. Of course, there are relations of obedience and command, if one has knowledge [connaissance] there is no need to obey or command. But it happens that one has a very limited knowledge, thus all one can ask of those who command and obey is not to meddle with knowledge. So all obedience and command bearing on knowledge is null and void. Which Spinoza expresses on a very beautiful page of the Theological-Political Treatise, namely that there is only one absolutely inalienable freedom, and that is the freedom of thought. If there is a symbolic domain, it is that of order, command and obedience. It is the domain of signs. The domain of knowledge is the domain of relations, that is to say of univocal expressions.


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