Spinoza's genealogical critique of his contemporaries' axiology

Benedict Rumbold
2017 Intellectual History Review  
One striking feature of Spinoza's moral philosophy is his open antipathy to what he took to be the prominent axiological theories of his day. Spinoza decries, for example, the "common supposition" that order is something "in Nature more than a relation to our imagination", that good and bad are among "the chief attributes of things", that good and bad, perfection and imperfection, are something "positive in things, considered in themselves," and that "Nature sometimes fails or sins, and
more » ... r sins, and produces imperfect things" (EIAppendix, EIVPreface). 1 All these notions, he argues, amount to little more than "prejudices", beliefs formed "in ignorance of things", by people who "only imagine" things, who "affirm nothing concerning things", and who "take the imagination for the intellect" (EIAppendix). Spinoza's aversion to such ideas is borne in part by virtue of their inadequacy, that they are imaginations masquerading as intellections. However, he also has another, more practical concern: that such ideas will thwart his efforts to educate and "emend" the minds of his readership (cf. TIE.). It is not simply, then, that his readers commonly hold confused and mutilated ideas about the nature of good and bad, perfect and imperfect and so on, but that there is the potential for such ideas to act as an "obstacle" to his own teachings on "the connection of things" (EIAppendix). In response to this threat, Spinoza endeavours to "remove" such metaethical prejudices from the minds of his readers, to "expose" them, as he has similar misconceptions about other matters, by submitting them to the "scrutiny of reason" (EIAppendix). In this, Spinoza's critique of his contemporaries' theory of value, both in EIAppendix and later in EIVPreface, forms part of what Deleuze refers to as Spinoza's "anti-Bible". As Deleuze explains, there are, in a sense, three Ethics, each speaking to a different part of Spinoza's "logic". Definitions, axioms, postulates, propositions, demonstrations and corollaries make up Spinoza's "conceptual" Ethics. These, Deleuze argues, "form a grandiose course", dealing with inadequate ideas or passions only in order "to denounce their insufficiency, to repress them as far as possible like so many sediments on the river banks". A second Ethics, represented by Book V and contained in Book V, concerns itself with "Essences", "Singularities" and "Precepts": these are light "in itself and for itself". However, there is also a third element. This is Spinoza's anti-Bible, his book of "signs and affects", of "Anger and Laughter". This book, found predominantly in the scholia, "operates in the shadows, trying to distinguish between what prevents us from reaching common notions and what, on the contrary, allows us to do so, what diminishes and what augments our power, the sad signs of our servitude and the joyous signs of our liberations". 2 Following Sasso, 3 Deleuze notes that Spinoza's book of "signs and affects" can seem separate from Spinoza's "conceptual" Ethics, having "a completely different tone [...] almost another language". 4 However, it would be wrong to assume that just because such passages are written in a different literary style to the rest of the Ethics they are therefore extraneous to Spinoza's main philosophical project. Indeed, Spinoza's critique of his contemporaries' theory of value in EIAppendix and EIVPreface ultimately plays a foundational role in his own metaethical thought. For in EIVPreface Spinoza explicitly grounds his own theory of value on the inadequacy of his contemporaries', concluding that perfection and imperfection, good and bad are "only modes of thinking" principally on the basis that they are not something "positive in things, considered in themselves" (effectively deploying of the law of the excluded middle). Both the broad aims of EIAppendix and EIVPreface and the significance of these arguments in his wider philosophical project, then, look clear. Yet quite how Spinoza hopes to achieve these ends is less certain. How, precisely, does Spinoza think he can "remove" his contemporaries' prejudices about value? Despite the wealth of literature on the philosophy and history of the more 'positive' aspects of Spinoza's metaethics, 5 this, more critical and 'negative' side to his thought has generally received very little attention. In this article, I consider Spinoza's argumentative strategy in these passages in depth. In Section One, I argue that Spinoza's argument here is best understood as a  b.rumbold@ucl.ac.uk
doi:10.1080/17496977.2017.1294847 fatcat:5dmqrwdk4fajtg3azlvn3jidjy