, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 107–133 | Cite as

Is Spinoza an ethical naturalist?

  • Paul D. Eisenberg


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  1. 2.
    The former paper may be found inSpinoza: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. M. Grene (Garden City [N.Y.], Doubleday, 1973), pp. 354–76; the latter, inSpinoza: Essays in Interpretation, ed. M. Mandelbaum and E. Freeman (LaSalle [Ill], Open Court, 1975), pp. 85–100. More particularly, like Curley and Frankena themselves, I am concerned to understand the view(s), presented by Spinoza in Part IV of hisEthics and, even more particularly, in the Preface and Definitions for that Part—materials which do constitute the “heart” of Spinoza's metaethical theory. Accordingly, I shall make nosystematic attempt to relate Spinoza's views there to views advanced by him elsewhere, much less to arrive at an interpretation of the former views by seeing them “in the light” of such other passages. Upon occasion, however, I shall find it helpful to compare what Spinoza is saying in (that portion of) theEthics with the views which he advances in certain other works. Throughout I use the W.H. White translation of theEthics, unless otherwise noted. I quote also from Wolf's translation of theShort Treatise, and from my own (unpublished) translation of theTreatise on the Improvement of the Understanding.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Cf. C.D. Broad'sFive Types of Ethical Theory (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1930), Ch. II.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    In order not to make this paper unduly complicated, and in order tofocus my disagreements with Curley and with Frankena concerning the interpretation of Spinoza. I shall not question their (implied) view that the most plausible alternative to a “naturalistic ethics” is one of the sort now associated most commonly with Hare. In fact, however, Hare's view has been subjected to very basic and telling criticisms, and rather more “sophisticated” metaethical positions have been advanced than those which Curley and Frankena cite. In any case, I shall not here question the Harean view that ‘good’ and ‘ought’ have sufficient similarities to warrant one's classifying them together simply as “value-words” (cf.The Language of Morals [Oxford, 1952], p. 153). That is, I shall ignore the point— raised so forcibly earlier in this century by, e.g., Ross and developed by certain more recent thinkers— that the “logic” of so-called deontic terms may be fundamentally different from that of genuinely evaluative ones, and, hence (though this latter is certainly no part of Ross view), that it is quite possible that the former terms are not to be analyzed naturalistically whereas the latter are correctly so analyzed. Nor shall I question Hare's view that the primary linguistic function of all “value-words”, (including, for him, deontic terms) is commendation. My concluding remarks about the role of commendings or commendations in Spinoza's positive account of ethics should, therefore, be understood as being designedly somewhat “loose.” Such a procedure may not be altogethercommendable, but I do think it justified by the reasons already indicated!Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    One might all too easily get sidetracked, when one attempts to determine whether that account fits Spinoza's actual procedure or squares with his own brief metaethical remarks, by questioning whether, in Spinoza's own view, the “facts” of ethics areempirically ascertainable. It is, surely, true that Spinoza is no empiricist, and true also that the entireEthics is written from the standpoint of what Spinoza calls “reason” (or, maybe, even “intuitive science”) rather than from that inferior standpoint which he dismisses as that of “vague experience” (cf. Part II, Prop. XL., Schol. 2). Instead of trying to determine whether Spinoza recognizes a kind ofexperience which is not vague, it would seem more profitable, at least in the present context, to rephrase the second Frankenian account, once again, so that it does not beg or even appear to beg the rationalist/empiricist question. Let us then say that the ethical naturalist takes the meaning of (typical) ethical judgments or utterances to consist, at least primarily, in the statement or the description of (alleged) facts which are ascertainable in whatever way(s) he supposes the facts that provide the data for (his) metaphysics, epistemology, or psychology are ascertained or are ascertainable. Following Moore (but not exactly!), we may dub the latter ways “naturalistic” — that is, we may emplop ‘naturalistic’ as such a technical term (for the moment disregarding its ordinary meanings or associations). Hence, we may label any ethicist as a naturalist provided thata) he holds that the primary business of (typical) ethical judgments or utterances is indeed to state or describe (alleged) facts, andb) holds that the ascertainment of those facts requires in principle no means other than those which, on his view, are required for the ascertainment of the facts with which those other domains of philosophy deal. If one happens to be an empiricist as well as an ethical naturalist, then, of course, one will hold that the ethical “facts” in question are empirically ascertainable.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    It needs to be added that, as the context of the former passage (from Part I) makes clear, Spinoza means to be talking there about a thing's ability to exist (as manifested in its actual existence) from its own internal resources, as it were, and not merely insofar as it is kept going by other things (over which it itself has no control).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    I havenot argued that he has not made two other blunders, namely, confusing ethical normatives with one another or confusing ethical normatives with non-ethical ones. Thus, for example, one might agree that ‘powerful’ is, as Spinoza employs it, a normative expression. Yet one might object that he has wrongly sought to define the key ethical term ‘good’ by reference to the model of human nature muchstronger or, i.e., morepowerfulthan one's own. One might object, that is, either because, one supposes, ‘goodness’ is one ethical term and ‘power’ another or because ‘power’ is not an ethical term at all (but, rather, a normative term of some other sort). Or, alternatively, one might think that none of these terms is necessarily or in every context an ethical term; and that Spinoza's fundamental mistake was, not toreduce the ethical to the non-normative, but toexpand the ethical so that every normative is,ipso facto, an ethical one. I have not the space in this paper, however, to deal with any of these futher charges.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Though this is not the place to discuss that interpretative assumption at length, it seems to me that, terminological issues aside, Spinoza is consciously committed to the existence of certain universals — e.g., to those which directly correspond to or are the objects of what he calls the “common notions.” (Since, he maintains, the common notions are applicable to all modes, these universals turn out to be genuine universals in the sense that they haveuniversal extensions.) It is by no means clear, however, that Spinoza's actual commitment to universals is limited to these “universal” universals, as I might call them.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    It is obvious that these claims, even if correct, can account for only a part of people's ordinary moral views — or rather, more generally, their evaluative views. It is not true that ordinarily “we” take something to begood just in case it approximates very closely to “our” idea of the species to which, we believe, it belongs; we also judge entire species as good or bad. (In a sense, which I have not the space to elucidate here, Spinoza does indeed identify ‘being good’ with ‘being good of a kind’; but the sense in which he does that allows him to escape the sort of objection I have just suggested, an objection which Curley's presentation does little or nothing to meet.)Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    The question of how Spinoza takesa) andb) themselves to be related is a fascinating and important one, but it is not one with which Curley deals nor, unfortunately, is it one which I have the space to investigate carefully in this paper. For the sake of simplicity, at any rate, I shall assume that Spinoza means in fact to subordinatea) tob) in the sense that he takes some actual comparison of two or more “things” with one another to be necessary for theoriginal formation of the universal idea of the “species” to which the things in question belong, and, maybe, also that he takes the judgment of something'sapproximation to that idea, once formed, to involve, if only implicitly, comparison between that thing and at least one (real or possible) other member of the “species.” Thecore of his account, however, as I understand it, concerns directly only that universal idea and, in relation to it, the very thing being judged good or bad. Hence, I wish to concentrate onb), as Curley himself seems to do.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Although it is, perhaps, not directly relevant to my main concerns in this paper, 1 should like to point out that Spinoza has overstated his case concerning relations as such. For modes of thought are, in his ontology, real things, quite as much as are modes of extension. Indeed, given his so-called psychophysical parallelism, it has to be the case that what are, considered in one way, modes of thought exist also as modes of the attribute of Extension. Accordingly, what Spinoza really means by his oft-repeated claim that relations are only modes of thought is merely that thecontent of such ideas does not correspond to or parallel anything which exists under the attribute of Extension. Obviously, his form of psycho-physical parallelism itself does not require him to maintain thatin all cases the content, or the object, of an idea exists also under the attribute of Extension. For clearly he is not committed to the real existence of unicorns or golden mountains. It is enough that these modes of thought, construed as mentalacts, be the “counterparts” of certain physical events occurring within the body of the being whose thoughts they are. I am not suggesting, however, that Spinoza has a well worked-out distinction between the act, the content, and the object of thought; but his present doctrine concerning relations, like various other of his theses, can only be made intelligible or coherent if some such distinction is taken to be implicit in his philosophical writings.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    It is impossible, on Spinoza's view — according to which the order of ideas and the order of “things” (i.e., material objects) aremerely parallel, i.e., according to which there is only one order or series, which may be viewed by us either under the attribute of Thought or under that of Extension — that there should be anything which directly relates an idea to anything else than some other idea(s). Hence, the relation which he takes goodness or evil to consist in cannot be one which directly connects an idea (about a certain “species” of thing) with some member of that species considered as a material object. It is, rather, one'sidea of the thing which is connected to one's idea of the thing's species — the connection being itself, on Spinoza's view, a “mode of thought” or idea (but, obviously, one of a different variety from that of either of the ideas which it relates to one another).Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    It is quite clear, I think, that this passage should be read in conjunction with this earlier passage (inter alia): But we must observe that these notions are not formed by all persons in the same way, but that they vary in each case according to the thing by which the body is more frequently affected, and which the mind more easily imagines or recollects. For example, those who have more frequently looked with admiration upon the stature of men, by the nameman will understand an animal of erect stature, while those who have been in the habit of fixing their thoughts on something else, will form another common image of men, describing man, for instance, as an animal capable of laughter, a biped without feathers, a rational animal, and so on; each person forming universal images of things according to the temperament of his own body. It is not therefore to be wondered at that so many controversies have arisen amongst those philosophers who have endeavoured to explain natural objects by the images of things alone. (II, Prop. XL, Schol. 1)Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Much more pointedly, one must ask whether “the model... we set before us” is, for each of us, his or her as yet unrealized but ideal self; or whether Spinoza means to take as the one model the (allegedly) already real life of the man who was Jesus. (For evidence to support the conjecture that Spinoza did take Jesus to be the exemplar, see bothEthics IV, Prop. LXVIII, Schol. and various passages from theTheologico-Political Treatise, including especially a passage from Ch. I which may be found in Gebhardt, vol. III, p. 21, 1. 8et seq..) Clearly, answering that question is important not only for an understanding of Spinoza's ethical theory but also for an understanding of its underlying metaphysics.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    I have chosen to close this paper by quoting (in Curley's own translation) the very passage—fromEthics IV, Prop. XLV, Corol. 2, Schol. — which Curley uses as the epigraph for his paper. He, however, does not indicate — nor, so far as I know, has anyone before him — that Spinoza's wording here is somewhat odd. Why does Spinoza appear to be raising the question whether there are alternative manners of living when he has already informed us, at great length, that thereare, namely, all those which involve what he terms “bondage” to the passions? I think the explanation is this: Spinoza uses the phrasevivendi ratio, which may be translated merely as “manner of living”; but which, of course, implies that such living has someratio or, i.e., that it is reasonable. Apparently Spinoza is thus punning on the phrase, or is calling attention to the fact that it is, on his view, really wrong or misleading to label anyalternative life-style as avivendi ratio. (Cf. his similar, but more explicit, objection to the traditional phraseentia rationis or “things [entities] of reason” inEthics, I, App., penultimate paragraph.)Google Scholar

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© Bar-Ilan University 1977

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul D. Eisenberg
    • 1
  1. 1.Indiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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