Spinoza's Use of Value Predicates

By Jan Garrett

[This paper was written in March 1975 for a graduate course on Spinoza taught by Professor Doug Lewis of the Philosophy Department at the University of Minnesota. I then filed it away where I could find it if I ever had occasion to return to the topic. This version has been scanned from the typescript in my files. I have revised the references and citations to conform to a more recent translation and made corresponding changes to Spinozan technical terms in my commentary. I hope to have time to revisit the Ethics and the issues in this paper more closely. I would not be surprised if I no longer fully agree with my former self on all points of interpretation.--J. G., December 22, 2003]
Most references are embedded in parentheses in the body of the paper. The text of the Ethics to which I refer is the translation included in Spinoza Complete Works, trans. S. Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002). Where possible, references are indexed by part and proposition number following the style used in the Shirley translation. "Pr." stands for "proposition"; "Def." stands for "definition"; "Cor." stands for "corollary"; "Schol." stands for "scholium" (note). Other references to the Complete Works are in the form "CW: n," where "n" is the page number.

In the Ethics Spinoza uses the predicates "good," "evil" and "perfect" each in two ways, one value-neutral and the other apparently value-charged. The purpose of this paper is to show that these uses are compatible and that the second set is definitionally supported on the value-neutral framework of the first, I hope also to be able to show that Spinoza's dual use of the term "freedom" may be understood in roughly the same way and that the ethical theory in which these terms take their meaning embodies a unique solution to the problem of ethical relativism,

At the outset I note that the first use of these predicates has its place in the grand metaphysical vision attained by a Spinozan "man of reason," that is, a person who has only adequate ideas and no confused ones. We must suppose that Spinoza writes the Ethics largely from this standpoint.

In fact, however, the "man of reason" is a limiting case. We are also interested in the viewpoint of a person who has some adequate ideas and some confused ideas, but who may be said to aspire to become a man of reason. I will call such a person an aspirant. The apparently value-charged uses of the predicates are rooted in this viewpoint, as we shall see.

I. The Value-Neutral Uses of the Predicates

In the first part of the Ethics, Spinoza takes pains to show that all things necessarily follow from the nature of the one infinite substance (Pr. 16, I). Because of this, things could have been produced in no other way. There is thus nothing warranting the predicate "contingent," unless we wish merely to express our subjective ignorance.

Since there is nothing incomplete or unfinished about the necessary results of substance's (i.e. God's) essence, "it clearly follows . . . that things have been brought into being . . . with supreme perfection." (Schol. 2, Pr. 33, I) But this use of the term "perfection" is somewhat strained because there is no sense in the contrary, as Spinoza explains later. He writes:

He who has undertaken something and has brought it to completion will say that the thing is completed (perfectus); and not only he but everyone who rightly knew, or thought he knew, the intention and aim of the author of that work (Pref., IV; CW: 320).
But we incorrectly extend this habit from artificial to natural objects. When we form species notions, we come to think of the norm or typical member of the species as perfect, as if it were what a skilled artisan-Deity would have created. When something belonging to a species differs markedly from this abstracted norm, we say that Nature has erred. But this is just like saying that God has erred. Besides being blasphemous, it contradicts what was shown in part I: All finite beings are equally the result of God's eternal necessity. (CW: 321)

"Perfection and imperfection are really only modes of thought," Spinoza concludes. But he decides to redefine the former term and keep it in use: "By reality and perfection I mean the same thing." (Def. 6, II)

In Spinoza's philosophy individual things have essences without belonging to species. This contrasts with Aristotle's philosophy in which an individual shares its essence with every other member of its species. For Spinoza, "essence" appears to mean the set of necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of a thing (Def. 2, II). Since something antagonistic to the continuation of these conditions must be present to explain why any existing being ceases to exist, the essence of an Individual thing is also the set of conditions tending towards the preservation of the thing. (Pr. 4-5, III)

Hence each thing, to the extent that it is considered "in itself" (that is, through its essence), endeavors to persevere in its being. This effort is nothing but the actual essence of the thing (Pr. 6-7, III). Conceived on its mental side, this effort is called will. Conceived as both a mental and biological phenomenon, it is called appetite. Appetites of which we are conscious are called desires. (Schol., Pr. 9, III) Spinoza later formalizes his definition of desire as the essence of man to the extent that it is conceived as determined to action by one of its bio-mental changes (CW: 311).

Spinoza is now in a position to make the following comment on good and evil:

It is clear from the above considerations that we do not endeavor, will, seek after or desire because we judge a thing to be good. On the contrary, we judge a thing to be good because we endeavor, will, seek after and desire it (Schol., Pr. 9, III).
Later he returns to this theme. The terms "good" and "bad," he says, indicate nothing positive in themselves. He adds that they are no different from notions which we form by comparing one thing with another (CW: 321). This comparative use may be easily derived from the basic notion. We call comparatively "good" that which we desire more and comparatively "bad" that which we more desire to avoid. "One and the same thing can at the same time be good and bad, and also indifferent," he says, returning to the non-comparative use. "For example, music is good for one who is melancholy, bad for one in mourning, and neither good nor bad for the deaf" (CW: 321-22).

To the extent that he thinks like a man of reason, the aspirant will not use the terms "good" and "bad" to pass judgment on others if they do not live up to the standards appropriate to a man of reason. The strong minded person "hates nobody, is angry with nobody, envies nobody, is indignant with nobody, despises nobody, and is in no way prone to pride" (Schol., Pr. 75, IV).

Most of all this will be the case in the relations between the teacher of a Spinozan ethics and those he hopes to be able to influence to progress towards adequate knowledge. The internal structure of a person having many inadequate ideas is such that it is impossible that he would think good and evil those things that an advanced aspirant would think so. Were the teacher to say that hatred, fear, jealousy, etc. are evil, he would seem to imply that there were absolute standards and that the student's particular structure of desire, which expresses his essence, is somehow short of it. But the lack of internal peace in a person subject to the passions is the only yardstick needed. It is no help to him also to add to this the accusation that he falls short of some supposed transcendental standard.

One may point out that this is still esoteric doctrine. In his public life, an aspirant will often use "good" and "bad" dogmatically, to the extent that he knows that he cannot aid a person to achieve internal harmony and desires to convey to him the finite rules that will preserve the immediate communal peace,

The best course we can adopt, as long as we lack a perfect knowledge of our emotions, is to conceive a right method of living or fixed rules of life, and to commit them to memory and continually apply them to the particular situations that are frequently encountered in life... (Schol., Pr. 10, V).
Yet even here the aspirant may exercise a harmonizing influence by pointing out the bigger context of their actions to those largely subject to the passions. He will be able to do this so far as they desire to resist a loss of their power to act and do not regard the aspirant's counsel as a threat to themselves.

II. The Derivative Use of Value Predicates

The second major use of the value predicates arises from the desire of a person, to the extent that his already adequate ideas cause him to strive to preserve these ideas, to sustain them beyond their present degree of cohesion in a system of fully articulated "intuitive knowledge." They derive from the situation of the aspirant rather than the fully developed man of reason.

From the viewpoint of the latter, that of the former can only represent one viewpoint out of an infinity of possible viewpoints. This must be distinguished from the attitude of one aspirant towards another, when the former is closer to the ideal than the latter. For the more serious aspirants there are, the more they reinforce each other. Hence they must look upon each other's progress with pleasure (laetitia). But the complete man of reason would be without emotions of any kind.

Before turning to Spinoza's introduction of moral predicates of the second kind, we must understand certain things about the nature of the emotions and Spinoza's attitude towards them.

Although he often uses categories that are formal opposites, such as "adequate" and "inadequate," he can only intend by such locutions the communication of matters of degree on a scale from one pole to another. It is important to note that these scales are not any more (or less) objective than the viewpoint of the man of reason which Spinoza tries to adopt. It does not correspond to an objective standard beyond man's reaching for rationality,

An aspirant, like all other beings, desires to preserve his own bio-mental structure and not to be worn down or corrupted by external forces. He is able to do this just to the extent that he has clear and distinct ideas about himself and nature. He is said, just to that extent, to be the adequate cause of himself and to act (Defs. 1 and 2, III).

An emotion is the bio-mental change in a being that occurs when the power of the being to act is increased or decreased. An emotion is called an action to the extent that it corresponds to our bio-mental changes following from our acts. It is a passion when the bio-mental change occurs in us as a result of external influences, i.e. when we are the inadequate cause of what we do (Def. 3, III).

Spinoza says that we "are passive when something takes place in us . . . of which we are only the partial cause" (Def. 2, III).

Passive experiences, all of which involve confused ideas (CW: 319), consist of those which increase and those which decrease the power to act. The former class is made up of pleasure (laetitia) and its derivatives, the latter pain (tristitia) and its derivatives. A person with many inadequate ideas will maintain his essence only by a chaotic alternation of pleasant and painful passions over which he has no control.

Just to the extent that the mind is directed to its clear and distinct ideas and turns from its confused ones, active emotion occurs in a person. This emotion too is pleasant and it too contributes to the mind's power to act (Pr. 53, Pr. 59, III). Thus one's ability to move in the direction of the man of reason seems to be enhanced just to the extent one is already on the way, while one who has little power to act may be ruined by rather trivial sorrows. [Is this really Spinoza's view?-2003]

We pointed out earlier that an individual desires to preserve his own being. That being is chiefly a definite proportion of adequate to inadequate ideas and the bodily states correlating to it. [Is this right--2003?] An individual therefore desires to preserve just this proportion. But only an increase in adequate ideas can aid him to preserve his being. If this increase occurs, however, his essence must be altered. The being that he is preserving when the proportions have changed is essentially another being. In Spinoza's system we can only desire to become a man of reason to the extent that we already have adequate ideas, because we can only desire to be what we essentially are. Nonetheless, we cannot resist becoming more of a man of reason since it is precisely our active power that gains by pleasant emotions and this increase in power is identical to a change in our essence.

The proclaimed goal of an aspirant, then, is to alter his essence in such a way that his power of acting is greatly increased. The advanced aspirant is less inclined to be attached to his essence than average person. His contemplation of his power of acting causes him often to "shed his essence" and progress toward greater rationality. Only serious sorrows can hold back his advance.

Acting consists in navigating oneself among external objects so that one will be as little subject to the passions as possible. We must not take "external" here too much in a common-sense manner: Artifacts and foods made for use by human labor become less external to the extent that their utility increases. When man's natural and social environment affirms his being, it is internal to him. In this spirit, Spinoza would have approved Marx's later remark that nature is man's inorganic body.(Karl Marx, Writings of the Young Marx, eds. Easton and Guddat [Garden City; Anchor Books, 1967], p. 293.)

Nature affirms man's being just to the extent that he has clear and distinct ideas of it. Spinoza denies that one can form distinct ideas of things that are necessarily harmful to one. Short of understanding the whole universe, however, man will have to face external things through sense organs and the imagination. These can only give rise to confused ideas and passions.

Now we may turn to Spinoza's second use of moral predicates. He adopts derivative meanings of "good" and "bad" as elliptical for "good from the aspirant's viewpoint" and "bad from the aspirant's viewpoint," He writes that we desire to form for ourselves an idea of man upon which we may look as a model of human nature, i.e. the man of reason. In this connection, it would be of service to retain the moral predicates "good" and "bad."

So in what follows I shall mean by "good" that which we certainly know to be the means for our approaching nearer to the model of human nature that we set before ourselves, and by "bad" that which we certainly know prevents us from reproducing the said model (Pref. IV; CW: 322).

Spinoza may have had pedagogical reasons for using "good" and "bad" in this second sense. Or he may have wanted to emphasize the affinities between his philosophy and the moderately reflective moralism of Christianity. Yet it must be noted that this elliptical use runs the risk of contributing to confusion. An advanced aspirant would be compelled to say "desired by me" wherever a less aspiring person would say "good," assuming of course that they happen to desire the same things.

Examples of Spinoza's derivative use of the words "good" and "bad" include "The mind's highest good is the knowledge of God" (Pr. 28, IV); "Nothing can be evil for us through what it possesses in common with our nature" (Pr. 30, IV); "Cheerfulness is always good" (Pr. 42, IV); "Hatred can never be good." (Pr. 45, IV); "The emotions of over-esteem and disparagement are always bad" (Pr. 48, IV); and the "ecological proposition": "Under the guidance of reason, we seek the future greater good in preference to a lesser and present good..." (Pr. 66, IV).

Spinoza also introduces a derivative sense of perfection and imperfection, "We shall say that men are more or less perfect insofar as they are nearer to or farther from this model," i.e. the man of reason. An example of this use is "The more perfection a thing possesses, the more active and the less passive it is. Conversely, the more active it is, the more perfect it is" (Pr. 40, V).

He says that by increasing perfection he does not mean a change in essence, but rather that one's power of acting is increased. This remark, together with the comment "for a horse, for instance, would be as much destroyed if it were changed into a man as if it were changed into an insect," seems to imply that Spinoza accepts an Aristotelian theory of essence. But as we have pointed out, this is not his view. He does in fact hold that a change in the power of acting of a man changes his essence. This is the reason for his not relying on memory as measure of one's progress towards the ideals:

When I say a greater or less power of existence than before, I do not mean that the mind compares the present with the past constitution of the body, but that the idea which constitutes the form of emotion affirms something of the body which actually involves more or less reality than before. (CW: 319)
III. The dual usage of the term "freedom"

From his description of the necessity of things in part I, Spinoza inferred that God or Nature alone is a free cause (Cor. 2, Pr. 17, I). He later explains that freedom as generally used is a confused notion. "Men are deceived in thinking themselves free, a belief that consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined" (Schol., Pr. 35, II). He later states that in the human mind there is "no absolute, or free, will" (Pr. 48, II).

Later Spinoza introduces a derivative sense of the word "free" that closely parallels his derivative sense of "perfect." Since the passions and the imagination both involve confused ideas, a person who is led by these alone will do things of which he is entirely ignorant. But one who is led by reason does the will of no one but himself; he "does only what he knows are of greatest importance in life, which he therefore desires above all. So I call the former a slave and the latter a free man" (Schol., Pr. 66, IV).

He goes on to describe the free man in propositions 67-73 of part IV. Although he says in the demonstration of proposition 67 that the free man is "led by reason alone," we must understand here again that this is the limiting case, which cannot exist in reality. Rather, an aspirant can be mostly, but not entirely free. The propositions about the free man can then apply to him just to that extent. Moreover, we are entitled to suspect that were any being entirely a "free man," he would be identical to God.

IV. Spinoza's solution to the problem of ethical relativism

Spinoza's philosophy provides a unique solution to the problem of relativism which philosophers have bandied back and forth since the time of Protagoras. The anti-relativists generally content themselves with applying the relativists' relativism to their own doctrine. When epistemic relativists assert that all truths are relative to one's viewpoint, their opponents only need to ask if that assertion too is relative to one's viewpoint. An ethical parallel to this may be constructed when those who claim that what is good (or just) is relative to the viewpoint of the person or group involved also argue that one ought not to impose one's standards of good (or justice) on other people or groups. The contradiction need only to be indicated by the following question: Isn't the "ought" statement itself a universal ethical truth if it is valid at all?

Such refutations of relativism seem to me to fail to do justice to the sociological insights on which relativism is based. Spinoza's system, however, shows how it is possible for an ethical system, which also happens to be a metaphysical and epistemic one, to be both relative to a point of view and absolute at the same time. It is absolute because it arises from Reason itself, from adequate knowledge What this means is that to the extent that one identifies oneself with adequate knowledge, one is compelled psychologically to adopt this standpoint. It is relative to the extent that those who have not taken the viewpoint of the aspirant are under no obligation to do so. One may say, however, that a Spinozan is compelled to think that the other routes are not completely logical, but there is nothing that requires non-aspirants to be devoted to logical coherence as entirely as the Spinozan. For this reason, even the choice of the words "Reason" and "adequate knowledge" to describe the position of the Spinozan is not value-loaded. Non-Spinozans are welcome to call intellectual systems that derive from a major emphasis on sense-perception or ordinary language models of reason. But the price they may have to pay is to hold ethical and metaphysical world-pictures that do not mesh.

Jan Garrett
March 10, 1975