Interpretation: notes on the thought of Spinoza

Key Concept

A surfeit of sense

Interpretation might initially be defined as the art of finding the situs of that which refuses to be localisable. One may slice up the commodity into its tiniest parts and never find its value, for the value is intermixed totally. So the sense of the word, which is a matter of the global. Spinoza understood how the sense of it all – the sense produced by a Deus sive Natura defined as the causa essendi [sic] – could everywhere be so completely prolific as to overflow into nonsense and ‘disharmony’ (Ethics I Apx.). At one level, this was because Spinoza takes the being of God or Nature’s essence to be defined as that essence which implicates standing forth, or ex-sists, and on the contrary, takes substance’s existence as that which once conceived (enacted), already stands forth. The perspective of interest with this, the causa sui, is that the truth brought forth by conception is always being made-sense-of by the essential truth of this bringing forth; this truth is true by its own natural right, yet it additionally implicates the meaning of its truth in being, an implication which overfills the truth with veracity so raising it beyond the true, indeed rendering it absurd (lit. discordant, dissonant, perhaps also ‘deafened by the clamour of being’). The self-sufficiency of the apodeictic judgment, which here in Spinoza, as in Kant and Hegel, is linked to freedom, can lead one to the erroneous conclusion that the ‘foundational’ conception so isolated is indeed isolatable, and that it must close itself off from the consequence of its very nature, namely that as unrestrained repetitious series of self-conception we pass to the limit of the series – a metabasis – and are placed under the onus of questioning what it is to have varied in this way, to have, seemingly, liberated truth by swerving away from determinable, adequate truth? Yes Spinoza has discovered in a certain manner the reason or law of this series in the circularity of the causation, but has he not also repeated the oscillation between positions to infinity – is it not also the law of this series that nothing can decide on the meaning of what is being written? Perhaps this is Spinoza’s great joke: God OR Nature – even God or Nature cannot decide which, and assents to its indecision in eternity.

At a second level, Spinoza understood this general feature of this nonsense (as more-than-sense rather than a lack) because he realised that as one focused on every individual case within the infinite whole, here, locally, nonsense as it were came into focus as sense. This was already the teaching of Cusanus: that in the limit of God, the triangle, circle, straight-line, they were all indistinguishably complicated; locally, however, they were perfectly, rationally clear and distinct (though continuing to implicate this maximal complication). Spinoza, however, wishes to treat the globality of Thought as Descartes treated the globality of Extension, though now in a dynamic fashion. There is more than an absolute in-distinction at play, and we must insinuate between the maximum and minimum an attributive layer of essences as formal beings of things. The global takes up its mutating form in eternity, and the finite, tumerous body-words crawl and scratch around these essences like crayfish in a crevice. Sense then is not some ‘more’ internal language, but rather the brute conditions of sayability, for the cause of sayability cannot itself be sense; that would be circular, disclosing the overfilling of sense as absurdity. When we search for (non-)sense, we are looking for (a) the forms that offer a place for body-words to congregate and indeed to conjugate, and which, given such a conjugation, shine through as expressed; and (b) the process by which the conjugations combine and permute the body-words in a foment of poiesis. We might regard sense as hospitability to life. Interpretation then assumes this definition: the search for what is hospitable to life, and so it becomes a critical clinical diagnostics.

Sense is contagious; it spreads by discursive contact in which body-words pass across surfaces, carrying with them their own ‘internal’ relations. Interpretation seeks to analyse the materiality of the body-words in order to point their way to the ‘internal’ relations that condition and constitute them. The nature of total intermixture is such that the interpreter must discard any notion of the subordination of expression to this or that human (I mean this); the ‘internal’ sense may disclose a third potentia to any bilateral discourse – a concept, a city, Deus sive Natura (we mean for you to mean this). For Spinoza, however, the art of reading the external sense of the body-words cannot be demoted either. Just as the internal sense compounds with the internal senses of others, so the relation of body-words can be intermixed with internal sense to the degree that the constitutive body-words may form sub-systems more or less perfectly expressing their constituent power. Hospitality to life comprises hospitality also to the spontaneity of the passions. Finite irrationality helps constitute sense; to interpret laws or scripture as if they must only be rational in intent if not explication, denies the interrelation of the two Spinozist infinites: the indefinite and the absolute.

The interpretation of scripture

Consequently the import of Spinoza’s critique of ‘the’ word, in his interpretation of scripture. Lagrée (1988) engages in a short but important analysis of the different approaches Spinoza and Lodewijk Meyer adopt in their interpretation of scripture using Cartesian logician Johannes Clauberg’s hermeneutical method. Following Augustine, Clauberg distinguishes in his Logica vetus et nova (1654) between the sermo internus and externus, but how should the accomplished logician approach the sermo externus, especially when its sense is confused and obscure? Firstly, it is important to distinguish between the immediate sense of a proposition, or its literal meaning, and its true or authentic sense (sensus verus sive genuinus). The Augustinian flavor of this distinction is augmented by more precise advice as to the manner by which one teases out the true meaning. Lagrée summarises:

D’abord bien sûr rechercher la signification des mots. Mais le processus de signification ne met pas seulement en rapport des mots avec des concepts qui sont les représentations intellectuelles des choses, il fait intervenir aussi l’esprit, l’intention ou le vouloir-dire de l’auteur (« mens authoris »). Et pour saisir ce point de vue indispensable à une interprétation exacte et vrai il faut connaître les habitudes linguistiques de l’auteur, sa culture, le but de son propos, l’objet et les circonstances de son discours, le public auquel il s’adresse. Les paragraphes 13 à 25 de la IIIème partie de la Logique détaillent longuement ces considérations… . (1988 :79)

This advice was taken in different directions by Meyer and Spinoza. In his Philosophiae s. scripturae interpres, Meyer has it that the Cartesian method of seeking the truth not only assists in discovering the founding principle of theology, i.e. that the Old and New Testament are the infallible verb of a very great and powerful God, but also furnishes the justification for the thesis that philosophy (or reason) is the infallible norm of interpretation for Holy Scripture (Meyer 1666/1988, p.27, quoted by Lagrée (1988:78)).

We should not be surprised that Spinoza rejects this thesis, rather holding:

  • that even reason, insofar as it is considered under the second kind of knowledge, is as much a sign as Holy Scripture; and
  • as such, reason is best suited to matters of universal application, and the further it descends into the particularities of culture, the more it must accept the interpretative data of a kind of ‘cultural reason’ which grants meaning to things for members of that culture.

Accordingly, the only norm for the interpretation of Holy Scripture is itself, not because it is the Word of God, but because it stands at the same level as any other system of signs. Perhaps the implicit difference between Meyer and Spinoza is that the former still continued unconsciously to regard the Bible as sacred, and thus worthy of reason’s special critique, whereas Spinoza, in modern fashion, simply saw it as just another text and thus intermixed with irrationality.1 Thus the importance of realising the absurdity of the over-rationality of the conception of God or Nature as causa sui, for without it we cannot be sensitive to the need to recover and foster irrationality at every stage of interpretation. It seems in this that Spinoza is closer to Clauberg’s method in seeking meaning in the author’s linguistic custom, culture, intent, the object and circumstances of his discourse, and the public to which he addresses the text. This hermeneutics is augmented and radicalised, however, by Spinoza’s placing the author’s very intent under question. For Clauberg there is still too much Cartesian free will; for Spinoza materially determined power and desire stand in place of authorial intention. As Spinoza writes in Ethics II P47 Sch., disputes arise because of misinterpretation of another’s intention, and this is due to the other’s opinion being either in fact about the same issue, or a different one. What this means is that the sermo internus expressed is either the same, but the sermo externus is materially determined to be different (according to culture etc.), or in fact the sermo internus of each is wholly different to the other, and so has nothing in common which could engender an encounter. If there is then an encounter, and so a dispute, it is because (1) either the sermo externus of each has something in common per accidens (e.g. homonymy), and so the disputants are really arguing about wholly separate things; or (2) one person is deliberately misinterpreting is sermo externus of the other in an attempt to convince herself of the non-coincidence of their sermo internus (Ethics III P55 Corol.1 Sch.). What Spinoza will not countenance is the idea that there can be disagreement between the same intentions; for every encounter can only be between things insofar as they share common natures. The idea of the bad encounter thus appears to arise from this logic: that poison, for example, only agrees in its signification as it were, and that it achieves its destructive purpose by availing itself of deceptive commonality to cloak that destructive purpose. By the illicit use of purpose here I mean that the poison does not affect Adam’s body, or rather, the corporeal affects do not annihilate bits of substance, but rather that the poison decomposes the essential ‘power’ relation of the bodies composing Adam. The poison-bodies have a lot in common with the Adam-bodies externally, but the essence of poison negates the essence of Adam internally. The intermixture of the two resolves itself in the dissolution of Adam (Cf. Letter 32 to Blyenbergh, and Deleuze’s interpretation thereof).

The interpretation of passionate laws

We can treat “the bloody laws of man” like poison. Their ostensible commonality with the citizenry can be interrogated to determinate their internal desire: is this or that law in its inmost essence compatible with or destructive of the citizen’s essential relation? Once we have drawn back the cloak of the sermo externus of the law – the signs of good intention – do we find a characteristic relation devoted to some other, inhuman insatiability? Is this or that law internally expressing the potentia of a disruptive hegemon? For Spinoza, here the divide between rational and passionate laws open up, both of which express a divine law, but with only the former deemed compatible with the citizen, though the latter may aid citizens govern, for not everyone attains the “highest pitch” of their human power. Interpretation becomes critique in its search for the essential material relations constitutive of the appearance of law.

If, with Spinoza, we treat the Mosaic Law as the synthesis of law and Scripture, we see that the interpretation of law insofar as it is a product of the passions, or obedience to that law (however rational) insofar as it is passionate, benefits from this critical methodology. We can assign to any incidence of the passionate law a class of sign according to the genetic principle discovered.

Deleuze (Spinoza: practical philosophy (1988:105-107)) distils three senses of the word ‘sign’ in his Spinoza: Philosophie pratique, which we summarise as follows:

a) Indicative sign or sign as effect of mixture (EIIP17). Our affective encounters disclose neither our entire body nor the entire external body affecting us. These mixtures thus re-present external bodies for us and form the basis of our conventional signs (EIIP18 Sch.).

b) Imperative sign or sign as inadequate idea (Letter 19 to Blyenbergh). We incorrectly compose an effect with the wrong cause, by virtue of accepting indicative signs as true of their objects. Thus God’s revelation to Adam that the fruit is poisonous is imagined by Adam as an idea which synthesises the bad effect (poison) with God’s word understood as a command. He thus supposes that the fruit poisonous because to eat it is to disobey God. The poison is thus a punishment, and so is founded the notion of moral law.

c) Interpretative sign or sign as customary guarantee (Tractatus politicus II). Any imperative sign can be enhanced or enforced by its composition with other customary signs which support the imperative sign’s conclusions. Thus a superstitious discourse of a wrathful God as king is called upon and mutually enforces the imperative sign that one should not eat of the forbidden fruit: Tractatus Theologico-politicus ch.2.

We suggest perhaps that indicative sign be reserved to the recollection of these mixtures in their mind as the text of EIIP18 Sch. suggests. Here Spinoza grants the sound-affect ‘pomum’ will produce different ideational compositions in the Roman soldier and the countryman, due to the way the soft parts of matter retain impressions. The notions of imperative and interpretative signs stand as important contributions to a theory of passionate law, one which finds law at the level of custom, of express imperatives, and of discourses of legitimation (and fear).

It is all too easy to accept Spinoza’s contention that laws relate to the ignorant solely in the form of threats as the sum of his thinking on this subject. Clearly for Adam, and for the Hebrew state which receives a detailed analysis by Spinoza, laws can operate both positively and negatively, that is by threats which cause desire to avoid an object, but also by deception: by leading desire to something which it wrongly believes will benefit its being. This is the power of equivocation, so we should not be took quick to regard Spinoza as rejecting signs out of hand. We should always retain in our minds that the common notions are signs (entia rationis) which happen to be universally true too because as a matter of the metaphysical structure of the universe our finite encounters always and without fail at the very least involve the infinite modes such as movement and rest. As for inadequate signs, these remain existing things: sensation is always true. Manzini2 has argued that this doctrine likely comes directly from Aristotle’s De Anima [427b12].

Thus if the law is classed as an assumption drawn from immediate experience of threat, we call the law’s power to restrain or promote action the product of an indicative sign: the real power is linked to a false cause by simultaneous occurrence. If the law arises from a supposed synthesis or legislative expression of a connection between an imagined cause and an imagined effect, such as in most laws which prohibit an act and prescribe a punishment, this may be described as an imperative sign. An imperative sign attempts to derive force from habitual forgings together of actual crimes and their punishments to determine subjects’ actions, though those subjects may never have been previously punished. Finally, we may discover the origins of obedience in cultural practices that have developed from indicative and imperative signs, and which may be collected together by means of some confused organising explanation such as a vengeful and lawgiving God. These legitimating laws and practices are interpretative signs. The hermeneutical analysis does not necessarily respect these methodological boundaries, and this is right, for myths of a law-giving God clearly draw on and reinforce the structure of imperative signs, while those of a God that lays waste cities use indicative signs insofar as the image of such power induces real affects in the masses. Nevertheless, by so analysing the signs of the law, Spinoza is able to differentiate between different orders of law (natural, civil, divine). Further, he can isolate the reasons for state failure in the prevalence and remoteness of the semiotic justifications of a law, which tend to be signs of the interpretative type, from actual power or signs of the indicative type. This can result in nations without states, and in the Tractatus Theologico-policus Spinoza spends a great deal of time critically analysing the legal sign-systems of the Hebrew state as one of the causes of the diaspora.

Dr Stephen Connelly teaches at Birkbeck Law School

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Spinoza notes there a few rational texts, giving the example of Euclid’s Elements, which deals with ‘exceedingly simple and perfectly intelligible’ things TTPVII Geb.III/111.
  2. (2009:119).
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