- De l'imagination à l'entendement: La puissance du langage chez Spinoza by Céline Hervet
Stuart Hampshire's Spinoza (1951) depicts Spinoza as having tried to free language from its intimate association with the imagination in order to enable it to convey the clear and distinct ideas of true philosophy. The inaccuracy and insufficiency of this account was pointed out by David Savan in an article in the Philosophical Review in 1958. Savan showed that concerns about language were more deeply and widely woven into Spinoza's thought than Hampshire had noticed; and he argued that, for Spinoza, understanding occurs by a sort of simple mental perception, after we have weaned ourselves from our natural dependence on words and images. Savan's paper appeared in the heyday of linguistic analysis and was articulate and provocative enough to launch a discussion of the place of language in Spinoza's philosophy. Céline Hervet's book is its latest fruit.
French scholarship turned to this question a decade or so later. It is a tribute to Hervet's broad understanding of the literature that she includes a brief discussion of Savan's article in the introduction of her book, and so touches at least at its root the substantial Anglophone literature that rivals in size and influence the now numerous French contributions to the study of Spinoza's philosophy of language.
Hervet's own work is a unique achievement. It provides a definitive statement of the status questionis and then does much to advance the discussion. Though the author is obviously well-informed about philosophy of language, her approach is historical, even with respect to the ideas of Spinoza himself, whose development is painstakingly traced, topic by topic, from the early writings through to the posthumous Ethics.
The subtitle, which translates as "the power of language in Spinoza" is more informative than the title, "from imagination to understanding." Hervet's account begins even before imagination with its constituents, the sound of words, the auditory stimuli in which we first encounter language. And the book projects beyond personal understanding to the moral, social and unitive effects of language.
Hervet's first chapter sets out the agenda. It struggles with the difficulty of accounting for how spoken language can even be intelligible when its constituents, as just mentioned, are only sounds. Sounds are just physical disturbances whose function is to set our auditory system in motion. They meet us as bodies meet bodies, and as agents meet passive things.
In themselves and apart from conventional patterns of reference sounds mean nothing. Somehow, from these unpromising elements we must come to recognize sounds in a form of mental apprehension which is not simply a passive receiving, but an active appropriation of sound. The sixty-plus pages of chapter 1, "Audire et intelligere" (Hearing and Understanding), pose the problem. Subsequent chapters develop it, beginning with a sixty-page reflection on the "corporeity of words."
Words are sounds associated with things and simultaneously with an image of things transmitted to the imagination through the senses. That is what their corporeity consists in. But to the extent that they are corporeal there must be true ideas corresponding to them, according to Spinoza's doctrine of the parallelism of the attributes of thought and extension. The ideas we naturally associate with words, however, are obscure. They are not artifacts of the intellect but of the imagination. The job of the intellect is to clarify them. The imagination must be put at the service of the intellect, which is the topic of chapters that follow.
Of particular interest and importance in this book are the pages devoted to Spinoza's study of the Bible in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. There Spinoza is able to clarify the [End Page 734] essential difference between the truth of an idea and the meaning of words, and show more clearly how the recalcitrance of language can be tamed by the intellect. The quasi-theological subject which serves as her example is also of intrinsic interest.