28 Oct 2008

The Positivity of Spinoza’s Semiology

Corry Shores
[Search Blog Here. Index-tags are found on the bottom of the left column.]

[Central Entry Directory]
[Spinoza Entry Directory]

According to Deleuze, Spinoza opposes signs to expressions. Of signs there are three sorts: indicative, imperative, and revelatory. Indicative signs enable us to infer something from a modification in our body, for example, we may see a book on the table as an indication of a state of affairs. But as modes, we are finite, so we never see the whole picture of causation. Thus, ideas drawn from such indications are not adequate, because they cannot fully explain their cause. Imperative signs cause us to consider the laws of nature as moral laws: pity might naturally result from seeing suffering, and so we might consider it a moral law to have pity, when instead it is irrational and hence unethical. Revelatory signs, as inherently mysterious and obscure, do little more than cultivate an inexpressible and confused knowledge of God, rather than a rational adequate sort.

In these cases, signs are representational, which implies a negativity or an inherent absence: the referent is not the sign itself, but is missing from it. However, expression is immanent and univocal. What is implicit in an explication is not absent, it is fully there, fully expressed, only it is expressed complicatively: it is expressed both implicitly and explicitly. This is the “positive content” of expression that Spinoza brings-out by contrast with signs.

(Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza 181-182. Spinoza et le problème de l’expression 164-165)

Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza et le problème de l'expression. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1968.

Deleuze, Gilles. Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Zone Books, 1990.

[Site Topic Directory]


  1. Do you think Spinoza would argue that the essence of a sign may be conceived of by employing a rational thought process--thereby converting the representation of an object into a truism by first conceiving of it in one's imagination and ultimately conceiving of it as a rational thought deduced geometrically (or by employign dedcutive logic)?

  2. Ariel,

    Thank you for asking. I had to consult a Spinoza expert, Kvond at Frames / sing.

    [This is the link to his site, which is an excellent source of information and commentary on Spinoza as well as for other sorts of philosophy:

    I will first try to answer your question directly, and then defer to kvond's explanation, which will be more helpful.

    So let's imagine we see an indicative sign. A milk carton lies flat on the table with milk spilled all around it. It could be that, as you say, we first imagine it falling, then use deductive logic to figure out the cause. So we might say that it could not have been the cat, who was with us the whole time. But the window is open. The wind blew many other things over. So it was probably the wind (because we have ruled out every other possibility). The meaning of the sign, the spilled milk, is that there were strong winds blowing into the house.

    Let's expand the answer by taking kvond's insights into account. We will say that signs unsuccessfully aim to capture a more profound truth about reality. Kvond explains that Spinoza advises us not to use words or imagined pictures to understand things. So there is a lot more to the story regarding the spilled milk. Many other causes and factors were at work, and we are only aware of certain signs of these things given to us in a very limited way.

    So perhaps we might say that the rational exercise of interpreting a sign does not stop with knowing that the wind blew the carton over. We can always learn more about the causes (and their causes). This will allow us to better interpret the reality that the sign is indicating. And perhaps as our knowledge builds, the sign will come less to serve as an indication. It might instead just be one among many consequences of the given circumstances.

    For more, see this posting by kvond: