Having “Something to Do”: Spinoza as an Existentialist

In my recent posts on Spinoza I talked alot about the idea of our minds having a characteristic structure, and our mental lives being the self-maintenance of this structure.

But what is this structure? What is the human ‘essence’? Spinoza doesn’t tell us much – or if he does, it’s not dumbed-down enough for me to catch. But I’m inclined to think we have a fairly good idea of the answer, once we pose the question. So at this point I’m stepping beyond interpretation and just squirting my own opinions onto Spinoza.

What I’m going to suggest is that the basic organisation whose self-maintenance constitutes our mental lives is this: ‘something to do’. Let’s go through some of the features of this organisation.

So firstly, it’s temporal – it involves a sequence of events, and an idea of where the present fits into that sequence, which parts are therefore past or future.

This sequence becomes a ‘task’ by its causal relating to an idea of the individual themselves, who is to accomplish it – or conversely, does the mind become an ‘individual’ by its relating to the idea of a ‘task’, which it ‘is to be’ the agent of? Who knows.

But the task is also related to ‘the world’, under the idea of its being ‘good’ or ‘legitimate’ or ‘worth doing’. Note that if the world is related to the task, and the task to the agent, then this psychic structure involves a link between the agent and the world – a sense of how their actions ‘fit into the grand scheme of things’.

Finally, of course, this task has to be related to perception – the items that become visible, tangible, audible by our sensations of them fit into it by their pragmatic significance. Some are useful, some threatening, some are tools for this task, some for that task. They are made intelligible by what we can/can’t/should/must do with them.

We perform ‘practical reasoning’ when we encounter new or unexpected perceptions and have to integrate them into this – for instance, the tool we needed is broken, so we have to ‘mend’ our plans by incorporating some alternative means.

So in sum: we have something that needs doing, we have an idea of how to do it, an idea of what we’ve done already and a projection of what should, and what can, be done in the future. We have something to do, we’re doing it. This is the natural resting place of the human mind.

Why do I suggest this? In essence, it’s because this is the sort of state where we are both ‘highly conscious’ – unlike, say, sleep – but most un-self-conscious. When we have something to do, our mind just functions, and we are blissfully absorbed in the ‘flow‘.

This is, for example, exactly the structure that we seek to replicate in games – and it makes them deeply appealing and engrossing, despite often not providing any ‘physical’ pleasure (Halo doesn’t taste nice).

And like games, it’s sensitive to several constraints. For instance, the task before us must be neither too hard, nor too easy. The projected future must be neither too chaotic nor too predictable. When one of these requirements is broken – or when we lose the link between task and self, or task and world – or when our interpretation of our immediate environment as affording appropriate means fails, because something is broken or missing or obstructed – in all these cases, we become distressed. We have to find some way to ‘fix’ our task-organisation so that we are once more at home in the world.

Now, if I’m right that this is, in fact, the basic equilibrium that our mind seeks to preserve, then two conclusions can be drawn.

Firstly, there are two different sorts of ‘purposive action’. There’s that which occurs when we’re in such a ‘something to do’ equilibrium, happily involved in a task, seeking specific goals that are set within that psychic structure. But there’s also our seeking to maintain that psychic structure, seeking to find meaning, rationalise our actions, etc.

The two might conflict – for instance, someone might in the first sense strive to help others, and in that sense aim for, and wish for, others to be happy, and yet in the second sense require, as a condition of their psychic equilibrium, that others remain needy and unhappy and weak, so that they can continue to help them.

The second conclusion is that there is a lot of room for Spinoza to be brought into line with existentialist and phenomenologist thinkers like Sartre and Heidegger. The ‘something to do’ structure described above has many resemblances to Heidegger’s concepts of being-in-the-world, readiness-to-hand and a for-the-sake-of-which, etc.

And given the contrast mentioned above between ‘within-task’ and ‘task-maintaining’ striving, we can easily suppose a tendency for people to ignore the difference, to deny the latter aspect of their striving, and in doing so to suppose that their task is ‘given’, a simple reading-off of perceived facts. Which is essentially (as I understand it) Sartre’s concept of ‘bad faith’.

In terms of final conclusion, they may still diverge – Spinoza’s grand optimism and ‘intellectual love of God’ is a strong contrast to Sartre’s bleakly absurd world. But they can at least have a highly productive conversation.

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