Spinoza, Panpsychism, and the Difference between Animals and Objects

What’s the difference between the mental lives of animals and of inanimate objects – between a human, say, and some mustard?

The usual answer is simple: objects like mustard don’t have mental lives at all, while animals do. But some philosophers, like Spinoza, reject that answer – for whatever reasons, they think that mentality of some sort should be found in all matter.

So it’s incumbent upon them to give some other sort of answer, some more complicated difference between ‘simple’ mentality and ‘animal’ mentality. Spinoza, sadly, doesn’t really do this, beyond the odd enigmatic remark. So if some person were interested in the prospects of a ‘neo-Spinozist’ metaphysics, they would have to invent an answer, going beyond his text in so doing. That’s what I’m going to try to sketch today.

The difference I want to suggest is this: animals, unlike mustard or hairbrushes, can exert effort. What is effort? First, observe a few connections with other parts of mental life.

1) Effort is not the same as displeasure, although both can constitute reasons to not do something, and although tolerating something unpleasant typically requires effort in proportion to how unpleasant it is. Yet things can still be easy and unpleasant, or require great effort but nevertheless be enjoyable.

2) Our willingness to exert effort varies predictably over time, forming a variable we call ‘energy’, as when we feel ‘energetic’, or ‘run out of energy’. When we have little of this energy, we feel ‘tired’, and anything which requires effort will displease us.

Conversely, when we have a lot of energy we seek out what requires effort, things to ‘devote our energy to’ – and what pains us now is ‘boredom’, being deprived of such opportunities.

3) Thirdly, effort is linked with decision-making and intelligence. When we face a choice, there is generally one ‘easy option’, which we are ‘most inclined’ to do. Typically this is ‘the best option’ in some very immediate, very short-term sense. If we were infinitely tired, we would always choose this. But by exerting effort, we can choose something else instead. The extent of our capacity to do this, we tend to call ‘willpower’.

If this weren’t the case, then we’d be capable of only a very limited sort of ‘intelligence’: we might identify better options, indirect routes, by which we might pass through a ‘valley’ of hardship to reach a higher ‘peak’ of satisfaction – but we could never actually follow those routes. And so we’d probably have no intelligence at all, because we’d neither evolve it nor learn it if it had no use.

So, what is effort?

In the terms of Spinoza’s psychology, I would define effort thus: “the process by which an individual thing makes itself, by an internal mechanism, less unified, in order to later become more unified.”

If Spinoza identifies displeasure with something that resists integration into the mind, as I suggested here, then this definition bears out the observation that enduring or deliberately incurring unpleasant experiences requires effort.

The most basic type of effort, though, is involved in the setting of tasks. I argued here that the natural equilibrium of our mind, to which it always strives to return, is the task-structure, where we have something to do, know how to do it, and are doing it.

Clearly, this involves simultaneously being aware of a way things could be, and affirming it, and also being aware of the different way that things in fact are. Affirming these two divergent states of affairs, we introduce a significant disunity into our minds – the more so, the larger the ‘task’. For this, we need to exert effort.

Moreover, we typically want the goal we assign ourselves to be a ‘better’ situation, i.e. one which requires less effort to tolerate and contemplate, one in which our ideas can (without resorting to fantasy) be more harmoniously together. This I think is what Spinoza means in his occasional references to ‘passing to a higher state of perfection’.

To be an individual of our type, whose ‘essence’ is the task-structure, thus necessitates being an individual who can exert effort, who can be both bored and tired, who displays intelligence and can choose the hard option. That, I would suggest, is what distinguishes the mental life of animals.

But this actually a rather odd sort of nature for things to have, in Spinoza’s system. In the Ethics, the point of individual things and their ‘striving’ is always to preserve themselves and to become more integrated. Yet an animal, because it has ‘energy’ and is capable of boredom, must always find some way to dis-integrate itself, to partially destroy itself in order to then put itself back together in a slightly better form. This ‘division against itself’ might warrant us, paraphrasing Nietzsche, in calling animality a ‘sickness’ of matter – but in the way that pregnancy is a sickness.

As a final, neat, conclusion, we might define three types of Spinozistic individual:

  • Inanimate objects: self-maintaining structures
  • Living organisms: self-organising structures
  • Thinking animals: self-reorganising structures
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