Hence, they consider all natural things as a means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers, of Nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and made all things for their use. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 26)

Spinoza critiques teleological modes of thinking in his Appendix to his first chapter; he is critical of humans positing “final causes” to events and Nature. He points out in the above quote that this teleological way of thinking necessarily leads to people viewing the world as a “means” to end; a final salvation. As Spinoza shows in the rest of the Appendix, this teleological approach has permeated our culture: when we think in this way, in terms of doing things because our reward will be in heaven, we cease to conceive of God’s immanence, but instead see our lives as a “means to an end” to attain salvation. This critique applicable to education; when we see learning as a means to an end – to achieve an external reward such as an exam grade – we cease to think immanently about our learning. Our educational experiences become a means to an end, and not intrinsically enjoyable in themselves. A whole raft of educational thinkers from Matthew Arnold to Chris Watkins have been highly critical of this perception of learning. As Watkins points out when learning becomes a means to an end, it becomes a “performance” (Watkins, 2003, p. 20); this, in turn, means that learning becomes side-lined in favour of a performance which looks like learning. As a result, students become obsessed with achieving external ratification for their effort, and cease to think meaningful about what they are learning (Watkins, 2010, p. 3). This is what I would like to term a “teleological” approach to education; learning is about the “final cause” – the external reward of achieving an exam grade – as opposed an “immanent” approach which views learning as intrinsically worthwhile in itself. As Spinoza points out one of the problems of this teleological perception of the world is that it “takes away from God’s perfection. For if God acts for the sake of an end, he necessarily wants something which he lacks.” This critique could be directly applied to perceptions of learning. If a student is learning something because they want to achieve an external reward, they are primarily conscious of what they “lack” rather than being immersed in the intrinsic joy of learning. Thus we can see that a Spinozist conception of learning is not about “filling a hole”, about addressing a “lack”, but rather about making new connections in one’s mind; it is not a deficit model of learning where the learner is an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge because he/she needs to pour one’s knowledge into another receptacle at the “end” of the learning such as writing all one knows in an exam. Rather, it is an active expression of God’s power, and is happening all the time.

Journey into Joy

Reflections: what motivates you to learn? What do you enjoy learning about most and why?

Learning is dynamic & produces us

Learning is dynamic

In Proposition 31, Spinoza writes: “The actual intellect, whether finite or infinite, like will, desire, love, and the like must be referred to Natura naturata, not Natura naturans.” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 21) In other words, the process of understanding, or “intellection” as Spinoza refers to it, is an evolving, ever-changing process, it is “nature naturing” (natura naturans), not “nature have natured” (Natura naturata).

Learning produces us

This is evident in Propositions 32 and 33 (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 21-22). Spinoza states that “the will, like the intellect, is only a certain mode of thinking”. Similarly, learning is only a “mode” of God, but a very important one which necessarily defines God’s project. In a Spinozist ontology, the subject is not the active “producer” of knowledge, but is actually produced by learning in that the subject is a mode, or nodal point, in which different forces of learning converge to produce new knowledge. To this extent, we do not “choose” what we learn; the learning chooses us. The student in the classroom is a good metaphor for this process; the student in the school room has most probably not “chosen” to be there, and very rarely “chooses” what he/she learns since this is supplied by the teacher. Now, the student can refuse to learn what he/she is being taught, but even that choice is not a “free” choice; there will be a number of different reasons why that student acts that way. The student’s own peculiar situation has produced those set of reactions. As Spinoza shows, we live in a determined, “necessary” universe where there is no free will. We are all students in the classroom of the universe, compelled to learn what is in front of us, and even our refusal to learn the official knowledge is another form of learning, which ultimately is not a free choice. Learning produces us, whatever that learning may be.

As Wallace Stevens says in his poem, The Things of August, “the beholder…is the possessed of sense not the possessor”. Sense or meaning-making is God’s power which is not located in an isolated human being, the lonely learner, but is everywhere, a constant flow and inter-change of knowing. When learning takes hold of us, we become “possessed of sense”; we become connectors between things, become conduits of knowing, this form of knowing is “God’s power”. (pp. 25, Ps 34, 35, 36). As the result of this learning, more learning must necessarily follow; the learner becomes a cause who creates a new effect. (pp. 25, P. 36)

Journey into Joy

Concept map: think about all the forces of learning that have produced you: learning to walk; learning to speak; learning to smile; learning to read and write; learning to avoid danger; learning to embrace pleasure; learning to succeed and fail. Draw a flow diagram (concept map etc.) which shows the forces of learning that have produced you.

Learning is never contingent

‘I need five weekly lesson plan books. Not only do I tend to overplan, but I feel more comfortable with contingency plans.’

In Proposition 29, Spinoza states: “In nature, there is nothing contingent, but all things have been determined from the necessity of divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 20). This has profound implications for one’s conception of learning; it means that what one learns is never contingent, random, and accidental. What we learn could never have been otherwise. One does not choose one what one learns, but rather one’s learning has been produced ultimately by the divine nature. (See Learning Produces Us)

Journey into Joy

Reflect upon your life. What things do you wish you’d learnt sooner?

Or not learnt at all? Now “re-configure” those regrets, and think that you were meant to learn things, that it could not have been any other way. This is how Spinoza would view these realms of knowledge.

Look at the diagram below, what does it tell us about contingency and learning:

Nothing can be conceived of adequately without a conception of the whole


Ultimately, all learning has to be contextualised by a notion of the “whole” of knowledge, which is infinite. This means that learning cannot be “definite” and “certain” because we, as humans, cannot know everything. Learning must be thought of “in the round”; it must necessarily be tentative, since we cannot possibly know all that is out there. (pp. 10, P. 15)

Journey into Joy

Contextualise yourself: what chain of events led to you coming into being. Think about all the people who had to have sex, all the things that needed to reproduce, right back to the amoebae in the primal swamp, in order for you to exist now.


Learning and freedom

Spinoza states that God is the only free thing in that he is “All-That-Is”; he is “compelled by no one” (pp. 13, P. 17). Everything else is necessarily determined by an infinite series of causes and effects. However, we are all “in” God. I would like to argue that by learning about God, about “All-That-There-Is”, we glean a sense of God’s freedom. This is not acquiring a sense of the Judo-Christian God who many theologians argue exercises his free will upon us, but gaining a sense of an immanent God whose being is infinitely free. By learning in an adequate fashion about the world, we gain a sense of the constant inter-play of things, of the freedom of the “whole” to take any direction, any course, which is free to the extent that it is God, and determined to the extent But it’s important to note that determinism doesn’t entail fatalism, i.e. learning that the whole might take any course is learning that the future is not pre-given; that we, as the modifications of God, have the ability–through adequate thinking and active action–to be an adequate cause of the ‘direction’ of the whole.

Journey into Joy

Creative visualisation: zoom out from where you are now, become a magical bird and fly above yourself, watch yourself from above, doing what you are doing right now, and then zoom out more so you can see the area where you are currently in, then zoom more so that you can see the country you’re in, then the continent, the cloud-enmeshed blue earth, the bare moon; the rings of Saturn, purple Jupiter, the other planets and the blazing sun of the solar system; the Milky Way, the other galaxies, then all the galaxies that ever were and are, so that you are outside it all! Stand back, and watch the free play of everything in its totality!

Now free fall through everything that ever was and will be back into yourself.

See Spinoza’s Letter 32 (Spinoza, 2008)

What did you learn?

Making Connections is the Heart of Learning

A diagram of Spinoza’s ideas about Substance and Nature

How do we learn? If one adopts a Spinozist ontology, one must see learning as “connecting” in all its infinite implications. The apple learns about the ground when it connects with it as it falls from the tree. The mouse learns about the cheese when its mouth connects with its soft edges. The baby learns about the breast when it connects with its sweet milk. The dying learn about death when they connect with non-existence.

Journey into Joy

Question: When have you learnt by making connections?

Another diagram explaining Spinoza’s conceptions of nature.

Everything is Connected

E.M. Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End (Forster, 1910) is famously ‘Only connect…’ It’s this principle which informs Spinoza’s Ethics. For Spinoza God is “All-That-There-Is”. God is “immanent”; God is within everything. God is the forces which produce all of us and what connect us. This idea has profound implications for our conceptions of knowledge; it means that we have to see knowledge ultimately as “one” as “whole” because knowledge is God. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 9 P.13)

Journey into Joy

Reflections: have a go at the following exercises, and then either write down your reflections on these activities or devise some kind of response to them (e.g. poem/music/discussion etc.)

  • Feel your pulse.
  • Listen: Stop for a moment, shut your eyes and just listen very carefully to all the sounds around you.
  • Eat your food very, very slowly, savouring every last drop.
  • Drink some water and concentrate on the sensation of it going through your body.
  • Look very carefully at people’s eyes for a few minutes when you are walking down the street.