Learning is necessary

P49: In the mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea.

Dem.: In the mind (by P48) there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 63)

Learning is not a “free” choice in a Spinozist universe, it is the inevitable product of an infinite numbers of causal factors. Learning is, in fact, about understanding the ways in which ideas and bodies are the products of an infinitely complex web of cause and effect. Learning is about learning we are not free. Paradoxically, this knowledge sets us free. Spinoza argues that this knowledge that we are “determined” creatures teaches us four lessons. These are:

Lesson one

That when we “act only from God’s command…the more we understand God. This doctrine, then, in addition to giving us complete peace of mind, also teachers us wherein our greatest happiness, or blessedness, consists: namely, in the knowledge of God alone, by which we are led to do only those things which love and morality advise.” (pp. 67, P49 Schol. A). In other words, the learner needs to “act” in accordance with those things which he/she loves doing and their conscience guides to do. This for Spinoza is the intrinsic reward for learning. He condemns those people who do things to be “honoured by God with the greatest rewards for their virtue and best actions”. Thus, we can see a Spinozist pedagogy would possibly not involve reward and punishment systems.

Lesson Two

Our reason will lead us to have an adequate understanding of those things that are “not in our power, that is, concerning things which do not follow from our nature” and “we must expect and bear calmly both good fortune and bad” (p. 68). The Spinozist learner is not full of regrets and resentment about what he/she is not, about the misfortunes in their life. A Spinozist pedagogy has little room for bad faith, ressentiment and bad conscience. However, it’s important to note that ‘Bearing things calmly’ is an outcome of reason and should not be understood as an affect to be encouraged. Spinoza says we do not bear things calmly from affect, but from reason not from unmanly compassion, partiality, or superstition, but from the guidance of reason. Reasoning about something may have the same outcome as ‘bearing calmly’, but bearing calmly might have its roots in superstition, as in the Christian doctrine (love thy neighbour etc.) And Spinoza, as we saw in the above quote, wants to move away from this and make us understand why we should bear things calmly–understanding of necessity–and not make a normative moral claim that we ought to bear things calmly. In this sense, Spinoza would not encourage ‘bearing calmly’ as an affect; instead ‘bearing calmly’ is the product of reason.

Lesson Three

It means that the reason will make view each other in a benevolent fashion not that we must view each other calmly. There are no unreasoned “commands” in a Spinozist pedagogy, rather imperatives which are to be derived from thinking about why things happen and why we should behave in a particular way; ultimately, we have to understand , in the spirit of equality, because we are all “determined creatures” who lead “necessary existences”. Spinoza writes:

It teaches us to hate no one, to disesteem no one, to mock no one, to be angry at no one, to envy no one; and also insofar as it teaches that each of us should be content with his own things, and should be helpful to his neighbour, not from unmanly compassion, partiality, or superstition, but from the guidance of reason, as the time and occasion demand.

Our reason will lead us to be aware of the individual and unique situations we are in, and will necessarily avoid blaming people or sole causes for things that go wrong.

Lesson Four

Finally, the fact that we are aware that we are “determined creatures” does not mean that we are not “free” to do things which we feel are “best”, it means that we should be aware of the social forces which shape us, and try to contribute to the social good so that society can become better for everyone. Spinoza writes: “Finally, this doctrine also contributes, to no small extent, to the common society insofar as it teaches how citizens are to be governed and led, not so that they may be slaves, but that they may do freely the things which are best”.#

This diagram attempts to show the ways in which the learner is shaped by God or Nature. God’s command is the overall set in which the learner exists. Once the learner is aware that everything that happens to him/her is necessary, he/she can learn through reason to “bear calmly” both the good and the bad in their life; this adequate idea necessarily means that he/she does what is best. Once the learner is “doing what is best” they are “acting freely” insofar they are acting in accordance with the command of God, who is the only “substance” who is free and is the only “substance” who ultimately acts in the common good. In other words, the learner who has an adequate idea of God must necessarily act freely insofar as he/she is “in God”. This is a “collective freedom” and not at all similar to Christian or neo-liberal conceptions of freedom.

Journey into Joy

Do you agree? Do you think being aware that we are “determined” creatures leads to a state of mind where we bear things calmly, and thus achieve a sort of “freedom”? Or is contradictory?


Learning means affirming ideas

A crucial part of learning in the Spinozist sense must involve distinguishing “accurately between an idea, or concept, of the mind, and the images of things which we imagine” (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 64, P49 Schol.). It is this transition between absorbing the immediate sensation of something and then thinking hard about what it means which is being suggested here. I believe it is similar to the notions behind Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning, where remembering and imitating is at the very bottom of the hierarchy of learning, and then understanding is next, followed by what Bloom believes are “higher level” intellectual skills such as analysing, evaluating, creating.

However, I think that a Spinozist pedagogy would put a much heavier emphasis upon understanding, and might be represented like this:

In this diagram, we see that understanding is the “set” and the sub-sets of the different levels of knowledge are contained within it. God has a complete understanding of everything, while the person with the third level of knowledge has “intuitive” understanding, and the person with the second level of knowledge has “reasoned” understanding, while the person with the first level of knowledge has “imaginative” understanding. The diagram shows that the “imaginative realm” of knowledge is not someone who is completely wrong – although they may be – but someone who could just have a partial picture. For example, a student who has studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet may have knowledge of the story and characters in the play having watched the film of the play, but little genuine understanding of the language. They would, in my view, be categorised as having an “imaginative” understanding of the play. To truly “affirm” their knowledge of the play, they would need to understand the language in itself, and have knowledge of the forces which led the play’s language to create meaning and drama.

Learning involves understanding the mind’s processes

…most errors consist only in our not rightly applying names to things. For when someone says that the lines which are drawn from the centre of a circle to its circumference are unequal, he surely understands (then at least) by a circle something different from what mathematicians understand. Similarly, when men err in calculating, they have certain numbers in their mind and different ones on the paper. So if you consider what they have in mind, they really do not err, though they seem to err because we think they have in their mind the numbers which are on the paper. If this were not so, we would not believe that they were erring, just as I did not believe that he was erring whom I recently heard cry out that his courtyard had flown into his neighbour’s hen (NS: although his words were absurd), because what he had in mind seemed sufficiently clear to me (viz. that his hen had flown into his neighbour’s courtyard).

And most controversies have arisen from this, that men do not rightly explain their own mind, or interpret the mind of the other man badly. For really, when they contradict one another most vehemently, they either have the same thoughts, or they are thinking of different things, so that what they think are errors and absurdities in the other are not. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 62, P47 Schol.)

One could extrapolate from this, two major points: that an important part of learning is learning that other people cling to their “own truths”. In other words, they inadequately think that they are “right” and have built up their own narratives as to why they are right. A reasoning learner needs to understand this; needs to understand how and why other people shape their judgements. Second, the learner needs to understand his/her own thought processes; needs to understand how and why he/she believes and learns things. Thus we see Spinoza necessarily urging learners to be “self-reflexive”, wherein self-reflection necessarily includes the ideas of others. This is Spinoza’s brilliant notion of self-reflection–adequate self-reflection is the mode of thought least engaged with the self!

To be properly self-reflexive in a Spinozist sense is to understand the ways in which other people learn as much as yourself. There is a great deal of research that nurturing “meta-cognitive” practices is a very powerful form of learning (Education Endowment Foundation, 2016).

Journey into Joy

Thought experiment: Shut your eyes and try to focus upon one thought, and hold it there. Can you do this, or do you find that your mind drifts away from the topic? What does this tell us about our thought processes?

Learning involves conceiving things as necessary

A Spinozist pedagogy would compel teachers to perceive things as “necessary” not as an arbitrary edict but because “it is of the nature of reason to perceive things truly (by P41), namely (by IA6), as they are in themselves, that is (by IP29), not as contingent but as necessary” (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 59, P44 Dem.).

Teachers would need to have an adequate understanding of the multiple factors that have produced the topic they are teaching, and within that topic demonstrate to their students the different forces that had produced the subject of study. They not see what they are studying as “random” products of an arbitrary universe; they’d see what shaped and moulded their focuses for learning.

For example, in order for students to have an adequate understanding of poetry, they would need to know about the different contextual factors that had led to that poetry being written, the contexts of writing: the historical, biographical and social contexts that the poem arose from. They would also need to have an adequate understanding of themselves as readers of poetry, the contexts of reading, and understand that their studying of the poetry is not some “random” event, but a necessary event in their lives. Furthermore, to understand it they would need to have a go at creating some poetry so they understood the aesthetic, cognitive processes that are involved in its creation. They would also need to understand how it might be “transmitted” and performed.

Conceptualising Spinoza’s learning processes

This diagram is attempting to represent the learning processes outlined in Ethics. First, as has been demonstrated before, it makes clear that all learning, all being, all becoming is “in God or nature”, even the perception of inadequate ideas. Second, it reveals that the learner needs to conceive of adequate ideas in order to properly learn. Third, it reveals that a necessary consequence of the conceiving of adequate ideas is blessedness and the awareness of God’s immanence.

Journey into Joy

Draw your own diagram or picture which constructs an idea of your own learning processes.

The third kind of knowledge: intuition

In addition to these two kinds of knowledge, there is…another, third kind, which we shall call intuitive knowledge. And this kind of knowing proceeds from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the (NS: formal) essence of things. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 57, Schol. 2)

Once we have an adequate of things, we can “move up” to the third kind of knowledge which is intuition. Later on, in Chapter 5 of Ethics, Spinoza argues that this types of knowledge leads to Blessedness. Jarrett writes: “The more knowledge of this sort that we have, the less we are affected by bad emotions and the less we fear death” (Jarrett, 2007, p. 158).

We can only have this “blessedness” though if we have relevant adequate ideas. Perhaps here, we have the learner’s ultimate “goal” to attain blessedness? This is possibly problematic in the sense that the Spinozist system claims not be “teleological”, i.e. it is not the means to an end, but here we have a clear sense of an “end”; to become blessed. Or possibly this is an inadequate idea of what Spinoza means. But if one was to return to the metaphor of the “Journey into Joy” one could say that all journeys ultimately have a destination, otherwise they would not be journeys, but this destination does not necessarily have to be fixed or even known at the start of the journey, and possibly this gets to the notion of “blessedness”. It is not something that can be plotted on a map; it is conceived of in the process of developing adequate ideas, it is a natural and necessary “by-product” of the second kind of knowledge.

The second kind of knowledge: reason

Spinoza appropriates the term “reason” in Ethics: it is not the narrow, mechanical, logical definition of reason which the word has come to acquire in the last two centuries. Indeed, it is worthwhile noting that two vital words have very different connotations today than they do in Ethics: reason and imagination. Reason for Spinoza involves having “adequate ideas” or “common notions”; this includes conceiving of all the forces which have produced an idea, situating it in its specific context. And so we could argue that one interpretation of Spinozist conceptions of reason is the “Journey into Joy” (Watkins, 2003, p. 9). Reason for Spinoza is the active pursuit of knowledge, not the passive reception of it. Reason is a process of becoming. It is simultaneously an intellectual and emotional process. Gilles Deleuze writes:

Reason is: 1. An effort to select and organize good encounters, that is, encounters of modes that enter into composition with outs and inspire us with joyful passions (feelings that agree with reason); 2. The perception and comprehension of the common notions, that is, of the relations that enter into this composition, from which one deduces other relations (reasoning) and on the basis of which one experiences new feelings, active ones this time (feelings that are born of reason). (Deleuze, 1988, pp. 55-56)

I would like to argue that “reason” is about an encounter with the first kind of knowledge, the inadequate ideas, and involves conceiving that they are inadequate ideas. This, for me, begins to conceive of an adequate idea of learning.

As Deleuze points out, reason is an “effort”, an expenditure of energy, and is also as much an emotional process as intellectual one. Reason necessarily leads to increasing the mind’s power and therefore is a joyful experience. This seems vital to any meaningful learning process; it has to cause “joy”. But how can this happen if learners are frightened of making mistakes? How can they ever be raised to the next level of knowledge, to reason, if they are terrified of being labelled as “stupid” if they admit to the inadequate knowledge?

Journey into Joy

What connotations does the word “reason” have for you?