Despair and learning

Next, if the doubt involved in these affects is removed, hope becomes confidence and fear, despair – namely, a joy or sadness which has arisen from the image of the thing we feared or hoped for. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 81, P18 Schol. 2)

Despondency is thinking less highly of oneself than is just, out of sadness (pp. 108, D XXIX)

Despair is a sadness born of the idea of a future or past thing, concerning which the cause of doubting has been removed. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XV)

Students’ Experience of Despair

I think a strange passivity comes over despairing children. It is usually preceded by moments of extreme anger, hope and fear; once a student has realised that there is nothing to be done, that there is no hope that they will benefit from being in school, no hope that they might learn anything which they perceive to be worthwhile, they can “give up”. The fight goes. This is a strange form of death I think. It makes me wonder just how many students are in states of “despair”. Such students may well be perfectly well-behaved but ultimately totally disengaged. I think the system sends a great many signals to students that they are not going to make it in the form of bad exam results, in the inattentive and uncaring looks from parents/teachers/students etc., in the inaccessibility of the work that they have been given to do.

My diagram is attempting to give an adequate idea of the ways in which the system produces despairing learners. In my view, often “despairing cultures” – cultures which feel abandoned economically and culturally from the “mainstream” – produce initially “despairing learners” in the form of young children who are frightened by a system which they have inadequate resources (economic, cultural, psychological) to deal with the issues that the school throws at them. This despair turns to despondency when they realise that they will never succeed in the school system; the resources that they have been given become “redundant” – totally useless and meaningless – and they feel alienated. They are despondent because their estimation of themselves is completely unjust; they have not gleaned a fair assessment of their abilities.

A Teacher’s Experience of Despair

In some ways, despair is a nicer emotion to feel than fear. I can think in my career when I have felt very fearful about the fact that I was teaching classes quite badly, I would, in my mind, give up the “hope” that I could actually help them learn anything meaningful, and, as a result, I stopped feeling the “inconstant sadness” about a “doubtful outcome”, and would instead just feel that there was no doubt that they were learning nothing in my charge. Despair took hold of me. It was a curiously restful emotion to feel; there was no longer any point in “trying” to help students learn; my task became purely to “control” my pupils, keep them busy, keep them quiet. I think my students recognised the affect of despair in me, and liked me all the more for it; I had stopped making demands on them, I had stopped checking that they’ve done their homework, I’d stopped marking their work in detail beyond doing what was absolutely necessary to keep my managers off my back, I’d entered a rather Zen-like state of professional despair. I had no expectations any more. I think my students recognised this affect in me because I think many teachers are in states of “despair”; while they might pay lip service to extracting the best results they can from their students, they have secretly made their peace with the fact that their students are learning very little in their lessons. The hope and joy has gone.

Ironically, these states of despair have had the effect of making me feel despondent in a Spinozist sense – thinking less highly of myself than was just. This realisation that I was better at my job than I had previously thought I was frequently had the effect of lifting me out of the despair, and bringing new hope that I might be able to help my students.


This diagram shows the affective cycle that I underwent as a teacher when trying to deal with classes whose results and learning I felt I could not adequately “mould”, or “control”, or “nurture”. It starts with fear or hope depending upon your state of mind, and then moves to despair, which creates a calm despondency that then nurtures hope, which eventually leads back to fear. In the current climate, the constant issues to deal are “results” and “status”, which produce this affective cycle.

Fearful learning

Fear…is an inconstant sadness, which has also arisen from the image of a doubtful thing (pp. 81, P18, Schol. 2)

Fear is an inconstant sadness, born of the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt. (pp. 106, D. XIII)

P63: He who is guided by fear, and does good to avoid evil, is not guided by reason. (pp. 149, IV. P63)

I would like to argue that schools have increasingly become institutions which have nurtured “fear” in the Spinozist definition of the word.

The Student’s Perspective of Fear

Let’s start with the students’ experience of school. Many students become quickly aware that they are being judged when they enter the school environment, often by measures which they don’t fully understand. In their very early schooling, many children are simply unaware that school is a place where “work” or, as it less commonly labelled by teachers, “learning”, happens. They are told to behave very differently in school from the ways in which they behave at home; the way they are grouped with other children is naturally very different, as are things like going to the toilet and eating. The school regulates the child in different ways from that of the home environment. Gradually, the child becomes aware that what he/she is doing is being “ranked” or “judged” in a number of different ways which he/she will inevitably not adequately understand and which, unlike many situations outside school, do not have consequences. For example, if a child laughs or talks in a way which is deemed “inappropriate” for the school setting, he/she may well be told off. The child quickly learns to internalise these rules, but I would like to argue that much of the time this process of internalisation produces an “inconstant sadness” because the child inevitably will not have a definite “idea” of what the consequences of obeying or disobeying these rules will be; the “outcome” of one’s education is always, to a certain extent, “in doubt”. Education is necessarily a “meritocratic” exercise, whereby learners “discover” or “construct” their talents, inclinations, desires within the given parameters of the system and the whole point of it is that once starting out, you never quite know where it will “end”. The learner never quite knows what he/she will “become”. There is inevitably a “vacillation of mind” which will produce “an inconstant sadness, born of the idea of a future…thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt.” The learner never quite knows that he/she will succeed in the way he/she might wish. This seems to me to be the “very ground” of education and there is nothing that can done about this.

However, piled on top of this fundamental fear are many others which “local conditions” produce. Let’s start with the institutional structures which produce fear. If a learner is in a system which is insistently “testing” a child’s abilities, this will inevitably create fear, particularly if these tests are deemed to be very important. Many students quickly learn to find self-esteem in how well they do at school and will feel fear if they worry that they will do badly in a test. If students are being tested all the time in many different ways, then the system will inevitably produce the affect of fear on a more or less constant basis.

But is this a good or a bad thing? There are a few points to be made here.

First, a Spinozist pedagogue might argue that one would want to create a system which nurtured adequate ideas about “fear” in order to increase students’ powers of action. So, in this sense, it is not so much that a child is being tested, but it is the way the child learns to think adequately about the “fear” which is important. In my experience as a teacher, I have not felt I have encouraged my students to adequately think about their “fears”. In fact, I have probably only discussed students’ fears about the outcomes of their education on a handful of occasions. A Spinozist pedagogy I think would insist that all learners think in depth about the nature of their fears: the forces which have produced it.

Second, with so many “fear” being generated, a Spinozist pedagogue might well argue that overall such a system is more likely to produce “passionate” modes of thinking rather than active ones. Learners are constantly being buffeted around by the affect of fear which is enshrined in the system.

The above diagram attempts to show a Spinozist critique of the education system viewing it from the affect of “fear”. At the bottom is the fundamental point that the notion of education in a modern society creates “doubtful outcomes”; few learners know what will happen both in the long-term and short-term. Assessment regimes which are high-stakes will inevitably produce more fear because outcomes will become even more doubtful. This testing will affect self-esteem because many learner’s sense of themselves will be entwined with how they are being assessed. Narrow assessment regimes which, in the minds of the learners, arbitrarily attach a number to someone’s “achievements” will pile on more fear and “aversion” in the Spinozist sense of the word.


My Own Experiences as a Pupil


I have a distinct memory of not being aware that the spelling tests I was doing at school carried with them any affect of fear. I was not doing “too well” in them, and not being worried about this, until one day I told my mother that my score in a test. She was furious, and told me that I had to learn the spellings at home, which I began to do. You could argue that my mother gave me an adequate idea of what it meant not to be a good “speller” in our culture. Provoked by fear, I “increased my powers of action” and learnt the spellings, doing much better in the future tests, and began to gain a real sense of self-esteem from doing well in them. This lesson never left me; motivated initially by fear and a desire to please my mother, and then myself, I continued to revise hard for future tests. But the tests at secondary school often had outcomes which were much more doubtful than the spelling tests, and, as a result, my fear was greater about doing badly in them. I began so habituated to feelings of fear being attached to the tests that I learnt to live with my fear, expecting it as a matter of course, and worrying if I did not feel fear. I saw, incorrectly I think, as a “key motivator” to do well. However, when I analyse my success at school, I realise that I began revising well before I started to feel fear about how I might do in a test. The memory of the fear motivated me to revise well ahead of time; I wanted to gain mastery over this affect and therefore revised hard. The affect I did not want to feel was that of “failure” but possibly more powerfully, I wanted to feel the affect of success. Having achieved success with my spelling tests after revising, this positive feeling ultimately motivated me to revise for my other tests. So while I may have felt that fear motivated me, it did not. Rather it was the memory of the fear, the avoidance of the affect of failure, and most importantly a striving for the joyful affect of success which motivated me, in part, to work hard. This said, the subjects I did best in were those I had an intrinsic intellectual interest in; my striving to know some form of truth made me work above and beyond that which I would have done if I had only been motivated by these affects. From this, I would say that “fear of failure” did motivate me to work, but only partially, and it certainly was not enough to motivate me to do my very best.

A Teacher’s Perspective of Fear


One thing that struck me as I progressed with my teaching career was that fear seemed to dog me at every corner. I couldn’t really work out why this was? Was it something inherent in me? Or was it the school I was in? Or was it the actual system itself that was producing this affect? Having been a full-time lecturer at a university for over six months, I realise now that it was the system. I don’t have the feelings of fear that I used to have when in school. Why is this?

In a Spinozist sense, there was still the issue of “doubtful outcomes” in my professional life, and quite serious ones. In particular, my job security is not 100%; at the moment of writing, the government seem to want to shut down the course I teach on. But weirdly, I don’t feel the kind of fear I felt in school when my job was more secure.

I think the reason is that I feel much the victim of forces which are more or less totally out of my control. The English school system currently tries to make teachers directly accountable for their students’ results. But I found that the results my classes have got have varied very wildly from year to year, from class to class, from pupil to pupil. While there are always your “sure-fire winners” – students who obviously will do well in an exam – these are few and far between, and the vast majority of students can do exceptionally well or quite badly in a test depending upon the time of day they’ve taken it, what has been happening before they’ve taken the test, how much they’ve been supported at home, how they are feeling etc. etc.. In other words, a teacher’s results are often very unpredictable. It is this issue combined with the fact that such emphasis is put on test results at all levels which generates the “affect of fear” in the system for me. And this fear infects every part of the institution, buffeting teachers in all sorts of hidden ways. The reason why I feel I know this is because I am now in a job where there is much less emphasis upon judging whether I am an adequate teacher or not based on very unpredictable outcomes. The feeling is really quite striking. The fear has gone, and now I am surprised that I lived with it for so many years.

Sad Learning Environments: Habitus and Power

The Sad Learner (SL)

At this juncture, I am going to discuss the specific subjective identity of the “learner”, rather than discussing “learning processes”. In my experience, Sad Learners (SL) are readily identifiable in the school system: these are the “demoralised” students, who have more or less lost most of their powers of action in the formal education system. School for them mostly “decreases their powers of action”; it stops them from wanting to learn, it makes them feel bad about themselves. This said, it is important to note that anybody can become a SL: all of us, in certain contexts, are SLs because we lack the confidence to ask questions about what we are learning, we feel confused and yet unable to find any sense in what we are supposed to be learning.

Sad Learning Environments: Habitus and Power

A great deal of research has gone into the reasons why students “fail” in the school system, or are “failed” by it. There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that students’ achievement at school is greatly affected by their socio-economic status: the wealth of their carers and their communities. For me, the work of Bourdieu rings very true. The “habitus” of students – the habits of doing things, their demeanour, their dispositions – is largely determined by the social, cultural milieu they grow up in and this “habitus” profoundly affects how well they do in school. If they’ve grown up in a household which is under severe stress from poverty, with parents who have priorities other than “formal” education, then they may well find school alienating. Their accent, their dialect, their thought-structures, their “affects”, their bodily postures, their likes, their dislikes are mostly likely to be “at odds” with what those they encounter within school. School is generally a purveyor of “middle-class” values. The language of the text books, the accents and demeanours of the teachers, the values of the institution are those which are “in tune” with the middle-classes. As Bourdieu points out, this means that education becomes a system for reproducing and magnifying existing social class differences. Bourdieu sociological perspective chimes with Spinoza’s philosophy in that it attempts to gain an “adequate idea” of what is happening in schools by looking at the overall context of the learner, seeing the multitude of factors that produce the school student. I have found the idea of “habitus” a very helpful term because it has assisted with me seeing how embodied learning is and how complex it is. It’s my contention that when students whose habitus does not conform with the “expected” habitus of the school system, then this decreases these students’ power, turning them often into “Sad Learners”. These students know that the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they think is regarded as somehow as “deficient”. The confidence of the habitus of the various players in the school system plays a big factor in decreasing the power of the Sad Learner. They are confronted with teachers, with books, with students who are confident in their habitus because the system nurtures this confidence. For example, teachers, politicians and three centuries of educational documents proclaim that the dialect of the wealthy classes – Standard English – is basically the “right” way to talk and write, and that regional dialects are “wrong”. In other words, the way these students’ parents speak (and by extension think) is “wrong” because it is not Standard English. This is a fact that these students have to live with every day at school. These students must learn to change their dialect in school system to conform with the hegemony. In this sense, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion  with its story of the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, being “educated” to speak the Queen’s English using Received Pronunciation, is a symbolic parable of what every student from an “alternative” background has to undergo at school if they are going to succeed. They must force themselves to speak differently and, if they don’t do that, they are punished all sorts of explicit and hidden ways from failing exams to being patronised and looked down upon. As a result, I would like to argue that most schools are inevitably Sad Learning Environments which necessarily decrease the power of many of our students.

This diagram is attempting to show how the habitus that is valued by the school system is a “middle-class or upper class” habitus, which means students who have be acculturated to this habitus will feel joy within the system because their accent, their dialect, their bodily actions, their forms of thought will all be, in large and minute ways, pretty much in tune with their teachers and the educational material they have to absorb. Other classes who have different habituses will feel sad because they won’t “fit in” in so many large and minute ways.

Learning and mockery

Mockery is a joy born of the fact that we imagine something we disdain in a thing we hate (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XI)

Learning, Satire and Mockery

Mockery can play an important role in learning. Mocking something can shock a learner into re-thinking a subject, it can provoke arguments and discussions about a topic. The most obvious use of this is satire, which is mockery for a political purpose, making us think in different ways about important figures, making us see our politicians, our monarchs and presidents, our august leaders in a ridiculous light. Spinoza’s definition of mockery helps us understand why this is such a powerful affect which can nurture learning. This is because it is a “joyful passion” which necessarily increases our powers of thought, making us “imagine” that we “disdain something in a thing we hate”. I think it’s important to note that mockery has its origins in hatred of a “thing”. Now in the case of satire this does not necessarily mean that the satirist hates a “person”, rather the satirist usually hates an idea such as unfairness, hypocrisy, lying, privilege, and then uses a mocking representation of a person to explore this idea. So for example a satirical portrait of the British Queen might present the Queen as a tired, irritable old lady, showing that for all her trappings she is just a “human being” like the rest of us; the source of the hatred here is the concept of the “monarchy” of which the Queen is a representation. The “disdain” comes into the equation because all the “flummery”, the “wealth”, social status, the history and pomposity of ceremony associated with the Queen is “disdained”. The ideas of the flummery is marginalised, hardly regarded: it does not create the desired “affect” of “veneration” or “devotion” which it produces in many people. And so the mocking representation of the Queen disdains that flummery by dressing her say in the clothes of an “ordinary” old lady of her generation. Thus we can see when exploring mockery, teacher can explore this affect in many situations to help students gain an adequate idea of what exactly is the “imagined” object of the disdain in a thing we hate. Spinoza gives a “roadmap” for exploring humour.

Teaching and Mockery

The Teacher as the victim of Mockery

He also provides the teacher with a roadmap for thinking about the types of humour which happen in learning situations. In many times in my career I have encountered students mocking me, or mocking something in the classroom situation. Indeed every day, teachers never fail to encounter some form of mockery I think; there’s always some student or teacher laughing at something or other. It can be bewildering and upsetting for teachers and students to feel that they are the victims of this mockery. It is a contagious affect which is easily passed on from person to person. For example, when other students see the joy that someone is getting from disdaining a something in he/she hates, they often become victims of this joy too because it does increase their powers of action. So I’ve come across situations when a student will point out an item of clothing that you’re wearing is defective in some way – ripped or covered in ink – and they take joy in imagining that they disdain it because it indicates that you’re scruffy and incompetent. Ultimately though, the students who are really strident in their mockery of you in a situation like this are this way because they hate the “educational set-up”: they don’t like the subject they’re studying, they don’t enjoy being in the classroom, being told what to do etc.. And these students are always on the look-out to find joy in things they imagine they disdain: finding “fault” in order to generate the affect of mockery, which increases their powers of action. The mockery may not increase their “educational” powers of action, but it will increase their power over the person they are mocking, making them feel sad, thus “decreasing” the hated objects powers of action, i.e. the teacher. In these situations, Spinoza provides the teacher with a “roadmap” for gaining an adequate idea of what is going on. The teacher needs to learn what the object of the hatred really is, and try not to take the incident personally, because as Spinoza teaches us, there is nothing “personal” in the world of the affects; the affects are produced by a multitude of forces.

Bullying and Mockery

With his definition of mockery, Spinoza also gives us a powerful insight into how mockery can be a form of bullying. The bully increases his powers of action by imagining he/she is disdaining something in a thing he/she hates. Thus, we see bullies taking joy in imagining they are disdaining their victim in some way – their bodily shape, their clothes, their habits etc. – but actually lurking behind this disdain is an object of hatred, which may well be the bully’s “self-image” which the victim reflects back at the bully. In many cases, I have found that bullies mock people who actually remind them of something they hate in themselves: their ideas of themselves as being “stupid”, “ugly”, “unfashionable”, and “unlikeable”. Thus bullies find joy in disdaining those things that they see someone else that they actually hate in themselves. The bully’s riposte when questioned by the teacher for their mockery is invariably, “but it was only a joke”. Spinoza’s philosophy teaches us that this is an inadequate idea of the situation; lurking behind all mockery is a source of hatred.

Journey into Joy

When have you been mocked in your life? Using Spinoza’s framework, analyse exactly what was going on when you were being mocked; gain an adequate idea of why you were being mocked.

Why do you think mocking can be such a joyful experience?

What types of humour do you like and why? How closely related are they to mockery?

Learning, joy and absence

Joy which arises from the absence of the thing we hate (P47S) (pp. 110, D XXXII)

Longing is really a sadness which is opposed to that joy which arises from the absence of a thing we hate (P47S) (pp. 110, D XXXII)

Many learning situations produce the affect of “longing” because if what is being studied is difficult to understand many learners long for the “joy of understanding” which is absent. This is a very important affect for the pedagogue to adequate understand. A Spinozist pedagogy does not shy away from the cognitively challenging because gaining an adequate understanding of something maybe well be difficult to grasp because it means that the mind has to leave the “imagination” of the object of learning behind and be able to understand it through “reason” ( see The Purpose of Learning is To Conceive Adequate Ideas). I have witnessed this affect of longing for “imaginative understanding” countless times in my teaching career. Let me give you an example. I was working with a fourteen-year-old boy, A., who was studying the novel 1984. He had entered the classroom mocking his classmate, but then settled down to pay attention to the task, which was to analyse the use of language in the opening of the novel. When I talked to him it was clear he did not really understand the nature of the task or have an adequate understanding of what was happening in Orwell’s novel. I acted as a “scaffold for learning” (Victoria State Government, 2014) by re-telling the passage to him: “Imagine you’re Winston Smith climbing up the stairs, how is he climbing them?” A. looked at the passage and saw that Winston was climbing the stairs “slowly”. With further questioning, he realised Winston was ill (he had ulcer on his leg), he was poor (his flat was shabby), he was lonely (he was alone), and he was being watched (by Big Brother). I conveyed the affect of joy in my explanatory questions throughout; for example, “how would you feel if you were being watched through a television screen?” “That’s creepy!” A. said. With my help, the text became “alive” for A., it was no longer a series of words with a vague story about a guy who lived in a nasty society, but it was about someone who was ill, poor, suffering, the victim of Big Brother. A. began to empathize with Winston as the affect of joy acted upon him as he began to gain an adequate idea of the passage; this increased his powers of action, and he wrote in detail about the passage and the way Winston was represented. My scaffolding had helped replace the “longing” for “imaginative ideas”, and had enabled him to gain adequate ideas of the text. However, it wasn’t enough; I should have got A. to reflect upon the strategies of learning that had enabled him to gain an adequate idea of the text. He had become reliant upon the scaffold to gain access to adequate ideas of the text, rather than learning to scaffold a text for himself in his mind by asking questions. Therefore, in other lessons, he “longed” for me, the scaffold, the affective presence of joy. I enjoyed having this affect on him, and had not at that point in my career gained an adequate idea of how children learn; I did not nurture the “self-directed learner in him” (Watkins, 2003, p. 24). Indeed, I became too attached to a sense of my own importance in affecting A.’s behaviour which was often quite bad except when I “taught” him.

Longing and the Teacher

I have found that I have often longed to be at home when I’m at school. In particular, at the end of a school day, I have found that I have to “escape” from the school premises and get away. Schools are in so many ways the “opposite” of most other situations in modern societies. They are very unnatural places which generate the affect of “longing-to-be-somewhere” because the classrooms can feel like prisons, they are often lots of people – students and teachers – being very noisy, there are strange, unpleasant smells, there are unnatural pressures that you simply don’t get elsewhere. This “longing” does decrease your powers of action because there is a chronic absence of the things that you find joy in: a sense of autonomy, the idea of freedom to do what you want, a relaxed attitude towards when you do things, the ability to talk to someone in situations which are not highly pressurised etc..

Journey into Joy

When you were at school, did you long to be somewhere else? Analyse the nature of this affect using Spinoza’s definition of it:

Longing is really a sadness which is opposed to that joy which arises from the absence of a thing we hate (P47S) (pp. 110, D XXXII)

Self-esteem and learning

Self-esteem is a joy born of the fact that a man considers himself and power of acting. (pp. 108, D. XXV) See also Pride.

Love of esteem is a joy accompanied by the idea of some action of ours which we imagine that others praise. (pp. 108, D XXX)

Overestimation is thinking more highly of someone than is just, out of love. (pp. 107, D. XXI)

I have already examined issues connected with confidence, an affect which I feel the school system produces in its quest for “certainty”. Self-esteem and love of esteem are connected to confidence in the sense that if a teacher feels “confident” in what he/she is teaching then he/she will imagine that their actions might be praised by others which means they feel “self-esteem”. However, inevitably at some point doubt affects the teacher because something goes wrong – a pupil misbehaves, results are bad, a colleague is critical – and the teacher reaches for a new method, or an adaptation of existing method which he/she will be praised, which it often is if it is following the latest “on-message” initiative.

This cycle I believe describes the “affective” cycle which many educational institutions are locked into at the moment. The main point is that an “initiative” is introduced such as a new exam syllabus or way of teaching which is “confidently” presented as a way of helping students learn in a more effective way than before. Teachers are praised if they follow the provided instructions carefully, which builds their self-esteem and ensures that the initiative has “life”. However, at some point, doubt creeps in and a critical mass of people question the initiative or some “better” initiative is suggested, and a new method is introduced, and so the affective cycle begins again. I think what Spinoza’s philosophy of the affects teaches us here though is that education policies have to have a very real “affective life” in order to “live” and “act upon” teachers and students, and that vital to this affective life are confidence, self-esteem and doubt.

Learning and Esteeming Others

I think the affect of “over-estimation” afflicts many educational institutions. This is because people have to believe that there are “experts” that have the answers in a system that produces the fear of failure. Learners seek refuge in the affect of “over-estimation” to believe that they might not fail: they think that if they follow the advice of this or that expert they won’t fail. Their “over-estimation” is a way of avoiding of thinking adequately about a particular situation. The more “high-stakes” tests there are, the more the affect of “over-estimation” occurs. For example, in the UK at the moment, there are countless study guides (and I’ve written a few myself!) which many learners “over-estimate” the power of, believing that if they buy x study guide they will pass their exam.

We live in a culture which nurtures this affect to an absurd extent. You could argue that the world of advertising is predicated upon this affect.

Journey into Joy

When have you over-estimated a teacher or an educational “guide” of some sort of another, having too much faith in them to solve your problems?

Learning, joy and desire: hope, confidence and fear

Learning, Joy and Desire

P53: When the mind consider itself and its power of acting, it rejoices, and does so the more, the more distinctly it imagines itself and its power of acting…Cor.: This joy is more and more encouraged the more the man imagines himself to be praised by others. (p. 98)

Spinoza is a wonderful philosopher for a teacher to explore in depth because he reveals the complexities of the role joy plays in learning. First, it is important to understand that joy can be both a concept – an affect which increases the learner’s power of action — and a “passion” – an affect which means the learner is “acted upon”. Joy can nurture an “illusory” state of mind as we see in P53 in that the mind can “imagine” its own “power of acting”; in other words, the mind not have an adequate idea of its own powers of action, and be deceived that it is “acting” when it is not. Nevertheless, the mind will feel joy. This has important implications for the pedagogue because it means that Spinoza is not saying that teachers should nurture “joy” willy-nilly, but should create the conditions whereby “adequate ideas” can be conceived and this will mean that joy will be nurtured necessarily. As Spinoza says in P53, if a man “imagines himself to be praised by others” he will be “more and more encouraged” to feel joy, but this affect will be a “passion”; he will be “being acted upon” and may not have any adequate ideas whatsoever. Teachers need to be mindful of this; while praising their students may well inculcate joy, this may not be nurturing adequate learning at all, but rather trapping students in the first realm of knowledge, which is “imagination”, rather than encouraging them to use reason.

It is only when the learner “reasons” that he/she will cease to be a victim of the passion of joy, and will conceive of it as a “power of the mind”. In P58, Spinoza writes:

Apart from the joy and desire which are passions, there are other affects of joy and desire which are related to us insofar as we act. Dem.: When the mind conceives itself and its power of acting, it rejoices (by P53). But the mind necessarily considers itself when it conceives a true, or adequate, idea (by IIP43). But the mind conceives some adequate ideas (by IIP40S2). There, it also rejoices insofar as it conceives adequate ideas, that is (P1), insofar as it acts. (p. 102)

So, a teacher could help their students feel joy in their learning but this may well be a “fool’s paradise” because they are simply “imagining” their own powers of action. For example, a teacher may well praise their students and make them feel happy, but actually they are not learning anything of substance; they are not conceiving adequate ideas. To learn properly, leaners need to be cognitively challenged. They need to know things that they did not know before. This means that they will necessarily find what they are studying difficult; they will need to strive to learn more about it, and be “tenacious” in their pursuit of the knowledge, striving from the dictate of reason to preserve their being by conceiving that the object of learning is intrinsically worth studying “in itself”, that it is an “expression of God’s power”. The conception of evolving adequate ideas about the object of learning will necessarily mean an increase in their powers of action within that realm of knowledge and therefore bring a degree of joy. As Vygotsky argues, it is only when learners are cognitively challenged that they conceive of new concepts. (S. Lutz, W. Huittz, 2004)

For Spinoza though, the only affects which are increase the mind’s power of action are joy and desire; this is because “by sadness we understand the fact that the mind’s power of acting is diminished or restrained (by P11 and P11S)” (pp. 102, P59 Dem). This is significant because it suggests that if there is a significant affect of sadness in a classroom, it will be difficult for students to conceive of adequate ideas and therefore learn in a significant fashion.

From this, we can construct the ways in which a teacher can assist with helping their students conceive of adequate ideas.

This diagram illustrates what an adequate idea of learning might look like. At the bottom, the learner feels the desire to be challenged and to use his/her reason and tenacity to conceive of an adequate idea of what he/she is learning, and this will necessarily lead to an increase in their powers of acting. But I would like to argue that “joy” needs to present in some shape or form in order for the learner to be able to be tenacious and to take the “object of learning” seriously. I don’t think there is a significant chance of the learner tackling a difficult topic if he/she does not feel in some sense that their “power”.

Joyful Learning

P56: There are as many species of joy, sadness, and desire, and consequently of each affect composed of these (like vacillation of mind) or derived from them (like love, hate, hope, fear etc.), as there are species of objects by which we are affected. (p. 100)

Spinoza does not have a “one-size-fits-all” view of the affects. As we see in P56, there are a multitude, possibly infinity, of species of joy, sadness and desire. This is important for the teacher to realise because he/she should not be looking for definite “indicators” or benchmarks of the affects. I don’t think they can be quantified and measured in this way; it’s more of a question of the teacher using their powers of “reason” to gain an “adequate idea” of the species of affect that are informing a learner’s approach.

Love is a joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (pp. 105, DVI)

The teacher should consider the ways in which they might make their object of learning a joyful object so that they might inculcate the affect of love within their students towards that object. The most significant way they could do this is by helping their students conceive a love of learning itself. That is help their students love the processes of learning. There is a great deal of evidence that shows when learners become aware of the way they learn, they become more effective learners. A Spinozist pedagogy would take things a step further and would explicitly nurture a love of the learning processes by helping learners conceive of adequate ideas of the way they learn.

Journey into Joy

How do you learn? When have you most enjoyed learning? Are there common learning processes

Learning and Devotion

Devotion is a love of one whom we wonder at (pp. 106, D. X)

A Spinozist pedagogue would try and steer a learner away from the affect of “devotion” because as was pointed out before, “wonder” is an “imagination” of a thing we don’t have an adequate idea of. As has been argued, a central tenet of a Spinozist pedagogy would be to help the learner see the “holism” of knowledge.

Journey into Joy

What things or people are you devoted to in the Spinozist sense? Why do you think you feel this way?

Learning, Self-Love and over-estimation

Overestimation is thinking more highly of someone than is just, out of love. (pp. 107, D. XXI)

There are a number of points to consider about Spinoza’s conception of “over-estimation” in the educational context. I am particularly interested in the ways in which institutions, acting as “bodies” in their rights, can “over-estimate” themselves. So, for example, schools which attain high rankings in the school league tables may well “over-estimate” themselves, thinking more highly of themselves than is just. To explain, the results of the students may well be due to a host of other factors other than the school’s input – the educational, social, economic background of the students for example – and yet the school will take “credit” for the school’s “great results”, and thus “over-estimating” itself. I have seen this happen from personal experience; schools, as a collective body, pat themselves on the back for their “great results” and actually do not address key issues that need to be addressed.

Equally, the hierarchical structures of educational institutions can lead to people over-estimating others. The classic example of this is a student falling in love with teacher and chronically over-estimating that teacher’s powers. Teachers are in a position where the affect of over-estimation is constantly at play because of the power imbalance between students and teachers.

There is also the “over-estimation” of oneself within the educational context. I think this is very important to consider. Spinoza defines “self-love” or “self-esteem as:

joy arising from considering ourselves. And since this is renewed as a man considers his virtues, or his power of acting, it also happens that everyone is anxious to tell his own deeds, and show off his powers, both of body and of mind and that men, for this reason, are troublesome to one another. From this it follows, again, that men are by nature envious (see P24S and P32S), or are glad of their equals’ weakness and saddened by their equals’ virtue. (pp. 98-99).

Taking this into account, we can see why educational institutions can become breeding grounds for the affects of self-love and envy. Both students and teachers are constantly being given chances to “consider” their own “virtues” in that they are being given feedback on their work, grades based on their work, and opportunities to consider how well they have performed in a whole host of subjects and situations, both formal and informal. In this sense, we can see how schools are almost “machines” for generating chances to feel “self-love” and “envy”: the very mechanism of the institution produces constant opportunities for teachers and students to reflect upon their own virtues or achievements. But a Spinozist pedagogy would have to point out that these forms of self-love and envy will necessarily produce inadequate conceptions of ourselves. This is because our sense of identity as autonomous agents will be false. For example, if a student attains a high mark in an exam, he/she may well over-estimate him/herself, considering his/her virtues as really rather wonderful, and will feel that it was him/herself alone that produced that result. But, as we have seen, a Spinozist universe is one of an infinite series of causes and effects; there are no autonomous agents, and therefore the jubilant “top-grade” student is the victim of the affect of self-love, suckered into imagining him/herself as wonderful when he/she is not.

Pride is thinking more highly of oneself than is just, out love of oneself… love of oneself, or self-esteem, insofar as it so affects a man that he thinks more highly of himself than is just. (pp. 108, D XXVIII)


Journey into Joy  

When have you felt these types of self-love, self-esteem or pride within educational settings? Think about times when you have “achieved” good results etc.; what are your thoughts upon your achievements having absorbed Spinoza’s philosophy? Did you have an “adequate idea” of yourself?

In what ways do the configurations and structures of education produce these affects? Why do you think that they do this?


Learning, Loving and Favour

Favor is a love toward someone who has benefited another. (pp. 107, D. XIX)

The affect of favour plays an important role in educational institutions because there are so many opportunities for people to benefit one another. The affect of favour comes more into play, the more pressurised and “high-stakes” the atmosphere is. So, for example, if a teacher may well feel favour towards the headteacher if he/she gives him a pay rise, and may feel a form of love towards him/her. This is a very crude example, but, in my experience, favour happens in more subtle ways. Many teachers can resent a headteacher who has such power over him/her for reasons we will explore later, but may well feel favour towards a colleague who has significantly helped them with planning lessons, a difficult class or marking. The affect of favour happens gradually over time, with colleagues benefitting each other in little but consistent ways. Such institutional situations can generate genuine feelings of love. Similarly, students can feel this affect towards teachers, because they have seen that the teacher has “gone the extra mile” to help them.

But a Spinozist pedagogue would point out that it was the institutional “set-up” which produce the breeding ground for these types of favour. Ideally, a teacher would aim to create the conditions where “nobility” rather than “favour” was nurtured.

Journey into Joy  

When have you felt “favour” towards someone within the educational context? What about outside the educational context?

Teaching and Favour

The stereotype of the teacher who has his/her favourites is still prevalent in our culture today, both in actual and virtual forms. I have seen a number of teachers who clearly have their “favourites”: they have an inadequate idea overall of their pupils’ powers of action because they believe mistakenly that some students are “better” than others. This is because they like students who “benefit” them.

Journey into Joy


When have you come across teachers who have their favourites? And students? Why does favouritism happen? What are the knock-on effects of favouritism? See Learning and Envy.

Compassion, Loving and learning

Compassion is love, insofar as it so affects a man that he is glad at another’s good fortune, and saddened by his ill fortune. (1994a, pp. 108, D. XXIV)

Compassion can be a powerful tool for learning. For example, some of the most effective lessons that I have taught have been when students feel compassion towards characters they have been reading about, such as in Of Mice and Men when the main protagonist Lennie dies. The compassion that the students have towards the idea of Lennie, an entirely fictional character, means that they feel strongly connected to the book, and from this passion, they gain a sense of the joyful nature of reading. However, it is important for the teacher to build upon the affect by getting students to conceive of adequate ideas about why they might be feeling this way. Ultimately, gaining an adequate idea of this affect might mean that students begin to learn how they’ve had their emotions manipulated by the writer, who, you could argue, has deliberated engineered his writing so that readers will feel this affect. The writer Kazuo Ishiguru says that he plans all of his novels by working out what sort of feeling he wants his readers to have at the end of his story.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt compassion in an educational context?

When might compassion be a suitable affect to explore in education?

Teaching and Loving

I think it important for a teacher to model the reasons why he/she loves learning. See Conceiving Adequate Ideas About Love and Learning.

Hopeful Learning

hope is nothing but an inconstant joy which has arisen from the image of a future or past thing whose outcome we doubt; (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 81, P18 Schol. 2)

Hope is an inconstant joy, born of the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt.  (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XII)

Is hope an effective affect to nurture in education? I’m not so sure. As Spinoza points out, it is closely allied with fear; once a teacher nurtures hope, they also bring fear. It is definitely an affect which attaches itself to “performance oriented” learning (see my commentary on Spinoza’s Appendix to I). Once a teacher stokes up the “hope” that a student might achieve well in a piece of work, they also create the fear that they may not. Too easily in my experience, the “hope” of doing well replaces any intrinsic love of learning. The affect of “hope” hijacks the learner displacing any “adequate ideas” they have had about the topic they were studying. This said, when “hope” is focused upon the learning, a student’s powers of action could be increased. For example, a learner might “hope” to find the correct answer (as opposed to hoping for a good grade) and this may motivate them to problem-solve in a productive way. In English, this might mean a learner hoping to make sense of a difficult passage they don’t understand. This said, if hope is the only affect at play, it may not be enough for a learner to adequate overcome “cognitive dissonance”; they may well be easily defeated in their quest to adequately understand a long description by a writer like Thomas Hardy. The affect of “tenacity” will be more significant in helping them problem solve.

Journey into Joy

When have teachers invoked the affect of “hope” in you and to what effect? For example, presenting you with the hope of doing well in a test? Do you think it’s a useful affect for a teacher to deploy in classroom settings?

Confident Learning

Next, if the doubt involved in these affects is removed, hope becomes confidence (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 81, P18 Schol. 2)

Confidence is a joy born of the idea of a future or past thing, concerning which the cause of doubting has been removed. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XIV)

I have noticed time and again how easily my confidence in myself has been destroyed by the negative aspect of despair. It’s only from reading Spinoza that I’ve realised how closely related confidence and despair are, and this has really helped me better understand why I’ve had my confidence so easily shattered. Let me explain. Within the school system, there is a constant striving for certainty in so many ways. In the current climate of constant government pressure to attain high results, schools, as bodies in themselves, want to find the “sure-fire” way to success, to attaining the best results from students, and in this quest they reach for the latest initiative that offers “certainty”. This affect is passed on to the teacher who searches for “certain” methods that will ensure that they are an “effective” teacher; this methods can bring “confidence” in the Spinozist sense of the word. “Doubt” has been removed from the equation; this is the “way” of doing things. I saw this with the Literacy Strategies in the early 2000s.

This was a government directive which instructed teachers to “deliver” hundreds of detailed learning objectives at Key Stages 1-3 (5-14 year olds). These learning objectives were supplied in thick folders – and later online. Teachers of literacy (largely English and Primary school teachers) were asked to teach to one or two of these “Literacy” objectives every lesson. There were objectives for each year group. It was complicated to figure out how to teach to these objectives because their wording was often academic and inaccessible for both students and teachers. Nevertheless, the affect of “certainty” entered the school system: there was no doubting about what to do. Research and my own experience shows that this stopped teachers thinking for themselves; they became confident because all “doubting” about what and how to teach had been removed. The instructions about how to teach the Literacy Strategy were also very detailed. The Literacy Strategy was abandoned in the late Noughties and early 2010 partly because of a change of government, but also because there was a dawning realisation that it was not working on behalf of the profession and policy-makers. Instead, a new “certainty” entered the system; this was that everything in the Literacy Strategy was ineffective.

The new government issued a new National Curriculum which, although shorter, was just as prescriptive in some ways in its insistence upon the teaching of pre-20th century literature and grammatical terminology as the way to improve standards of literacy. I would argue that this context has shaped the affects that produce the teacher in that the teacher is on an endless, Sisyphean process whereby they achieve a “false” confidence that a particular teaching method or topic must be taught and this affect informs their teaching persona for a while, but then they lose confidence because it becomes clear that their confidence was misplaced. I’ve found countless times that this cycle of confidence, doubt and despair has “produced” me at various stages in my teaching career. For example, I feel sure that a particular method is the way to teach a text for an exam and I work hard upon doing it this way only to suffer at the end of the course a set of “bad” class results because my students have performed badly in an exam. The confidence that I felt is utterly shattered and I despair that I will ever get it right. Or I will feel confident that I have assessed students’ coursework correctly only to learn that my marks are questioned by a colleague – or worse a senior manager – and that I was “wrong”. Often, I will have been judged to have been “over-inflating” my own students’ marks and be told that my students’ work is “sub-standard”, thus implying that my teaching of them has been poor. This has often had the effect of destroying my confidence: my conception of my own intellectual and pedagogical abilities is severely altered, making me think that I don’t really know what I’m doing.


Finally, gladness is a joy which has arisen from the image of a past thing whose outcome we doubted. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 81, P18 Schol. 2)

Gladness is a joy, accompanied by the idea of a past thing which has turned out better than we had hoped. (pp. 107, D. XVI)

Gladness and The Learner

Often many learners will under-estimate their abilities, doubt that things will go well, in order to feel the affect of gladness when they do.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt glad that things have turned out better than you have hoped? What effect has this affect had upon you? Have you begun to doubt yourself so that you might feel this affect again?

Gladness and the Teacher

Teaching provides many opportunities to feel gladness. This is because there are many “outcomes” which teachers doubt will turn out well. For example, a teacher may seriously doubt that a class will behave with them, and then when they do, he/she feels very glad. This has been a repeated affect during my career. I’ve had a particularly “bad” class – my students have not paid attention, have not got on with the work etc. – and have dreaded teaching the class the next day, but then it turns out that they do get on with the work and appear to learn something. The gladness I’ve felt in such circumstances has been particularly gratifying.

The other times when I’ve felt glad is when it’s been a CPD or “snow day”. During the winter months, the snow has randomly descended upon the school’s portion of earth and the school, not being able to cope with the blocked roads, the broken water pipes etc. – has shut. What I had expected to be a long, hard day teaching turns out to be totally “free”. The gladness I’ve felt is extreme. I suppose I am unusual in that I have always enjoyed pursuing my writing in my free time rather than watching TV all day. The gladness I’ve felt is the time to write things like what I am currently writing at my own leisure.

With CPD, I’ve felt glad to have a training day rather than teaching, even though such training days have been quite boring. I’ve often found that I feel very tired on such days, wanting to nod off as a trainer delivers yet another PowerPoint lecture on how and what to teach. Perhaps my sleepiness has been due to the fact that I feel more relaxed.

I have found that this “affect” of gladness has informed my current job as Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths. The job is very different from teaching in that while there is a certain amount of teaching involved, it is sporadic, and I have found that I have had many more days “free” than before. I said to one friend that I’m treating the job like an extended CPD and snow day. The job has given me more freedom and time to pursue my own writing projects.

I do school visits where I observe student teachers teach. It’s then that I miss the classroom – to a degree – I miss the interaction with students, talking to them about what they are thinking, feeling and learning. But I don’t miss the relentless “lesson after lesson” affect that I used to feel at the beginning of many days. It is very draining being a teacher because it requires so much energy. And during my teaching career, I was usually teaching at least four or five lessons a day, one lesson after another. There was no chance for reflection, for thinking about what I was doing, or what my students were learning. No real chance to think. I am very glad that I now have that chance. It wasn’t something that I expected. I always expected to teach in a secondary school until I retired. The lecturing job was unexpected, and it is this “unexpectedness” that has generated the affect of gladness in me I think. Frequently, my mind reflects upon how glad I am to be doing the job I am.

Veneration, devotion, schools and celebrity culture

If what we wonder at is a man’s prudence, diligence, or something else of that kind, because we consider him as far surpassing us in this, then the wonder is called veneration. (pp. 97 P52, Schol.)

Spinoza points out that veneration and consternation are closely related, as are wonder and disdain, the imaginations that these affects are derived from. I think this is important in the educational context. In an atmosphere where consternation is “stoked up” by the structures of the school system (e.g. exam consternation), veneration will also be generated in my view. Veneration is a species of superstition in my view. For example, I have noticed that certain teachers are “venerated” by students who admire the teacher’s diligence, or their imagined diligence. This sort of veneration can become “devotion” if students feel persistent joy which is focused upon the idea of the teacher (i.e. love). I know many people may doubt that schools are places where devotion and veneration happens towards teachers, but I would say that it does happen: in an atmosphere where there is consternation, fear and hate etc., students do “latch” upon specific “heroes” who induce the affects of veneration and devotion in them. I think teachers should be wary of presenting themselves as objects worthy of veneration and devotion, and should point out their “fallibility”: instead teachers should strive for the affects of nobility and tenacity, and not expect veneration and devotion.

Outside the context of school, I think it’s important to note how powerful the affects of veneration and devotion are. We live in a culture which nurtures these passions. Many young people, searching for refuge from the “sad” affects, hero-worship certain celebrities, believing them worthy of veneration and devotion. I don’t think they particularly wonder at the celebrity’s “diligence” – unless it’s a sports person – but they often wonder at their “prudence” in that they judge a particular celebrity to be particularly prudent in their general style of dress, their life-style, their general being etc.. The rest of us may not think the celebrity is “prudent” at all – possibly the opposite – but the “venerator” and the “devotee” does. The student brings these affects of veneration and devotion into school with them, and possibly disdains other people because they are not associated with their object of veneration/devotion.

I believe many inadequate ideas can follow from these affects. For example, students often want to imitate their objects of veneration, thinking or, even at times, behaving according to their idea of how these venerated objects behave. Many students are aware that they shouldn’t directly imitate a celebrity, but some, because of a variety of other factors, do not. Thus, they may use the anti-social language that a celebrity uses partly because of imitation; Spinoza argues that “affects” breed other affects. However, his theory of the affects is complex, and a Spinozist would not make a direct link between, say, a violent film and a person’s violent behaviour after seeing the film. A Spinozist would attempt to gain an adequate idea of the multitude of causes and effects that produced such behaviour. As I have argued, the affects of veneration and devotion are produced by cultures which create “opposite seeming” passions such as consternation. But as we have seen, both wonder and disdain are closely related.

Journey into Joy

Reflections: when have you felt veneration and devotion in the Spinozist sense? How has this affected your life and your views of other people?

Do you think Spinoza’s conception of wonder is the same curiosity? I would argue not, because I think curiosity is linked to a joy in acquiring knowledge.