The emotions involved in learning are linked in complex ways

Spinoza writes in Proposition 14: “If the mind has been once affected by two affects at once, then afterwards when it is affected by one of them, it will also be affected by the other.” (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 78, P14).
This is important regarding the “emotional temperature” of a classroom; if an “affect” of fear for example dominates a classroom, then a child’s joy of learning may become intertwined with fear, and both affects will become interlinked, thus diminishing the child’s power of learning overall. Furthermore, as Spinoza says in the following Proposition 15 that “any thing can be the accidental cause of joy, sadness or desire”. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the pedagogue to be aware of the “things” that might affect the affective atmosphere of a learning environment. Spinoza writes in his Scholarium to P15: “From this we understand how it can happen that we love or hate some things without any cause known to us.” Spinoza’s ideas are similar to Freud’s notions of “transference” in that he appears to be saying that people are unconsciously affected by feelings which they do not adequately understand the origins of, namely why they are feeling in a particular way. Teachers need to be mindful of this and should give learners the chance to explore their feelings towards particular subjects and help learners discover the reasons why they might be feeling negatively towards a subject so that they can begin to have an adequate understanding of how their emotions have shaped their conceptions of a subject.

Above is an “affective” process map of the reasons why I avoided and still avoid the subjects of maths and science: a number of powerful affects shaped my feelings towards these subjects. Both my parents, in their different ways and for different reasons, my schooling and British cultural attitudes “passed on” the “affect” of “sadness” (in the Spinozist sense of the word), which manifested itself in the dominant affects of fear and boredom which I attached to the subjects of maths and science. My teachers played a role in me feeling this way about these subjects – none of them imparted any sense of wonder to these subjects – but it would be unfair to blame them entirely; there were powerful psycho-social forces at play as well. My father insisted that only scientists and mathematicians were truly worthy of academic accolades, which had the net affect of me feeling even more fearful about the subjects because, in part, he made me feel that my worth as a person was “on the line” when I was studying these subjects. Concomitantly, my mother, who was divorced from my father when he urged me to study the sciences, showed no interest in the sciences and expressed hatred towards my father through my teenage years when I made my A Level choices. Furthermore, in British culture, there was, and is, a big divide between “arts” and “sciences” which is partially expressed by the fact that we had to choose between arts and sciences at A Level. And so we can see that this complex web of affects shaped my feelings of fear and loathing towards the science and maths which had actually had very little to do with the intrinsic nature of the subjects of themselves. Interestingly, my fascination with Spinoza has made me interested in Maths and Science again because his ontological framework embraces the infinity of causes that produce us; I have found myself investigating the Geometric method of Euclid, reading about the history of maths and science, and taking a particular interest in modern cosmological theories, which I feel have particular resonances with Spinoza’s ontology. Thus we can see a series of affects reconfiguring my attitudes towards Maths and Science, which is causing me to learn about these subjects again.

Thus we can see how a positive “affect” that of interest/curiosity, which have for Spinoza, generates joy and curiosity, and leads to me to learn about Maths and Science. I have ceased to be a fearful learner of the subject because I understand, in part, why I was “turned off” the subject in the first place, and why these subjects might interest me. Thus a positive affective learning process is enacted, which has its origins an affective intellectual curiosity in Spinoza.
I believe that Propositions 16 (p. 79) and 18 (p. 80) are relevant to this point in that they both attempt to prove that we can accidently love or hate a particular object because it reminds us of something else we loved or hated (P16) or that particular images (in the Spinozist sense) have just as powerful effect upon us as an image which is present to us (P18). In terms of the learner, this means that our feelings generated by past experiences have a tremendously powerful effect upon us in all sorts of hidden and unconscious ways.


All learning is subject to the passions of joy and sadness

…the mind can undergo great changes, and pass now to a greater, now to a lesser perfection. These passions, indeed, explain to us the affects of joy and sadness. By joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection. The affect of joy which is related to the mind and body at once I call pleasure or cheerfulness, and that of sadness, pain or melancholy. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 77, P11 Schol.)

Spinoza argues that our mind are the victims of the two central affects of joy and sadness. When we feel joy we move to a more perfect or “real” state of mind, while sadness creates more imperfect states of mind. Therefore, we can say that the Spinozist learner should seek joy, but reason will inform him/her that their learning will involve times of sadness, pain and melancholy. This is inevitable and no adequate idea of learning could not take into account these difficult moments. Indeed, one could argue that there is no pleasure without pain: the nature of our finitude means we will always be subject to external causes and passive affects. However, Spinoza’s affective model is not “binary”: pleasure and pain are not opposites, but are on a continuum which we constantly move along.

This diagram shows that sadness exists within “joy” as an affect because sadness is the diminishing of the power of acting, a lessening of the affect of joy; it is not the opposite of joy at all, but a subset of it, and a necessary part of joy. The conatus, the striving is at the heart of the diagram, striving to preserve its being in whatever way it can. The arrow shows how the conatus moves up and down the sliding scale of the affects depending upon to what degree the affects of joy and sadness are shaping how the subject feels. Spinoza compares us to being like waves on the sea in the way we are victims of our external causes:

…we are driven about in many ways by external causes, and that, like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we toss about, not knowing our outcome and fate. (pp. 103 P59, Schol.)

The affects have both internal and external causes, and can operate like “contrary winds” if we do not have an adequate understanding of them; they can sweep through us, created by the infinity of forces that bring each moment into being (Deleuze, 1988, p. 50).

When have you felt “tossed about” by the contrary winds of joy and sadness?

Every learner strives to preserve his own being

In Propositions 6-9 of Chapter 3, Spinoza outlines his theory of the “conatus” – the striving within all of us to preserve our beings (p. 75). He argues that our minds have an idea of this “striving”. He writes:

When this striving is related to the mind, it is called the will; but when it is related to the mind and body together, it is called appetite. The appetite, therefore, is nothing but the very essence of man, from whose nature there necessarily follows those things that promote his preservation. And so man is determined to do those things.
Between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that desire is generally related to men insofar as they are conscious of their appetite. So desire can be defined as Appetite together with consciousness of the appetite.
From all this, then, it is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it. (pp. 76, P9, Schol.)

This is important because we could conceptualise the learner as fundamentally driven, like all of us, by his/her conatus. The conatus is at the heart of who we are – our essence – but all of conatuses strive necessarily for different things because we all have experienced and experience different contexts, different objects which our appetites attach themselves to. The teacher needs to be conscious of the infinite diversity of the strivings that his/her pupils have. Students are striving to preserve their beings, but may have deeply inadequate ideas about how to do this, many of those ideas may not have any notion that the learning being offered by the teacher can do that. Their strivings, their appetites may be taking them in a different direction; they may see that their beings are best preserved by gaining the friendship and respect of their peers for example.

The most productive learning happens when the mind actively constructs adequate ideas

Spinoza writes for Proposition 3 of Chapter 3: “the actions of the mind follow from adequate ideas along; hence, the mind is acted on only because it has inadequate ideas” (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 74, P3 Schol.) In other words, adequate ideas necessitate active thought. This has implications for the Spinozist pedagogue who needs to set up the conditions whereby “adequate ideas” and “active thought” can be nurtured. For me, this means providing the environment in which students can actively learn; students need to be “doing” not passively “imbibing knowledge”. This vision of the active learner who is encouraged to think independently, to learn by doing, has been articulated by many educational thinkers such as Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner and Paulo Freire. However, I believe there is a particular and nuanced angle to be drawn from Spinozist thought upon this formulation of the active learner; we can infer that a certain methodological, philosophical and affective approach will necessitate active thought. The pedagogue cannot be narrow in his conceptions of what must be learnt; for a learner to have adequate ideas he/she needs to understand the manifold forces which have produced the object of learning; the learner needs to see how God’s essence is expressed in the object of learning. For example, when learning about poetry, the learner will need to actively read the poem for him/herself, understand what the poem means, but also understand the ways in which the poem has affected him/her both conceptually and affectively, and will need to understand the forces that produced the poem. This is a pedagogy then that embraces complexity.
For the learner to conceive adequate ideas about the poem will mean that the learner will see the poem as a dynamic nexus of connections between the world it came from and the world of the learner. An inadequate idea of the poem will mean the learner will not have much conception of the forces that produced the poem; thus the learner’s response will be a “passionate” one, and not a “reasoned” one. Nevertheless, a Spinozist pedagogue may not necessarily view a negative affective response from a learner in a negative light; a Spinozist teacher would want to investigate the reasons behind the negative response and would see it as a challenge to their reason to understand why the poem produced this response. For example, if a student said that a poem was boring, a Spinozist teacher would not become angry, but would become interested in the reasons why the poem induced this response. However, what I like about a Spinozist pedagogy of active learning, as opposed to many conceptions of active learning, is that it does not claim all “truth” lies with the learner; it insists that the learner has an adequate idea of the object of learning; this necessarily leads to the learner increasing his/her own power.

See also Spinoza on Prophets and Prophecies in the TTP.


This happens when “we act when something happens, in us or outside us, of which we are the adequate cause” (pp. 70, D2)

This happens when “we are acted on when something happens in us, or something follows from our nature, of which we are only a partial cause” (pp. 70, D2)

I like the word “affect” rather than “emotion” as it sometimes translated because it embraces the notion that both thought and feeling are inextricably linked to each other. Spinoza writes:

By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 70, D3)


Spinoza sets out some important arguments in his Preface to Chapter 3 of Ethics. First, he points out that human beings “follow the common laws of Nature” and are not “outside Nature”. We do not “determine” ourselves but do not have “absolute power” over our actions (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 68). Many of us mistakenly believe that we are a “dominion within a dominion” and as a consequence lay the blame for “human impotency and inconstancy” upon the “vice of human nature”. He points out that there are many “very distinguished men”, including Descartes, who argue that the “mind can have absolute dominion over its affects” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 69). A “geometric method” of reasoning could never take such an approach but must necessarily reason that:
…nothing happens in Nature which can be attributed to any defect in it, for Nature is always the same, and its virtue and power of acting are everywhere one and the same, that is, the laws and rules of Nature, according to which all things happen, and change from one form to another, are always and everywhere the same. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 69)
Extrapolating these points to develop a Spinozist pedagogy, one could argue that Spinoza is necessarily saying that our learning is a “part of Nature” and not outside of it, and that it is an “affective process”, and that it is a fruitless exercise to blame individuals for their defects in learning, to label them as morally defective if they are not learning in the way we expect them too. Spinoza writes:

The affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, and the like, considered in themselves, follow with the same necessity and force of Nature as the other singular things. And therefore they acknowledge certain causes, through which they are understood, and have certain properties, as worth of our knowledge as the properties of any other thing, by the mere contemplation of which we are pleased. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 69)

For Spinoza, the affects are the conatus, that is, joy is an increase in our power to strive (conatus) and sadness a decrease. The affects don’t ‘work with’ conatus, they just are, for want of a better expression, its fluctuations. In the Spinozist metaphysic there is only power (substance), and then individuated degrees of powers (modes and their conati), and difference within Nature arises from how these powers interact and alter one another. For the pedagogue, to understand the affects is to understand how to utilise the affects for the benefit of the acquisition of reasoned knowledge about the world. In this way, an adequate idea of learning would always have an affective side, for the affective feeling of joy is a way to increase a person’s power which will ultimately make the act of learning through the understanding easier. However, it is important to note affects can have the opposite effect, such as when one becomes more and more fearful, and thus take increasing sanctuary in the superstitions, and thus become increasingly ignorant. Thus, the affects can actually decrease an individual’s capacity to learn. Crucially, the learner needs to use reason to understand how the affects have causes and “certain properties” that the learner needs to become familiar with in order to understand the ways in which he/she learns.
This idea ties in with notions of “emotional intelligence” which Daniel Goleman (Goleman, 2016) has discussed in many books and articles. His central argument is that our education systems have not conceptualised his notion of “emotional intelligence” (EQ as he terms it) but have abstracted thought from feeling, and, as a result, failed to nurture meaningful learning amongst many students. For Goleman as for Spinoza, learning is inherently “emotional”; if a learner does not feel motivated to learn, does not feel the “joy” of learning, then they won’t learn very much. This is similar to what Spinoza is arguing I think. However, Goleman’s epistemological framework is not as all-encompassing as Spinoza’s in that he fails to take into account other causes for the failure to learn such as social reasons, his focus is primarily upon the psychological. Moreover, his notion of subjectivity is very much a “neo-liberal” conception with both “emotions” factored in to the equation. The learner can become an “autonomous” productive, “free” agent in the consumer society if he/she understands and manipulates his EQ in a better way. Thus, it could be argued that Goleman’s conception of EQ is very different from Spinoza’s reasoning regarding the affects. Goleman’s goal is ultimately “teleological” in that developing EQ in the learning is about producing happy workers and consumers who feel “free” to make the right choices in their lives. Spinoza does not have a “teleological goal” in his project to help us understand the affects, other than that we should have an adequate understanding of the affects.