Learning, hate and humility

Hate is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, DVII)

There are so many “ideas of external causes” in the education system that it is probably no surprise that many sadnesses “accompany” them. For Spinoza, sadness is simply a decrease in one’s powers of action and so it embraces all the “negative” affects – if we can call them that. But it should be noted that Spinoza is not an “affective” prescriptivist; he does not say that we should be feeling a certain way. He does not advise against feeling “sadness” or any other affect. Moreover, he points out that any sadnesses that we feel are “necessary” in the sense that we are the inevitable recipients of them; they “act upon” us in the way all “passions” do. It is part of the pedagogue’s job to give the learner an adequate idea of them. This is particularly true of “hate” which is such an all-encompassing passion; it is closely related to “love” because both are affects which accompany the idea of an external cause. I think it is particularly important to consider certain external causes which may cause people in the education system to accompany their sad ideas with them.

Students and hate

Many students say they hate school. The whole system becomes their focus for sadness. As we have already seen, this may be because their “habitus” just does not fit in with the over-riding habitus of the system, and as a result, they hate many things about school: the nature of the lessons, the voices and bodies of the teachers, the instructions they receive, the powerlessness they feel. I have seen this happen in a few cases, but more often than not though, a particular incident or person triggers the hatred. This could be because they don’t like a particular teacher, subject or student. In my experience, the nature of the hatred is usually “human focused”. Usually, students feel that a key player in the system does not like them, and has “got it in for them”. We will look at the nature of these types of “fear” later, but here it is important to note that an effect of this kind of fear is burgeoning hatred for other things associated with school. Things that they treated with disdain or even love/joy now become external causes for hatred.

This diagram shows the factors that come into play when a student feels hate at school. Fear (which will be dealt with later) is linked to hate: fear of failure, fear of being humiliated, fear of physical/verbal violence etc. This fear then can affect a students’ mind in many other ways in that he/she looks for external causes for their sadness. Their powers of action have been decreased and they no longer feel joy in the things that they used to enjoy, and may well hate these things because they blame them in some way. For example, if they are being bullied they may well blame a friend who was a source of joy for not being supportive enough etc., and then hate them. The things that they disdain may well become ideas of external causes of sadness because they notice them now in this heightened affective state of fear. For example, the affect of finding certain lessons difficult or boring may well become a species of hate because they blame these things for the way they are feeling, which, of course, they don’t have an adequate understanding of.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt hate at school? What was the “accompanying external cause” in your view?

Teachers and hate

I have noticed that teachers tend to be more political in the way they focus their hatred. So, for example, many teachers hate the government for imposing endless new changes to exams, curriculum, assessment procedures, and curriculum etc. These teachers feel “acted upon”, passive recipients of pointless policies, and, as a result, they feel sadness, accompanied by the idea of the external cause of the government. Their feelings of hate are clearly related to their feelings of powerlessness. Perhaps more commonly, certain figures within a particular institution may become foci for hate, particularly other teachers who are perceived to be “bossing” people around unreasonably, possibly exhibiting bullying behaviour. Over the years, I have come across many teachers who have hated other members of staff, regularly coming up with comments like “I’d like to stab his eyes out”, “He is the most pathetic person I’ve ever met”. This discourse of hate pervades staffrooms in a whispering, covert fashion up and down the country, and possibly across the globe.

I would like to argue that this affect of hate is an inadequate idea which has been produced by a number of accompanying causes, and that it is in the interests of teachers to understand these causes before focusing their hate upon a particular person. Spinoza’s philosophy necessitates for us to gain an adequate idea of the affect of hate; to understand its multiple sources. I think in an atmosphere where jobs are insecure, where teachers’ authority is constantly contested, where teachers are judged by arbitrary benchmarks etc,, then the affect of hate is much more likely to be produced by an educational institution.

Journey into Joy

Why do you think teachers hate other colleagues? What is really going on here?

Learning and Aversion

Aversion is a sadness accompanied by the idea of something which is the accidental cause of sadness (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. IX)

 The affect of “aversion” afflicts many classrooms. Let’s start with the students. Many students may not “hate” a subject in that they explicitly blame it in their minds for being the direct cause of their sadness, but they may well feel that for accidental reasons, they don’t a subject. A very common phrase I’ve heard in my career is “I just don’t like it – it’s boring”. For me, these phrases are informed by the affect of aversion, rather than hatred; many students feel that for “random” reasons they don’t understand they don’t like a subject. This lessens the affect of sadness. Many children feel that they don’t adequately understand the reasons why they are learning something, and in this sense they feel aversion because they feel that they are learning things for “accidental” reasons: they just happen to have strayed upon this teacher who insists upon teaching these pointless things, when they might be learning something more interesting. Teachers try to compensate for this by saying that they are learning something for an exam, but children then feel that they are the victims of a “random” exam system. This is at the heart of many students’ ressentiment; they constantly subjected to be bombarded with random terms, facts, tasks.

Similarly, teachers may well not like teaching a class or a topic for “accidental” reasons. For example, they have to teach a class in a particular room which is cramped, or too hot/cold etc., and this makes them feel an aversion for the class which they feel is “accidental”. I think it’s interesting to note in my own case that this means my feelings of sadness are not so strong as they might have been if I had blamed the students themselves for my feelings.

I found as my career progressed, I developed an aversion for Parents’ Evenings, something which I had not felt at the beginning of my career. I think this was for a number of reasons. I think Parents’ Evenings had become much more “high stakes” affairs, with parents much more likely to blame the teacher if their child was doing badly. I also felt aversion because these Parents’ Evenings were at the end of a long day of teaching, and I wanted to go home, but would have to talk to parents for three hours or so, before the long trek home.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt that you’ve been forced to learn random facts/terms/topics? What things do you feel an aversion towards?


Humility is a sadness born of the fact that a man consider his own lack of power, or weakness. (pp. 108, D. XXVI)

The “affect” of humility is very different from having an adequate idea of what “humility” is. Schools are constantly  casting its actors in roles which necessitate the affect of humility. The student has to feel humility much of the time because he/she knows that he/she has very little power; he/she has to attend school, and has little choice about what he/she learns. These power structures bred the affect of humility.

It’s strange as a teacher that I have felt the affect of humility many times. This is particularly the case when dealing with senior managers: headteachers, deputy heads, heads of department etc.. They have made me aware of my own lack of power: I have to follow their guidance, their advice whatever I might think of them. Instead of getting angry, I have found that the affect of humility has furthered my career with these people of worldly power; it’s conveyed in the way you accept what your superior says to you, the sincere nod of the head, the diligent way you follow their orders, the way you pay attention.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt humility in your life? What sorts of people have produced the affect of humility in you?

Tenacity and nobility

For Spinoza, the educative process is about the learner conceiving of adequate ideas and thus attaining “powers of the mind”.

P59: Among all the affects which are related to the mind insofar as it acts, there are none which are not related to joy or desire…Schol. All actions that follow from affects related to the mind insofar as it understands I relate to strength of character, which I divide into tenacity and nobility. For by tenacity I understand the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictate of reason, to preserve his being. By nobility I understand the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictate of reason, to aid other men and join them to him in friendship.

Those actions, therefore, which aim only at the agent’s advantage, I relate to tenacity, and those which aim at another’s advantage, I relate to nobility. So moderation, sobriety, presence of mind in danger, and so forth, are species of tenacity, whereas courtesy, mercy, and so forth, are species of nobility. (pp. 102-103)

This is important for teachers to consider; learners actively learn when they conceive adequate ideas and, as a result, feel joy or desire. To do this, a symbiotic process needs to happen by whereby they learn to want to preserve their being through the “dictates of reason”; by gaining an adequate idea of who they are and what they want to learn through reason. It appears as a consequence of this process, they will acquire the key features of tenacity: “moderation, sobriety, presence of mind in danger and so forth”. This won’t be because they have been instructed to acquire these habits of mind but because their reasoning has guided them to think and feel this way. As a result of this process of thinking things through, the learner will acquire “tenacity” which is “the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictate of reason, to preserve his being”. This closely relates to conceptions of “resilience” and “grit” which a number of educationalists have argued learners need in recent years. Sarah Truebridge (2010) argues that research consistently shows that giving teachers a good understanding of how resilience nurtures learning is one of the most “vital, valuable and cost-effective” ways of assisting learning in schools.

Resilience research in education specifically recognizes three protective factors that, when present in an educational environment, mitigate risk and enhance positive educational climates that promote student engagement, motivation, and self-efficacy, which in turn increase student success. These three protective factors are: (1) fostering caring relationships, (2) conveying high expectations, and (3) promoting opportunities for meaningful participation.

When her observations are interpreted from a Spinozist perspective, we can see that her first point that “fostering caring relationships” helps nurture resilience is related to Spinoza’s concept of “nobility” whereby the teacher needs to use their powers of reason to adopt a “noble” state of mind in order to think that they are going to aim at helping other people. For me, Truebridge’s second point could be a call for students to acquire the habits of Spinozist reasoning; this needs to be the pedagogue’s “high expectations” rather than insisting that students attain a top mark in an exam. And finally, teachers need to create the conditions whereby students can acquire the qualities of tenacity and nobility.

Desires chart

I had toyed with the idea of labelling what is now “Desire 1” Positive Desires, “Desire 2” Neutral Desires, and “Desire 3” Negative Desires, but drew back because

Desire 1 Desire 2 Desire 3
Longing is a desire, or appetite, to possess something which is encouraged by the memory of that thing, and at the same time restrained by the memory of other things which exclude the existence of the thing wanted…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) Anger is a desire by which we are spurred, from hate, to do evil to one we hate. (See P39) (pp. 111, D XXXVI)
Emulation is a desire for a thing which is generated in us because we imagine that others have the same desire. (pp. 110, D XXXIII) Vengeance is a desire, by which, from reciprocal hate, we are roused to do evil to one who, from a like affect, has injured us. (See P40C and P40CS.) (pp. 111, D XXXVII)
Thankfulness, or gratitude, is a desire, or eagerness of love by which we strive to benefit one who has benefited us from a like affect of love (P39 and P41S) (pp. 110, D XXXIV) Cruelty, or severity, is a desire by which someone is roused to do evil to one whom we love or pity. (pp. 111, D XXXVIII)
Benevolence is a desire to benefit one whom we pity (SeeP27S). (pp. 110, D XXXV) Timidity is a desire to avoid a greater evil, which we fear, by a lesser one. (pp. 111, D XXXIX)
Daring is a desire by which someone is spurred to do something dangerous which his equals fear to take on themselves. (pp. 111, D XL) Consternation is attributed to one whose desire to avoid an evil is restrained by wonder at the evil he fears…is a species of cowardice. But because consternation arises from a double timidity, it can be more conveniently defined as a fear which keeps a man senseless or vacillating so that he cannot avert evil. (pp. 111, D XLII). Cowardice is ascribed to one whose desire is restrained by timidity regarding a danger which his equals dare to take on themselves. (pp. 111, D XLI)
Human kindness, or courtesy, is a desire to do what pleases men and not do what displeases them. (pp. 111, D XLIII)   Ambition is an excessive desire for esteem. Exp: Ambition is a desire by which all the affects are encouraged and strengthened (by P27 and P31)…For as long as a man is bound by any desire, he must at the same time by bound by this one. (pp. 111, D XIV)
No opposite to Gluttony in Spinoza’s view.   Gluttony is an immoderate desire for and love of eating. (pp. 111, D XLV)
No opposite to Drunkeness in Spinoza’s view.   Drunkenness is an immoderate desire for and love of drinking. (pp. 111, D XLVI)


FG: Drunkenness decreases your power while giving you the idea that you’ve increased it.

No opposite to Greed in Spinoza’s view.   Greed is an immoderate desire for and love of wealth. (pp. 111, D XLVII)
No opposite to Lust in Spinoza’s view.   Lust is also a desire for and love joining one body to another. (pp. 112, D XLVIII)

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.

Conceiving adequate ideas about love and learning


The learner is either consciously or unconsciously constantly striving to learn about those things that increase their joy. I have seen this time and again in the classroom. The child who feels that joy is to be found in mucking around with his/her friends, rather than “learning” what the teacher has set them to learn. (pp. 77-78, P12)


When learners encounter situations which are “painful” or “sad” to them, they tend to forget everything that they’ve been taught during these times. Fear is not a powerful learning tool, and yet it is constantly created in the classroom when teachers threaten punishments if work is not done. A Spinozist pedagogy would suggest that this will lead to a decrease in the learner’s powers of action and lead to learners forgetting what they’ve been “taught”. Spinoza claims that the mind strives to “recollect things which exclude the existence” of things which have “decreased the mind’s powers of action” (pp. 78, P13). This may, in part, explain why teachers find that their students often “get things the wrong way round”, or discuss irrelevant matters; they are recollecting the very things that enable them to forget what they did not enjoy.


Spinoza writes: “Love is nothing but joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause.” (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 78, P13 Schol.). So we are building up a picture of what successful learning might look like here: learning to conceive adequate ideas should be a joyful experience and that “love of learning” should be a natural corollary to learning itself.
By how to do this? Well, at the heart of a Spinozist pedagogy will be, as we have said, the teacher helping students conceive adequate ideas, but I would also like to argue that Spinoza’s philosophy suggests that getting students to reflect upon the affects that have accompanied their learning experiences might be productive, and will help them get a better conception of the affective processes involved in learning. This, in turn, suggests that it might be productive to ask students about the times when they have loved learning and to recollect the strategies which enabled them to learn, which they are then to apply to the object of learning in the teacher’s lesson. Part of the journey of conceiving of adequate ideas of learning will be conceiving of learning as a joyful, desirable experience.

This diagram is positing the case that the learner needs to be cognizant of the joy of learning as a necessary grounding in order to focus upon a specific object of learning. An adequate idea of the joy of learning is required for a learner to learn anything. Fortunately, most babies acquire a natural love of learning and an implicit awareness that learning is joyful, but a variety of factors lead to many students losing this “faith” in the joyfulness of the learning process and this necessarily decreases their power of learning.
What learning processes do you love and why? What is joyful about the process of discovering something?

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.