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.

The third kind of knowledge: intuition

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

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

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

Learning involves conceiving of common notions

We all share things which are “common” to all our bodies, such as the fact that we are made of flesh and blood, have brains and grow. These are:

If something is common to, and peculiar to, the human body and certain external bodies by which the human body is usually affected, and is equally in the part and in the whole of each of them, its idea will also be adequate to the mind. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 54, P 39)

In other words, we all have an adequate idea of walking because we all share a “common notion” of what walking is: that it is using two legs to move. (Jarrett, 2007, p. 67)

The foundations of reason are notions (by P38) which explain those things which are common to all, and which (by P37) do not explain the essence of any singular thing. On that account, they must be conceived without any relation to time, but under a certain species of eternity. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 60, P.44 Dem)

The purpose of learning is to conceive adequate ideas

A diagram of key points in Chapter II of Ethics

In Proposition 32, Spinoza writes: “All ideas, insofar as they are related to God, are true.” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 53). So learn of adequate ideas, to learn about them, is to learn the “truth” in a Spinozist sense. But, of course, we need to be aware of Spinoza’s conception of an adequate idea to grasp this statement fully. Spinoza rejects “essentialism” in his philosophy; there is no “set criteria” for “adequate ideas”. Moreover, he is suspicious of language to express adequate ideas. As we have seen, learning is an embodied experience which must necessarily take place in the body and the mind simultaneously. The adequate idea of a thing is always in God; it is contained in the infinite intellect, and it is only finite minds that have to go through a process of calculation to move from the inadequate idea of a thing to the adequate idea of a thing.

But we can see a rationale for learning emerging here; learning is about striving to have adequate ideas. It is, as Watkins puts it, a “journey” (Watkins, 2010, p. 9), an endless journey with no fixed destination, and it is the journey which is the whole point of it, a striving towards adequate ideas which can never be fully formed, but definitely be conceived of.

Journey into Joy

Carpe Diem Quest: what do you feel you want to learn most about before you die?

Cultural reflections: do you think our culture has an “adequate idea” of learning? Consider these statements:

  • Learning is only proven when you pass exams.
  • You can only learn properly when you have a good teacher.
  • Learning can be commodified: it can be a product which is sold on the free market, bought and sold like any other commodity.