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.



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.


Feeling joy

Spinoza’s philosophy makes us re-think what joy is because he views joy as both an emotional and intellectual process: a feeling and a thought; a passion and a concept.

Let’s look at joy as an emotional process first. There are many times in our lives when joy is “visited upon us”: we watch a movie that we greatly enjoy; we eat some chocolate; the sun comes out; a person we like smiles at us; we learn that we’ve done very well in our exams etc. All these examples are for Spinoza “passions” because they happen to us. Spinoza has a precise definition of “passion”: it is a feeling which acts upon us. When joy is a passion, we are, to some extent, its “victim” in that we have limited control over whether we feel it or not.

Let’s examine cake as an example. Eating a cake is a “passion” in that you are, ultimately, putting yourself at the mercy of the cake: you have to trust that it will provide what Spinoza calls the “affect” of joy. The word “affect” is important in Spinoza because it is more than just a feeling, but is both a thought and a feeling. The “cake affect” involves both the feelings of pleasure that you have when you eat the cake and the ideas that it creates in your mind. This is partly why the advertising is so successful because it encourages your mind to generate positive ideas about a particular product that it is selling: for example, Salman Rushdie’s famous slogan “Naughty but nice!” sold the idea that the sensation of eating a cream cake was transgressive. When you eat a cake, all the ideas and feelings that you have about eating cakes, and much else – your situation when you eat the cake, your age, your degree of hunger etc. – will combine to produce a “passion”, a “cake affect”. While you may feel that you are “in control” of the joy you feel when you eat the cake – i.e. you think that you will definitely feel joy when you eat the cake – in actual fact, you are not in control: the unique concatenation of circumstances will have produced the “passion” of joy. You are not in control in the way you think you are.

So, this is joy as a “passion”: as something that happens to you. We live in a world which bombards us with joyful affects. Indeed, the psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek (The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology, 2012) argues that our consumerist, capitalistic culture is constantly exhorting us to “enjoy” ourselves. It is almost an imperative of modern life. And he points out that this is oppressive and has the net effect of actually making us not enjoy anything because we’re constantly worrying about whether we’re enjoying it or not.

This was not Spinoza’s attitude at all. In Ethics, he does not demand that we “enjoy” ourselves, rather he says that if we thinks deeply and adequately about things, we will inevitably feel joy: it is the necessary effect of adequate thinking. This is a mind-blowing and important idea that I believe teachers need to get their heads around because it has profound implications for the way we teach. It provides a deep and profound purpose to education. Spinoza is effectively saying if we educate our children properly, they will feel joy, and vice versa.