The Power of Proximity

P9: An affect whose cause we imagine to be with us in the present is stronger than if we did not imagine it to be with us.

P10: We are affected more intensely towards a future thing which we imagine will quickly be present, than if we imagine the time when it will exist to be further from the present. We are also affected more intensely by the memory of the thing we imagine to be not long past, than if we imagined it to be long past. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 121)

Spinoza recognizes that the affects affect us much more powerfully when they are “near” us either in time or space, or both. For the teacher, this means he/she should consider the affects of actually having physical bodies in the room with him/her. A physical body being present in the company of a teacher creates many powerful affects which disappear when that body is not present. It sounds like an obvious point but it is not really. Think of infinite complexity of affects that being with someone creates upon you: their dress, their age, their status, their ethnicity, their size, their smell, the look in their eyes etc. all needs to be processed and absorbed. That person has a much bigger impact upon you when they are there in front of you than when they are gone, unless for some reason the affect of their physical presence has been replaced by a more powerful affect emanating from them, e.g. they have said they love you, or want to kill you etc. Part of releasing oneself from the bondage of the affects is understanding the “power of proximity”; understanding how things that are near us create affects upon us.

This diagram shows visually the power of proximity: how things that are near impact much more greatly upon the human subject than if they are far away. This true not only of physical proximity but also temporal proximity; immediate events generate more powerful affects upon us than if they are far away in time.

In an effort to utilise the power of the proximity affect, I try now to answer emails immediately, to get projects and proposals written early, to mark work immediately; then these are done, and they don’t “hang over” you, lingering at the back of your mind as a nagging worry, not a huge worry, but a worry nevertheless. Doing things immediately has the affect of “clearing the decks”. I found that my happiness as a teacher depended deeply upon this. At the end of the day, instead of leaving my marking/admin until later, I would do it all in school, marking my books at my desk and leaving later as a result, but not taking the work home with me. This made a huge difference to my well-being I noticed. I’ve spoken to other “happy” teachers who have said similar things: they’ve all completed the work they’d rather not do very early, doing it efficiently but not “over-exerting” themselves with it, which has then left them to do the things that they want to do. I suppose these teachers have had a deep sense of their own priorities. They are aware of what is important to them and that’s enabled them to get on with things that they don’t like as much quickly and efficiently. In this sense, they’ve overcome the “worry affect” of having lots of fiddling, nasty jobs hanging over them by doing them quickly because they have an adequate idea of what they enjoy and this has driven their desire to get the horrible jobs done.

This diagram shows how doing the “near” and “nasty” jobs quickly increases one’s powers of action. If you do the nasty jobs which are near quickly, you don’t forget to do them and they don’t hang over you.

Counter-acting the affects

False Ideas are not Necessarily removed by telling the truth

Nothing positive which a false idea has is removed by the presence of the true insofar as it is true. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 117, P1)

For example, when we look at the sun, we imagine it to be about two hundred feet away from us. In this we are deceived so long as we are ignorant of its true distance; but when its distance is known, the error is removed, not the imagination, that is, the idea of the sun, which explains its nature only so far as the body is affected by it. And so, although we come to know the true distance, we shall nevertheless imagine it as near us. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 118)

It happens, of course, when we wrongly fear some evil, that the fear disappears on our hearing news of the truth. But on the other hand, it also happens, when we fear an evil which is certain to come, that the fear vanishes on our hearing false news. So imaginations do not disappear through the presence of the true insofar as it is true, but because there occur others, stronger than them, which exclude the present existence of the things we imagine, as we showed in IIP17. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 118, P1 Schol)

This is especially true with regards to teaching to the test. The teacher knows the right method for students to learn is to learn to work it out for themselves, but the fear of the students of failing is a powerful affect, and the teacher finds that it is easier to neutralise this affect by “spoon feeding”, a false idea of learning. The student learns to copy and imitate, not to think.

External Causes are much more Powerful than an Individual

The teacher is expected to be God, to have control over how children learn, what they learn and how they are expected to achieve in exams and their work generally. Spinoza teaches us that the power of external causes is much more powerful than the individual. The teacher has limited power over learners. External causes are much more powerful.

For given a man, there is something else, say A, more powerful. And given A, there is something else again, say B, more powerful than A, and so on, to infinity. (pp. 118, Schol)

The Passions are More Powerful than Individuals

The force and growth of any passion, and its perseverance in existing, are defined by the power of an external cause compared with our own (by P5). And so (by P3) it can surpass the power of a man, and so on, q.e.d. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 120, P6 Dem)

A repeated idea in Spinoza is that the passions can overwhelm us. This is particularly true in school. The concept of school is invested with numerous affects: historical, geographical, pedagogical, psychological etc. In particular, there is the “you-must-do-well affect” which is passed through schools on many levels, imparted in the way teachers/students talk to each other, a school’s results, the displays on the walls, prize for the “top” students etc. This affect is tremendously powerful, far more powerful than individuals; it is a collective social affect. This means that when you feel you’re not doing well, it is almost impossible not to feel some variant of Spinozist sadness: anger, hatred, depression etc.

Journey into Joy

What are the really powerful affects in school settings? Some thoughts: “I-Must-Do-Well affect”; “I’m-Better-Than-You Affect”; “I’m/You’re-Stupid Affect”.

Negative Feelings Are Contagious

Following on from this point, we can see how Spinoza is arguing that the affects are “contagious” in the sense that if we believe that someone is criticising us, that “criticising-affect” is very easily passed on to us; we internalise that feeling quickly because that “critical affect” is already powerfully present in many other bodies: other teachers, students, the school, the society, the media etc.

We feel sadness, and then pass on that sadness to someone else in another context. For example, the student who has been criticised in class by a teacher may well go home and be angry with his/her parents/siblings etc., but not show that sadness to the teacher him/herself.

Journey into Joy

When have you been criticised and then felt sad/angry/insecure? What did you do with that “affect”? Where do you think that “criticising-affect” came from?

What are the most contagious affects in school settings and in your career?

Affects can be counter-acted by More Powerful Ones

P7: An affect cannot be restrained or taken away except by an affect opposite to, and stronger than, the affect to be restrained. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 120)

This is a very important lesson for teachers and explains why (some) teachers so commonly shout. A noisy class enters the classroom and the teacher shouts for them to be quiet. An everyday occurrence which endorses this maxim. The affect of the “noisy class”, which as a body is riven with all the different passions of its members, joy, sadness, fear, boredom, distraction etc.; the teacher restrains and removes these multiple affects by providing the jolting, jarring affect of the “shout”, which carries with it all the connotations of authority, control and fear/lack of control. It involves the whole body of the teacher, the breath issuing through the throat, the blood rushing to the teacher’s head, the tensing of the body, the striving for order, for obedience. The affect of the shout is an “event”, a necessary performance of “becoming-teacher”. It works by surprise value. When it loses this, and students become habituated to the teacher always shouting, they more often than not ignore the teacher and the shout loses its power to restrain.

This is true of other teacher threats such as: the threat of detentions, of sending a student out of the room, of reporting them to another teacher, their parent/guardian etc.

Affects Can Be Counter-Acted By Reason

P59: To every action to which we are determined from an affect which is a passion, we can be determined by reason, without that affect. (p. 147)

I used to take criticism very badly. For example, I would have my teaching observed by a senior manager and would get very angry and upset if he/she was critical. The “You’re-Not-Good-Enough” affect would overwhelm me, drowning my sense of what I was doing. But recently, Spinoza’s philosophy has helped me use reason to deal better with criticism. I have been criticised, like most people, quite a bit in my life: my talents as a writer, teacher and organiser have been called into question by various sources. I have been better able to deal with them because I have gained a more adequate idea of a few things: the importance of what I am doing, the overall context of the society I am living in, the sorts of people, affects and ideas I dealing with, who I am as a person and what I want from my life. This is not to say I have not felt angry and sad about being heavily criticised – I have! – but I also realise that these feelings are almost inevitable – they’re encoded in my being – but this said, I have realised what gives me joy and determined that I wish to persist with these things because I believe them to be “noble”: I want to communicate with people my enthusiasm for learning and work with people to discover ways in which we might make our lives joyful. This overall sense of purpose has overridden my feelings of inadequacy generated by the criticism and rejection. This is what I take Spinoza to mean as “reason”.

The different types of affective learning

Spinoza’s philosophy offers us a unique chance to explore “affective” learning because he devoted so much thought to showing how the affects shape who we are, what we do and how we feel. What I want to do at this juncture is to bring together Spinoza’s philosophy of the affective and provide a taxonomy of “affective” learning. The adjective “affective” is deliberate in its connotations of both “effective” – a commonly use word in education today – and its invocation of the word “affect”, which has already been explored in depth.


For Spinoza, there are three major affects: Joy, Sadness and Desire. The conatus strives to affirm its power, which is achieved by having adequate ideas, which necessarily will lead to feelings of joy. Crucially, it is only when the mind has adequate ideas that it can actively affirm its power, and therefore feel joy. Other feelings of joy are “passions”, emotions that happen because the mind is acted upon. This important to note: to have adequate ideas and therefore feel joy, the mind itself must necessarily construct its own ideas. It can’t “be told” what to do in order to actively affirm its own power. The role of a teacher in a Spinozist pedagogy will be, therefore, as a facilitator of his/her pupils’ construction of adequate ideas. A teacher who tells the students what to do and how to think will necessarily be “acting upon” his/her students, and not affording them the chance to affirm their own powers of action. Any joy that the students feel in such a situation will be a “passion” and not an affirmation of power; the teacher will have brought them joy, but they will not have had the adequate ideas which enable them to feel joy in the active sense. But the beauty of a Spinozist pedagogy is that it is not dogmatic or rigid. It may well be the case that the teacher decides that he/she wants his students to feel the “passion of joy” in order to increase their powers of thinking, because the passion of joy does, in a Spinozist system, lead to greater activity of thought, and therefore more receptivity to learning. However, the teacher needs to be aware that he/she has nurtured a passion amongst his students, and thus give the students to reflect upon this passion so that they gain an adequate idea of their passion, and thus pass through to more active modes of thought. For example, when I have taught Shakespeare, I often show the Baz Luhrmann film of Romeo and Juliet: this movie with its wonderful music, mis-en-scene, brilliant acting and edited dialogue incurs the passion of joy in many of my students. I then get the students to reflect upon why they feel so excited (I don’t use the word joy) about the movie, making them see that the directors’ techniques and interpretation of the play have created these feelings, and getting them to work out the similarities and differences between the play and the movie. Thus, from having a “passion” the students, by thinking for themselves, begin to gain an adequate idea of why they might be feeling this way. From this analysis, the teacher would then encourage his/her students to consider the processes by which they began to enjoy adequate conceptions of the film; for example, they would begin to understand that the process of “breaking down” the film into its constituent elements of sound, image, editing, language, acting etc., can help them gain an adequate understanding of why they might be feeling this passion of joy. They might also learn that talking about the film with their colleagues, asking questions about it, drawing diagrams about it, writing about it, all helps them conceive of adequate ideas. Thus we gain see that the teacher’s role is to constantly help his/her students gain adequate ideas about thinking processes above and beyond the content being studied.
Now, if they had hated the film, this passion of sadness may well have decreased their powers of action and therefore they would be less inclined to gain an adequate idea of why the film caused them to feel this way. However, while this passion of sadness may prompt a decrease in power, there is nothing to stop the teacher from getting students to reflect upon why they felt this way. The teacher’s role here would be to bring an affect of joy to the proceedings, and get the students to take delight in gaining adequate ideas about why they found the film inadequate.


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)

Thinking joy

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, I’d like to give you a reasonable, though possibly not adequate idea (yet) of what Spinoza believed, intellectual joy to consist of. Spinoza argues in Ethics that thinking clearly increases our “powers of action”, our “activity” of mind, and joy is a necessary product of this thinking. It is an active process. Let’s go back to the cake to illustrate this properly.

So you eat the cake, and feel temporarily the passion of joy in eating it, but then you might feel depressed because you had promised yourself that you weren’t going to gorge yourself on cake today. This depression would be another passion, but this time not the passion of joy, but a passion of sadness: an “I-ate-too-much-cake” affect. This is where you might tell yourself, “I need to avoid eating too much cake” in future.

This injunction would be another passion because you still have not thought adequately about your situation. But if you began to think about all the causes that led to you eating the cake, then you should, according to Spinoza, increase your powers of action, because this is what deep thinking involves for Spinoza. To do this you might retrace the steps which led you to eating the cake: the stressful day at work, the fact that you have a tendency to like cream cakes, feeling like you deserved a treat after working hard etc. Now, you’re beginning to understand some of the causes that led to you eating the cake. But this would not be enough for Spinoza, he would want you to situate yourself as in the world that you inhabit and work out the multiple causes behind you eating the cake when you take the big picture into account. Spinoza’s thought demands a massive “zooming out”: you would need to see yourself not as an autonomous individual but as an agent acted upon by a matrix of causes.

To do this, you might come to understand how we live in an industrial, capitalist society which produces a surfeit of fatty foods, and that food companies make money from selling products like cream cakes. You would might think about how the human body has evolved to crave fatty foods because for most of our evolution we have needed to eat fatty foods to survive – but no longer. Or you may think of yourself in a more psychological fashion: certain facets in your psychological make-up led you to eat the cake. Or you may think of yourself in a “geographical way”: a series of geographical positionings led you to being next to a cake shop when you were leaving work.

There are many, many ways of considering your cake eating. The point is that by thinking more deeply about your cake eating, you would come to see how it was inevitable that you ate that cake: that you had no choice but to eat it, because it was a necessary part of your life, because all things that happen to us are “necessary” events.

Spinoza’s approach demands that we never feel regret about something that has happened to us: we do not live in a “free” universe according to him. We are not free to choose. Our only freedom comes in understanding.

But this is not a fatalistic conception of life at all because of the link that Spinoza makes between thinking adequately about something and joy. Having thought deeply about the multiplicity of causes that led you to eating the cake, you would increase your powers of action, you would increase your joy, and you would be in a much stronger, more active position when encountering cakes in the future. To this extent you are free; if you understand adequately how you are acted upon by the “affects”, you are in a position to enjoy a degree of power in your life.

The implications of this approach for education are profound. The teacher has a clear role in such a philosophical system. The teacher needs to a) develop adequate ideas him/herself in order to increase his/her powers of action and therefore joy b) nurture adequate ideas in his/her students. The aims and purposes of education thus become both cognitive, emotional and ethical with all three strands being intractably intertwined.

Helping children to think properly increases their joy, and this, in turn, helps them live ethical lives. This is the other vital strand to Spinoza’s Ethics, and why it has its name. It’s worth here explaining how and why Spinoza structured his treatise in the way he did. Spinoza starts the book with pondering profound philosophical questions about the nature of being (ontology) and the ways in which we come to know the world (epistemology) but then spends the rest of book exploring the ways in which we can adequately understand our feelings (or affects) and free ourselves from what he calls their “bondage”.

My larger interest in this book is in exploring how Spinoza’s thinking about the affects can inform teachers’ thinking about how they teach. I go into this in some depth later on in the book, but I would like to outline here my chief points so that you can glean an overall sense of my direction of travel.