Learning and images of power

Spinoza writes in P54: “The mind strives to imagine only those things which posits its power of action” (p. 98). The crucial word here is “imagine”. Many teachers and students “imagine” that they know about those things that “posit” their “powers of action”, but they may well be mistaken in this “imagination”. For example, many students may well feel that gaining the approval of their peer group will “posit” their “powers of action” and this stops them listening in class or trying hard with their work. But their conatus strives to attain these illusory “images of power”. Thus we can see that Spinoza gives us a clear map as to why students appear not to learn within the school context. For complex reasons, many students’ minds “strive to imagine only those things which posit its power of action”. It is incumbent upon the teacher to have an adequate understanding of this fact, and assist such students to move beyond “imagining” to the realm of “reasoning” about where the “real” power is to be located, which is, of course in a Spinozist philosophy, to be found in conceiving adequate ideas. Thus we can see that a Spinozist pedagogue would avoid a system of rewards and punishments for misdemeanours, but would instead help students conceive adequate ideas about where the mind’s “powers of action” are to be found. Indeed, when a teacher assists a student in thinking adequately about their powers of action, the student should feel joy because their powers of action will be increased. This then could become the ultimate test about whether a teacher has really helped a student change their behaviour. If they walk away from such a discussion looking sad, angry etc., then the teacher should know that student has not gained an adequate idea of where their powers of action lie. Therefore, the teacher needs to consider ways in which that student might increase their power.

The conatus strives to increase its power of acting when it can, but if it is guided by the imagination – the first realm of knowledge –, which most of us are, then it will not increase its powers of action or feel joy. As we have seen, the affects can manifest themselves as passions which act upon us, or, when we conceive adequate ideas, increase our powers of action and therefore we feel joy. The feeling of joy though does not necessarily mean that a learner is conceiving adequate ideas. As a passion, joy is a “confused idea”. I have encountered many classrooms where students are feeling joy – laughing at about something or other – and this seriously hindered their learning. Such “inadequate joy” in the learning context can be infectious, breeding more joy, because, as Spinoza points out the affects create more affects (pp. 84, P. 27), and you have a class laughing their heads off and not learning a thing.

Similarly, sadness may well breed more sadness if circumstances foster this. Spinoza writes in P55: “When the mind imagines its own lack of power, it is saddened by it” (p. 98) . Such “contagious” sadness will breed a more depressed atmosphere in class. I would like to argue that actually a joyous atmosphere is possibly preferable to a depressed one. Even though a depressed class might be easier to “control”, they may well be harder to teach because they will be less receptive to learning. Even when students are victims of the passion of joy, I would like to argue that the teacher has a better chance to “direct” their joy towards learning. To do this, the teacher may well have to ask the students what they are feeling happy about, why they are laughing. Now, this may seem like a huge distraction, but in a Spinozist pedagogy it would not be, it would be an opportunity for the teacher to provide students with a more adequate understanding of their own joy. The teacher should draw the students towards the processes upon which the student gained an adequate understanding of their joy, and then try to relate those processes of gaining an adequate understanding towards the desired object of learning.

So I would like to argue, it is incumbent upon the teacher to produce an affective and intellectual environment where joy is more likely to be bred because this will help the teacher direct students towards the adequate ideas which will increase their powers of acting, and thus generate joy which is not a passion, but an active force. The diagram Joy and Adequate Ideas shows this process; the teacher creates the affect of joy and encourages students to reflect upon this passion, which leads to them feeling joy as an active force, which then necessarily creates more adequate ideas.

It’s my contention that joy is the connecting force between everything. Joy is God. And yet, there is a paradox because Joy only comes into being if there is striving, sadness and desire. It has a complex and necessary relationship with the affects. We see this vividly illustrated in the film Inside Out (2015) it is only when Riley, the protagonist, learns to think adequately about the way she has lost the joy of her previous home, and has learnt to feel joy in her power to reason that she can feel joy in the present moment. The film represents this psychic journey by having Joy being represented as a young woman being in charge of the command module of Riley’s mind until the characters of Disgust, Anger and Fear push her off it, which leads to her expulsion to “Imagination” land. It is only when Joy “teams up” with the lugubrious Sadness, also expelled from the command module that Riley is able to gain her reasoning faculties back. The film, loosely based on recent cognitive learning theories, suggests that we need to accept the “sadness” of inevitable loss as we grow older in order to feel joyful again. A Spinozist pedagogue would possibly take a different approach, putting the emphasis upon the importance of reason to adequately understand the processes of loss that we undergo in our lives.

In P25, Spinoza writes:

We strive to affirm, concerning ourselves and what we love, whatever we imagine to affect with joy ourselves or what we love. On the other hand, we strive to deny whatever we imagine affects with sadness ourselves or what we love. (p. 83)

The process that Riley undergoes is painful because, as Spinoza points out, in P25 we “strive to deny whatever we imagine affects with sadness ourselves or what we love”.

Later on, I consider the different affects separately, but I would like to point out here the inter-connectedness of the affects: they are always in a complex, dynamic relationship with each other. They are constantly flowing through us, producing us; I see them as elemental forces, currents, eddies and waves if you like, that produce the subject, not the other way round. Mostly, we are not fully in control of them. I like the image of us being like surfers who rid the sea of affects. In order to become competent at staying upright on a changeable ocean, the learner needs to acquire an adequate understanding of them in the educative context.

Much of Spinoza’s Chapter III explores the causes of our bondage to affects which decrease our powers of action, why sadness and hate often affect us. One key point he makes is that intense emotions focused upon the “idea of an external cause” will be changeable because the “idea of the external cause” will be unreliable. Namely, if the “idea of the external cause” is removed, then sadness may focus upon the “cause” that removed it. Many of Spinoza’s Propositions in Chapter III examine this issue; the interconnections between love and hate. This is important for the learner and teacher to consider because loving a subject in school will increase the learner’s power and therefore help them learn more effectively, but hate will do the opposite. And yet, the two things are very closely related. For example, a class which has a teacher it loves, and then are given a different teacher, may well focus their sadness at losing that teacher onto the external cause of the new teacher, and therefore hate them, to a lesser or greater extent.

Spinoza’s philosophy is particularly helpful in this context because it shows how bodies of all types from an individual person to a class to a whole institution like a school “express” affects. As a teacher myself, I’ve noticed how every class or grouping of people has its own “affective” atmosphere.


All learning is subject to the passions of joy and sadness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every learner strives to preserve his own being

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

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

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