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?


The second kind of knowledge: reason

Spinoza appropriates the term “reason” in Ethics: it is not the narrow, mechanical, logical definition of reason which the word has come to acquire in the last two centuries. Indeed, it is worthwhile noting that two vital words have very different connotations today than they do in Ethics: reason and imagination. Reason for Spinoza involves having “adequate ideas” or “common notions”; this includes conceiving of all the forces which have produced an idea, situating it in its specific context. And so we could argue that one interpretation of Spinozist conceptions of reason is the “Journey into Joy” (Watkins, 2003, p. 9). Reason for Spinoza is the active pursuit of knowledge, not the passive reception of it. Reason is a process of becoming. It is simultaneously an intellectual and emotional process. Gilles Deleuze writes:

Reason is: 1. An effort to select and organize good encounters, that is, encounters of modes that enter into composition with outs and inspire us with joyful passions (feelings that agree with reason); 2. The perception and comprehension of the common notions, that is, of the relations that enter into this composition, from which one deduces other relations (reasoning) and on the basis of which one experiences new feelings, active ones this time (feelings that are born of reason). (Deleuze, 1988, pp. 55-56)

I would like to argue that “reason” is about an encounter with the first kind of knowledge, the inadequate ideas, and involves conceiving that they are inadequate ideas. This, for me, begins to conceive of an adequate idea of learning.

As Deleuze points out, reason is an “effort”, an expenditure of energy, and is also as much an emotional process as intellectual one. Reason necessarily leads to increasing the mind’s power and therefore is a joyful experience. This seems vital to any meaningful learning process; it has to cause “joy”. But how can this happen if learners are frightened of making mistakes? How can they ever be raised to the next level of knowledge, to reason, if they are terrified of being labelled as “stupid” if they admit to the inadequate knowledge?

Journey into Joy

What connotations does the word “reason” have for you?