Something Can’t Come from Nothing

In the first twelve propositions of Ethics Spinoza establishes God and the nature of God as necessary truths which form the “ground” or foundation for his whole philosophy. In simple terms, he is saying that “Being” has always existed because something cannot have emerged from nothing (Lord, 2010, p. 33). As a result of this reasoned precept, a number of “necessary” truths must inevitably arise. If we accept that something cannot come from nothing, we must accept that this something has always been there, and always will be there. This Being or what Spinoza calls “Substance” must be God since it fits Spinoza’s definition of God: an infinite, ever-changing, conscious Being. This “Substance” can theoretically be conceived of in an infinite variety of ways as existing, but we, as humans, can only conceive of God in two ways: as matter or physical “stuff” (what Spinoza and philosophers of his time like Descartes call “Extension”) and mind, what Spinoza terms “Thought”. These are the two “attributes” – or ways of conceiving — of God: Thought and Extension (Lord, 2010, p. 21). God was and is and will be everything.

What are the implications for a theory of learning of this ontological grounding for existence? There are a number of thoughts that spring to mind. First all learning is learning about God’s infinite essence; the different ways God expresses him/herself. Second, all learning is necessarily and infinitely “connected”. Ultimately, everything is “one”. Thus we can argue that “holism” – that notion that all knowledge is connected — forms both the ontological and epistemological framework for any Spinozist methodological framework for learning. (See Everything is Connected)

Journey into Joy

Research: Find out more about the Big Bang if you don’t know much about it. What do scientists say was in the universe before the Big Bang?

Learning Is Infinite

This is important; nothing is outside the remit of learning in a Spinozist pedagogy; nothing is ruled in or out. Since God is infinite, there are infinite possibilities, infinite modes for learning. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 7 P. 11, P. 16)

Journey into Joy

Shut your eyes. Listen.

Shut your eyes and feel your face, feel the skin of your face, your ears, the lids of your eyes, your hair, your neck, the backs of your hands, anything else you want to feel. Open your eyes. What did you think, feel and see when you did this?

We Are One

In a Spinozist universe, nothing is outside nature; we are all ultimately one; this includes both mind and matter. Thoughts are as much the products of nature as physical things are. Everything which exists physically has its corollary as an idea.

Journey into Joy

Group exercise: put your hand up to another’s person’s hand just close enough so that you can feel the warmth of their hand; now move your hand or respond to the other person’s hand moving but make sure you don’t touch, try to respond to the movement of the person’s hand by feeling their warmth. Do the exercise with your eyes shut once you’ve done it with your eyes open.

Have a go at a Mexican wave in a group.

Sing a song or a wordless tune in a group.

Reflections: what did you think and feel about doing these exercises?

Creative Visualisation. Shut your eyes and imagine the beginning of the universe; that 13.7 billion years ago, everything that is in the universe now was concentrated into one tiny point which exploded outwards in an unbelievably hot explosion; think how your blood, your skin, your brain, and all that you see and feel and smell and touch and taste in your life was once concentrated into that point. Feel the unspeakably hot explosion, and imagine it is inside you, and you are it.

Thought experiment(s). Imagine you have another “you”, a doppelganger, a double, who does whatever he/she wants. Describe this person. What do they do? How do they feel? What do they think? Now imagine, you could be another person as well, invent a “third” person, what do they do. Now imagine you are an animal. What animal are you? Why? Now imagine you are an living thing. What are you? Why? What do you think and feel? Now imagine you are an inert, “dead” object. What are you and why? Now imagine you are a planet. What kind of planet are you? What do you have on your planet? Why? Now imagine you are a galaxy. What kind of galaxy are you? Why? Now imagine you are a universe. What do you contain? Why?


Geometric Method

BL’s book contains the best explanation of BS’s Geometric Method

So let’s outline what I am trying to do in this website. I am not attempting a philosophical or “academic” analysis, but a “pedagogical extrapolation” of what a Spinozist theory of teaching and learning might look like. There are quite a few academic articles which explore the pedagogy of Spinoza, but they are aimed at an academic audience cognizant of the full range of scholarship about Spinoza, and, excellent as they are, not readily accessible to your average teacher.

I wanted to use Spinoza’s ideas as a springboard for my own reflections upon my life as a learner and an educator in schools for over a quarter of a century. In this sense, the project is “auto-ethnographic” in that I am using Spinoza’s idea to trigger a reflective commentary upon my own experiences as a teacher and learner. At certain apposite moments, I have illustrated how many of Spinoza’s precepts are now endorsed and further explored by other philosophers, psychologists, educational research and learning theories.

Spinoza wrote famously in what is termed the “Geometric Method”, using Euclid’s Geometry as a guideline for how to write Ethics. This involved Spinoza setting out his treatise with clear “Axioms” (self-evident truths) and “Definitions” at the beginning of each section, then proceeding forward with a series of “Propositions” which build upon one another in a “reasoned” way. Each Proposition could contain all or some of the following in order to justify it fully: a Demonstration (D: a demonstration of the proposition in action); Corollary (C: a proposition that follows from one already proved); Scholium (S: supposedly marginal notes which are much more than that in Ethics); a lemma (L: a subsidiary or intermediate theorem in an argument or proof); a postulate (Post: a thing suggested or assumed as true as the basis for reasoning, discussion, or belief).

There are many excellent books on Spinoza’s Geometric Method, and I have in no way explored the issue in this blog, but I have made a “gesture” towards the Geometric Method here in that every section contains a memorable phrase which I believe encapsulates the essence of Spinoza’s thought. I have then followed this phrase with the Spinozist equivalent of a Scholium: a marginal note. Sometimes, I have offered Axioms and Definitions where I have felt that they might be helpful. My website does not pretend to be “geometric” in any fashion. It aims for readability though, and its argument should have some kind of internal logic, based on Spinoza’s thinking. The structure of Spinoza’s Ethics has assisted with the structure of my blog: I have loosely followed the five different sections of Ethics in the trajectory of my blog.

Spinoza’s Chapter The Joy of Teaching
I.  Of God Chapter 1: God’s Learning
II. Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind Chapter 2: The Mind’s Learning
III. Of the Origin and Nature of the Affects Chapter 3: Affective Learning
IV. Of Human Bondage, Or The Powers of the Affects Chapter 4: Power and Learning
V. Of the Power of the Intellect, or on Human Freedom Chapter 5: Learning to be Free

This blog is a process of learning about Spinoza and about learning, it does not pretend to be authoritative, it is an exploration; the act of writing has been a profound learning experience for me; writing this has been a chance for me to learn more about Spinoza.

I’m aiming this blog not only at teachers of all subjects but also any interested person. I believe that science teachers may well be just as interested in his philosophy as an English teacher like me because his philosophy is truly “holistic”: it can readily embrace the lessons of science today, as much as having relevance to the teaching of literature. It has an openness and range which is unusual.

I try at all times to write in a clear style which an “intelligent” teenager could understand.

I have punctuated the text with “Journey into Joys” which are questions, exercises, thought experiments, creative visualisations for readers to pursue if they want to; they are there to help the reader understand my conceptions of Spinoza and learning in an active fashion.