Understanding the body and affects

We Feel with our Bodies

P1: In just the same way as thoughts and ideas of things are ordered and connected in the mind, so the affections of the body, or images of things are ordered and connected in the body. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 163)

This is an important but often ignored idea. We feel with our bodies. The affects and the body are one and the same thing. Our love, anger, hatred are natural processes, cascades of energy if you like, that are embodied experiences. Teachers need to understand this: we can’t abstract our feelings from our bodies, in order to understand why we are feeling the way we are, we need to examine what is happening with our bodies, e.g. our diet, our age, our physique etc.

Journey into Joy

How are you feeling right now? Where in your body are those feelings being expressed? For example, you might be feeling anxious, and feeling this in your stomach, in the lightness of your legs.

Think about the other affects. Where in your body do you feel the different types of love you have for your loved ones, your friends etc.? Where you feel anger? What happens to your body when you feel anger?


Break It Up!

P2: If we separate emotions, or affects, from the thought of an external cause, and join them to other thoughts, then the love, or hate, toward the external cause is destroyed, as are the vacillations of mind arising from these affects. (p. 163)

A way of freeing ourselves from feelings of love or hatred is to see that the affects are forces of nature which attach themselves to the ideas of external causes in our minds. This is a difficult idea to get your head around but it is worth thinking about. We love and hate people not because there is anything inherently lovable or despicable about them but because they have been produced by multiple causes: their geography, their upbringing, the situations they find themselves in. If, in our minds, we can severe the link between the affect of love/hate etc. and that particular person and see that we are feeling an affect which really has no definable cause in that person, then we might stop feeling that particular way towards that particular person.

I think it is particularly important for teachers to do this with children they are teaching. If a teacher feels hatred towards a child who has been nasty towards them, it’s important for the teacher to try to understand the reasons why that child has behaved the way they have, and separate off the feeling of hatred and from the actual child.

Journey into Joy

Think of someone you really don’t like. Think of all the reasons why that person is the way they are. Can you separate off your feeling towards them and the actual person?

Can you do the same for someone you love?

Understanding your Feelings Puts You In Charge of them

P3: An affect which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it. (p. 163)

Thinking through why you might be feeling the way you are, helps you “take charge” of them. In this sense, Spinoza is arguing for us to learn to become emotionally literate (Goleman, 2016). This is something I feel schools are very bad at. I’ve encountered too many situations where other teachers have felt that it was not a good idea to discuss “feelings”. One headteacher said to me once: “Meetings are not the place to discuss feelings”. And yet Spinoza would argue that we can only become free when we try to understand why we are feeling the way we are.

Spinoza writes that we must take care “to know each affect clearly and distinctly” so that the “affect itself may be separated from the thought of an external cause and joined to true thoughts”.

Journey into Joy

Map out the typical feelings you have during a typical work-day. Why are you feeling this way at these different times?

We Feel Most Strongly About People We Imagine To Be Free

Dem: An affect toward a thing we imagine to be free is greater than that toward a thing we imagine to be necessary…but imagining a thing as free can be nothing simply imagining it while we are ignorant of the causes by which it has been determined to act (pp. 164-165)

We are not free to act. We act for an infinite of reasons; our actions are determined. Once we understand this, we stop blaming individuals for their actions, and start to understand the root causes behind things. I think understanding the discourses that inform our actions is particularly helpful for teachers. For example, a student who has been racist or sexist will be using the language he/she has heard at home, in school, in society, and will be using this hateful language for a whole set of reasons. He/she will not have chosen to be racist/sexist, but instead is the victim of this affect. A Spinozist pedagogue would try and counter this negative affect by making the child aware that racism/sexism is not noble or joyful: it is a sadness which ultimately decreases the perpetrator’s powers of action, it stops them thinking reasonably about the world.

Journey into Joy

What do you think you have “chosen” to do your life? When have you felt “free” to act? How else might these actions be explained?

More Causes = More Power

P8: The more an affect arises from a number of causes concurring together, the greater it is. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 166)

Why is a headteacher’s criticism of your teaching more hurtful and upsetting than if a child criticises you? This is partly because there are more investments in the former’s criticism: a headteacher has been “created” by multiple causes. His/her career, status, authority, wage, demeanour and expertise are all the effects of multiple causes. Similarly, the event of your being criticised by the headteacher will have been caused by multiple factors: the high-stakes observation, the timetable, the curriculum, the students you teach, your career, your life outside schools will have all contributed towards you performing in a way that the headteacher has deemed inadequate. This is a very powerful concurrence of causes which will necessarily create a more powerful “affect” when the meeting happens. If a child criticises your teaching, there will have been less significant causes: there will have probably been no high-stakes observation and the child will not have the status of the headteacher.

Journey into Joy

Think of a high-stakes observation you have had as a teacher. What were the “causes” of this observation in the widest possible sense? What feelings did these causes create?