Learning, hate and humility

Hate is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, DVII)

There are so many “ideas of external causes” in the education system that it is probably no surprise that many sadnesses “accompany” them. For Spinoza, sadness is simply a decrease in one’s powers of action and so it embraces all the “negative” affects – if we can call them that. But it should be noted that Spinoza is not an “affective” prescriptivist; he does not say that we should be feeling a certain way. He does not advise against feeling “sadness” or any other affect. Moreover, he points out that any sadnesses that we feel are “necessary” in the sense that we are the inevitable recipients of them; they “act upon” us in the way all “passions” do. It is part of the pedagogue’s job to give the learner an adequate idea of them. This is particularly true of “hate” which is such an all-encompassing passion; it is closely related to “love” because both are affects which accompany the idea of an external cause. I think it is particularly important to consider certain external causes which may cause people in the education system to accompany their sad ideas with them.

Students and hate

Many students say they hate school. The whole system becomes their focus for sadness. As we have already seen, this may be because their “habitus” just does not fit in with the over-riding habitus of the system, and as a result, they hate many things about school: the nature of the lessons, the voices and bodies of the teachers, the instructions they receive, the powerlessness they feel. I have seen this happen in a few cases, but more often than not though, a particular incident or person triggers the hatred. This could be because they don’t like a particular teacher, subject or student. In my experience, the nature of the hatred is usually “human focused”. Usually, students feel that a key player in the system does not like them, and has “got it in for them”. We will look at the nature of these types of “fear” later, but here it is important to note that an effect of this kind of fear is burgeoning hatred for other things associated with school. Things that they treated with disdain or even love/joy now become external causes for hatred.

This diagram shows the factors that come into play when a student feels hate at school. Fear (which will be dealt with later) is linked to hate: fear of failure, fear of being humiliated, fear of physical/verbal violence etc. This fear then can affect a students’ mind in many other ways in that he/she looks for external causes for their sadness. Their powers of action have been decreased and they no longer feel joy in the things that they used to enjoy, and may well hate these things because they blame them in some way. For example, if they are being bullied they may well blame a friend who was a source of joy for not being supportive enough etc., and then hate them. The things that they disdain may well become ideas of external causes of sadness because they notice them now in this heightened affective state of fear. For example, the affect of finding certain lessons difficult or boring may well become a species of hate because they blame these things for the way they are feeling, which, of course, they don’t have an adequate understanding of.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt hate at school? What was the “accompanying external cause” in your view?

Teachers and hate

I have noticed that teachers tend to be more political in the way they focus their hatred. So, for example, many teachers hate the government for imposing endless new changes to exams, curriculum, assessment procedures, and curriculum etc. These teachers feel “acted upon”, passive recipients of pointless policies, and, as a result, they feel sadness, accompanied by the idea of the external cause of the government. Their feelings of hate are clearly related to their feelings of powerlessness. Perhaps more commonly, certain figures within a particular institution may become foci for hate, particularly other teachers who are perceived to be “bossing” people around unreasonably, possibly exhibiting bullying behaviour. Over the years, I have come across many teachers who have hated other members of staff, regularly coming up with comments like “I’d like to stab his eyes out”, “He is the most pathetic person I’ve ever met”. This discourse of hate pervades staffrooms in a whispering, covert fashion up and down the country, and possibly across the globe.

I would like to argue that this affect of hate is an inadequate idea which has been produced by a number of accompanying causes, and that it is in the interests of teachers to understand these causes before focusing their hate upon a particular person. Spinoza’s philosophy necessitates for us to gain an adequate idea of the affect of hate; to understand its multiple sources. I think in an atmosphere where jobs are insecure, where teachers’ authority is constantly contested, where teachers are judged by arbitrary benchmarks etc,, then the affect of hate is much more likely to be produced by an educational institution.

Journey into Joy

Why do you think teachers hate other colleagues? What is really going on here?

Learning and Aversion

Aversion is a sadness accompanied by the idea of something which is the accidental cause of sadness (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. IX)

 The affect of “aversion” afflicts many classrooms. Let’s start with the students. Many students may not “hate” a subject in that they explicitly blame it in their minds for being the direct cause of their sadness, but they may well feel that for accidental reasons, they don’t a subject. A very common phrase I’ve heard in my career is “I just don’t like it – it’s boring”. For me, these phrases are informed by the affect of aversion, rather than hatred; many students feel that for “random” reasons they don’t understand they don’t like a subject. This lessens the affect of sadness. Many children feel that they don’t adequately understand the reasons why they are learning something, and in this sense they feel aversion because they feel that they are learning things for “accidental” reasons: they just happen to have strayed upon this teacher who insists upon teaching these pointless things, when they might be learning something more interesting. Teachers try to compensate for this by saying that they are learning something for an exam, but children then feel that they are the victims of a “random” exam system. This is at the heart of many students’ ressentiment; they constantly subjected to be bombarded with random terms, facts, tasks.

Similarly, teachers may well not like teaching a class or a topic for “accidental” reasons. For example, they have to teach a class in a particular room which is cramped, or too hot/cold etc., and this makes them feel an aversion for the class which they feel is “accidental”. I think it’s interesting to note in my own case that this means my feelings of sadness are not so strong as they might have been if I had blamed the students themselves for my feelings.

I found as my career progressed, I developed an aversion for Parents’ Evenings, something which I had not felt at the beginning of my career. I think this was for a number of reasons. I think Parents’ Evenings had become much more “high stakes” affairs, with parents much more likely to blame the teacher if their child was doing badly. I also felt aversion because these Parents’ Evenings were at the end of a long day of teaching, and I wanted to go home, but would have to talk to parents for three hours or so, before the long trek home.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt that you’ve been forced to learn random facts/terms/topics? What things do you feel an aversion towards?


Humility is a sadness born of the fact that a man consider his own lack of power, or weakness. (pp. 108, D. XXVI)

The “affect” of humility is very different from having an adequate idea of what “humility” is. Schools are constantly  casting its actors in roles which necessitate the affect of humility. The student has to feel humility much of the time because he/she knows that he/she has very little power; he/she has to attend school, and has little choice about what he/she learns. These power structures bred the affect of humility.

It’s strange as a teacher that I have felt the affect of humility many times. This is particularly the case when dealing with senior managers: headteachers, deputy heads, heads of department etc.. They have made me aware of my own lack of power: I have to follow their guidance, their advice whatever I might think of them. Instead of getting angry, I have found that the affect of humility has furthered my career with these people of worldly power; it’s conveyed in the way you accept what your superior says to you, the sincere nod of the head, the diligent way you follow their orders, the way you pay attention.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt humility in your life? What sorts of people have produced the affect of humility in you?

Consternation and exams, learning and disdain

Spinoza writes:

..if it (sic: wonder) is aroused in an object we fear, it is called consternation, because wonder at an evil keeps a man suspended in considering it that he cannot think of other things by which he could avoid that evil. (p. 97)

I envision that a teacher will want to provide students with opportunities to gain adequate ideas about the affect of consternation. I have encountered many students are affected by it; they have expressed consternation about exams, which, for many of them, are “singular” things which they fear and can’t but think of strategies for avoiding that “exam consternation”, and this blinds them towards learning what they need to learn. Instead their consternation can cause them to learn the content they believe they need to know for the exam “by rote”, rather than internalising it and “genuinely” learning it. Or it can mean that they reject any opportunity to learn it in any form at all because their consternation means that they don’t want to think about it at all.

Learning and Disdain

The teacher needs to avoid presenting students with objects of learning which invite “disdain”; this is when the learner’s mind is “touched so little that the things presence moves the mind to imagining more to imagining more what is not in it than what is” (pp. 105, Def. V). In other words, the content of the object of learning provokes thoughts about other things, allowing the mind to drift.

This said, a teacher needs to be aware that when his/her students may be feeling “disdain”, and consider the reasons why it may be happening.

Journey into Joy

When have you had the “imagination” of “disdain”? Why did you have this imagination? What do you think of Spinoza’s definition of it, i.e. do you think he’s right in saying it’s not really a “feeling” but an “inadequate idea”?

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.

Conceiving adequate ideas about love and learning


The learner is either consciously or unconsciously constantly striving to learn about those things that increase their joy. I have seen this time and again in the classroom. The child who feels that joy is to be found in mucking around with his/her friends, rather than “learning” what the teacher has set them to learn. (pp. 77-78, P12)


When learners encounter situations which are “painful” or “sad” to them, they tend to forget everything that they’ve been taught during these times. Fear is not a powerful learning tool, and yet it is constantly created in the classroom when teachers threaten punishments if work is not done. A Spinozist pedagogy would suggest that this will lead to a decrease in the learner’s powers of action and lead to learners forgetting what they’ve been “taught”. Spinoza claims that the mind strives to “recollect things which exclude the existence” of things which have “decreased the mind’s powers of action” (pp. 78, P13). This may, in part, explain why teachers find that their students often “get things the wrong way round”, or discuss irrelevant matters; they are recollecting the very things that enable them to forget what they did not enjoy.


Spinoza writes: “Love is nothing but joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause.” (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 78, P13 Schol.). So we are building up a picture of what successful learning might look like here: learning to conceive adequate ideas should be a joyful experience and that “love of learning” should be a natural corollary to learning itself.
By how to do this? Well, at the heart of a Spinozist pedagogy will be, as we have said, the teacher helping students conceive adequate ideas, but I would also like to argue that Spinoza’s philosophy suggests that getting students to reflect upon the affects that have accompanied their learning experiences might be productive, and will help them get a better conception of the affective processes involved in learning. This, in turn, suggests that it might be productive to ask students about the times when they have loved learning and to recollect the strategies which enabled them to learn, which they are then to apply to the object of learning in the teacher’s lesson. Part of the journey of conceiving of adequate ideas of learning will be conceiving of learning as a joyful, desirable experience.

This diagram is positing the case that the learner needs to be cognizant of the joy of learning as a necessary grounding in order to focus upon a specific object of learning. An adequate idea of the joy of learning is required for a learner to learn anything. Fortunately, most babies acquire a natural love of learning and an implicit awareness that learning is joyful, but a variety of factors lead to many students losing this “faith” in the joyfulness of the learning process and this necessarily decreases their power of learning.
What learning processes do you love and why? What is joyful about the process of discovering something?

Learning means affirming ideas

A crucial part of learning in the Spinozist sense must involve distinguishing “accurately between an idea, or concept, of the mind, and the images of things which we imagine” (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 64, P49 Schol.). It is this transition between absorbing the immediate sensation of something and then thinking hard about what it means which is being suggested here. I believe it is similar to the notions behind Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning, where remembering and imitating is at the very bottom of the hierarchy of learning, and then understanding is next, followed by what Bloom believes are “higher level” intellectual skills such as analysing, evaluating, creating.

However, I think that a Spinozist pedagogy would put a much heavier emphasis upon understanding, and might be represented like this:

In this diagram, we see that understanding is the “set” and the sub-sets of the different levels of knowledge are contained within it. God has a complete understanding of everything, while the person with the third level of knowledge has “intuitive” understanding, and the person with the second level of knowledge has “reasoned” understanding, while the person with the first level of knowledge has “imaginative” understanding. The diagram shows that the “imaginative realm” of knowledge is not someone who is completely wrong – although they may be – but someone who could just have a partial picture. For example, a student who has studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet may have knowledge of the story and characters in the play having watched the film of the play, but little genuine understanding of the language. They would, in my view, be categorised as having an “imaginative” understanding of the play. To truly “affirm” their knowledge of the play, they would need to understand the language in itself, and have knowledge of the forces which led the play’s language to create meaning and drama.

Learning involves understanding the mind’s processes

…most errors consist only in our not rightly applying names to things. For when someone says that the lines which are drawn from the centre of a circle to its circumference are unequal, he surely understands (then at least) by a circle something different from what mathematicians understand. Similarly, when men err in calculating, they have certain numbers in their mind and different ones on the paper. So if you consider what they have in mind, they really do not err, though they seem to err because we think they have in their mind the numbers which are on the paper. If this were not so, we would not believe that they were erring, just as I did not believe that he was erring whom I recently heard cry out that his courtyard had flown into his neighbour’s hen (NS: although his words were absurd), because what he had in mind seemed sufficiently clear to me (viz. that his hen had flown into his neighbour’s courtyard).

And most controversies have arisen from this, that men do not rightly explain their own mind, or interpret the mind of the other man badly. For really, when they contradict one another most vehemently, they either have the same thoughts, or they are thinking of different things, so that what they think are errors and absurdities in the other are not. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 62, P47 Schol.)

One could extrapolate from this, two major points: that an important part of learning is learning that other people cling to their “own truths”. In other words, they inadequately think that they are “right” and have built up their own narratives as to why they are right. A reasoning learner needs to understand this; needs to understand how and why other people shape their judgements. Second, the learner needs to understand his/her own thought processes; needs to understand how and why he/she believes and learns things. Thus we see Spinoza necessarily urging learners to be “self-reflexive”, wherein self-reflection necessarily includes the ideas of others. This is Spinoza’s brilliant notion of self-reflection–adequate self-reflection is the mode of thought least engaged with the self!

To be properly self-reflexive in a Spinozist sense is to understand the ways in which other people learn as much as yourself. There is a great deal of research that nurturing “meta-cognitive” practices is a very powerful form of learning (Education Endowment Foundation, 2016).

Journey into Joy

Thought experiment: Shut your eyes and try to focus upon one thought, and hold it there. Can you do this, or do you find that your mind drifts away from the topic? What does this tell us about our thought processes?

Learning is becoming aware of inadequate ideas

There are no “absolute” errors in a Spinozist pedagogy, only inadequate ways of knowing. Spinoza’s Proposition 35 states: “Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate, or mutilated and confused, ideas involve.” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 53). An important indication of Spinozist pedagogical thinking is implied in a section of the Scholarium to Proposition 35. Spinoza writes:

Similarly, when we look at the sun, we imagine it as about two hundred feet away from us, an error which does not consist simply in this imagining, but in the fact that while we imagine it in this way, we are ignorant of its true distance and of the cause of this imagining. For even if we later come to know that it is more than six hundred diameters of the earth away from us, we nevertheless imagine it as near. For we imagine the sun so near not because we do not know its true distance, but because an affection of our body involves the essence of the sun insofar as our body is affected by the sun. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 53-54, P35, Schol.)

So for the learner to gain an adequate idea of the distance of the sun, he/she has to learn the relevant scientific information about the distance of the sun from the earth, but also to learn about the reasons why it feels close to us as well, and the affective processes involved in the ways in which we are deceived into thinking the sun is so close. This is a rigorous pedagogy being implied here, which is both holistic and thorough; the subject disciplines need to be adequately conceived of by the learner, but the learner needs also to situate him/herself as an embodied, affective learner who understands in a deep philosophical sense the reasons why we are deceived by inadequate knowledge.

There is a further element to be explored here; the conceiving of adequate ideas can lead to what Spinoza terms “blessedness” a state of becoming which enfolds all of us but we are not aware of it; this is because God is immanent. This diagram shows how Spinoza’s theory works. It nicely avoid a deficit model of learning because even inadequate ideas are mutilated forms of adequate ideas.

Inadequate ideas are confused versions of adequate ideas