The most productive learning happens when the mind actively constructs adequate ideas

Spinoza writes for Proposition 3 of Chapter 3: “the actions of the mind follow from adequate ideas along; hence, the mind is acted on only because it has inadequate ideas” (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 74, P3 Schol.) In other words, adequate ideas necessitate active thought. This has implications for the Spinozist pedagogue who needs to set up the conditions whereby “adequate ideas” and “active thought” can be nurtured. For me, this means providing the environment in which students can actively learn; students need to be “doing” not passively “imbibing knowledge”. This vision of the active learner who is encouraged to think independently, to learn by doing, has been articulated by many educational thinkers such as Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner and Paulo Freire. However, I believe there is a particular and nuanced angle to be drawn from Spinozist thought upon this formulation of the active learner; we can infer that a certain methodological, philosophical and affective approach will necessitate active thought. The pedagogue cannot be narrow in his conceptions of what must be learnt; for a learner to have adequate ideas he/she needs to understand the manifold forces which have produced the object of learning; the learner needs to see how God’s essence is expressed in the object of learning. For example, when learning about poetry, the learner will need to actively read the poem for him/herself, understand what the poem means, but also understand the ways in which the poem has affected him/her both conceptually and affectively, and will need to understand the forces that produced the poem. This is a pedagogy then that embraces complexity.
For the learner to conceive adequate ideas about the poem will mean that the learner will see the poem as a dynamic nexus of connections between the world it came from and the world of the learner. An inadequate idea of the poem will mean the learner will not have much conception of the forces that produced the poem; thus the learner’s response will be a “passionate” one, and not a “reasoned” one. Nevertheless, a Spinozist pedagogue may not necessarily view a negative affective response from a learner in a negative light; a Spinozist teacher would want to investigate the reasons behind the negative response and would see it as a challenge to their reason to understand why the poem produced this response. For example, if a student said that a poem was boring, a Spinozist teacher would not become angry, but would become interested in the reasons why the poem induced this response. However, what I like about a Spinozist pedagogy of active learning, as opposed to many conceptions of active learning, is that it does not claim all “truth” lies with the learner; it insists that the learner has an adequate idea of the object of learning; this necessarily leads to the learner increasing his/her own power.

See also Spinoza on Prophets and Prophecies in the TTP.


Learning involves conceiving things as necessary

A Spinozist pedagogy would compel teachers to perceive things as “necessary” not as an arbitrary edict but because “it is of the nature of reason to perceive things truly (by P41), namely (by IA6), as they are in themselves, that is (by IP29), not as contingent but as necessary” (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 59, P44 Dem.).

Teachers would need to have an adequate understanding of the multiple factors that have produced the topic they are teaching, and within that topic demonstrate to their students the different forces that had produced the subject of study. They not see what they are studying as “random” products of an arbitrary universe; they’d see what shaped and moulded their focuses for learning.

For example, in order for students to have an adequate understanding of poetry, they would need to know about the different contextual factors that had led to that poetry being written, the contexts of writing: the historical, biographical and social contexts that the poem arose from. They would also need to have an adequate understanding of themselves as readers of poetry, the contexts of reading, and understand that their studying of the poetry is not some “random” event, but a necessary event in their lives. Furthermore, to understand it they would need to have a go at creating some poetry so they understood the aesthetic, cognitive processes that are involved in its creation. They would also need to understand how it might be “transmitted” and performed.