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.

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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?