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Spinoza sets out some important arguments in his Preface to Chapter 3 of Ethics. First, he points out that human beings “follow the common laws of Nature” and are not “outside Nature”. We do not “determine” ourselves but do not have “absolute power” over our actions (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 68). Many of us mistakenly believe that we are a “dominion within a dominion” and as a consequence lay the blame for “human impotency and inconstancy” upon the “vice of human nature”. He points out that there are many “very distinguished men”, including Descartes, who argue that the “mind can have absolute dominion over its affects” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 69). A “geometric method” of reasoning could never take such an approach but must necessarily reason that:
…nothing happens in Nature which can be attributed to any defect in it, for Nature is always the same, and its virtue and power of acting are everywhere one and the same, that is, the laws and rules of Nature, according to which all things happen, and change from one form to another, are always and everywhere the same. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 69)
Extrapolating these points to develop a Spinozist pedagogy, one could argue that Spinoza is necessarily saying that our learning is a “part of Nature” and not outside of it, and that it is an “affective process”, and that it is a fruitless exercise to blame individuals for their defects in learning, to label them as morally defective if they are not learning in the way we expect them too. Spinoza writes:

The affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, and the like, considered in themselves, follow with the same necessity and force of Nature as the other singular things. And therefore they acknowledge certain causes, through which they are understood, and have certain properties, as worth of our knowledge as the properties of any other thing, by the mere contemplation of which we are pleased. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 69)

For Spinoza, the affects are the conatus, that is, joy is an increase in our power to strive (conatus) and sadness a decrease. The affects don’t ‘work with’ conatus, they just are, for want of a better expression, its fluctuations. In the Spinozist metaphysic there is only power (substance), and then individuated degrees of powers (modes and their conati), and difference within Nature arises from how these powers interact and alter one another. For the pedagogue, to understand the affects is to understand how to utilise the affects for the benefit of the acquisition of reasoned knowledge about the world. In this way, an adequate idea of learning would always have an affective side, for the affective feeling of joy is a way to increase a person’s power which will ultimately make the act of learning through the understanding easier. However, it is important to note affects can have the opposite effect, such as when one becomes more and more fearful, and thus take increasing sanctuary in the superstitions, and thus become increasingly ignorant. Thus, the affects can actually decrease an individual’s capacity to learn. Crucially, the learner needs to use reason to understand how the affects have causes and “certain properties” that the learner needs to become familiar with in order to understand the ways in which he/she learns.
This idea ties in with notions of “emotional intelligence” which Daniel Goleman (Goleman, 2016) has discussed in many books and articles. His central argument is that our education systems have not conceptualised his notion of “emotional intelligence” (EQ as he terms it) but have abstracted thought from feeling, and, as a result, failed to nurture meaningful learning amongst many students. For Goleman as for Spinoza, learning is inherently “emotional”; if a learner does not feel motivated to learn, does not feel the “joy” of learning, then they won’t learn very much. This is similar to what Spinoza is arguing I think. However, Goleman’s epistemological framework is not as all-encompassing as Spinoza’s in that he fails to take into account other causes for the failure to learn such as social reasons, his focus is primarily upon the psychological. Moreover, his notion of subjectivity is very much a “neo-liberal” conception with both “emotions” factored in to the equation. The learner can become an “autonomous” productive, “free” agent in the consumer society if he/she understands and manipulates his EQ in a better way. Thus, it could be argued that Goleman’s conception of EQ is very different from Spinoza’s reasoning regarding the affects. Goleman’s goal is ultimately “teleological” in that developing EQ in the learning is about producing happy workers and consumers who feel “free” to make the right choices in their lives. Spinoza does not have a “teleological goal” in his project to help us understand the affects, other than that we should have an adequate understanding of the affects.


Spinoza and the joy of learning

This is the post excerpt.


Teaching and joy, I’m joking right? For many working teachers today, the idea that it might be a joyful experience either for the teacher or the student is just not realistic. Sure, you might say some such claptrap in a job interview that teaching is just such a joy…but, in the real world, you’ve got to be kidding, right!?

And yet, there will inevitably be some good times. I’ve been a teacher in various English state schools for nearly a quarter of a century, and I’m now a teacher educator at Goldsmiths, University of London, helping post-graduate students become effective English teachers.

When I look back at my career in the classroom, I can recollect some joyful teaching experiences, which have mostly been when my students have been enjoying themselves by collaborating: drumming to their readings of poetry; acting out their own modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays; pursuing projects on humour, the Titanic and advertising; working out how to read a difficult but interesting passage in a group; doing improvisations and role plays. I have seen students genuinely joyful in these occasions: smiling and laughing at their enjoyment of the work. And that’s made the teaching joyful for me because joy – as we will see – is “contagious”.

But I’ve got to say, these moments of “optimum” joy have not been that frequent. And actually, while I think it’s important for teachers to provide students with these moments of joy, this is not really the type of joy I’m chiefly talking about in this book. No, I’m going to discuss a different species of joy, although what I will explore may well cover this “peak” moments as well. I’m going to explore the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s definition of joy and the implications it has for teachers.

Spinoza defines joy as a “man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection”. This definition takes some explaining but it’s worth going into depth right now about it because it forms the heart of my argument. I believe once a teacher is aware of Spinoza’s conception of joy, it will profoundly change his/her idea of his/her practice and life.

Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) lived in Holland and was excommunicated from the Jewish religious community for his controversial religious views which rejected Judaic conceptions of God as giving man “free will” and being separate from nature. He was a philosopher who wrote detailed tracts on various religious texts, politics and the philosopher Descartes. His best-known work, published after he died, was Ethics, which is a short but dense book which outlines his entire theory of life, the universe and everything. It begins with proving and defining the existence of God, who Spinoza believed is “Nature”, and ends with an explanation of how humans can live in a state of “blessedness” and achieve eternal life (of sorts).

Recently, his philosophy has enjoyed a renewed surge of interest with thinkers as diverse as Stuart Hampshire, Gilles Descartes, Roger Scruton and Antonio Negri writing books on him.

This website is not going to be like them. It is not a exploration of his philosophy, but rather a very “hands-on” practical discussion of his ideas and how they might be applied in the classroom. At the centre of it is an in-depth debate about how and why Spinoza’s concept of joy can be very useful to teachers.

What I love about Spinoza’s notions is that you don’t have to change anything to be affected by them. As a teacher, you won’t have to suddenly start leaping up and down and playing all sorts of arcane fun and games with your students in order to put his philosophy into practice. All you’ll have to do is to start thinking like him, and then, you may well discover that your teaching becomes more joyful.