Counter-acting the affects

False Ideas are not Necessarily removed by telling the truth

Nothing positive which a false idea has is removed by the presence of the true insofar as it is true. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 117, P1)

For example, when we look at the sun, we imagine it to be about two hundred feet away from us. In this we are deceived so long as we are ignorant of its true distance; but when its distance is known, the error is removed, not the imagination, that is, the idea of the sun, which explains its nature only so far as the body is affected by it. And so, although we come to know the true distance, we shall nevertheless imagine it as near us. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 118)

It happens, of course, when we wrongly fear some evil, that the fear disappears on our hearing news of the truth. But on the other hand, it also happens, when we fear an evil which is certain to come, that the fear vanishes on our hearing false news. So imaginations do not disappear through the presence of the true insofar as it is true, but because there occur others, stronger than them, which exclude the present existence of the things we imagine, as we showed in IIP17. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 118, P1 Schol)

This is especially true with regards to teaching to the test. The teacher knows the right method for students to learn is to learn to work it out for themselves, but the fear of the students of failing is a powerful affect, and the teacher finds that it is easier to neutralise this affect by “spoon feeding”, a false idea of learning. The student learns to copy and imitate, not to think.

External Causes are much more Powerful than an Individual

The teacher is expected to be God, to have control over how children learn, what they learn and how they are expected to achieve in exams and their work generally. Spinoza teaches us that the power of external causes is much more powerful than the individual. The teacher has limited power over learners. External causes are much more powerful.

For given a man, there is something else, say A, more powerful. And given A, there is something else again, say B, more powerful than A, and so on, to infinity. (pp. 118, Schol)

The Passions are More Powerful than Individuals

The force and growth of any passion, and its perseverance in existing, are defined by the power of an external cause compared with our own (by P5). And so (by P3) it can surpass the power of a man, and so on, q.e.d. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 120, P6 Dem)

A repeated idea in Spinoza is that the passions can overwhelm us. This is particularly true in school. The concept of school is invested with numerous affects: historical, geographical, pedagogical, psychological etc. In particular, there is the “you-must-do-well affect” which is passed through schools on many levels, imparted in the way teachers/students talk to each other, a school’s results, the displays on the walls, prize for the “top” students etc. This affect is tremendously powerful, far more powerful than individuals; it is a collective social affect. This means that when you feel you’re not doing well, it is almost impossible not to feel some variant of Spinozist sadness: anger, hatred, depression etc.

Journey into Joy

What are the really powerful affects in school settings? Some thoughts: “I-Must-Do-Well affect”; “I’m-Better-Than-You Affect”; “I’m/You’re-Stupid Affect”.

Negative Feelings Are Contagious

Following on from this point, we can see how Spinoza is arguing that the affects are “contagious” in the sense that if we believe that someone is criticising us, that “criticising-affect” is very easily passed on to us; we internalise that feeling quickly because that “critical affect” is already powerfully present in many other bodies: other teachers, students, the school, the society, the media etc.

We feel sadness, and then pass on that sadness to someone else in another context. For example, the student who has been criticised in class by a teacher may well go home and be angry with his/her parents/siblings etc., but not show that sadness to the teacher him/herself.

Journey into Joy

When have you been criticised and then felt sad/angry/insecure? What did you do with that “affect”? Where do you think that “criticising-affect” came from?

What are the most contagious affects in school settings and in your career?

Affects can be counter-acted by More Powerful Ones

P7: An affect cannot be restrained or taken away except by an affect opposite to, and stronger than, the affect to be restrained. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 120)

This is a very important lesson for teachers and explains why (some) teachers so commonly shout. A noisy class enters the classroom and the teacher shouts for them to be quiet. An everyday occurrence which endorses this maxim. The affect of the “noisy class”, which as a body is riven with all the different passions of its members, joy, sadness, fear, boredom, distraction etc.; the teacher restrains and removes these multiple affects by providing the jolting, jarring affect of the “shout”, which carries with it all the connotations of authority, control and fear/lack of control. It involves the whole body of the teacher, the breath issuing through the throat, the blood rushing to the teacher’s head, the tensing of the body, the striving for order, for obedience. The affect of the shout is an “event”, a necessary performance of “becoming-teacher”. It works by surprise value. When it loses this, and students become habituated to the teacher always shouting, they more often than not ignore the teacher and the shout loses its power to restrain.

This is true of other teacher threats such as: the threat of detentions, of sending a student out of the room, of reporting them to another teacher, their parent/guardian etc.

Affects Can Be Counter-Acted By Reason

P59: To every action to which we are determined from an affect which is a passion, we can be determined by reason, without that affect. (p. 147)

I used to take criticism very badly. For example, I would have my teaching observed by a senior manager and would get very angry and upset if he/she was critical. The “You’re-Not-Good-Enough” affect would overwhelm me, drowning my sense of what I was doing. But recently, Spinoza’s philosophy has helped me use reason to deal better with criticism. I have been criticised, like most people, quite a bit in my life: my talents as a writer, teacher and organiser have been called into question by various sources. I have been better able to deal with them because I have gained a more adequate idea of a few things: the importance of what I am doing, the overall context of the society I am living in, the sorts of people, affects and ideas I dealing with, who I am as a person and what I want from my life. This is not to say I have not felt angry and sad about being heavily criticised – I have! – but I also realise that these feelings are almost inevitable – they’re encoded in my being – but this said, I have realised what gives me joy and determined that I wish to persist with these things because I believe them to be “noble”: I want to communicate with people my enthusiasm for learning and work with people to discover ways in which we might make our lives joyful. This overall sense of purpose has overridden my feelings of inadequacy generated by the criticism and rejection. This is what I take Spinoza to mean as “reason”.


Strength of Character

Spinoza does something of vital importance in the last three sections of Ethics. As I’ve indicated, he shows how adequate thinking creates joy which necessarily leads to people living ethical lives.

Ethical living is a necessary consequence of adequate thinking. Joy is the vital link here: when you think adequately about something you will feel joy which will necessarily make you realise certain vital truths, the most important of which is that love is always the best rational response to hatred. Chapter 3 of this website, Affective Learning, goes into more depth on this, but I would like to outline some concepts here which I believe are hugely useful for teachers.

A vital affect which Spinoza believes is a central component of a free thinking individual is “self-esteem”, which Spinoza defines as “joy accompanied by the idea of an internal cause” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 86) or “a joy born of the fact that a man considers himself and power of acting”. Most teachers know that children with low self-esteem are difficult to teach because they feel like they are worthless and therefore there is nothing worth learning. They have lost their “powers of acting”. I like this diagram which illustrates some of the issues involved:


Figure 1 Self-esteem chart

For Spinoza, as for many psychologists today, self-esteem is about the internal dialogue that we have with ourselves: if we tell ourselves that we are capable of generating our own joy, if we believe there is something “within” us which is intrinsically joyful then we will acquire a degree of self-esteem. This, for Spinoza, is a “necessary truth” because we are all part of what he calls “God or Nature” (more on this later) and God/Nature is intrinsically joyful.

So, while the diagram above has some elements in common with Spinoza, it is not entirely Spinozist. It’s worth explaining this because it might help me show you why I feel Spinoza’s philosophy is more helpful than many more modern psychological theories. The diagram above is a simplified version of what is known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which aims to re-orient a depressed person’s thinking about themselves by changing the things we say to ourselves in our heads. So I think it is perfectly true that many reluctant learners in school frequently say to themselves (and other people): “I won’t do it”; “I can’t do it” etc. However, what tends to happen in schools and, in therapy, is that an instrumental view of the depression is taken. So the teacher might cajole a student into saying “I want to do it” by giving them either a bribe or a threat: you’ll get a good mark if you have a go, or a detention if you don’t do it. The therapist might not be so brutal, but will nevertheless say something like if you tell yourself you want to do it, you’ll stop feeling so depressed. The reward here is a better mood. Developing Spinozist self-esteem wouldn’t, I believe, involve quite this approach; it would encompass the reluctant learner/depressed person developing an understanding of who they are, which would necessarily increase their powers of action. So the Spinozist pedagogue would help the reluctant learner reframe the interior dialogue in this way, with the first comments at the bottom of the pyramid being the ones the teacher/therapist would nurture first:

Figure 2 Develop Spinozist self-esteem

The diagram illustrate how putting understanding at the heart of developing self-esteem is absolutely central to Spinozist pedagogy. Understanding always and necessarily increases one’s powers of action. There are no rewards and punishments in a Spinozist pedagogy, understanding is the reward and it is through understanding that the learner finds his/her self-esteem. This understanding is developing through “reason”: Spinoza’s definition of reason is quite different from definitions we have of it today. Spinoza was not a “logician” or “rationalist” in the way we frequently define these terms today. Beth Lord writes: “While Spinoza believes that the truth is known through reason, he also believes that rational knowledge could not be attained without experience and experiments” (Lord, 2010, p. 4).

In order to develop this self-esteem, it is necessary to acquire “strength of character”, which consists of two elements: “tenacity” and “nobility”. Tenacity is “the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictate of reason, to preserve his being”. For Spinoza this means being tenacious in the pursuit of adequate ideas because to preserve one’s being fully one must be joyful. Spinoza’s conception of tenacity is similar to modern ideas of “resilience” or “grit” (Perkins-Gough, 2013) in that it suggests that adequate thinking involves overcoming set-backs, problem-solving, sticking to the task at hand, even if this is difficult. However, Spinoza’s concept of tenacity is not as instrumental as modern pedagogies of “resilience” which tend to focus upon “grit” as a way to get great exam results, a place at a top university and then a well-paid job. This way of thinking about resilience views it as a “means to an end” and, as a result, the idea has an instrumental quality to it; it is a “tool” for learning. Spinoza would reject such conceptions and would argue that being tenacious is worthwhile in itself because the moment you are tenacious, you increase your powers of action and therefore your joy. The process is the point, not the end product. As we will see again and again, living in the “here and now” is absolutely central to Spinoza; he is a philosopher of “immanence”. There no real “end points” in Spinoza, only processes or passages from one state to another.

The other component to strength of character is “nobility”. This is a wonderful appropriation of a word which has connotations of being upper-class, aristocratic and courageous in the English language. Nobility for Spinoza is: “the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictate of reason, to aid other men and join them to him in friendship” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 103). In other words, when we think adequately about things, we will see that we want to help other people. This is important for teachers because it means that nurturing collaboration and friendship is more than a useful tool for nurturing learning, but is actually a necessary prerequisite for an ethical life. Urging your students to be “noble” in a Spinozist sense is not only important but absolutely necessary. For me, this means that collaborative learning is an absolute given in any Spinozist pedagogy; it is the noble virtue to be cultivated continuously. In order to do this though, in a world which riven with conflicts and competition, a teacher needs to be “tenacious”: thus we can see that tenacity and nobility are inextricably bound together.

The teacher needs to be tenacious in his pursuit of nobility and noble in his pursuit of tenacity because preserving your being (tenacity) necessarily involves helping others (nobility) and helping others necessarily means you preserve yourself.

The upshot of developing self-esteem, tenacity and nobility in oneself will be cheerfulness. This is the one affect that you can never have too much of in Spinoza’s view. He argues that you can have an excess of joy (and sadness), but cheerfulness is a unique affect because it always maintains an equilibrium.

Figure 3 Understanding and the Joyful Affects

The linking between all these affects is particularly important for a teacher to understand. They all have a reciprocal relationship with one another: a person guided by Spinozist reasoning will necessarily be tenacious but won’t solely pursue their self-interest but will be noble in their helping of others as well. Understanding this makes you have true strength of character. You need to help yourself and other people: indeed, through the dictats of reason, we must understand that the one cannot exist without the other. Similarly, self-esteem is only acquired through an understanding that there is something inherently lovable about you – your very nature – and that necessarily means you know that helping other people builds your self-esteem because you are aiding the very thing that you love within yourself because we are all part of one thing: God/Nature.

For me, Spinoza squares the circle of bondage and freedom, selfishness and altruism, competition and collaboration etc., which is a problem many teachers confront on a very “nitty-gritty” level every day. Most teachers understand that when students collaborate with each other they learn more (Education Endowment Foundation, 2016) but they often have a real job of work trying to sell the idea to their students, particularly the “more able” ones who feel that they are being held back if they help people “less able”. Spinoza gives the teacher a language to frame why students should collaborate: it is “noble” to collaborate and it necessarily builds your “self-esteem” if you do it properly, making you cheerful in the process. It has both cognitive and emotional benefits.