Spinoza’s Doctrine of the Imitation of Affects and Teaching as the Art of Offering the Right Amount of Resistance

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Spinoza’s Doctrine of the Imitation of Affects and Teaching as the Art of Offering the Right Amount of Resistance

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Publication Conference Paper, peer reviewed
Title Spinoza’s Doctrine of the Imitation of Affects and Teaching as the Art of Offering the Right Amount of Resistance
Author(s) Dahlbeck, Johan
Date 2014
English abstract
Proposal Information (e.g. topic, research question, objective, conceptual or theoretical framework …): In this paper it is argued that although Spinoza, unlike other great philosophers of the Enlightenment era (such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau), never actually wrote a philosophy of education as such, he did – in his Ethics – write a philosophy of self-improvement that is deeply educational at heart. When looked at against the background of his overall metaphysical system, the educational account that emerges is one that is highly curious and may even, to some extent at least, come across as counter-intuitive in a contemporary setting. This is so because it grounds the greater social and political endeavors of humanity in the individual’s striving for an ever-increasing power of acting. Hence, education, for Spinoza, is a decidedly individualistic affair, but then again, so is the making of society. Since, for Spinoza, every instance of knowledge bears the unique mark of the individual body that expresses it, one might conclude that at the foundation of every social structure is an encounter between concrete bodies; each expressing a particular perspective from where to grasp the world. I would argue, based on this, that one of Spinoza’s main contributions to educational theory is his grounding of larger social endeavors in the striving of the individual. Hinged on the striving to be more rational, as dictated by the doctrine of the conatus, education appears to offer a way of grounding the structure of the human social world in the same (egoistic) principles as those guiding the individual. Spinoza’s doctrine of the imitation of affects thereby offers a way of linking the egoistic striving for power on behalf of the individual with the educational goal of building a sustainable society. It does so as it conditions self-improvement by the human characteristic to imitate what others desire. By being surrounded with people who desire to be more rational, one can utilize this desire for the good and become strengthened in one’s own striving for increasing one’s degree of existence. Consequently, the teaching situation is geared for guiding students towards a more rational life, at the same time as it is geared for the self-improvement of the teacher. This aspect of self-improvement is, ultimately, what will motivate the teacher in striving to enhance the lives of his or her students in the first place. Being unable to self-improve in isolation, the doctrine of the imitation of affects dictates that the rational person will be moved toward a life of generosity, not primarily for altruistic reasons, but out of a desire to become more rational and thus to gain in his or her own power of acting. The question that follows from this, of course, is how does one go about when inculcating a desire to be more rational in one’s students? Education, from a Spinozistic point of view, is ultimately about the cultivation of the potential that lies dormant in each individual, so that a person may live a happier life as a result of understanding, more adequately, their place in the natural world. The challenge, then, becomes one of overcoming the many obstacles that prevent a person from developing their potential. Pedagogy, from this point of view, may be understood in terms of the art of offering the right amount of resistance. This notion is based on the assumption that if a student encounters no resistance – or too much resistance – his or her potential remains just that – a potential. In order to develop this potential the student needs to overcome certain barriers. With regards to this, the role of the teacher may be conceived in terms of the one balancing the amount of resistance so that the student is properly challenged but at the same time not overwhelmed. Methodology or Methods/ Research Instruments or Sources Used: The paper makes for an attempt to outline a Spinozistic philosophy of education based on readings of Spinoza’s texts – primarily the Ethics – and some of the relevant secondary literature such as Della Rocca’s (2008; 2012) influential reading of Spinoza. As such it is a philosophical inquiry seeking to interconnect some key aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy with some of the major issues of education. Methodologically, this paper argues, in line with Melamed (2013), that rather than turning to the history of philosophy in order to identify ‘precursors to [our] own views’ (p. xiv), so as to validate what we already believe we know, it is more fruitful to turn to past philosophers in order to ‘challenge (rather than confirm) our most basic beliefs and intuitions by studying texts that are both well-argued and strongly opposed to our commonsense’ (p. xiv). Accordingly, turning to Spinoza marks an attempt to revisit and reconceptualize some key aspects of educational thought (concerning the role of reason vis-à-vis the imagination and of freedom versus necessity etc.). Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings: A conclusion of this paper is that a Spinozistic philosophy of education would need to focus on resolving the tension between Spinoza’s egoism and education as a social project. To this end it identifies Spinoza’s doctrine of the imitation of affects as a possible link between the individual’s striving for power and the collective agenda of improving human well-being at large. It is also suggested that, in aspiring to inculcate a desire to be more rational in his or her students, the challenge for the Spinozistic teacher is to prompt the students to aspire to reach beyond the temporary satisfactions of the passions so as to acquire a more enduring sense of satisfaction and so that their well-being is more fully under their own command rather than under the command of various external influences (such as socially constituted desires and wills). This, in turn, is connected with the notion of resistance in the sense that in experiencing the volatility of fortune – and thereby understanding the instability of relying on one’s passions – a person would appear to be more inclined to strive for a more enduring sense of happiness, even if this would mean giving up on some of the temporary pleasures that one has grown accustomed to. The resistance, then, may be conceived in terms of the overcoming of temporary pleasures that stand in the way of the developing of one’s potential. In this scenario the role of the teacher may be understood in terms of someone offering a well-balanced amount of resistance. This means that to accommodate one’s students – in the sense that one approaches them in terms of prospective customers, aspiring to satisfy their demands – is inimical to education insofar as the wants and desires of students are, generally speaking, caused by passive affects (determining their course of action) rather than their rational wills. References: Aloni, N. (2008). Spinoza as Educator: From Eudaimonistic Ethics to an Empowering and Liberating Pedagogy. Educational Philosophy and Theory 40(4), pp. 531–544. Della Rocca, M. (2008). Spinoza. New York: Routledge. Della Rocca, M. (2012). Rationalism, Idealism, Monism, and Beyond. In: E. Förster & Y. Y. Melamed (eds.) Spinoza and German Idealism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 7–26. Derry, J. (2006). The Unity of Intellect and Will: Vygotsky and Spinoza. Educational Review, 56(2), pp. 113–120. Lloyd, G. (1998). Spinoza and Educating the Imagination. In: A. O. Rorty (ed.) Philosophers on Education: Historical Perspectives. London: Routledge, pp. 157–172. Melamed, Y. Y. (2013). Spinoza’s Metaphysics: Substance and Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nadler, S. (2002). Eternity and Immortality in Spinoza’s Ethics. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 26(1), pp. 224–244. Poulimatka, T. (2001). Spinoza’s Theory of Teaching and Indoctrination. Educational Philosophy and Theory 33(3 & 4), pp. 397–410. Spinoza, B. (1994). The Ethics. In: E. Curley (ed) A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works. Princeton: Princeton Unive
Publisher EERA
Language eng (iso)
Subject(s) Spinoza
Imitation of affects
Philosophy of education
Humanities/Social Sciences
Research Subject Categories::HUMANITIES and RELIGION
Note ECER, European Conference on Educational Research "The Past, Present and Future of Educational Research in Europe", University of Porto, Porto, 1-5 September 2014
Handle http://hdl.handle.net/2043/17752 (link to this page)
Link http://www.eera-ecer.de/ecer2014/ (external link to related web page)

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