Spinozistic Reflections on The Problems of Pedagogy & The Intellect

Statue of Spinoza, The Hague, Netherlands

As teachers, how do we adequately teach a philosophy which is as controversial as it is misunderstood?


The following is an extended abstract of a paper I will be presenting at an upcoming conference and workshopping at Villanova University 04/11/17 at 5:45 pm in SAC 108.

Christopher Quintana, Villanova University

Panel 02.04 — Marx in The Corporate Classroom, Western Political Science Association meeting April 13–15, Vancouver, British Columbia

Extended Abstract

We affirm and deny many things because the nature of words — not the nature of things — allow us to affirm them. And in our ignorance of this, we easily take something false to be true.”

Baruch Spinoza, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect

It is no secret that “Marxism” carries negative associations. A desire for clarity regarding Marxism’s political project, and any perceived sympathy for it, is often met with hostility. Marxism is either rejected wholesale or read based on the understanding that we are reading a theory that has been debunked in practice. In discussing Marxism, those who reject Marxism typically associate the works of Karl Marx to particular images and reports from the 20th century Marxist political projects deemed indefensible. This poses a pedagogical problem for the professor where students are predisposed to skeptical or hostile positions regarding what Marxism entails.

In this paper, I claim that the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza gives us a framework and strategies to work through these pedagogical problems. I argue that the interaction between Spinoza’s epistemology, psychology, and politics gives us the necessary tools to reconfigure ideas about what Marxism is. It does so by helping us understand both the source of superstition, prejudices, and fragmented ideas and how to do away with them. For Spinoza, to act according to superstition, inadequate ideas, or misguided passions is a loss of freedom and leaves us vulnerable to manipulation. In contrast, we ought to act according to adequate knowledge of the world and our affects in order to be in the position to act according to our best interest. In this regard, Spinoza’s epistemology becomes emancipatory.[1]

My aim here is not to develop strategies for how to better convince a student Marxism is correct. If Marxism has any claims to truth it will have to hold up to scrutiny on its own merits. Instead, my aim here is to provide “Spinozistic” strategies for enabling students to analyze the merits and/or pitfalls of a philosophy which is so contested, misunderstood, and met with prejudice. At the same time however, I show how Spinoza’s concerns apply to both the student and the educator.

I primarily work through Spinoza’s epistemology and his diagnosis of the imagination and affect as a primary form of knowledge acquisition and source of fragmented ideas. I do so for two reasons.

First, as pedagogues we want our students to have clear and adequate ideas about the subject matter. Particular images, reports, or affects in the imagination often inhibit this. However, it is equally important to recognize that the pedagogue is also susceptible to imaginative and affective prejudices. Understanding imagination and affect adequately requires a reflexivity on behalf of the pedagogue: the pedagogue must constantly reevaluate how their own political, theoretical, and affective commitments may be inhibiting sober and effective teaching. Additionally, the pedagogue must base their pedagogical starting point on an understanding of the specific lived experiences and ideas of their students. This method is to be preferred over bestowing principles and arguments as if from above — an approach which only fuels misconceptions of the philosopher as uninterested in the everyday lives and problems that human beings must manage.

The second reason for engaging with the imagination is its productive capacities identified in part V of Spinoza’s Ethics. Ideally, when we uproot the images that nourish these misconceptions, we are in an optimal position to develop adequate knowledge (i.e. an analysis of what Marx’s texts actually tell us). Inevitably, this will not always be the case. Some students simply might not read or read uncharitably; nor do pedagogues have the time to cover the entirety of Marx’s corpus and the extensive Marxist literature since. In light of this, I use Spinoza’s discussion of images in Ethics V and their capacity to lead to higher forms of knowledge and action. I argue for the use of “utopian” images within the Marxist tradition in order to use the ambivalence of the imagination to rewire the way in which Marxism as a political project is understood.

[1] “The only free person is the one who lives wholeheartedly according to guidance of reason alone.” TTP [32]