To educate is to learn to die

Meditating on what a Spinozist education could be, P. Sévérac considers the passage from childhood to adulthood as that of one nature to another, and organizes the rules of a good education around the notion of affectivity.

Spinoza is not an author that we usually come across in books on the philosophy of education. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Locke or Comenius, he sets out almost no pedagogical prescriptions and the theme of childhood only occupies a marginal place in his work. But if it is undoubtedly risky to question education at the house of Spinoza, nothing prevents us from thinking about it from by Spinoza. In this spirit, Pascal Sévérac offers us an original reading experience: rereading theEthics as an educational treatise. Such a reading supposes that we treat the passages where Spinoza evokes the condition of the child as the heart of his work and that we assign to the rest of his thought the function of explaining the conceptual depth of these fragments. On this basis, Sévérac shows that Spinoza’s philosophy leads to making the nature of the child a problem: before subscribing to the endless prescriptions drawn from a naive reading of Rousseau that education must “respect the nature of the ‘child’, other questions need to be asked. In what sense, first of all, can we speak of the “nature” of the child? Is it a nature that he has in common with adults or a nature that is specific to him? In the latter case, in what sense can we consider education as a process of change in nature?

Learning to have a body in balance

The child is a paradoxical being. Unable at first to feed himself, to walk, to speak, he is terribly helpless. Endowed with extraordinary plasticity, he never stops growing, changing, adapting to an extent that far exceeds the possibilities of adults. How can we interpret this duality which makes the child a being who can do nothing, but who can become everything? Finding an answer to this question from Spinoza implies that we first consider the childish condition as a bodily condition. It must be remembered that, in Spinoza, the notion of body goes beyond the simple material dimension of the individual and that it concerns more generally his way of being embodied in his environment and of being affected by it. In children, this affectivity is expressed bodily through imitative attitudes. From the Spinozist perspective, the specificity of childhood imitation is that it occurs without preference: spontaneously, the child imitates everyone he sees. Spinoza speaks ofbalance, a term which designates an emotional neutrality which opposes the emotional imbalance of the adult whose passions lead him to favor certain aspects of his environment while being insensitive to others. When the child imitates, he leaves, for a time, his state of balance to reproduce the unbalanced affectivity of adults. Here, imitating does not simply mean mimicking gestures, but rather reproducing a certain way of being affected by one’s environment. Sévérac also observes that this affective imitation is not simply behavioral, but also emotional: the imitation of behaviors linked to sadness or joy (facial contraction, crying or laughter, jerky or deep breathing, etc. ) can be enough to arouse the emotional experience.

From these considerations, Sévérac draws two consequences for a Spinozist philosophy of education. The first is that, thanks to this notion of balance, it is possible to consider positively the nature of the child in a way that distinguishes it from that of the adult: this is because the child and the adult are not affected by the environment in the same way that we can say that they have a different nature. The second is that imitation, as imitation emotional, makes possible a model of reflective learning process by which the child individualizes through socialization. Through imitation, the child ends up internalizing certain emotional forms and, thereby, individualizes himself as a being with his own emotional imbalance. Through this internalization, imitation can turn into reflexivity: recognizing in others an emotional behavior analogous to his own, the child becomes capable of considering others as his peers, that is to say as beings who, like him , are subject to joy and sadness. Let us indicate, however, that this transition from imitation-balance to imitation-learning presupposes a theory accounting for the way in which the child comes to appropriate the affective behaviors that he imitates: to be able to become a theory of learning, a theory of plasticity calls for a theory of memory. If Sévérac clearly recognizes the importance of memory in education (p. 44), we nevertheless regret that he does not stop to describe its conditions for us: does it simply arise from the organic development of the child or does it already imply special social care?

Die to be reborn

If the goal of education is to lead the child to abandon his childish nature in favor of an adult nature, it is not possible to understand this process if we simply observe the development organic of the child. Having a body capable of doing many things is a necessary condition, but not sufficient to rise to the rank of accomplished member of humanity: this body must also be linked to a rational mind.

From a Spinozist perspective, educating the mind is not simply instilling intellectual principles. It also means making the body more aware of the way in which it is affected by its environment and, thereby, making its affectivity more reflective and even intelligent: because a body endowed with consciousness is also a body which acts according to what it is. ‘he thinks. According to Sévérac, this affective transformation can be thought of as a process of killing the child’s emotional nature. This interpretation assumes, of course, that we consider death as a process of destruction which does not exclude the possibility of rebirth. This is illustrated in Spinoza through the example of a Spanish poet who, struck by amnesia, shows himself incapable of recognizing himself as the author of his ancient poems (p. 65): the emotional life expressed in these works is no longer his, but that of an individual who ceased to live at the moment when the thread of his memory was broken. Despite the continuity of his organic life, amnesia causes the emotional life of this poet to undergo such a radical tearing that any future life can only take the form of a new life. Now, Spinoza tells us, this emotional rupture is very similar to that experienced by men and women when they pass from the state of childhood to the state of adult: a man of advanced age, he says, “ could not convince himself of having ever been a baby, if he did not make the conjuncture for himself according to others” (Ethics, IV, proposition 39, scolia). But the emotional transformation brought about by education is far from being as brutal and arbitrary as that of amnesia: it is a slow process leading to the emergence of a rational affectivity. Sévérac suggests considering this process of emotional rebirth of the child as a work of “re-education” comparable to the work of the physiotherapist patiently bringing the stiff body back to its full capacity through massages and flexibility exercises. On the educator’s side, this emotional re-education involves creating an environment capable of stimulating the child’s affectivity while promoting the growth of his or her reflective skills.

Learn to resist

For Sévérac, Spinoza prefigures the positions of modern pedagogues like Vygotsky or Wallon by leading us to consider the child as a natively social being (p. 88): the work of education is then less about bringing the child into a society where he already is – the one where he was born – than to transform the way in which he participates in it. This transformation depends on the way educators organize the child’s environment to guide their emotional development in a particular direction. In this respect, there is not just one form of education: several arrangements are possible, influencing the child’s future in different ways. Sévérac isolates, in Spinoza’s work, three models of education (p. 108).

The first is that of an education theocratic : that of Moses educating his people to absolute respect for the authority of a God capable of punishing and rewarding. For Sévérac, this education which contains the people in a state of childhood by depriving them of any desire for emancipation can, in our modern categories, be described as totalitarian.

The second model of education, called “education ordinary “, leads the child to live out of concern for his personal interest, seeking honors while envying those of others. For Sévérac, this individualist education could be described as liberal or meritocratic.

The third model corresponds to what Spinoza describes as “good” education. It is based on an idea of ​​honor different from that of the previous model: an honor which is not linked to envy, but to a spiritual ennoblement of oneself linked to the realization of a desire for emancipation which implies that the we renounce wanting to be loved by God exclusively (p. 114). Here, the emancipation of others is an essential component of individual emancipation. Sévérac calls this model “ethical education”, but we do not think we are forcing his thinking too much by asserting that he could also have described it as democratic. In our opinion, the most interesting proposition of the book lies in the way in which Sévérac shows that this ethical education leads children to become individuals inclined to resist the expression of despotic power (p. 110). What becomes clear here is that democratic affectivity is not simply characterized by a desire for equality, but also by a deep aversion to inequality.

Making our education ethical

Sévérac does not develop here a reflection relating to the history of the philosophy of education. It is not, for example, a question of seeing how Spinoza’s concepts resonate or oppose those of Comenius, Locke or even Rousseau. The end of the last chapter explicitly directs us in another direction: it is rather a question of drawing from Spinoza’s philosophy to accentuate our critical reflexivity on our own educational practices by inviting us to think about ways to make them more ethical. Thinking about education based on Spinoza means thinking about it from the notion of affectivity, that is to say the way in which the child individualizes himself by entering into a relationship with his environment. For the educator, the consequence of this proposition is that it is not enough to reflect on educational practices in terms of effectiveness to establish what the good practice. The use of educational methods based on competition or reward, for example, can undoubtedly easily lead the child to acquire certain targeted skills. Such arrangements, however, also encourage the child to act in an individualistic manner. Without renouncing the requirement for effectiveness, we also have to question the emotional dispositions that our practices promote in our children or in students by asking ourselves how to instruct them while leading them to act in cooperation rather than in ‘opposition.