Baruch Spinoza and Defining our Principles

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a rationalist philosopher, whose work Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical order was published posthumously in 1677. I first came across The Ethics at University, having decided to take the Spinoza module because of the cult status of the maverick Professor teaching the course. Throughout the module, what struck me as remarkable about the core text was its ‘geometrical’ aspect. With a few ‘definitions’ explained in the opening chapter, Spinoza then proceeded logically from these definitions, so each aspect of his philosophy seemed to flow in a clear geometric order.


Baruch Spinoza

From these initial definitions, Spinoza builds his entire philosophy, including the origin of our emotions, the nature of reason, as well as a picture of how everything that can conceivably exist fits together. I’m certainly no expert, but it seems to me like he constructed an almost complete picture of the universe, from a few small initial principles.

I thought about Spinoza’s Ethics recently, after discussing with colleagues around what our ‘ethos’ of education might be. The discussions stemmed from a meeting where we were tasked with trying to pin down exactly what we felt the underlying principles of our school should be. Similarly to Spionza, if we could ensure underlying principles soundly defined, we could then build the complete picture of our school.

A simple definition of moral purpose

At first, people seemed to find the question quite simple, as to some extent, everyone seemed to have a clear idea about what their ethos of education was. It was only when we started having a discussion that a huge diversity of opinions emerged. The idea of moral purpose seemed to have gone unquestioned for so long, that we had presumed that we all shared the same ideas. We mentioned ideas about the school as a community, as an academic environment, and the different qualities we were looking to promote with our students. Of course, the educational zeitgeist was present, and ideas about GRIT and Growth Mindset were discussed. We talked about nurturing young people, about preparing them for their later lives and ensuring academic achievement is well matched to personal growth. And, as each new idea was introduced, we seemed to drift further and further away from defining our own moral purpose in a simple and straight forward manner.

I think one of the reasons that we failed to reach a simple definition of why we get up in the morning is that the idea of a ‘vocation’ seemed to have been thrust upon us. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard other teachers say ‘we all know why we’re here’ as if there was some sort of motto emblazoned across our hearts as soon as we finish our ITT.  The problem with the unquestioned idea of vocation, is that it seems to justify virtually any course of action being thrust upon teachers, as vocation suggests an emotional, rather than rational state of mind. In itself, it’s not also a particularly clear idea either. I certainly didn’t consider teaching a calling or a vocation when I entered the profession, I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking to be honest. But, now that I’m here, I feel it’s worthwhile questioning any notion which shapes the way I work.


Teaching as a Calling

Is simple always achievable?

Many people could argue (and do argue) that the task of simplifying anything so complex as teaching, or the moral purpose of teaching, is necessarily doomed to fail. In Kris Boulton’s fantastic blog ‘What is Teaching’, he attempts to define the core ideas around teaching, which might not vary too much between different teachers and pupils. I understand why some people might have disagreed with his conclusions, but found it strange that some of the criticism landed at Kris suggested that trying to find a simple conclusion was either not possible, or not useful. Well, I crave simplicity, and feel the the Kris’s statement here very neatly sums up why our staff discussion over moral purpose was so important:

the more clear and simple is our baseline definition, the more powerful and focussed our thinking can become.

Since then, I’ve tried to create my own ‘baseline definition’ to sum up why I teach. I’m an English teacher, so my underlying principle might just be to ensure students get as good as possible at English, while promoting good behaviour. Of course, I’ll need to express it much more eloquently before I get the bumper stickers printed.

I’m aware at how glib this statement sounds, and I’m definitely not finished thinking this through. But from this underlying principle, I can focus on designing the best curriculum for my students, and the teaching methods which will most benefit their scholarly achievement. I can also help promote a strong work ethic, and promote all behaviours which are conducive to learning. I’d also like to avoid the word vocation and substitute profession, so any changes to my principles will stem from my professional judgement.

I’d like to finish this blog by referring back to Spinoza. What I failed to mention in the introduction, was just how mind-blowingly difficult the book was. Trying to navigate though his definitions, axioms, propositions and corollaries, despite the ‘geometric’ order, was a real challenge. However, the book is also laced with little personality-filled gems, and my favourite excerpt is from the final section, where Spinoza seems to acknowledge the complexity of his own ideas:

If the road I have shown to lead to this is very difficult, it can yet be discovered. And clearly it must be very hard when it is so seldom found. For how could it be that it is neglected practically by all, if salvation were close at hand and could be found without difficulty? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.

Trying to find a simple definition of ‘moral purpose’ which can be shared by a group of teachers may be extremely difficult, which may be why it is so seldom found. But it’s important we acknowledge the difficulty, and not neglect the question by presuming the answer is already shared. And as for simplicity, I feel this is the excellence I am searching for, as difficult as it is rare.


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