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by Antonio Damasio
Harcourt, Inc., 2003, 355 pp.,
ISBN: 0-15-100557-5

A Charlie Dickinson Review

'a lucid account of cutting-edge brain research'

Amsterdam of the 1600s was home to two important philosophers: French emigre Rene Descartes and native Baruch Spinoza. As the Western intellectual tradition would have it, the former's ideas--Cartesian logic, a mind-body split, cogito ergo sum--gained intellectual purchase, while those of the latter were largely ignored. LOOKING FOR SPINOZA by Antonio Damasio presents the interesting thesis that today's research in neurology suggests choosing Descartes' conception of mind over that of Spinoza might have been, well, wrong-headed.

Author Damasio, head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center, does world-class research. So with LOOKING FOR SPINOZA, we learn a lot about neurology and brain functioning. Surprisingly, what researchers are finding fits the model of the mind first proposed by this somewhat obscure philosopher who lived from 1632 to 1677. With loving appreciation, Damasio pictures in Spinoza a maverick philosopher who refused to be caught up in the dualistic view of reality–-dating back to Plato and earlier–and steadfastly held out for a unified world view. Developing what many acknowledge as his brand of Buddhism, Spinoza saw God everywhere, in everything. But most relevant to Damasio was Spinoza's concept of the mind as a "feeling brain," a brain that, in today's parlance, receives neural maps of somatic (body) states.

Until recently, researchers seldom studied how feelings manifest themselves in neurobiological terms. Damasio's interest for exploring the neurological basis of emotion and feeling grew when he began to see patients with injury or disease to specific parts of the brain that, for example, left them without compassion. In considerable and well-illustrated detail, Damasio shows how emotions (which are displayed publicly) precede feelings (which are experienced privately). Far from the wholly ineffable and intangible experiences feelings are commonly thought, Damasio shows joy or sadness, as examples, generate patterns of brain activity recognizably associated with each feeling.

The more Damasio evaluated evidence for how neurological and chemical pathways brought felt knowledge to the brain, the more Damasio saw Spinoza's ensemble of "affects" in action. The revelation an intellectual explorer centuries before had come up with a similar explanation for mental phenomena led Damasio to go looking for Spinoza.

LOOKING FOR SPINOZA is also about a pilgrimage to where the prescient philosopher spent his last years in The Hague, leading a frugal life, supported by his lens-grinding business, content to receive visitors in his intellectual "salon" of a small rented room, while smoking his pipe. Damasio stands in this same room centuries later and in moving language tells us the life story of his predecessor, who also strove to keep as one, body and soul. Unfortunately, at life's end, Spinoza's body was stolen while it lay in the church. Damasio concludes, "Spinoza's God was everywhere, could not be spoken to, did not respond if prayed to, was very much in every particle of the universe, without beginning and without end. Buried and unburied, Jewish and not, Portuguese but not really, Dutch but not quite, Spinoza belonged nowhere and everywhere." Read LOOKING FOR SPINOZA for a lucid account of cutting-edge brain research, plus a tribute to a philosopher now gaining some long overdue attention.

© Charlie Dickinson May 1st 2003

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