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Antonio Damasio


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

Damasio has written a very personal book here, in which he sets forth his own vision of life, culminating in his statement of what he understands by the life of the spirit. This is based on two seemingly quite different discussions, one neurological, the other philosophical, and I am not sure that the two come together entirely satisfactorily. The book is worth reading nevertheless, for Damasio is not only one of our leading brain researchers but is also a scientist who has explored widely in the humanities.

The first part contains ideas that will be familiar to readers of Damasio's earlier books, Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens. In those, he emphasized the importance of emotion for the proper functioning even of the intellect. This was an important idea that contradicted the implicit or explicit assumptions of many who saw the intellect and the emotions as intrinsically opposed to each other.

In The Feeling of What Happens he drew a distinction between feeling and emotion, and we meet the same distinction in this book. I found this discussion somewhat difficult to follow and Damasio himself occasionally seems to use the terms almost interchangeably. (Another neurologist who uses the same terms and makes quite a similar distinction between them is Joseph Ledoux in Synaptic Self.)

One idea that receives more emphasis in this book than in his previous ones is the concept of body images. These are of two types. One derives from the interior of the body (the viscera, muscles, and "chemical parameters"). The other concerns special parts of the body, such as the retina for sight and the cochlea for hearing. There are echoes here of William James, to whom indeed Damasio explicitly refers. Information from all these sources is integrated to give complex neural patterns that are the basis of consciousness, but, as Damasio acknowledges, there is a major gap between these patterns and mental images. In other words, Damasio agrees that there is a "hard question" and that he has not solved it. (Here he is in good company, of course.)

Where does Spinoza fit into all this? Well, Damasio believes that in what Spinoza wrote about body and mind in The Ethics he had intuited many of the conclusions Damasio has reached himself—in particular, the concept of body images. Whether this intepretation of Spinoza's view is correct is something I must leave to experts on Spinoza, but what matters here is that Damasio found the correspondences to be important for himself and that this prompted him to delve deeply into Spinoza's thought and character.

In a later section Damasio offers a summary of Spinoza's not very eventful life. The uneventfulness of this life was in fact an achievement in that time, for a contemporary of Spinoza was tried and punished corporally by the synagogue authorities in Amsterdam for publishing unorthodox religious opinions rather similar to Spinoza's; this man subsequently committed suicide. Spinoza, who was more cautious, was disowned by the community but not otherwise molested.

Although Damasio admires Spinoza he does not do so without reservation.

Do I like the Spinoza I finally met? The answer is not so simple. I admire him, for certain. I like him immensely, at times. But I wish I could be as clear about the ways of his mind as I am about the form of his behaviour—something in him never yields to scrutiny and the strangeness about him never abates. I am clear enough, nonetheless, to marvel at the bravery with which he formulated his ideas at the time he did and adapted his life to the inevitable consequences. In his own terms he succeeded.
For a reader wishing to begin to understand Spinoza's philosophy, this would probably not be the place to start. In fact, I don't think it would be the best of Damasio's books to read to get a grasp of his view of how the mind and brain work either (Descartes' Error would probably be better for that). Anyone who is already interested in Damasio's writing, however, won't want to miss it.

19 October 2004

%T Looking for Spinoza
%A Damasio, Antonio
%I Vintage
%C London
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-09-942183-6
%P 355 pp
%K philosophy, brain and mind
%O paperback edition

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