LOOKING FOR SPINOZA: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Antonio R. Damasio, Author, Damasio, Author. Harcourt $28 (p) ISBN By ANTONIO DAMASIO FEB. . For the past few years I have been looking for Spinoza, sometimes in books, sometimes in places, and that is. I found the book “Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain” by Antonio Damasio an interesting look at the relationship between emotions, feelings.

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A new treatment for Parkinson’s disease involves implanting tiny electrodes in the patient’s brain-stem.

A low-intensity electrical current then charges the motor nuclei, enabling the patient to move their hands without a tremor and to walk normally. The woman’s expression immediately changed to one of sadness. Then she began to cry and to speak of her hopelessness, her sense of worthlessness, of disappearing down a dark hole.

The doctors realised something was wrong and damaaio off the current. In less than two minutes her behaviour returned to normal. She was a habitually cheerful woman who had no history of psychiatric disorder personally or in her family. She had not even experienced the mood changes that sometimes come with Parkinson’s. It was as if the symptoms of depression had simply been switched on with the charge to a particular point in her brain and switched off again just fof quickly.

Before getting out his knife, the surgeon has to identify the brain areas that must not be removed because they do essential work controlling speech and vision, for instance. This is done by stimulating the brain with electricity and watching the results.

In the case of one patient, stimulation to a number of closely located sites had the effect, in Antonio Damasio’s words, of “consistently and exclusively locating laughter”.

The patient would be shown a picture of a horse. Under normal conditions, she would see it as a regular kind of horse. But when the relevant segment of the supplementary motor area of the left frontal lobe was stimulated, she would consider it the most hilarious equine on God’s earth.

Is it possible that such profound and all-embracing essentials might have a physical location in some particular small corner of the brain? That feelings are in the most literal sense nothing more or less than a form of neural electricity?

Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain

For some, there will be shades of Huxley’s Brave New World in these images of white-coated lab technicians probing electrodes into the brain in order to artificially stimulate depression and laughter. But who is to say which stimuli are artificial and which are natural? All sorts of things stimulate us into sadness or joy: Whatever the cause, an investigation into the mechanics of strong feeling has much to promise.


There is an ancient philosophical tradition that associates feeling with the body and reasoning with the mind. Cartesian philosophy begins by imagining a disembodied mind the cogito – “I think therefore I am” ; the body and the material world become the thing thought about res cogitans. Damasio is a distinguished neuro-scientist who came to prominence outside his specialist field just under a decade ago when he published a book called Descartes’ Error, which argued that new knowledge about the workings of the brain called into question the old distinctions between reasoning and feeling, mind and body.

Damasio’s particular expertise is in the area of brain injury: What do we learn about the nature of consciousness from, say, amnesiacs who retain all their core biological functions but have lost their sense of individual identity? Case after case analysed by Damasio in both Descartes’ Error and his next book, The Feeling of What Happens, has confirmed him in the view that things traditionally kept apart by philosophers such as rational decision-making and emotional mood actually happen together in the brain and, further, that the brain functions by mapping the body.

The Cartesian thought-experiment of a disembodied mind is a contradiction in terms, since the mind only exists in conjunction with the body. Damasio has always trusted an instinct of William James’s: In his new book, Damasio finds another, more surprising precedent for his vision: Damasio considers, for instance, Spinoza’s proposition that “love is nothing but a pleasurable state, joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause”.

LOOKING FOR SPINOZA: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain

Whereas Descartes always seemed to begin from an idea, Spinoza begins here from a body-state: The mental process of assigning a cause comes second. By beginning from the body Spinoza proved himself a proto-biological thinker. Two centuries before Darwinian evolution and the work of Ernst Haeckel, father damasip scientific ecology, Spinoza proposed that the starting-point for our thinking about the nature of humankind should be physiology and the process of life-regulation.

Lookig Darwin and Dawkins have discovered, when you start thinking about humankind in biological terms you will swiftly run into trouble with religion. The great advantage of the Cartesian elevation of mind over world was that it could be reconciled with St Paul’s distinction between the eternal soul and the mortal body. For Spinoza, everything was body, nature, materiality. His system left no room for transcendence; his God was wholly immanent, in some sense synonymous with nature.

He was excommunicated for his pains and for a century his influence went largely underground it has recently been unearthed in Jonathan Israel’s magisterial book, Radical Enlightenment. It resurfaced with the romantic worship of nature – Coleridge was a passionate Spinozist – and remained a force to be reckoned with in the world-pictures of both Freud and Einstein. Damasio’s new book offers a curious mixture of cutting-edge neuroscience and reverential footstepping of Spinoza.


Fellow-scientists may not see the point of dredging up a year-old intellectual system: Philosophers and historians of ideas will complain about the crudity of Damasio’s broad-brush account of such complex texts as Spinoza’s Ethics and Tractatus Politicus Religiosus. Religious fundamentalists will bristle at the idea of reducing such sensations as spiritual wellbeing to neural electricity.

But anybody prepared to cross disciplinary boundaries in their inquiry into what it means to be human should take serious notice: Spinoza’s ideas spinozz considered dangerous for political as well as religious reasons.

To begin from the body and the principle of physical wellbeing was to reject the idea of a natural hierarchy in which some men inherited comfort by divine right while other men and all women had a more lowly status. At the same time, biologism – the survival of the fittest – is also a threat to liberal ideas witness the sorry history that led from “social Darwinism” to the Nazi party.

Spinoza’s quest was to develop an ethical system that was both cognisant of the force of biology and true to what we would now call the “enlightenment” principles of liberty and justice. He has a lot to teach us about ethics in the age of genetic engineering. And what of the political consequences of Damasio’s neurological Spinozism?

Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain – Antonio R. Damasio – Google Books

Again and again in this book’s account of how emotions, antoio out in the theatre of the body”, precede the work of the mind, I was reminded of the first work of one of my heroes: Like Spinoza and Damasio, Hazlitt begins with the body.

Imagine a child putting a hand in a flame.

The bodily sensation of pain teaches the brain about danger. But wait a minute, says Hazlitt: To adopt Damasio’s terms, the brain is mapping a body that is still only imaginary. From feeling comes the capacity for imagination and hence for empathy.

If we can imagine our future self, we can also imagine other selves. The human mind thus has a natural capacity not only for self-interest, as Hobbes had proposed, but also for disinterest in the proper sense of the word. For Hazlitt, this insight was the starting-point for a lifetime’s commitment to both liberal politics and the empathetic power of the arts.

I have a hunch that he would have considered Damasio’s findings a cause for joy, not despair. Science and nature books Higher education Philosophy books reviews.