Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Orlando, Fl.: Harvest Books/Harcourt, 2003. Paperback, viii + 356 pp.

Although feelings are omnipresent in our mental life, our culture makes us predisposed to focus on concepts and images instead, and this curious bias has long marred psychological research. The present book, written by one of the world’s leading neurologists, is addressing this badly neglected area of investigation.

It is the third volume in a series of three volumes, starting with Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (Harper Perennial, 1995) and followed by The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (Harvest Books, 2000)—a trilogy that can be regarded as a trenchant critique of earlier erroneous approaches to understanding the mind.

Damasio has admirably succeeded not only in producing a comprehensive account of the nature and function of feelings from a neurobiological perspective but also in making his ramifying reflections accessible to the lay reader.

What is more, he also has rescued one of the finest European philosophers—Baruch Spinoza—of the seventeenth century from oblivion. Slighted in his own era and bravely ignoring the scorn of his contemporaries, this maverick philosopher exercised a moderate influence on later generations but is barely remembered today. His thoughts about feelings, however, are highly relevant to any consideration of the mind purporting to be be comprehensive.

Damasio, an innovative researcher and thinker, has given us the most convincing treatment of emotions and feelings, revealing their far-reaching role in our lives and showing how they reside at the interface between mind and body. It becomes overwhelmingly clear from reading this work that we ought to pay much greater attention to our emotions and feelings than we tend to do—an insight psychoanalysts and psychotherapists have long recommended to us. But now we can understand better why this should be so from the viewpoint of neuroscience rather than psychology.

This is possibly the best book available on this important subject at the present time, and the author deserves our gratitude for translating complicated matters into readily accessible language, and with a pinch of humor and an eye for practical relevance.

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