A leading neurologist and critically praised science writer (The Feeling of What Happens, 1999, etc.) argues that research on human emotions supports the 17th-century philosopher’s conclusions about the mind-body problem.
Damasio (Neurology/Univ. of Iowa Medical Center) begins by describing his visit to Spinoza's home and grave in the Hague. Spinoza's ideas, the author reminds us, were so radical that they were suppressed for decades after his death in 1677, though they survived to be picked up by Enlightenment thinkers and to influence many modern scientists. At the center of his philosophy was the assertion that the mind, and by implication the soul, was not separate from the body but intimately connected to it. At this point, Damasio launches into a detailed summary of the neurological evidence that emotions and feelings, which he carefully distinguishes, arise directly from the brain's imaging of the body’s physical states. Studies of patients with injuries to discrete areas of the brain indicate that specific sites are responsible for specific emotional states, he notes. Moreover, the chemical and physical events leading to feelings can often be traced with considerable accuracy. Unfortunately, the author’s account of these potentially revolutionary investigations is highly abstract and couched in reader-unfriendly jargon. The evidence seems to be that even such exalted emotions as altruism and civic responsibility can be accounted for by physical processes based in the evolutionary needs of the human organism to survive and reproduce. The feeling of contentment that follows ethical behavior is similar to those called up by acts that directly benefit the organism. Having made these points, the narrative returns to an account of Spinoza's life, with particular emphasis on his estrangement from the Portuguese Sephardic community in the Netherlands and his impact on later thinkers. The Spinoza sections flow smoothly; this would have been far more valuable if the neurological sections were as clear and engaging. Even so, it will reward close study.
Fascinating and important material, though it deserves better exposition.