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2006 Book Commentaries
Neurobiology and Behavior
Looking for Spinoza Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain Antonio Damasio
let every man think what he wants and say what he thinks (1)
Looking for Spinozo is a complex, challenging, insightful narrative. Damasio is not only a neurologist, a neuroscientist, but he is also a historian. The narrative is a search with questions, and is also a search for answers. It is engrossed with ideas, facts that stimulate that search. It deals with neurology (the study of the nervous system), it deals with the past, with the present and with the future. It deals with Man, with men, it deals with the mind, the body, the brain. It deals with feelings, emotions, religion, nature, and God. Last it deals with a man named Bento (blessed), Baruch (blessed), Benedictus (blessed) Spinoza and his beliefs.
Damasio lists the reasons for writing this narrative:
The main purpose or writing of this book, then is to present a progress report on the nature
and human significance of feelings and related phenomena, as I see them now, as
neurologist, neuroscientist, and regular user. (2)
Given that many of the advances on the science of emotions and feelings are consonant
with proposals that Spinoza (the protobiologist) began to articulate, my second purpose in
this book is to connect this least-known Spinoza to some of the corresponding
neurobiology of today. (3)
Almost without noticing, I began looking for the person behind the strangeness of the
work. I simply wanted to meet the man in my imagination and chat a little, have him sign
The Ethics for me. Reporting on my search for Spinoza and the story of his life became the
third purpose of this book. (4)
With this in mind Damasio takes us to the times of Spinoza ( in the middle of Holland's Golden Age) He was born to resettled Portuguese Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam in 1632. He gives us a knowledge of the upbringing and the development of the man. He gives meaning to the three names attached to Spinoza which also seem significant in his development. Bento was his Potuguese name. Baruch was his name in the synagogue and amongst friends. Benedictus was the name he adopted when he was banished by the synagogue. We get a view of Spinoza' s God through Damasio when he writes:
Spinoza's God was neither Jewish or Christian. 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.(4)
It would seem that, with this type of view, Spinoza was frowned upon by many people of his day and probably with justification with their level of understanding at the time and, even now. Thoughts that had not been thought of before or had not been made known before.
As a neurologist ( who studies the nervous system) and a neuroscientist ( who studies anatomy, physiology, biochemistry of nerves with relation to behavior and learning), Damasio is extensive and exhausting in relaying this information throughout the book. But he always finds a connection with Spinoza. He writes:
Spinoza is thoroughly relevant to any discussion of human emotions and feelings. Spinoza
saw drives, motivations, emotions, and feelings — an ensemble Spinoza called affects as a
central aspect of humanity. Joy and sorrow were two concepts in his attempt to
comprehend human beings and suggest ways in which their lives could be lived better. (5)
Spinoza dealt with the subjects that preoccupy me most as a scientist — the nature of
emotions and feelings and the relation of mind to body — and those same subjects have
preoccupied many other thinkers of the past. To my eyes, however, he seemed to have
prefigured solutions that researchers are now offering on a number of these issues. (6)
Spinoza had described a functional arrangement that modern science is revealing as fact:
Living organisms are designed with an ability to react emotionally to different objects and
events. The reaction is followed by some pattern of feeling and a variation of pleasure or
pain is a necessary component of feeling. (7)
It is clear that Damasio relies heavily on the work of Spinoza.
In reading the narrative it is clear that Damasio has succeeded in fulfilling the purposes of the book. He has given us a progress report on the nature and human significance of feelings through Spinoza and his own work. He has connected Spinoza with some of the neurobiology of today. Third, he has given us a story, about the life and the times of the man Bento Baruch Benedictus Spinoza, which I enjoyed.
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