Looking for Spinoza: Damasio’s exploration of feeling, and Spinoza

I’ve been casually delving into Damasio’s work: Looking for Spinoza. It’s a very interesting work; one thing is that it has those paragraph appraisals that most bestsellers have; but I find these days  that some of the people I actually recognise, or have read before; Langton’s Kantian Humility, for instance, has Strawson, Guyer and Lewis complimenting her. When you get one of the greatest living Kant scholars and two of the heavy hitting philosophers of the 20thC (one of which is also a Kant scholar); your career is set.

Anyway, enough about Kant. Damasio’s work, sofar, doesn’t seem to be a work of Spinoza scholarship, but it may as well be. Damasio has been praised by Scruton (an all round philosophy busybody, wrote a good book on sex), and Nadler, who is a pretty good Spinoza scholar.

Damasio is a neurologist, neuroscientist, and general science writer.  Damasio is also a profoundly insightful human being, something that doesn’t normally pair off well with people who work in cognitive science.

I tend to have little respect for cognitive science (due to Kantian prejudices); but Damasio is a man who may put my faith back. Damasio’s work is a dual narrative; a personal exploration of the man, Spinoza; and musings on his research on the brain which sheds light on what it means to experience emotions, to feel, and, how these things relate to Spinoza’s psychology of human flourishing.

I’ve picked up a few things off Damasio; firstly, Damasio makes a distinction between emotions and  feeling. Emotions are the physical phenomena that we talk of in the brain, and feeling is the mental state that we use our everyday language to refer to. So, emotions are like those electrical impulses and whatnot, feelings are things like anger, fear and so on.

This leads to a second observation; Damasio is already advancing an interesting theory of mind, where there is a supervenience relation between the mental and the physical. This may even lean towards (and possibly unintentionally) towards
Spinoza’s notion of mind; where it is the idea of the physical object.

Spinoza’s supervenience relata is something I wish I could say I understood. Spinoza talked of a higher order of things about the physical, that is, the mental and intellectual realm, and above that, is God, for God is the idea of ideas. Spinoza’s conception of mind is a little bit more complex than the one aspect I am pointing out; but all that aside, we may refer to this relation of mental to the physical as a dual aspect theory (my old Master refuses to call it ‘parallelism’).

One thing I found particularly interesting was Damasio’s interest in Spinoza, the man, rather than his philosophy work exclusively. Spinoza was a man of a quiet life; but attracted the most important men of his era to visit him in his lodging which was owned by an artisan. Spinoza lived, for his latter years, in the most humble of residences, yet, was graced by audiences by Leibniz (who you should know a little about), Harry Oldenberg, who was president of the Royal Society, and Christiaan Huygens; whom was not only a student of Descartes, but was key in advancing physics and astrophysics.

Spinoza was a man of a very difficult and complex origin; he was “Jewish and not”, “Dutch, but not quite”, and “Portugese but not really”. How multicultural is that! Spinoza is ethnically Portugese, from a Sephardic Jew background, but due to the inquisition, his parent generation was expelled because they refused to convert to Christianity; so the Sephardic Jews were based in the Netherlands, he was Dutch by virtue of his nationality, but not ethnicity, and Jewish by his culture. Spinoza’s life is characterised by three different identities; the ethnicity he never really came to know, the culture which came to excommunicate him, and the nationality which he came to participate, but also came to oppose him.

Spinoza’s life is characterised by many kinds of social expulsion; in virtue of being Jewish, his status of his parent generation was referred to as “marrano“, which I hear is a bad word, but its meaning changes, Spinoza’s Jewish community came to exclude him due to his conception of God, and the Dutch state authorities of the  time rejected his political writings because he supported freedom of expression, in terms of religious ‘heresy’ and critique of the state.

Spinoza’s three names, if you are interested are: Bento, Baruch, and Benedictus,  Portugese, Hebrew, and Latin, respectively; and they all mean the same cognate word, albeit with different cultural bearings; they all mean “blessed”.

From my own reading of Spinoza’s life; I’ve found a very rich intellectual background. Unlike Kant, who had a very very academic university background (quite boring and standard…); Spinoza had the standard Rabbinic education, reading the Talmund, Torah, and learning of Jewish Law; he also came to learn Latin; and read the ancient philosophers, which was somewhat more standard of the philosophy education of the time. What was somewhat nonstandard of the time, but standard of the great philosophers of the time (note the distinction I invoked); he read contemporary philosophers who were moving out of the university  syllabus of Aristotle and Aquinas, to Descartes, Hobbes, and so on. This was very nonstandard, but very important.

I think a Kant moral can be relevant here too, Kant’s biggest influence was Hume (which I am too quick to forget), Kant’s background that was standard of the time was an education in the metaphysical system of Leibniz and Wolff; a dogmatic rationalist system, if Kant were not to revolutionise rationalism by a reading of Empiricist Hume, and were he not to have come across the sentimentalist tradition of Britain (or in particular, Scotland); he would not have been the great philosopher he was. Today.

It seems very important for cross-fertilisation to occur. Descartes brought physics to philosophy, Spinoza brought geometric method to metaphysics, Kant brought British philosophy to what became the continental or post-Kantian tradition, and Damasio is bringing Neuroscience to philosophy of mind.


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