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

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  1,833 ratings  ·  120 reviews
The last in a trilogy of books that investigates the philosophical and scientific foundations of human life


Joy, sorrow, jealousy, and awe—these and other feelings are the stuff of our daily lives. In the seventeenth century, the philosopher Spinoza devoted much of his life's work examining how these emotions supported human survival, yet hundreds of years later the biolo
Paperback, 368 pages
Published December 1st 2003 by Mariner Books (first published 2003)
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 ·  1,833 ratings  ·  120 reviews

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Jon Stout
Nov 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: idealists and reductive materialists
Shelves: philosophy
Inspired by Descartes' Error, and interested in a neurologist's interest in philosophers, I sought out Looking for Spinoza. It rewarded me in several ways, first by extending my understanding of how emotions as a biological concept are continuous with feelings as a conscious, mental phenomenon, and second by providing a guided, personal investigation into the life of Bento-Baruch-Benedict Spinoza.

Damasio has a lot to say about emotions and the structure of the brain, some of it exhaustingly deta
Nov 12, 2009 rated it it was ok
This book is, by turns, interesting and frustrating. Damasio knows his stuff when it comes to the details of neuroscience (which is to be expected because this is his field) and the details he supplies are fascinating. However, he overreaches himself when he tries to fit all these separate details into his one-size-fits-all model of how emotions and feelings interact together in a living brain; everything becomes ‘evidence’ for his overarching theory. Just because we have the one word ‘feelings’ ...more
Melinda Olivas
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, and the brain. I enjoyed reading about Damasio’s almost obsession-like fascination with the philosopher Spinoza. Damasio found Spinoza’s beliefs about feelings, passions, and emotions influential and relevant to his work as a neurologist. I also enjoyed that Damasio included a bit of philosophical flavor throughout the whole of this bo ...more
Randal Samstag
Oct 28, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: philosophy
For a devastating critique of this book see:

Quoted from the review, by philosopher of mind, Colin McGinn:

"I have two things to say about this theory: it is unoriginal, and it is false. As anyone even remotely familiar with this topic is aware, what Damasio presents here is known as the ''James-Lange'' theory of emotion, after the two psychologists, William James and Carl G. Lange, who thought of it independently in the 1880's. Not once does Damasio refe
Nov 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
In Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain Antonio Damasio uses neurological and physiological markers to delineate the process of emotions and feelings. Then, he further integrates these scientific findings with social studies. This in and of itself was quite impressive and perhaps demonstrates the fields (e.g., what individuals call the soft sciences and hard sciences) coming together and taking a different integrative perspective of how mental health can be conceptualized.

Jan 13, 2010 rated it did not like it
If you buy the Enlightenment belief that scientific truth can be obtained and man made better for it, then take my review with a grain of salt. If you are convinced of the fact that using the terms "bad" and "human nature" in the same sentence is pretty acceptable, you won't like this too much.

Damasio's science seems interesting enough and does pose some engaging questions. However, there are far too many condescending logical leaps for me to stomach. The low point came with the rather absurd s
Dec 04, 2017 rated it it was ok
Looking for Spinoza is essentially two books wishing it could be one. The first half covers the neurobiology of emotional life. Damasio lays out an interesting overview for a lay reader of how the brain operates as a self regulatory system, connecting this self-regulation to emotions and feelings. The second half is essentially a slim biography of Spinoza. Unfortunately, for a man whose major life events consisted of excommunication, writing philosophy and grinding lenses until he died, there is ...more
Divya Palevski
Jan 26, 2016 rated it liked it
I liked this book but found some parts weary to read. When Damasio writes about the neurology of the feeling brain , it is easy to assemble the author's love for his subject. However, found his sentence structuring elaborately wounded ( I had to read some sentences twice) and repetitive.
But that being said, his monolistic view of mind/ brain and body and his reverence towards Baruch Spinoza is admirable. I believe in Monolism and the idea of feelings variably related to the homeostasis of the b
Charles Daney
The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes pleasant, elegant prose. Unfortunately, aside from that, this book, first published in 2003, is somewhat of a disappointment. The main concern of his scientific career has been to understand the mechanisms underlying "emotions" and "feelings". He has given good accounts of this subject in two previous books: Descartes' Error (1994) and The Feeling of What Happens (1999). What is good about Damasio's writing, especially in the earlier books, is that he do ...more
Jorge Hurtado
Aug 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I didn't know the author before, but now I admire him.
Antonio Damasio is not just a scientist, he is also a humanist; he is a philosopher. He understands the deep of what he talks about and never claims to have the truth (as others claim) of difficult issues
such as feelings, consciousness, moral values,...

As the tittle suggests, the author talks about how emotions work, from a neurobiological perspective, and admires the evolutionary process that had to take place in order to reach a point of
Dennis Littrell
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Humanism from a neurobiologist

Part of this is a celebration of the 17th century Rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinosa whose world view is very much in concert with that of Antonio Damasio. Spinosa's demolition of Descartes' mind/body duality is the thread that Damasio takes up and weaves into this graceful and agreeable narrative. Furthermore, it is Spinosa's recognition that we are part of, and contained within, nature and not materially different from nature (another of Descartes' errors) tha
This book was both not enough of and way more than I expected. I enjoyed the physiological discourse for which I picked up the book, and appreciated the philosophical overtones that were brought out in the latter parts.
Aug 04, 2019 added it
Shelves: philosophy
Absolutely fascinating!
Ari Landa
Oct 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Not an easy book to go through. Can get a bit too technical and sciencey, also the writing isn't as fluid as others (Perhaps there's a lot of "feelings of ideas" in the writing style which clouds the sentence syntax:)). That said it's a very smart book that explains a lot and also invites a lot of questions regarding the implications of feelings on the cognitive brain. For example, if the brain is built up from emotions to feelings to rational logic, and just as feelings are a more complicated e ...more
Frank Strada
Feb 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: books-reviewed
Much of Damasio's book is about brain anatomy. Too much detail (I skimmed most of this section), but his point is well taken: that Spinoza, who lived in the 17th century, had it right regarding human feeling and emotion, despite his lack of knowledge about neural systems.

Baruch Spinoza is known for his book Ethics and his Treatise on Politics and Religion, which had to be published under a pseudonym in once case and posthumously in the other. He advocated separation of church and state and demo
Feb 19, 2018 added it
Damasio is a prominent researcher in the field of neurology and has written a series of books describing the achievements in his field to the lay public. He is also a very informed reader of Spinoza and part of the charm of this book, and there is much charm to be found here, is that he is more than willing to expand on both his field and his interest.

Much of the time the researcher and the philosopher are just two different stories. Spinoza could not deliberate on the physiological basis of hum
Freddie Berg
Feb 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Never thought I would understand Spinoza. Never thought I would understand feelings. Never thought I would understand the psychophysiology and chemistry of the brain. Made me even more grateful to doctors and healers of all stripes and plaids.
Freddie Berg
Mar 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
An excellent explication of many issues. Initially skipped a few sections on the complexity of neural electricity. Re-read other portions over several years, and still pick it up from time to time. Offered it to several friends. On my all time favorites shelf.
Dec 22, 2007 rated it liked it
So far not as good as "Blink" or "Opening Skinner's Box". ...more
Lucy Andrews
Jul 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Anything I write probably won't do justice to Damasio's book. In part because not being a neurobiologist when there is specific stuff about his or that part of the brain, my brain checks out. Same thing would happen with any technical discussion, really, of stuff I don't know anything about. But I got the gist of the argument about how and why feelings, as opposed to emotions (which are more basic) evolved and what they do for us. Also that Spinoza, in Damasio's view was the first to tackle the ...more
Jul 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It took laborious effort to trudge through the concepts in the book.Though I am fascinated by the subject, I do not have formal knowledge to understand all the perspectives detailed in the book.The book has a lot of technical information and relational connections between the machinery of the brain and the mind.For me, glimpses into Spinoza's life interspersed with the technical interpretations added allure to the presentation.I will definitely have to come back to the book later for a thorough ...more
Rhonda Sue
Jan 28, 2019 rated it liked it
Hats off to neuroscience. This was not easy reading but I stuck with it to learn about the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza and more brain science and how the brain, mind, and body work together. First come emotions, then feelings. Emotions are public, actions or movements in the theatre of the body. Feelings are hidden and play out in the theatre of the mind.

There are lots of brain figures in the book which help to illustrate which parts of the brain are related to different feelings, em
Sep 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Damasio is a first-grade neuroscientist and a decent writer on that matter as well. He's able to tie together very complex thing into understandable words.

I've been fascinated with emotions lately and this was the first of his many books on this topic.
Neuroscience-wise, there were new things for me and but especially the latter part of the book, the semi-biographical account of Spinoza was completely unknown to me beforehand.

It was interesting to read and get to know about this philosopher and
Fred Melden
Aug 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Damasio has little light to shed on Spinoza, mostly because the latter lived a very private life. The book reveals a lot about the Jewish community's practices and political position in 17th-century Amsterdam. In addition, I found the distinction between emotion and feeling enlightening. For these alone, the book is worth reading. Against these are the convoluted writing style - probably the result of writing in a second language - and the rather tenuous tie between Spinoza and the discussion o ...more
Xavier Alexandre
Aug 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Antonio Damasio successfully connects the most recent discoveries of neuroscience with the conclusions Spinoza reached in his study, almost 400 years ago. In particular, the idea that the body and the soul are inextricably linked - definitely not an Aristotelian thought - and that the drive to survive, modulated through aeons of evolution, is the main engine that not only sculpted our bodies, but also our emotions and feelings. Spinoza was right about all this, against Descartes, among others. I ...more
Paul Schwartzmeyer
Apr 09, 2021 rated it liked it
I typically don't give negative reviews but this book was a scream. It's about a guy, the author, looking for Spinoza.

What was funny was he was actually looking for Spinoza. He would go to places where Spinoza used to live and look in the windows! hahaha. Since Spinoza died in 1677, he never seemed to find him. I was looking for a book ON Spinoza, not a what I did on my summer Sabbatical.

He certainly is knowledgeable enough about Spinoza, but the condescension and over emotionalizing of Damasio
As someone who previously thought that emotions and feelings were the same thing, I did learn something from this book, although beyond that distinction I found the neurological parts hard to follow. The parts about Spinoza attracted me more, but they turned out to be rather superficial, with nothing that I didn't already know. So I was probably not the ideal reader for this book. It would be better suited to someone who had more of a grounding in science and less in philosophy. ...more
Aug 07, 2008 rated it really liked it
“If we do not exist under oppression or in famine and yet cannot convince ourselves how lucky we are to be alive, perhaps we are not trying hard enough.” -Antonio Damasio in Searching for Spinoza.

“to face the music and dance [anyway]” Damasio’s conception of the human condition and what to do about it.

I enjoyed this book even though it was somewhat dry. I think Damasio's purpose is admirable. He is trying to reconcile current findings in neuroscience with philosophy. In this case, the philosophy
Ana C.
Dec 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. Spinoza is one of the most underrated philosophers in history, and is an important philosopher for neuroscientists. He was the first to understand the relationship with the environment, and the ethics of emotions. I'm still learning and studying his writings. A great book to know about Spinoza and neuroscience. ...more
Marta Ch
It is interesting, especially those who study psychiatry and psychology because there are some terms used in the subject studied about feelings. I found it complicated besides I tried to finish the book without jump some pages which usually I do not do. Unfortunately, this one did not catch much of my attention.
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Damásio studied medicine at the University of Lisbon Medical School in Portugal, where he also did his medical residency rotation and completed his doctorate. Later, he moved to the United States as a research fellow at the Aphasia Research Center in Boston. His work there on behavioral neurology was done under the supervision of Norman Geschwind.

As a researcher, Dr. Damásio's main interest is the

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Why not focus on some serious family drama? Not yours, of course, but a fictional family whose story you can follow through the generations of...
190 likes · 67 comments
“Leaving out appraisal also would render the biological description of the phenomena of emotion vulnerable to the caricature that emotions without an appraisal phase are meaningless events. It would be more difficult to see how beautiful and amazingly intelligent emotions can be, and how powerfully they can solve problems for us.” 16 likes
“The doctors found one electrode contact that greatly relieved the woman's symptoms. But the unexpected happened when the electric current passed through one of the four contact sites on the patient's left side, precisely two millimeters below the contact that improved her condition. The patient stopped her ongoing conversation quite abruptly, cast her eyes down and to her right side, then leaned slightly to the right and her emotional expression became one of sadness. After a few seconds she suddenly began to cry. Tears flowed and her entire demeanor was one of profound misery. Soon she was sobbing. As this display continued she began talking about how deeply sad she felt, how she had no energies left to go on living in this manner, how hopeless and exhausted she was. [ . . . ]

The physician in charge of the treatment realized that this unusual event was due to the current and aborted the procedure. About ninety seconds after the current was interrupted the patient's behavior returned to normal. [ . . . ]

Why would this patient's brain evoke the kind of thoughts that normally cause sadness considering that the emotion and feeling were unmotivated by the appropriate stimuli? The answer has to do with the dependence of feeling on emotion and the intriguing ways of one's memory. When the emotion sadness is deployed, feelings of sadness instantly follow. In short order, the brain also brings forth the kind of thoughts that normally cause the emotion sadness and feelings of sadness. This is because associative learning has linked emotions with thoughts in a rich two-way network. Certain thoughts evoke certain emotions and vice-versa.”
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