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Spinoza’s anticipation of contemporary affective neuroscience

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Spinoza speculated on how ethics could emerge from biology and psychology rather than disrupt them and recent evidence suggests he might have gotten it right. His radical deconstruction and reconstruction of ethics is supported by a number of avenues of research in the cognitive and neurosciences. This paper gathers together and presents a composite picture of recent research that supports Spinoza’s theory of the emotions and of the natural origins of ethics. It enumerates twelve naturalist claims of Spinoza that now seem to be supported by substantial evidence from the neurosciences and recent cognitive science. I focus on the evidence provided by Lakoff and Johnson in their summary of recent cognitive science in Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (1999); by Antonio Damasio in his assessment of the state of affective neuroscience in Descartes’ Error (1994) and in The Feeling of What Happens (1999) (with passing references to his recent Looking for Spinoza (2003); and by Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese and their colleagues in the neural basis of emotional contagion and resonance, i.e., the neural basis of primitive sociality and intersubjectivity, that bear out Spinoza’s account of social psychology as rooted in the mechanism he called attention to and identified as affective imitation.
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Keywords: Damasio; Gallese; Lakoff; Rizzolatti; Spinoza; affective neurosicience; ethical naturalism; naturalistic fallacy

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Hamilton College

Publication date: 01 January 2003

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