Emotions and Feelings in Antonio Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza”

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Scientists and philosophers have spent considerable effort in researching human emotions and feelings. Knowledge about the difference between these terms is scanty, and Damasio dedicates significant time to explore this elusive subject in his book. Looking for Spinoza elucidates what feelings are and why human beings experience them. In the introductory chapter, he declares his thesis by stating that his motivation for writing the book is to deliver a comprehensive report about human feelings and their significance in people’s lives. Damasio cleverly interweaves his research with his analysis of Spinoza’s philosophy. Reading through the book makes it increasingly clear that emotions are ideologically different and distinguishable from feelings and that only human beings can experience feelings.

In the past, researchers have struggled to differentiate between emotions and feelings and to explain how they affect human life. However, Damasio draws upon previous research to clarify the distinction between the two with the ultimate aim of assigning one function to human beings and another to the animals. He does this by exploring the body-mind dynamic and how it influences the well-being of the human body. The main difference between the two functions is that feelings involve the thought process, while emotions do not. According to Damasio, only one of them can be experienced by people, while the other is universal across the animal kingdom. Therefore, it is essential for him and other like-minded researchers to study the circumstances in which either or both functions are manifested.

According to the neurologist, only human beings can experience life wholesomely, with all the distresses and pleasures it can offer. He explains why solely people have feelings and states that they arise from the interaction with emotionally competent stimuli (Damasio 51). These stimuli from inexhaustible sources trigger a flux in the well-being of the body and the parts of the brain that map it. Furthermore, these triggers often involve both perception and cognition, which is a function that is most developed in humans.

The stimuli begin generating feelings at the ventromedial prefrontal part of the brain and proceed to the amygdala, hypothalamus, and other structures that execute various commands (Damasio 53). In Looking for Spinoza, Damasio admits that people share similar processes that can evoke despair. However, he reckons that only human beings can activate the higher cortical reaches, which result in feelings.

Differentiating between feelings and emotions is problematic, considering that only the former can be studied by analyzing the verbal responses of the subjects of a research. As Damasio defines them in his book, emotions are the physical displays of the body’s attempt to maintain homeostasis and well-being (Damasio 88). This definition makes it considerably easier to study emotions in humans and animals because of the observable nature of bodily reactions to various stimuli.

On the other hand, Damasio argues that these emotions are the causes of the feelings (Damasio 86). The latter are defined as the internal states of both the body and the mind, which can only happen in human beings. Adolphs and Andler agree with Damasio’s differentiation of feelings from emotions and explain that language is necessary when studying the former (194). For instance, it is impossible to tell whether a cat is sad, guilty, or in love, but it is much easier to tell when an animal is hungry because it does not involve complex cognitive processes.

To effectively understand emotions and feelings as distinct functions scientifically, one must inspect each of them separately. It is interesting to note that Damasio agrees with scholars such as Kant about the origins of emotions (Cohen 438). Both of them state that emotions result from feelings. This argument is compelling because feelings are not easily discernible, and only one’s emotions can betray his or her feelings about a specific external stimulus.

For instance, when one sees a starving child by the roadside, he or she promptly feel sympathetic, pitiful, or his or her parental instincts are activated. These feelings are not readily observable externally. However, if one extends a helping hand to this child, they become happier and probably smile, which can be seen by an independent observer. Damasio also agrees with Spinoza’s theory of Conatus, which suggests that each individual, human or otherwise, is motivated to express emotions as an evolutionary tool to preserve life and to thrive.

From Damasio’s definition, it is convincing that emotions and all physical manifestations of the feelings occur instinctively. Emotions are instantaneous and short-lived, while feelings are slowly processed and last much longer. Continuing with the analogy of the hungry child, the emotionally competent stimulus evokes these emotions unconsciously, without much mental effort. Adolphs and Andler argue that only feelings can be intentional and manipulated with a little cognitive effort. On the other hand, it is not easy to control emotions because they occur instantaneously and without conscious thought.

In chapter 3, Damasio further elucidates that emotions are variants of feelings (85). He argues that a feeling is a perception of body maps, which is also the idea of the body’s state. Whereas emotions are external responses to stimuli, feelings occur mostly inside and considerably affect the body’s well-being. However, Damasio acknowledges that further analysis of feelings in the past has shown that certain regions of the brain can be activated by stimuli that do not usually activate particular feelings. Nonetheless, the argument that the mind uses the body to manifest emotions is consistent with the body-mind synergy theory. This philosophy claims that without the body, it is impossible for emotions and feelings to exist. Essentially, people cannot have a mind if their sensory organs are deactivated.

In the 5th chapter, Damasio agrees with Spinoza’s mind-body collaboration argument. Spinoza links the human body to the human mind in certain aspects. While this notion is open for debate, it is impossible to have one without the other (Damasio 211). Damasio further states that it is the human body that creates the contents of the mind and that it is more influential in the body-mind argument. In other words, without the basic senses of the body, the mind would have no stimuli to process and generate a reaction. Therefore, through the combination of the two, one can have emotional intelligence (Damasio 217). Moreover, due to the human’s ability to experience feelings, they can develop the emotional intelligence that most other animals are incapable of experiencing.

To further his argument, Damasio categorizes emotions into three hierarchical levels. He proposes that they can be classified into background emotions, primary emotions, and those resulting from social interactions (Damasio 43). By doing this, he advances the work done by his predecessors in classifying affective emotions. However, there is no evidence of any taxonomy of feelings in the text. This fact reinforces the argument that emotions are distinctive and can vary in severity while feelings have almost equal importance in human beings.

Damasio also explains that emotion is often directed towards an object or an event. However, a feeling is not necessarily directed at anything. It can be internal and devoid of emotional attachment, such as when one is hungry. This is the mind’s recognition of the body’s state of deprivation of food while an event causes emotions such as anger. Thus the fundamental difference between the two functions, in this case, is the presence or absence of a stimulus. This argument also underpins the assertion that one engages his or her conscious mind when expressing emotion, whereas only the subconscious mind is engaged in acquiring a feeling.

Despite the concrete research that the author conducts, there are numerous instances in the book that Damasio blurs the distinction between emotions and feelings. For an argument to be consistent, one should defend his or her opinion, which is not always the case in Looking for Spinoza. When attempting to create a clear distinction, Damasio lets some of his ideas float obscurely in the text. Sometimes, he categorizes responses to external stimuli as feelings, while in other instances, he says that they are physical manifestations (emotions). These two ideas are often interchanged in the book to suit the author’s convenience.

Another contentious issue in the book Looking for Spinoza lies in the way the author treats other animals. Throughout the book, he thinks that only human beings are capable of experiencing true emotional feelings and expressing them outwardly. At the same time, he also argues that the same animals can manifest these feelings to some extent. This contradiction of his sentiments in the book indicates a reluctance by the author to speak authoritatively about the distinction between emotions and feelings despite his extensive experience in neuroscience. His indecision is understandable, considering that so many scholars have failed to use scientific methods to convincingly distinguish between the two functions despite their best efforts to do so. The subject remains a contentious one, and there is no definite conclusion to the debate in sight yet.

The distinction between feelings and emotions is further complicated when one considers that one of the two functions is measurable, and the other is not (Adolphs & Andler 193). Physical manifestations of emotions are observable, thus, the sample group can be diverse, and the conclusions can be much more decisive. However, even when there is the ability to measure emotions, using verbal language as a means of communication presents some challenges. For instance, infants cannot take part in these scientific explorations of human feelings and emotions. This leaves a significant portion of the human population out of the research.

Additionally, there are other variables, such as culture, which affect the accuracy of the inferences that can be drawn from such studies. Many psychologists and scholars of human behavior acknowledge that someone’s personality is influenced by the people’s culture around him/her. Therefore, the comparison between feelings and emotions may vary between sample groups, and as a consequence, the results may be inconclusive.

For instance, in Looking for Spinoza, it is arguable that in chapter six, the author takes on a subjective deviation from the book’s core theme. Damasio’s personal quest to look for Spinoza affects his ability to stay objective and thus illuminates the impact of culture on his research results. In this chapter, he illustrates Spinoza’s sad and withdrawn lifestyle, which shows how culture can significantly affect the outcomes of this inquest. This is a significant drawback to come up with a clear distinction between feelings and emotions.

In his book Looking for Spinoza, Damasio does not exhaustively address the difference between bodily and emotional feelings. The former are fairly accurate to discern, while people can be wrong about their mental feelings. For instance, people can develop feelings of guilt and sadness due to hallucinations and the interference of the mind by external stimuli such as drugs. Some scholars posit that one can experience false feelings, which affect the accuracy of the research. For instance, some people report the erection of the hairs in the back of the neck even when there are no hairs there. Therefore, it is unclear whether these feelings are inherently comparable to emotions. This is one of the main issues that Damasio fails to address in his attempt to distinguish between feelings and emotions.

Additionally, Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza cannot claim to effectively distinguish between feelings and emotions when, in some instances, it is difficult to tell precisely which emotion one is experiencing. For instance, if a researcher lacks emotional intelligence, then it is difficult for him/her to tell through external observation if one is excited or irritated. The main cause of this obscurity is the fact that people can use their minds to manipulate bodily reactions in some instances, especially when they are aware that their emotions are under investigation. Therefore, it is difficult for a scholar to infer a feeling from a false emotion that is outwardly visible.

In the 6th chapter of the book, Damasio offers his readers a brief account of Spinoza’s life and an uneventful one. Nonetheless, he admires the man and is therefore disappointed to discover that the man he thought he would find was remarkably different from the one he met. This notwithstanding, Damasio concurs with Spinoza’s ideas about the body and the mind and how the two are interconnected (Winkler 98). He uses this principle as a basis of his argument that feelings and emotions are two distinct functions that should not be confused with each other.

To conclude, Looking for Spinoza offers a relatively concrete but inconclusive argument about the distinction between emotions and feelings. The fundamental claim is that the former are spontaneous and can be outwardly manifested, while the latter involve a cognitive process and are not readily measurable by scientific methods. Additionally, he argues that while all animals can express emotions, only human beings and other higher animals can demonstrate their inward feelings.

Only emotionally competitive stimuli can evoke deep feelings in the human psyche. In the book, Damasio agrees with Spinoza that the body and the mind are connected with each other and that one cannot exist without the other. Nonetheless, there are numerous technical issues that blur the difference between emotions and feelings, and, consequently, the reader is not sure whether the two terms can be used interchangeably when reading through the book or not.

Works Cited

Adolphs, Ralph, and Daniel Andler. “Investigating Emotions as Functional States Distinct from Feelings.” Emotion Review, vol. 10, no. 3, 2018, pp. 191−201. Web.

Cohen, Alix. “A Kantian Account of Emotions as Feelings.” Mind, vol. 129, no. 514, 2020, pp. 429−460. Web.

Damasio, Antonio R. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.

Winkler, Sean. “The Conatus of the Body in Spinoza’s Physics.” Society and Politics, vol. 10, no. 2, 2016, pp. 95−114.

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"Emotions and Feelings in Antonio Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza”." PsychologyWriting, 2 July 2022, psychologywriting.com/emotions-and-feelings-in-antonio-damasios-looking-for-spinoza/.


PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'Emotions and Feelings in Antonio Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza”'. 2 July.


PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Emotions and Feelings in Antonio Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza”." July 2, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/emotions-and-feelings-in-antonio-damasios-looking-for-spinoza/.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Emotions and Feelings in Antonio Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza”." July 2, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/emotions-and-feelings-in-antonio-damasios-looking-for-spinoza/.


PsychologyWriting. "Emotions and Feelings in Antonio Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza”." July 2, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/emotions-and-feelings-in-antonio-damasios-looking-for-spinoza/.