The Passionate Mind. Emotion, Cognition, and the Construction of Self

As Milton said, "The mind is its own place and of itself it can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven". But how then does the mind make itself? Scientists, poets, and philosophers have long grappled with the apparent paradox of the mind making sense of itself. Even more paradoxical, perhaps, is thinking of the mind as its own creator. As modern science and thought make increasingly clear, the mind never works in a vacuum, but is inextricably linked to the body, the emotions, and the world around it.

The second annual Utah Symposium in Science and Literature will bring together three distinguished speakers, neurologist Antonio Damasio, poet Jorie Graham, and philosopher Thomas Metzinger, as well as other specialists in literature, neurology, philosophy, computer science, history, psychology, and related disciplines, to talk about these mysteries with each other and interested members of the public.

The contemporary study of human neurology is a profoundly interdisciplinary endeavor, providing an intersection for the consideration of biology, reason, cognition, emotion, and language. The 2003 symposium will examine the human mind itself, including the question of what selfhood is and of what, or from what processes, it might be made. We will bring three foremost experts, neurologist Antonio Damasio, poet Jorie Graham, and philosopher Thomas Metzinger, to discuss their examinations of the human brain from their individual perspectives and to imagine how these perspectives, and the processes through which they are created and expressed, cast light upon and influence one another. Among them, our three visitors have written over a dozen books, all in their different ways stretching the limits of our knowledge about the mind.

When first approached about a symposium that would bring him together with a major poet, someone who uses language to explore the emotionally and intellectually complex territory in which our interior lives come into contact with external reality, neurologist and bestselling author of Descarte's Error Antonio Damasio said, "Poets are precisely the people I want to talk with about my work." This is no surprise, considering the priority Damasio's work gives to emotion and feeling. Indeed, MacArthur-winning poet Jorie Graham imagines her poems as enacting the brain's responses to its complex environment, as enacting, in other words, the ongoing construction of consciousness and therefore of a selfhood in which emotion and reason are inextricable from one another. Consciousness as ongoing construction is also the field of inquiry pursued by Thomas Metzinger, Europe's foremost philosopher of mind, who considers the self not as an entity but as an ongoing phenomenological process, "a transparent self-model" that constantly emerges out of the interaction of the mind with objective reality. These three thinkers do not consider their work to be separate or competing endeavors. Rather, all three work to imagine how our brains, and therefore our very identities, are illuminated by examining them from various points of view.

Antonio R. Damasio

Antonio R. Damasio, M.W. Van Allen Professor and Head of Neurology Medical School at the University of Iowa, is not only a foremost neurologist but also one of our deepest and most revelatory thinkers about the implications of neurobiology for human life and happiness. In his provocative trilogy, which includes Descarte's Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain; The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness; and, most recently, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Damasio examines the neurobiological roots of emotion and its role in human reason. His current work focuses on neuropsychological and neuroanatomical work relating to vision, memory, language, emotion, decision-making, and consciousness.

Jorie Graham

Since the publication of her first collection, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, MacArthur Fellow Jorie Graham has been widely viewed as one of the most original of American poets. At once deeply cerebral and profoundly emotional, spanning subjects ranging from mathematics to philosophy to painting, her poems enact and celebrate the very processes of thought. The author of nine collections of poems, including, most recently, Never, Graham has received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, among many other honors. In 1997, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. After teaching for many years at the University of Iowa, she is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University.

Thomas Metzinger

Thomas Metzinger is Professor of Philosophy and director of the Theoretical Philosophy Group at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany. Widely considered to be the foremost European philosopher of mind, he is the author of three books, most recently Being No One: the Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, released in March of 2003 from MIT Press, and the editor of a number of collections of essays and papers, including Conscious Experience. In addition to cognition and selfhood, his research interests include ethics, particularly the conceptual connections between applied ethics, the philosophy of mind, and anthropology.)

Panel Discussions

The Many-storied Self: Why are poetry and fiction and mathematics moving?

The Goodness Switch: What happens to ethics if behavior is all in our brains?

Did Shakespeare already get all of this gray matter?

Where Freud meets modern neuroscience: Is Freud dead everywhere but in the English Department?