a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


Neuroscience and philosophy


Gerald Edelman Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

Again have a problem with quote. I think I may be in error in quoting GK Chesterton, the belletrist and essayist, the English writer, who said, 'I thought to go into philosophy but cheerfulness kept breaking in.' I'm not sure; I can't find that one either. But in any event the idea's amusing. And it is true that at one time in Italy, where for some reason or other there was a kind of burst of interest in my work, I was privileged to have two historians and one philosopher of science who were going to comment on my lecture. Italians, distinguished scholars, and you know every once in a while you lose control or something; I got up and I said... with genuine gratitude, I said I was very gratified that they would spend the effort and think about what I have been working on and comment on it, but I had to say that, you know, all my life I was always interested in bookstores, and when I was 16 I would go straight for the pornography section, but when I was 40 I would go straight for the philosophy section, and in neither case did I get very much satisfaction. And what happened was: one of these Italians actually changed the title of his lecture to Edelman, Pornography and Neuroscience, and that takes me more seriously than I should be taken.

So, you know, it actually happened, and here is my point about philosophy. If you consider that philosophy really doesn't have a subject matter per se, in the face of what science has, but that it is an effort to refine thinking and clarify your thoughts, well and good. Unfortunately it's had a history of... how shall I say it, at least in the Western world, which has forced it, too, to become parochialized in a way because great systematic philosophers like Kant and Hegel not have fallen so much into disrepute but something happened in the business. And I quote, I guess, Wittgenstein: 'Philosophy is when language goes on holiday.' Because he believed, as you remember, that there were no philosophical problems – only puzzles which were occasioned by a misprision and the use of the language game.

Now, I don't know if I'd go that far but, in effect, there is a frustration involved in philosophy because ... and that's the one that's made up in science – namely in philosophy you can generate an idea but the question is can you ever test it and find out, you know, besides self-consistency can you find out how it refers? And science has filled that gap and there is an uneasy, I guess, interaction now in neuroscience between philosophers and neuroscientists and I guess that's where I stumbled in. So I don't think that... although my colleagues disagree, I don't think you can dismiss philosophy but you have to be a little ironic, perhaps. And what Wittgenstein said is worth quoting too, about... he said, 'The whole point is to let the fly out of the fly bottle.'

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Edelman, Pornography and Neuroscience, GK Chesterton, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Duration: 3 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008