Continental Philosophy and Neuroscience

Term: Spring 2010

Subject Code: GPHI

Course Number: 6106

This course aims to confront current neurobiology with continental thought on the issue of subjectivity. In neurobiological discourse, the “self” is often thought to be a simple collection of neural patterns that therefore cannot be a transcendental instance. We will consider the most radical version of this reductionist position, the understanding, that is, that our subjectivity is nothing more than a piece of meat, the gray matter of the brain itself.

Yet instead of directly opposing this statement, we will take seriously its demand that the brain be precisely understood, and then show with Nietzsche how it can be displaced and changed from within.


Nietzsche is the first philosopher to affirm that biology may be a critical instance of subjectivity : body (Leib) and consciousness are originary biological instances governed by the will to power, which itself must be understood as a version of the Spinozist conatus, the endeavor to live and persist, a natural movement that both exposes us to wounds and protects us against them. Our thoughts are the “interpretations” of the neural impulses created and formed by this constant exposure.


We will follow a trajectory through Ecce Homo, that presents a living subject open to suffering, pain, illness and desire, a subject that is thus irreducible to both the Cartesian framework of the substance and the Kantian determination of the subject as transcendental aperception. Proving once more his untimeliness, Nietzsche anticpates, without being aware of it, a number of lines of neurobiological research (such as those of Damasio, Sacks, and Solms) where the subject is understood to be synonymous with the “emotional brain”.  At the same time, he provides a basis for dismantling the notion of a neural identity by showing that life is never identical to itself. No need, then, to protect philosophy against biology, contrarily to Heidegger declares in his Nietzsche…

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