Proust Really Was a Neuroscientist

I just finished Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Lehrer is an editor for Seed magazine, blogs at the Frontal Cortex, and did a lot of the research for his book while on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. Proust Was a Neuroscientist was just published last November, and one of the most impressive things about it is that Lehrer is only 25.

Proust was a neuroscientist Sandwiched between an introduction called “Prelude” and a postcript titled “Coda,” Proust presents eight chapters on 19th century figures who anticipated a discovery of modern neuroscience in their art. Authors Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf are profiled along with chef Auguste Escoffier, painter Paul Cezanne, and composer Igor Stravinsky.

Proust is an intellectual tour de force; you get excellent descriptions of the techniques and discoveries of neuroscience alongside biography of fascinating cultural figures and accessible criticism of their works. Given my background studying biochemistry, the science wasn’t that in-depth, but the literary history is something I really needed. My dad is an art professor, so I’m generally more familiar with the great art of history than great literature.

And that’s exactly the point. My friend Jimmy recommend CP Snow’s The Two Cultures a couple years ago. Snow’s classic little text is a call for more communication between the humanities and the sciences. Lehrer summarizes the philosophy behind his book in its Coda by beginning with Snow’s argument for a Third Culture of artists and scientists enjoying knowledge from both spheres. Lehrer’s critique:

Snow turned out to be prophetic, at least in part. The third culture is a now a genuine cultural movement. However, while this new third culture borrows Snow’s phrase, it strays from his project… The third culture today refers to scientists who communicate directly with the general public. They are translating their truths for the masses… From Richard Dawkins to Brian Greene, from Steven Pinker to E.O. Wilson, these scientists do important scientific research and write in elegant prose. Because of their work, black holes, memes, and selfish genes are now part of our cultural lexicon.

He then summarizes the theme of Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge–a book I enjoyed immensely but felt ultimately fell short–with this quote from Consilience:

The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.

This is a statement with which I can’t argue, but also find dissatisfying. Jonah’s response?

Wilson’s ideology is technically true but, in the end, rather meaningless…When some things are broken apart, they are just broken. What the artists in this book reveal is that there are many different ways of describing reality, each of which is capable of generating truth.

And on a derogatory reference to Virginia Woolf by Steven Pinker:

But if Pinker is wrong to thoguhtless attack Virginia Woolf (seeing an enemy when he should see an ally), he is right to admonish what he calls “the priests of postmodernism.” Too often, postmodernism…indulges in cheap disavowals of science and the scientific method. There is no truth, postmodernists say, only differing descriptions, all of which are equally invalid. Obviously, this idea very quickly exhausts itself. No truth is perfect, but that doesn’t mean all truths are equally imperfect. We will always need some way to distinguish among our claims.

The reception for Lehrer’s first offering hasn’t been completely positive (see a rather critical review at Slate) but it seems that most of the complaints I’ve read center around small quibbles with Lehrer’s points or a misunderstanding of the overall thesis. To be sure, I was skeptical going in; it seems that every critique of the epistemology of the likes of Wilson I’ve read has been cover to a religious or postmodern agenda (or both).

Proust Was a Neuroscientist was so refreshing because it was written by someone with an obvious knowledge of and respect for science on a level commensurate with its accomplishments. Because Lehrer can write compelling prose about neuroscience while admitting that our mind really is just the machine and not the ghost, he can also write convincingly about the value of art in giving us knowledge about our human experience.


One Response to Proust Really Was a Neuroscientist

  1. […] spoke at the Clinton School last night, and it was great. I just reviewed Lehrer’s first book Proust was a Neuroscientist and was excited to hear him speak on the purposefully outrageous title “Kanye West Was a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: