Raymond Tallis' The Kingdom of Infinite Space uses an exploration of the head (importantly excluding the brain) to spark philosophical digressions on numerous topics. These are wide ranging, encompassing identity, ego, self, embodiment, knowledge, existentialism, phenomenology, sexuality and psychology. He often retraces areas he's visited in earlier books, but this is made up for by the originality of the positions he is taking.
Tallis' continues his critique of the brain-mind identity theory, of a reductionist evolutionary biology and of a misanthropic, animalistic view of humanity. In there stead he offers a complex, incomplete, view of consciousness connected and disconnected from the body; borrows from Sartre, Nietzsche and Heidegger to provide a nuanced and humble account of the self; explores the incredible capabilities of the flesh that surrounds us and offers up an optimistic appraisal of the knowing animal.
The style, as always with Tallis, is chatty, witty, informative and clever. He draws on other philosophers and great literature to provide an excellent set of quotes that add depth to the book and everything is interlaced with amusing and interesting facts. The pessimistic anti-philosopher Emil Cioran used to berate philosophers for being anaemic, in many cases this is a fair evaluation, but I couldn't imagine something being less anaemic than The Kingdom of Infinite Space or the polymath philosopher who wrote it.
In the preface Tallis' says that he will be content if, at the end of this book, his readers are, `astounded tourists of the bit of the world that is closest to being what they themselves are[...]' Speaking as one reader, Tallis should be more than content.
A wonder-full book by this flamboyant doctor, psychologist, philosopher, wordsmith and pyrotechnical polymath about the processes going in your head, where four of our five sense are exclusively located.
He tells us that he will say very little about the brain; and what he does say is to belittle the claims of what he calls `neuromythology'. This self-denying ordinance seems to me at its most awkward during a long passage from pp.265 to 268, where he lists a range of things which are stored up in "the head", but then sets up the Aunt Sally to say that "I, or my head, or my brain" are not like a computer. Some people - even some philosophers - may think that the brain is like a computer; but I guess that most people are aware of the difference.
With often sparkling wit (and occasionally with baroque convolutions of expression) he describes and meditates on everything from the taking in of breath to the discharging of saliva, mucus, sweat and tears. Of many of these processes we are scarcely, if at all, conscious; many of them involve very complicated mechanisms and a cocktail of ingredients; few of them can we control; and some of them run definitely counter to our wishes and interests. Here is a passage that gives you a flavour of Tallis' writing:
"The particular cruelty of acne vulgaris is that it breaks out in adolescence, when one feels most defined by one's physical appearance. This is compounded by one of the body's nastier little ironies: the hormone testosterone that makes boys achingly attracted to spotless beauties is also the most important driver to the overproduction of sebum that makes them spottily unattractive."
His discussion of breathing involves descriptions not only the physiological mechanism of laughter but also the psychological situations which trigger different kinds of laughter, from the snigger to the bellow. An even more elaborate mechanism, involving complex arrangements of tongue, lips, the oral cavity, the glottis, the vocal cords etc is required for speech. But non-verbal communication can be just as demanding: there are 43 muscles that, in various combinations, shape about 3,000 meaningful facial expressions, from several kinds of smile to scowls. To such intentional signals we can add the unintentional one of the blush.
Then the eye: beginning with conveying the sense of wonder about the complexity of its structure, Tallis goes on to comment not only on looking but on being looked at, and on the meanings of the downcast gaze.
The structure and operations of our auditory organs (there are up to 20,000 hair cells in the cochlea of the ear) are another miracle.
Our recognition of taste depends on about 5,000 taste buds in our mouths, and of smells on 10 million receptors at the back of our nasal cavity. (Dogs have more than a billion such receptors.)
And eventually to the wrinkled skin and to the empty skull, and to Tallis' reflections on our mortality.
From time to time he has indulged himself in digressions into areas which have nothing to do with the head - as, for example, in his disquisition on the origin of spelling. The chapter on kissing is worked (up) into a story of frenzied anticipation - and never mentions what Freud had to say about the origins of oral gratification. But for the most part these digressions are thought-provoking and have the wryness of observation, the richness of similes and the plays on words which are among Tallis' hallmarks.
He is constantly amazed that our heads - or we as its owners - exist at all, the processes of their formation being near-infinitely complex and the odds against their creation near-infinitely great. Every now and again throughout the book he muses about the relationship between our Self and our body, particularly that part of our body - the head - in which we tend to locate our Self while at the same time being aware that it is an object of our contemplation; and the reader - unless he yawns at those passages as too philosophical for his grasp or for his interest (and there is a disquisition on yawning also) - becomes involved in the same mind-boggling conundrums as is Tallis himself. This is especially true of the difficult last chapter, in which he worries where thoughts come from, to what extent we form them and to what extent they come to us unbidden, and where they are actually located. But there are many illuminations in the earlier chapters for those who cannot follow Tallis to the end of his book.
on 21 June 2009
Raymond Tallis knows a lot about the brain and more generally our heads, since he was until recently Professor of Genetic Medicine and remains still today a poet and respected philosopher.
With this book he intended to take us on a trip around our own heads. Not the brain, but the head and it ability to blush, kiss, cry and giggle. The head that also produces tears, ear wax and sounds.
Chapters range from the role of air in breathing and talking, and then on to eating, kissing, and occasionally thinking. So the author has taken on quite a task, but does he succeed?
Firstly, the style of writing is quite informal and non-technical. The book is easy to read and the contents interesting and well discussed. Secondly, we learn lots of interesting details about our own heads. For example we need air to speak, but we are also able to communicate mood, attitude, warning and greeting through our expressions. The author quotes the German philosopher Lichtenberg as saying that the face is the most interesting surface on earth! Just think about the expressiveness of a simple wink. We also learn that our saliva is chemically different depending on its origin - perhaps because of fear or simply hunger. And we are told about the total strangeness and absurdity of smoking.
Thirdly, the author quite rightly underlines how we are identified by our heads, yet it has little to do with our sense of identity. But at times I was left with the feeling that the author felt that the brain was so complex as not to be understandable by science, e.g. "the head is the subject of a near-infinity of facts - more facts that the head could contain".
So this book is not about neuro-philosophy or neuro-biology (or any other neuro-thing) and the brain is not the star of this book. Yet our heads offer plenty of scope for a truly interesting read. I learned that there is a lot more to our heads than is immediately apparent. Although I was often surprised reading this book, yet I will admit that I rarely learned something radically new.
on 27 January 2009
I'm not clever enough for an insightful review, but I wanted to give this book 5 stars, coz it's great. Really fascinating, bizarrely poetic.
on 3 November 2008
I was drawn to this book from a Guardian science podcast and while I did not undertake its reading expecting an easy ride, it turned out to be a page turner. Each topic is viewed as a panorama, shaped gently with incite and expressed with beauty.
on 24 May 2011
This book is a very unusual mix of literary & philosophical references & more practical facts, making it a fascinating read. My only real complaint was the occasional sleazy reference - the crude description of oral sex on p.207 being one of them. I am not a prude but the crude language used here & in a couple of other spots jarred with the intelligence evident in the rest of the book.
I also felt uncomfortable with Tallis' description of 'worked-up parents' in the Alder Hey affair. Whatever his personal view on the situation, his cryptic criticisms of the parents' objections made me feel uncomfortable.
Other than that, a very good read - but one which raises many questions beyond the scope of this book.
on 19 July 2012
As a medic, I found this to be an immediately accessible and a splendidly conceptualised book: a philosophical undertaking in the context and inclusive of the widely accepted seat of all philosophical undertakings: the head. Here a meditation for everything organic: the skin, the face, the sense organs, the secretions, the expulsions, the injuries is complemented by a meditation of something inorganic: the familiar socio-philosophical concepts of the egocentric space, thoughts and perceptions, objectivity and subjectivity, inception and demise, culture and mannerisms, expressions and behaviours, projections and interpretations, ephemarility and immortality: it's all here. Tallis, for me has achieved something special by taking liberal helpings of medicine, history, sociology, philosophy, literature and even some autobiography, as the emergent account of the every-moment wonder of being human is wide, ever-curious and infinitely well-informed.
There is a conversational enthusiasm that buoys the book of such scope and while one can never accuse it of being dragged by dry academic leaden-ness, it definitely has a penchant to launch skywards in hot air balloons swollen with tautologies and verbose mega-sentences, particularly towards the latter half. Oddly enough, despite being gifted with a perpetual vocabulary, he seems distractingly attached to the words "coterminous" and "metonym".
But my few limitations about its indulgence aside, it remains an undeniably erudite discourse of the worlds created, lived within and lived by the head, the brain and the mind that deserves getting immersed into just to experience first-hand the articulation of this three-fold everyday encephalic reality. If overarching themes are indeed looked for in this text, those of celebrating the irreducible complexity of moment-to-moment consciousness (an axe Tallis grinds to full effect in his later Aping Mankind), of contemplating the sheer internal organisation of biological processes and of the endless cultural attributions placed by humans of "civilization" since humanity's inception on the physicality of their own organism resonate long after you have turned the last words.