On Richard Rapport’s Nerve Endings

A philosophical review of Richard Rapport, M.D., Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse (New York: Norton, 2005).

Richard Rapport’s remarkable book returns us to the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century where amateur science hewed more closely to aesthetic vision. The main characters are the cantankerous Italian, Camillo Golgi, and the pensive, ardent Spaniard, Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Both men, in their own ways and by their own means, changed the face of modern neuroscience.

The philosophical stakes of Rapport’s book are evident in three domains: (1) the nature of genre, (2) the nature of man, and (3) the nature of scientific discovery. In the following, I discuss each in turn.

(1) The Nature of Genre. Rapport’s approach might be termed “scientific biography”: to understand the rich texture of a certain scientific lifeworld, one must limn the man of science within his particular milieu. Too often in scientific circles, biography, however, seems to be a rider attached to the end of a bill, a superfluous add-on, or an ornament as when some quote from Alexander Pope adorns the end of a PowerPoint presentation. It’s as though art could do no more than lighten or soften the serious work of science: iced tea after a long day in the fields.

Not so for Rapport. He plainly sees that the life and times of Cajal were instrumental to making him into a certain kind of person (about which more below) and to making possible his discovery of the synapse. Granted, the risk in this approach is that biography will overrun the scientific endeavor–too many pages devoted to anecdotes and asides, not enough space to the nitty gritty of science–or that psychobiography will replace disinterested inquiry–every breakthrough in science somehow traced back to a single cause, the mother’s contempt for her son.

My impression upon finishing the book was that Rapport neither sentimentalized nor psychobabbled but instead showed that cultural conditions, aesthetic vision, and scientific thinking can, at times, all lead to some remarkable insights about self as well as to key paradigm shifts in science.

(2) The Nature of Man. What is the proper estimation of man? Golgi was too proud, Cajal appropriately humble. Of Golgi, Rapport writes,

The picture that emerges from what has been written about Golgi the man reveals a withdrawn, narcissistic, and melancholy person. In too many places the papers and letters that he did leave are punctuated by references to my black reaction, my method, my discoveries, my theory. (165-6)

Disinterested inquiry should lead to wonder at the sublimity of life, such wondering lending itself to a feeling of awe and a sense of humility. This feeling Kant likened to being safe on shore while a storm rages at sea. Yet the temptation is that the desire for glory will outweigh the quest for discovery. As Pascal wrote, “‘[T]hat is my place in the sun!” Here is the beginning and the image of the usurpation of the earth” (Pensees, 295).

The moral lesson that Rapport shares with sensible moralists such as Jane Austen is that scientific inquiry cannot be divorced from self-examination, and self-examination cannot be meaningful unless it accurately measures one’s self-worth in the process. Cajal, presumably, had the good fortune of being born with a good temperament, but, over the years, he also adopted the appropriate attitude to science, regarding it as something beautiful in key part because the natural world remained amenable to but independent of human investigation.

(3) The Nature of Scientific Discovery. How does the truly novel come into being? This question is the point of departure for modernists, for avant gardists, for historians of science (Kuhn clearly comes to mind), and, not the least, for political activists. There will probably always remain a gap in our retrospective accounts of the new, something akin to a droplet of water imperceptibly breaking off from a kitchen tap. The miracle of discovery seems to be just outside the reach of observation or language.

This does not mean, however, that we can’t reset the stage for scientific discovery. As Rapport points out, the conditions must be right–the right technology (in this case, a sufficiently powerful microscope); the right commitment to observation wedded, as far as possible, to suspended judgment; a keen understanding of falsification and indirect proof (if hypothesis X is true, then phenomenon Y should be observable; but Y is not observable; hence, X cannot be true); a certain aesthetic conceptual orientation; and the rigorous cultivation of deductive reasoning. A great scientific mind must be balanced but adventurous; prudent but also bold; disciplined yet open to chance; tense but relaxed.

In science and in aesthetics, there is an art of holding onto and of letting go. Simply stated, the paradox is that scientific discovery is indeed a miracle but one that can only follow a long process of “spiritual exercise.”