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raymond tallis the kingdom of infinite space

sunday telegraph, 5 may 2008

Imagine a guide to England that bypasses London. Or a history of football that fails to mention Pelé. That is a bit like what Ray Tallis has done in The Kingdom of Infinite Space. He gives us 'a fantastical journey around your head' that barely mentions your brain. And it is so much the better for that.

The brain, Tallis insists, is 'absurdly overrated'. True, if someone had surgically removed Tallis' brain his IQ would have plummeted, his consciousness vanished, his self disappeared, and his book remained unwritten. But, Tallis argues, all that means is that 'the brain is a necessary condition for all forms of consciousness from the slightest twinge of sensation to the most exquisitely constructed sense of self'. It does not mean that the brain is a sufficient condition. 'Selves are not cooked up, or stored, in brains', Tallis writes. 'Selves require bodies as well as brains, material environments as well as bodies, and societies as well as material environments.'

Tallis is one of the hidden treasures of British intellectual life. Physician, philosopher, poet and playwright, former director of geriatric care in Manchester and an expert on the ageing brain, he is a polymath who has never quite received the attention that his writing deserves, probably because so much of his work remains defiantly unfashionable. At the heart of all his work is a desire to understand what it means to be human, neither as divine creations nor merely as beasts, but rather as what Tallis calls 'embodied subjects'. Humans are material beings in a material world, and yet their subjectivity and self-consciousness makes them not only distinct from all other animals but also difficult to explain in purely naturalistic terms. His work is 'haunted', as Tallis puts it, by the 'dissociation between facts and experiences', by the gap between 'how we experience ourselves from moment to moment, and the innumerable facts, ordinary, extraordinary and recherché, about us'. It is a conundrum that no scientist or philosopher has come close to resolving.

In The Kingdom of Infinite Space, Tallis approaches this conundrum from an unusual angle. Rather than tackle it head-on, as it were, he has written a whole book about the ephemera of the head. All the things that it contains that we usually don't want to know about - such as spit and snot and earwax. And all the things that it does that we often don't bother thinking about, like kissing and vomiting and headbutting. Out of this unpromising material Tallis builds a veritable philosophy of the human condition.

What binds the book together is the insistence that for humans even the most seemingly animal action is profoundly social. Take spitting. Many animals spit, but only humans turn the action into a form of insult. 'The repulsiveness of sputum', Tallis suggests, ‘goes deeper than the reasonable fear that it might be a source of infection. It is a deep revulsion for the bodies of others that only sexual desire can conquer.'

Or consider crying. 'Our emotions', Tallis writes, 'are propositional attitudes; imaginings that are interwoven with words spoken to ourselves, spoken to others, or in imagination spoken to others.' The human is the only crying animal that 'talks himself or herself into tears'. Emotional tears are chemically distinct from tears triggered by physical pain.

Or think about how much cognitive and cultural effort it takes to transform a blink and a wink. 'Calculated winks', Tallis observes, 'show how far we go in transforming spontaneous events into deliberate actions, reflexes into calculated signs' and 'highlight one's distance from the organic world, from the donnée that is one's biological body'.

Kirsty Young once described Tallis as her favourite guest on Desert Island Discs. It is not hard to see why he might be anyone's desired luxury on a desert island. The conversation would never end - Tallis can entertainingly digress on anything from Heiddeger to hiccups, from Samuel Beckett to the basilar membrane. The Kingdom of Infinite Space is a book to make you laugh, cry, yawn. It might even make you use your brain.