I’ve been reading Iain McGilchrist’s book The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world, and I wanted to blog about it. I’m going to be reviewing it for a journal. Here are some of my main thoughts so far…
This book, it seems to me, isn’t just a brilliant work; it’s an event. McGilchrist not only lays out a startling, novel account of the importance of the right hemisphere of the brain; he turns this into a gripping and dizzying account of the trajectory of the whole of human (but especially of western) civilisation, and offers in the course of this the most powerful argument penned by any living author of the importance of the arts and humanities. An argument – helpfully, by a scientist — for how and why the arts and the humanities offer an entire different and essential way of visioning (and reclaiming) our world, and for how and why science alone cannot do this but endlessly risks being part of an imperial take-over of the world by the scientistic world-picture that naturally emerges from the left hemisphere of the brain once it is off the leash.
The ‘master’ of the title is the right hemisphere; the ‘emissary’, the left. McGilchrist’s basic thesis is that most neurological events and processes need to begin (with the ability to assimilate — to see — the new) and end (with the ability to relate, vitally, humanly, and as a part of a whole(s)) with the right hemisphere. That the left hemisphere is essentially there to be the right hemisphere’s servant or emissary. But that the left hemisphere, with its great capacity not only for analysis but also for denial, is reluctant to give back to the right hemisphere the power it is lent with the result that, increasingly, and especially over the last 200 years, the master has been betrayed by its emissary. (N.B. It is crucial to appreciate that McGilchrist is NOT particularly committed to the nowadays-somewhat-ill-reputed view that the two hemispheres are above all the locations for different things or even different activities…That, he suggests, is itself an overly left-brained way of seeing the brain… What McGilchrist thinks centrally differentiates the two hemispheres is precisely rather: their ways of seeing, their styles…)
McGilchrist sees the (increasingly-dominant) left hemisphere world-view as seeing the world as if from the perspective, as we might put it, not even of a brain in a vat, but of a left hemisphere of a brain alone in a vat… We are in danger, then, of being even worse off than Descartes would have it.
Here is a remarkable passage from the latter part of the book, from which the reader will be able to get a sense of the scale of McGilchrist’s ambition hereabouts, and a scent of the grand originality with which, to a very large extent, remarkably, he delivers on it:
“[W]hat if the left hemisphere were able to externalise and make concrete its own workings – so that the realm of the actually existing things apart from the mind consisted to a large extent of its own projections? Then the ontological primacy of right-hemisphere experience would be outflanked, since it would be delivering – not ‘the Other’, but what was already the world as processed by the left hemisphere. It would make it hard, and perhaps in time impossible, for the right hemisphere to escape from the hall of mirrors, to reach out to something that truly was ‘Other’ than, beyond, the human mind. // In essence this was the achievement of the Industrial Revolution.” (p.386)
Building on broadly Heideggerian thinking here, McGilchrist takes the measure of the world-picture that the left hemisphere has delivered to us. The re-grounding that the right hemisphere could bring, by way of reconnecting us to life on Earth (as with other ways in which it could do so, for instance via the arts, or via religion), is according to McGilchrist increasingly closed off to us, with the left hemisphere’s changing the very character of the Earth to be something like a ‘standing-reserve’ of ‘resources’ – one giant filling-station, to employ Heidegger’s terrifyingly apposite metaphor – and moreover one increasingly and actively patterned into the form of invariance, of mechanicity, of straight lines, of lifelessness, and at best (!) of ‘management’ of all this and of ‘nature’ itself. The fabric of the world is becoming fabricated, such that even the mirror ‘of nature’ no longer appears to us natural…
This book has already proved enormously controversial. (For example, Anthony Grayling somewhat slated it, in The Literary Review: www.literaryreview.co.uk/grayling_12_09.html . This is somewhat ironic, given the magnificent defence mounted in the book of the humanities, when juxtaposed with Grayling’s attempted launch recently of his own ‘New College of the Humanities’; it seems to me that Grayling hasn’t got the hang of McGilchrist’s book…) This controversiality is hardly surprising, for many reasons, but above all because the book goes against the grain. By saying that, I don’t mean for a minute to deny that the book has been appreciated by leading figures in neuroscience: such as Ramachandran, Panksepp, Hellige, Kesselring, Schore, Bynum, Zeman, Feinberg, Trimble, and Lishman. No; rather, my point is that the forces of the left hemisphere, deeply-culturally-hegemonic, are bound to resist it and indeed in many cases to have a profound difficulty comprehending it at all. As already intimated above: McGilchrist suggests that the very way we come to understand the right and left hemispheres is itself among the topoi distorted by our left-hemisphere-dominated world-view. (Thus for instance the way that the right hemisphere has for so long been deemed the ‘minor’ hemisphere.) He argues that there is a spiralling ‘dialectical’ relationship between the way in which our brain both limits and facilitates the way we ‘take’ the world, and between the way that the world’s (changing) nature influences but can constrain the way in which our brain is, and thus the way in which our brain both limits and facilitates…
The ‘foundation’ of the work, in neurology, may offer an unusual bridgehead, a way into our culture and in particular into the world of science, that historically most such defences and articulations of humanity as opposed to the dominance of technology etc. have lacked, however much (consider for instance the project of Hegel) they may have coveted it. As I shall shortly explain, however, McGilchrist’s authority and knowledge as a neurologist (and as a psychiatrist) may end up being a double-edged sword.
The master and his emissary is a work of extraordinary erudition. McGilchrist seems to be a polymath, who has managed to feel his way into a vast array of different ‘literatures’ (The book’s bibliography is so huge that the publishers refused to include most of it in the paperback version, and one has to go online to a special full bibliography to check many of the references). One of his influences is Lakoff and Johnson; he leans on their account of metaphor, and explores further its implications, thus expanding the account intimated by them in their masterly Philosophy in the flesh. This is congenial to me. (Like McGilchrist, I would be inclined to kindly draw a veil over those fairly-numerous moments in which the content of their important book is patently deformed by a grandstanding scientific imperialism.) I also warmed to McGilchrist’s hostility to much else of ‘Cognitive Science’: there is a powerful argument in the first Part of the book against the disastrous and ubiquitous ‘information-processor’ metaphor for the mind. McGilchrist shows how ‘information’ is a concept that only suits the left hemisphere, not the right. Again: McGilchrist in effect suggests that it is as if the brain that much mainstream Cog.Sci. envats is in fact only half a brain, and not even the most crucial half…
But McGilchrist’s greatest influence of all, also explored in a novel way in the first half of the book, is phenomenology in general, and Heidegger in particular. McGilchrist frequently in this book plays emissary to Heidegger, his ‘master’…
I mean that metaphor in a tongue-in-cheek way, just to raise perhaps a wry and friendly smile; but I also mean it somewhat in earnest. I had a niggling sense, repeatedly, as I read this book, that McGilchrist’s way of working is actually rather less ‘right-hemispherical’ than is that of his great heroes, who he often explicates to us grippingly in the course of the work: Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty, Heraclitus, Goethe, Wordsworth, Blake, and (above all) Heidegger. To give a key for-instance; there is an obvious danger that his neuro-story involves a homuncular fallacy. For most of the book, McGilchrist writes almost as if the left and right hemispheres really were separate people, with intentions, wills, personalities, etc.
True, McGilchrist does deal with this point reflectively and explicitly at some length in the book on more than one occasion (see especially pp.98-99), pointing out that one perhaps in his game cannot escape having some model or other, and that the available alternatives are either the machine or the person (We might add also: the text, as in Ricoeur). He submits that the model of the person is far more accurate for something that on its own does have the capacity to form intentions, have goals, have values, sustain attention, etc. . Nevertheless, the extent to which McGilchrist buys into this ‘model’ could I think be regarded as dangerous: For, by splitting the human by hemisphere, he risks in the process occluding the very (holistic etc.) insights that he wishes to underpin. . .
It would be possible to give examples of undue left-brainedness in The master and his emissary even in relation to McGilchrist’s ‘master’, Heidegger. For instance, one might worry that when McGilchrist says, very helpfully (p.151), that truth is a process or a progress more than it is an object, still he does not go as far as Heidegger’s own analysis does: for Heidegger ultimately stresses that truth is what he calls an event rather than a process, because he takes a process to be something that takes place in time, whilst the event of truth is internally related to the very possibility of temporality and thus is that which facilitates a temporal sequence in which any process might take place.
One might also highlight McGilchrist’ss perhaps-regrettable failure to consider the contribution made by much of the growing political resistance to industrial-growthism etc. (e.g. it might have been worthwhile for him to have looked at the green movement, and/or perhaps at organisations such as ‘La Via Campesina’, the international peasant movement with 400 million members), a contribution that powerfully manifests the kind of thinking and being that he wants to recommend.
The great remaining objection others are likely to bring against McGilchrist’s work is probably that his detailed neuro-story is not needed in order to give his account of human civilisation and of the grave threat which it is now under, In other words, that there is (allegedly) insufficient connection between the first Part of McGilchrist’s book (which focuses primarily on the brain and on philosophy) and the second Part (which tells us a new history of the present). In other words, that the term ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ in the end function for McGilchrist largely metaphorically, rather than literally. At the very end of the book – the quotation that follows consists of its final two paragraphs — McGilchrist deals with this objection extremely disarmingly:
“If it could eventually be shown…that the two major ways, not just of thinking, but of being in the world, are not related to the two cerebral hemispheres, I would be surprised, but not unhappy. Ultimately what I have tried to point to is that the apparently separate ‘functions’ in each hemisphere fit together intelligently to form in each case a single coherent entity; that there are, not just currents here and there in the history of ideas, but consistent ways of being that persist across the history of the Western world, that are fundamentally opposed, though complementary, in what they reveal to us; and that the hemispheres of the brain can be seen as, at the very least, a metaphor for these… // What [Goethe’s Faust, Schopenhauer, Bergson, Scheler and Kant] all point to is the fundamentally divided nature of mental experience. When one puts that together with the fact that the brain is divided into two relatively independent chunks which just happen broadly to mirror the very dichotomies that are being pointed to – alienation versus engagement, abstraction versus incarnation, the categorical versus the unique, the general versus the particular, the part versus the whole, and so on – it seems like a metaphor that might have some literal truth. But if it turns out to be ‘just’ a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world.” (Pp.461-2; cf. also p.7).
Again following Lakoff and Johnson as well as various great literary authors, then, McGilchrist to the end defends the absolute importance of metaphor (a phenomenon which only the right brain understands), and moreover of metaphor that remains metaphorical, and does not have to be ‘cashed out’. This could be a partial answer also to my worry, expressed above, about the ‘reification’ of the left and right brains into quasi-homunculi. It will however still leave a nagging twinge with some readers about how necessary all the detail about the brain in the early part of the book was to the real ‘cash-value’ of it: the account of these two, coherent, different ways of being in and molding (or not) the world, that comes to a head in the brilliant account (offered in the final 100 pages of the book) of the growing triumph of the left hemisphere in the Industrial Revolution, Modernism and Post-Modernism. All I can say in response to this worry is: read the book. For me, McGilchrist actually does a remarkable delicate job of ensuring that there is a genuinely historical dimension to his story of the faculties: for example, he has a fascinating discussion in Chapter 7, “Imitation and the evolution of culture”, of the possible biological routes through which neurology may respond to culture. The routes through which the very structure of the brain may be substantially responsive to and molded by — and not merely foundational for — the fabric of any given culture. That discussion crucially feeds into the story he then tells of the development of Western culture as a kind of battle of the hemispheres.
Whether what McGilchrist is telling us is a set of fascinating scientific truths about the brain, or a metaphorical history of the present inhabiting the reasons why the human race has reached the desperate near-ecocidal condition it now inhabits (and why it is – why we are — in denial about this), or both, what I found in reading his book is that there are gems on virtually every page, and that, whether or not it is ‘just’ a metaphor, the way of thinking and of seeing that McGilchrist here offers is itself compelling, rich, and fertile.
I’d be interested to know what other readers of this blog and of this book make of it.