What you will learn from reading The Master and His Emissary:
– The different functions of the two hemispheres of your brain and what this means for how you experience the world.
– How language and categorisation can stifle and give the false illusion of understanding our own reality.
– How the types of attention we pay to the world dramatically impact the way we perceive the world.
The Master and His Emissary Book Summary:
The master and his emissary is a life changing book. Iain McGilchrist seminal work aims to explore how the different functions of the hemispheres of you brain explain the contradictions of human existence. If this all sounds rather deep, that is because it is.
It’s a true work of philosophy trying to explain some of the big questions of life. This will be a dense read but it’s worth it if you’re curious and want to understand more of the nature of human existence!
The Books Thesis:
Ian McGilchrist thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but he believes they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.
Key Questions on the Brain:
Let’s begin with some basic questions about the brain, that, fundamental as they are, have not to Ians’ knowledge been satisfactorily addressed by any other theory.
Why is the brain, an organ that exists only to make connections, divided?
Why is it asymmetrical in so many measurable respects, both structural and functional, and why does its functioning seem to depend on its being asymmetrical?
And why is the major connection between the two cerebral hemispheres, the corpus callosum, getting proportionately smaller, and functionally more inhibitory, rather than larger, and functionally more facilitatory, with evolution?
The Two Hemispheres:
The first thing to make clear is that, although the brain is often described as if it were composed of bits- ‘modules’ – of one kind or another, which have then to be strung together, it is in fact a single, integrated, highly dynamic system.
Neurological research reveals a consistent picture of how the two hemispheres contribute to the richness of experience.
Essentially this is that the right hemisphere tends to ground experience; the left hemisphere then works on it to clarify, ‘unpack’ and generally render the implicit explicit; and the right hemisphere finally reintegrates what the left hemisphere has produced with its own understanding, the explicit once more receding, to produce a new, now enriched, whole.
Note that the two ways of attending are both necessary and, strictly speaking, incompatible, at least at the same level and at the same time.
One of the more durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy, since words are processed serially, while pictures are taken in all at once.
The right hemisphere’s view is inclusive, ‘both/and, synthetic, integrative; it realises the need for both.
The left hemisphere’s view is exclusive, ‘either/or, analytic and fragmentary – but, crucially, unaware of what it is missing. It therefore thinks it can go it alone.
In the one, we experience – the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected.
In the other we ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: a ‘re-presenteď version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power.
The right hemisphere presents individual, unique instances of things and individual, familiar, objects, where the left hemisphere re-presents categories of things, and generic, non-specific objects. In keeping with this, the right hemisphere uses unique referents, where the left hemisphere uses non-unique referents.
It is with the right hemisphere that we distinguish individuals of all kinds, places as well as faces. In fact it is precisely its capacity for holistic processing that enables the right hemisphere to recognise individuals. Individuals are, after all, Gestalt wholes: that face, that voice, that gait, that sheer ‘quiddity’ of the person or thing, defying analysis into parts.
It is worth considering that numbers can either signify absolutes – a quantifiable amount, as in statistics – which would suggest an affinity with the left hemisphere, or signify relations, which would suggest an affinity with the right hemisphere.
For Pythagoras, it was this regularity of proportion or relationship, rather than number in any absolute sense, that underpinned music and beauty the music of the spheres, the natural harmony of the universe.
The Belief in one Truth:
In such a society as ours, any apparent inconsistency is treated as a sign of error or intellectual muddle.
Ambiguity is no longer a strength, given that truth is known to be complicated and many-layered; it is a weakness, since truth is thought of as single and straightforward.
It is therefore easier to accept the left hemisphere’s point of view, which is easily articulated and unambiguous and simply stands in contradiction to the right hemisphere’s view, than to accept that of the right hemisphere, which is more multifaceted and harder to articulate, and is already inclusive of the apparently incompatible left hemisphere’s point of view.
The conflict in our aims:
On the one hand, there is the context, the world, of ‘me – just me and my needs, as an individual competing with other individuals, my ability to peck that seed, pursue that rabbit, or grab that fruit. I need to use, or to manipulate, the world for my ends, and for that I need narrow-focus attention.
On the other hand, I need to see myself in the broader context of the world at large, and in relation to others, whether they be friend or foe: I have a need to take account of myself as a member of my social group, to see potential allies, and beyond that to see potential mates and potential enemies. Here I may feel myself to be part of something much bigger than myself, and even existing in and through that ‘something’ that is bigger than myself – the flight or flock with which I scavenge, breed and roam, the pack with which I hunt and ultimately everything that goes on in my purview. This requires less of a wilfully directed, narrowly focussed attention, and more of an open, receptive, widely diffused alertness to whatever exists, with allegiances outside of the self.
These basic incompatibilities suggest the need to keep parts of the brain distinct, in case they interfere with one another.
Types of Attention:
The conventional neuropsychological literature distinguishes five types of attention: vigilance, sustained attention, alertness, focussed attention and divided attention. While not identical, vigilance and sustained attention are similar, and they are often treated as one concept. Together with alertness, they form the basis of what has been called the intensity axis of attention.
The other axis is selectivity, made up of the two remaining types, focussed and divided attention Experiments confirm that the different types of attention are distinct and independent of one another, and subserved by a number of different brain structures distributed extensively over the prefrontal, anterior cingulate, and posterior parietal areas of both hemispheric cortices.
If it is the right hemisphere that is vigilant for whatever it is that exists ‘out there, it alone can bring us something other than what we already know. The left hemisphere deals with what it knows, and therefore prioritises the expected its process is predictive. It positively prefers what it knows. This makes it more efficient in routine situations where things are predictable, but less efficient than the right wherever the initial assumptions have to be revised, or when there is a need to distinguish old information from new material that may be consistent with it.
The Hierarchy of attention:
When there is a high probability that what we are looking for lies at the local level, our window of attention narrows, in order to optimise performance at this level, ‘thus reversing the natural tendency to favour the global aspect.
Essentially the left hemisphere’s narrow focussed attentional beam, which it believes it ‘turns’ towards whatever it may be, has in reality already been seized by it.
It is thus the right hemisphere that has dominance for exploratory attentional movements, while the left henmisphere assists focussed grasping of what has already been prioritised.
It is the right hemisphere that controls where that attention is to be oriented.
In summary, the hierarchy of attention, for a number of reasons, implies a grounding role and an ultimately integrating role for the right hemisphere, with whatever the left hemisphere does at the detailed level needing to be founded on, and then returned to, the picture generated by the right. This is an instance of the right → left → right progression which is a theme of this book. And it lies at the very foundation of experience: attention, where the world actually comes into being.
Novelty, Experience and the Right Hemisphere:
While we are gathering new information, the right hemisphere is responsible, but once whatever it is becomes thoroughly known, familiar, it is taken over by the left hemisphere.
Without experiencing whatever it is, we would have nothing on which to ground our knowledge, so we have to experience it at some stage; but in order to know it, we have to ‘process’ experience. We have to be able to recognise (re-cognise’) what we experience: to say this is a such-and-such, that is, it has certain qualities that enable me to place it in a category of things that I have experienced before and about which I have certain beliefs and feelings.
Anything newly entering our experiential world instantly triggers a release of noradrenaline mainly in the right hemisphere. Novel experience induces changes in the right hippocampus, but not the left. So it is no surprise that phenomenologically it is the right hemisphere that is attuned to the apprehension of anything new.
Let’s take a look at problem solving. Here the right hemisphere presents an array of possible solutions, which remain live while alternatives are explored. The left hemisphere, by contrast, takes the single solution that seems best to fit what it already knows and latches onto it.
The right hemisphere, with its greater integrative power, is constantly searching for patterns in things. In fact its understanding is based on complex pattern recognition.
It is also why the right hemisphere underpins the appreciation of humour, since humour depends vitally on being able to understand the context what is said and done, and how context changes it. Subjects with right brain damage like subjects with schizophrenia, who in many respects resemble them, cannot understand implied meaning, and tend to take conversational remarks literally.
Intuition in problem solving:
Insight is also a perception of the previous incongruity of one’s assumptions, which links it to the right hemisphere’s capacity for detecting an anomaly.
Problem solving, making reasonable deductions, and making judgments may become harder if we become conscious of the process. Thus rendering one’s thought processes explicit, or analysing a judgment, may actually impair performance, because it encourages the left hemisphere’s focus on the explicit, superficial structure of the problem.
Fluency Vs Permanence:
The critical point here is that the right hemisphere has an advantage where there is fluency of motion, or flow over time, but the left hemisphere an advantage where there is stasis, or focus on a point in time. There is an ambiguity in the idea of permanence.
The left hemisphere seems to accept the permanence of something only if it is static. But things can change – flow – and yet have permanence: think of a river.
The right hemisphere perceives that there is permanence even where there is flow. Hence, when it is damaged, living beings have no permanency – the Capgras phenomenon.
The left seeks confirmation:
So the left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome. The right prefrontal cortex is essential for dealing with incomplete information and has a critical role to play in reasoning about incompletely specified situations.
The right hemisphere is able to maintain ambiguous mental representations in the face of a tendency to premature over-interpretation by the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere’s tolerance of uncertainty is implied everywhere in its subtle ability to use metaphor, irony and humour, all of which depend on not prematurely resolving ambiguities.
I think we can also make a connection here with a rather fundamental difference between the hemispheres.
The left hemisphere’s ‘stickiness, its tendency to recur to what it is familiar with, tends to reinforce whatever it is already doing. There is a reflexivity to the process, as if trapped in a hall of mirrors: it only discovers more of what it already knows, and it only does more of what it already is doing.
The right hemisphere by contrast, seeing more of the picture, and taking a broader perspective that characteristically includes both its own and the left hemisphere’s, is more reciprocally inclined, and more likely to espouse another point of view.
Why differences matter:
A couple of related points are worth making. It is said that ‘the hemispheres are more like than they are unlike’. It’s hard to know exactly what this phrase means; but whatever it means, sometimes in life it is the differences that count. Donald Trump and Albert Einstein are undoubtedly ‘more like than they are unlike. An old banger and a new Ferrari are both cars, with internal combustion engines, and are in that sense much more alike than not. But when I am buying one, I am interested in their differences.
Citizens of Two worlds:
This fact becomes manifest, however, in the disputes of philosophers and theologians over the ages about the very nature of reality. By such indirect rotes become aware of fundamental irreconcilables in the world, irreconcilables marked that they have led philosophers, time and again, to conclude that we are ‘citizens of two worlds’ – though those worlds were never fully articulated.
Making the implicit, explicit:
The attempt to make the implicit explicit radically alters its nature; as a result, finding the language to put across the way of being of the right hemisphere is simply harder than doing so for the naturally explicit left hemisphere. The left hemisphere relies on concatenations of serial propositions and the literal aspects of language to make meaning explicit; by contrast, metaphor and narrative are often required to convey the implicit meanings available to the right hemisphere, and in a left-hemisphere-dominated culture, metaphors and narratives are disregarded as myths and fables or, at worst, downright lies. We live in an era where articulating and making explicit are of increasing importance and are treated as a mark of truth, and their inverse treated with increasing suspicion.
Is the mind a thing or a process?
The brain is not just a tool for grappling with the world. It’s what brings the world about.
We are not sure, and could never be sure, if mind, or even body, is a thing at all. Mind has the characteristics of a process more than of a thing; a becoming, a way of being, more than an entity. Every individual mind is a process of interaction with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves according to its own private history.
How attention changes things:
So it is, not just with the human world, but with everything with which we come into contact. A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to the prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. yet nothing objectively has changed. There is no Teal mountain which can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking which reveals the true mountain.
Can Science be value free?
Science, however, purports to be uncovering such a reality. Its apparently value free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this ‘view from nowhere, to use Nageľ’s phrase, is itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer or more real, closer to the nature of things.
Similarly we cannot see something without their being a context, even if the context appears to be that of ‘no context, a thing ripped free of its moorings in the lived world. That is just a special, highly value-laden kind of context in itself, and it certainly alters what we find, too. Nor can we say that we do not see things as anything at all – that we just see them, full stop. There is always a model by which we are understanding, an exemplar with which we are comparing, what we see, and where it is not identified it usually means that we have tacitly adopted the model of the machine.
The attempt to adopt a God’s eye view, or ‘view from nowhere’ in Thomas Nagel’s famous phrase, the position pretended by objectivism, is as empty as solipsism, and is ultimately indistinguishable from it in its consequences: the ‘view from nowhere’ pretends to equate to a ‘view from everywhere’ What is different is the ‘view from somewhere. Everything that we know can be known only from an individual point of view, or under one or another aspect of its existence, never in totality or perfection.
Models and Metaphors:
The model we choose to use to understand something determines what we find. If it is the case that our understanding is an effect of the metaphors we choose, it is also true that it is a cause: our understanding itself guides the choice of metaphor by which we understand it. The chosen metaphor is both cause and effect of the relationship. Thus how we think about our selves and our relationship to the world is already revealed in the metaphors we unconsciously choose to talk about it.
All understanding, whether of the world or even of ourselves, depends on choosing the right metaphor. The metaphor we choose governs what we see. Even in talking about understanding we cannot escape metaphors. ‘Grasping’ things, for example, won’t get us as far as we would like, because the most important things in life refuse to be grasped in either sense. Like Tantalus’ grapes they retreat from the reaching hand.
The Mechanistic Model of Reality:
You can compare it with a machine, if you wish; but the analogy is bound to be a poor one in every respect except, of course, whatever it is that the body and a machine have in common, and that is all the comparison will reveal (the catch is that to those who have bought into this model as the way to illumination, everything about the body will come to look more and more mechanical, and so the model comes to seem more and more apt: the original choice eventually seems confirmed as a perfect fit). Talk of functions’ and ‘mechanisms’ leads us up this particular garden path.
The model of the machine is the only one that the left hemisphere likes; remember that it is specialised in dealing with tools and machines. The machine is something that has been put together by the left hemisphere from the bits, so it is understandable purely in terms of its parts; the machine is lifeless and its parts are inert – the tappets don’t change their nature with their context.
The Use of Language:
Words can influence our perceptions. They can interfere with the way in which we perceive colours – and facial expressions, for that matter – suggesting that colour words can create new boundaries in colour perception, and language can impose a structure on the way we interpret faces.
In other words, language is necessary neither for categorisation, nor for reasoning, nor for concept formation, nor perception: it does not itself bring the landscape of the world in which we live into being. What it does, rather, is shape that landscape by fixing the ‘counties into which we divide it, defining which categories or types of entities we see there – how we carve it up.
Thinking is prior to language. What language contributes is to firm up certain particular ways of seeing the world and give fixity to them. This has its good side, and it’s bad. It aids consistency of reference over time and space. But it can also exert a restrictive force on what and how we think. It represents a more fixed version of the world. in shapes, rather than grounds, our thinking.
We need to struggle towards objectivity, and yet the reality we aim to reveal is itself not precise, so that the artificial precision of our language betrays us.
The similarities between mental and physical grasping:
There are many links between language and grasp, and they have a similar agenda. Both sharpen focus on the world: mental grasp, like physical grasp, requires precision and fixity, which language provides, making the world available for manipulation and possession.
Where the left hemisphere’s relationship with the world is one of reaching out to grasp, and therefore to use, it, the right hemisphere’s appears to be one of reaching out – just that. Without purpose. In fact one of the main differences between the ways of being of the two hemispheres is that the left hemisphere always has ‘an end in view, a purpose or use, and is more the instrument of our conscious will than the right hemisphere.
The problem with concepts:
As things become dulled and inauthentic, they become conceptualised rather than experienced; they are taken out of their living context, a bit like ripping the heart out of a living body. Heidegger called this process that of Gestell, or framing, a term which suggests the detachment of seeing things as if through a window (as in a famous image of Descartes’s), or as re-presented in a picture, or, nowadays, framed by the TV or computer screen.
The Idea of Heidegger:
The importance of Heidegger for the theme of this book lies not only in his perception that ultimately the world is given by (what we can now see to be) the right hemisphere. He went even further, and appears intuitively to have understood the evolving relationship between the hemispheres which forms the subject of the second part of this book: namely that, with at times tumultuous upheavals, retrenchments and lurches forward, there has been nonetheless relentless move towards the erosion of the power of the right hemisphere over recent centuries in the West.
Heidegger saw that there was a fatal continuity between the assertive, predicative, definitional, classificatory idiom of Western metaphysics and that will to rational-technological mastery over life which he calls nihilism. In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, he wrote that the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture?.
He saw scientific research as bringing a certain type of narrow and decontextualised methodology to bear on nature and on history, which isolated and objectified its subject and was essential to the character of the enterprise.
What is value?
Value, for Scheler, is a pre-cognitive aspect of the existing world, which is neither purely subjective (i.e. ‘whatever I take it to be’) nor purely consensual (i.e. ‘whatever we agree it to be’). It is not, he asserts, something which we derive, or put together from some other kind of information, any more than we derive a colour, or come to a conclusion about it, by making a calculation. It comes to us in its own right, prior to any such calculation being made.
This position is importantly related to two right-hemisphere themes which we have encountered already: the importance of context and of the whole. For example, the same act carried out by two different people may carry an entirely different value, which is why morality can never be a matter of actions or consequences taken out of context, whether that be the broader context or that of the mental world of the individual involved (the weakness of a too rigidly codified judicial system). Hence we judge some things that would out of context be considered weaknesses to be part of what is valuable or attractive in the context of a particular person’s character; we do not arrive at a judgment on a person by summing the totality of their characteristics or acts, but judge their characteristics or acts by the ‘whole’ that we know to be that person.
The values of the useful and pleasurable, those of the lowest rank, are the only ones to which left-hemisphere modes of operation are applicable – and even these are often self-defeating to pursue (as the paradox of hedonism demonstrates). As things are re-presented in the left hemisphere, it is their use-value that is salient. In the world it brings into being, everything is either reduced to utility or rejected with considerable vehemence, a vehemence that appears to be born of frustration, and the affront to its ‘will to power. The higher values in Scheler’s hierarchy, all of which require affective or moral engagement with the world, depend on the right hemisphere.
It is said that the meaning of the Hebrew words translated as good and evil, in the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘mean precisely the useful and the useless, in other words, what is useful for survival and what is not.”
Attending to the world and our expectations:
The difficult bit about the ‘stickiness’ of the left hemisphere is that once we have already decided what the world is going to reveal, we are unlikely to get beyond it. We are prisoners of expectation.
New experience, as it is first ‘present to the mind, engages the right hemisphere, and as the experience becomes familiar, it gets ‘re-presenteď by the left hemisphere.
What we attend to, and how we attend to it, changes it and changes us. Seeing is not just ‘the most efficient mechanism for acquiring knowledge, as scientists tend to see it. It is that, of course, but it is also, and before anything else, the main medium by which we enact our relationship with the world. It is an essentially empathic business.
The Left Hemisphere and Certainty:
Since the left hemisphere is concerned with what is certain, with knowledge of the facts, its version of belief is that it is just absence of certainty. If the facts were certain, according to its view, I should be able to I know that’ instead. This view of belief comes from the left hemisphere’s disposition towards the world: interest in what is useful, therefore fixed and certain (the train timetable is no good if one can’t rely on it). So belief is just a feeble form of knowing, as far as it is concerned.
But belief in terms of the right hemisphere is different, because its disposition towards the world is different. The right hemisphere does not know’ anything, in the sense of certain knowledge. For it, belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept ‘responsibility.
In the left-hemisphere situation, it prioritises the system, regardless of experience: it stays within the system of signs. Truth, for it, is coherence, because for it there is no world beyond, no Other, nothing outside the mind, to correspond with. That’s what it says here’ So it corresponds with itself: in other words, it coheres. The right hemisphere prioritises what it learns from experience: the real state of existing things ‘out there. For the right hemisphere, truth is not mere coherence, but correspondence with something other than itself. Truth, for it, is understood in the sense of being ‘true’ to something, faithfulness to whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves.
All knowledge is knowledge of difference:
If Bateson is right that all knowledge is knowledge of difference, this method is the only way to know anything: categorising something leads only to loss of the essential difference.
Ideal types (Jung’s Archetypes):
This is where we come back to the will. Some of the most powerful drivers of human behaviour are such ideal types – not ‘character types, which are effectively stereotypes, but something akin to archetypes, that have living power in the imagination and can call us towards them.
Narratives of a certain way of being that we tell ourselves to make sense of our experience, and which in turn help to shape our responses to experience. These are types, but they have certain qualities that suggest a right hemisphere origin. They are not reductions (downwards), but aspirations (upwards); they are derived from experience, but are not encompassed by it; they have affective meaning for us, and are not simply abstractions; their structure, as Nunn points out, has much in common with narrative; they cannot be derived from or converted into rules or procedures.
They have much in common with Jung’s archetypes. He saw these as bridging the unconscious realm of instinct and the conscious realm of cognition, in which each helps to shape the other, experienced through images or metaphors that carry over to us affective or spiritual meaning from an unconscious realm. In their presence we experience a pull, a force of attraction, a longing, which leads us towards something beyond our own conscious experience, and which Jung saw as derived from the broader experience of humankind.
Seeing clearly is a representation:
The biggest problem of explicitness, however, is that it returns us to what we already know. It reduces a unique experience, person or thing to a bunch of abstracted, therefore central, concepts that we could have found already anywhere else – and indeed had already. Knowing, in the sense of seeing clearly, is always seeing ‘as’ a something already known, and therefore not present but re-presented.
Free won’t rather then free will:
The most highly evolved part of the brain, the frontal cortex, achieves what it does largely by negating (or not negating) other brain activity. ‘The cortex’s job is to prevent the inappropriate response rather than to produce the appropriate one, writes Joseph LeDoux; that is, it pares down from among things that exist, it selects, it does not originate.” And one answer to the problem raised for free will by Libet’s experiments is that there is time between the unconscious initiation of an action and its execution for the conscious mind to intervene and veto’ the action. In this sense, it may exert its influence more as free won’t than ‘free will.
Viewed from the phenomenological point of view, however, we feel ourselves to be free, though being pulled, drawn, attracted forward towards and by things that have a sort of magnetic power (such as archetypes), rather than pushed or prodded forward by what’s happened.
We have, then, become free to choose our own values, our ideals. Not necessarily wisely, of course. This process could be commandeered by the left hemisphere again if it could only persuade us to imitate and acquire left-hemisphere ways of being in the world. That is what I believe has happened in recent Western history. In our contemporary world, skills have been downgraded and subverted into algorithms: we are busy imitating machines.
Skills and Mimesis:
Skills are intuitive, ‘inhabiteď ways of being and behaving, not analytically structured, rule-based techniques. So it may be that we were selected – not for specific abilities, with specific genes for each, such as the ‘language gene(s)’ or the ‘music gene(s)’ – not even group selected for such genes – but individually for the dual skills of flexibility and the power to mimic, which are what is required to develop skills in general.
The overwhelming importance of mimesis points to the conclusion that we had better select good models to imitate, because as a species, not only as individuals, we will become what we imitate. We will pass down the behaviours we have learnt to imitate by epigenetic mechanisms, and for this reason William James, in an inversion of the popular prejudice, saw the human species as having a larger array of apparently instinctual behaviours than any other.
Julian Jaynes and the origin of consciousness:
Putting it at its simplest, where Jaynes interprets the voices of the gods as being due to the disconcerting effects of the opening of a door between the hemispheres, so that the voices could for the first time be heard, I see them as being due to the closing of the door, so that the voices of intuition now appear distant, ‘other; familiar but alien, wise but uncanny – in a word, divine.
Language and Paradox:
The point is not that the nature of things is contradictory, but that the attempt to render them in language leads inevitably to what we call paradox, and the attempt to avoid paradox therefore distorts.
Language makes the uncommon common. It can never create experience of something we do not know – only release something in us that is already there.
The logos can be seen as something ‘shared, reciprocal, perhaps even reciprocally coming into being, rather than, as how we tend to see it, something achieved through ‘private, isolated thought processes; and he emphasises that things change their nature depending on context (seawater, for example, is life-giving to fish, deadly poison to humans).
It is in drama we find our echo:
The very fact of having a philosophy at all was one of the many changes to be brought about by the advent of necessary distance. Drama, at least as conceived by the Greeks, is another, and as Nietzsche saw it, a demonstration of the necessary balance of Apollo and Dionysus. This distance has nothing to do with the ironising distance, or Verfremdungseffekt, espoused by modern dramatists, and indeed works to the opposite end. It enables us to feel powerfully with, and thus to know ourselves in, others, and others in ourselves. ‘Man must listen to an echo of himself before he wise to deny that all is change and motion.” Yet, despite this, Parmenides the may hear or know himself, as Snell says; and it is in drama that we find that echo.
The mind understanding it’s own nature:
The tragedy of Prometheus is a tale of two hemispheres. And, in more general terms, the Greek invention, or discovery, of tragedy, based as it is on the ever recurrent theme of downfall through hubris, represents the paradox of self-consciousness: the beginnings of the mind coming to know and understand its own nature.
The Left Hemisphere and Money:
Money has an important function which it shares with writing: it replaces things with signs or tokens, with representations, the very essence of the activity of the left hemisphere.
As Seaford points out, money is homogeneous, and hence homogenises its objects and its users, eroding uniqueness: it is impersonal, unlike talismanic objects, and weakens the need for bonds, or for trust based on a knowledge of those with whom one is exchanging. It becomes a universal aim, corrupting even death ritual, and threatening other values as it transcends and substitutes for them; and it becomes a universal means, including to divine good will or to political power. It ‘breeds an unlimited greed’. The late development of the polis brings about these changes and leads to the development of coinage.
Human dignity and choosing Destiny:
The return to the historic past, the rediscovery of the Classical world, was not a fact-finding mission, driven by curiosity or utility: its importance lay not just in the increase of knowledge in itself, but in the exemplars of wisdom, virtue, and statecraft that it yielded. It was recognised that human dignity lay in our unique capacity to choose our own destiny, through the models we choose and the ideals towards which we are drawn, not simply through the blind pursuit of reason wherever it might lead.
This involved self-knowledge, and the fascination with the unique and different paths taken by different personalities towards their particular goals – hence the importance of the recording of individual lives, and the rise of both true biography (as opposed to hagiography) and autobiography.
Distinction vs Generalisation:
The drive towards separation and distinction brings individual things into being. By contrast, the drive towards generalisation, with its effective ‘democratisation’ of its object (of the holy, of art, of the beautiful), has the effect of destroying its object as a living force.
Tradition as embodied wisdom:
As Weber saw, modern capitalism is anti-traditional – desperate, like bureaucratisation, to do away with the past. Tradition is simply the embodied wisdom of previous generations. It should change, as all things subject to the realm of the right hemisphere change, develop and evolve, but it should do so organically: it is not wise to reject it or uproot it altogether and on principle. But to the left hemisphere, tradition represents a challenge to its brave plan to take control, now, in the interests of salvation as it conceives it.
Unlike history seen as an intellectual realm, a repository of ideas about socio-cultural issues, tradition is an embodiment of a culture: not an idea of the past, but the past itself embodied. This is no longer available to those who have abandoned the tradition.
The Problem with Rationality:
The value of rationality, as well as whatever premises it may start from, has to be intuited: neither can be derived from rationality itself.
All rationality can do is to provide internal consistency once the system is up and running. Deriving deeper premises only further postpones the ultimate question, and leads into an infinite regress; in the end one is back to an act of intuitive faith governed by reason (nous). Logos represents, as indeed the left hemisphere does, a closed system which cannot reach outside itself to whatever it is that exists apart from itself.
Poets, artists and expressing things in novel ways:
For this reason poets, and all makers of language having the god-given power to tell of what they suffer’ [Goethe, Marienbader Elegie], fulfil a far higher function than that of giving noble and beautiful expression to their experiences and thereby making them recognisable to the reader, by reference to his own past experience of this kind.
For by creating new forms of expression, the poets soar above the prevailing network of ideas in which our experience is confined, as it were, by ordinary language; they enable the rest of us to see, for the first time, in our own experience, something which may answer to these new and richer forms of expression, and by so doing they actually extend the scope of our possible self-awareness
Childhood represents innocence, not in some moral sense, but in the sense of offering what the phenomenologists thought of as the pre-conceptual immediacy of experience (the world before the left hemisphere has deadened it to familiarity). It was this authentic prescencing of the world in early childhood; world that Romantic poetry aimed to recapture.
Categories and over generalising:
The relationship between the left hemisphere and equality is a consequence of its categorical method. Where one is dealing with individual people or things. When one respects the contingencies of the situation in which they find themselves, and by which they are modified, when one accepts that the things or persons themselves and the context are continually subject to change, no two entities are ever equal in any respect.
However, once the items are classified and entered into categories, they become equal: at least from the standpoint of the categoriser every member of the category can be substituted by any other member of the category. In that sense there is an equalising drive built into the categorising system.
But the categories themselves are nonetheless arranged in a hierarchical taxonomy, which means that, while the individual variations of living things are flattened out, the differences between categories become where the inequality resides.
Montesquieu’s perception anticipates Blake’s saying that ‘to generalise is to be an idiot, being itself a generalisation. It draws attention, in Gödelian fashion, to the truth that every logical system leads to conclusions that cannot be accommodated within it.
The Abstracting of everyday life:
Real things and experiences are replaced by symbolic tokens; ‘expert’ systems replace local know-how and skill with a centralised process dependent on rules. The result is an abstraction and virtualisation of life. He sees a dangerous form of positive feedback, whereby theoretical positions, once promulgated, dictate the reality that comes about, since they are then fed back to us through the media, which form, as much as reflect, reality. The media also promote fragmentation by a random juxtaposition of items of information, as well as permitting the ‘intrusion of distant events into everyday consciousness, another aspect of decontextualisation in modern life adding to loss of meaning in the experienced world.
Devitalisation leads to boredom, and boredom, in turn, to sensationalism. The high stimulus society in which we live is represented through advertising as full of vibrancy and vitality, but, as advertisers know only too well, its condition is one of boredom, and the response to boredom.
Since the rise of capitalism in the eighteenth century, when according to Patricia Spacks boredom as such began, an ‘appetite for the new and the different, for fresh experience and novel excitements’ has lain at the heart of successful bourgeois society, with its need above all to be getting and spending money. Use of the word ‘boredom’ and reports of the experience have escalated dramatically during the twentieth century.
The Link between tradition and originality:
For there is no polarity between the tradition and originality. In fact originality as an artist (as opposed to as a celebrity or a showman) can only exist within a tradition, not for the facile reason that it must have something by ‘contrast with which to be original, but because the roots of any work of art have to be intuitive, implicit, still coming out of the body and the imagination, not starting in individual cognitive effort.
Things can be old and new at the same time:
We confuse novelty with newness. No one ever decided not to fall in love because it’s been done before, or because its expressions are banal. They are both as old as the hills and completely fresh in every case of genuine love. Spiritual texts present the same problem, that they can use only banalities, which mean something totally different from the inside of the experience.
The changing artwork in post-modernism:
In the twentieth century, by contrast, art has aspired to the condition of language, the most explicit and abstracted medium available to us. What the artist, whether painter, sculptor, or installation artist, has written about his or her creation is as important as the thing itself, and is often displayed next to the work of art, as if guiding the understanding of the onlooker – as if in fact the work could not speak for itself. Written material often obtrudes (as, incidentally, it does in the paintings of schizophrenics) within the frame of the artwork itself, as it never had before, except during the Reformation, and to a greater extent.
Purely intellectualised, consciously derived art is congenial to the age, because it is easy, and therefore democratic. It can be made to happen on a whim, without the long experience of apprenticeship leading to skill, and without the necessity for intuition, both of which are in part gifts, and therefore unpredictable and undemocratic. Skills have been de-emphasised in art, as elsewhere in the culture.
Separating words from their referents in the real world, as post-modernism does, turns everything into a nothing, life itself into a game. But the coupling of emotionally evocative material with a detached, ironic stance is in fact a power game, one that is being played out by the artist with his or her audience.
It is not so much a matter of playfulness, with its misplaced suggestion of innocence, as a grim parody of play. It is familiar to psychiatrists because of the way that psychopaths use displays of lack of feeling – a jokey, gamesy, but chilling, indifference to subjects that spontaneously call forth strong human emotions to gain control of others and make then feel vulnerable.
The left Hemisphere society and control:
Once, however, the left hemisphere is convinced of its own importance, it no longer ‘cares’; instead it revels in its own freedom from constraint, in what might be called, in a phrase of Robert Graves’s, the ‘ecstasy of chaos. One says ‘I do not know, the other I know – that there is nothing to know. One believes that one cannot know: the other knows’ that one cannot believe.
In such a society people of all kinds would attach an unusual importance to being in control. Accidents and illnesses, since they are beyond our control, would therefore be particularly threatening and would, where possible, be blamed on others, since they would look like a threat to one’s capacity to control one’s life.
The left hemisphere, as will be remembered, is in any case not quick to take responsibility, and sees itself as the passive victim of whatever it is not conscious of having willed.
The Myth of the Machine:
I have tried to convey in this book that we need metaphor or mythos in order to understand the world. Such myths or metaphors are not dispensable luxuries, or optional extras, still less the means of obfuscation: they are fundamental and essential to the process.
We are not given the option not to choose one, and the myth we choose is important: in the absence of anything better, we revert to the metaphor or myth of the machine. But we cannot, I believe, get far in understanding the world, or in deriving values that will help us live well in it, by likening it to the bike in the garage.
One consequence of such a myth, I admit, is that we might have to revise the superior assumption that we understand the world better than our ancestors, and adopt a more realistic view that we just see it differently – and may indeed be seeing less than they did.
Why do we in the West think that ultimate value lies only in the immutable, in what is eternally the same? The idea emerges with Parmenides, and Plato wider currency to this view of the world derived from the left hemisphere, where all is static, known, unchanging. But once again at the Renaissance and in Romanticism one does see intuitions in the West that life, and everything of value, lies not in a static state of being, as understood by the left hemisphere, but in becoming, as understood by the right hemisphere.
The Difference between the minds in the East and the West:
East Asians use a more dialectical’ mode of reasoning: they are more willing to accept, to entertain, or even seek out contradictory perspectives on the same issue. They see the world in which they live as complex, containing inherently conflicting elements. Where Chinese students try to retain elements of opposing perspectives by seeking to synthesise them, American students try to determine which is correct so that they can reject the other. Presented with evidence for two opposing positions, Easterners are more likely to reach a compromise, whereas the fact of opposition tends to make Westerners adhere to one position more strongly. Westerners adopt a more ‘either/or’ approach.
Eastern cultures, and in particular the Japanese, have been characterised as ‘inter dependent; in other words, individuals are less seen in isolation than they are in the West, instead forming part of an interconnected social web. For them, the sense of the self (as we saw for the right hemisphere) develops through understanding its influence on others. Self-improvement in such cultures has far less to do with getting what one wants, and far more to do with confronting one’s own shortcomings, in the interests of harmony, at home, at work, and amongst friends.