Beyond Our Delusions: On Iain McGilchrist’s “The Matter with Things”
By Andrew LouthJanuary 8, 2023
The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World by Iain McGilchrist
In both of McGilchrist’s books, this analysis is pursued via enormous learning in the relevant scientific literature, primarily neurological and clinical, in which he moves with rare skill. (A trained psychiatrist, McGilchrist rose to be the clinical director of Maudsley Hospital in London — more or less the height of his profession.) Much detail can be added to the propensities of the two sides of the brain by studying and engaging with people who have had strokes that disable one side or another. Furthermore, it appears from such evidence that communication between the two hemispheres is both limited and asymmetrical: whereas the RH side is aware of the LH side and can compensate for a damaged LH, the LH side has little awareness of the RH side.
McGilchrist’s chief argument is that, over the last three and a half centuries, we have developed a worldview that draws almost entirely on the propensities of the LH side of the brain, ignoring for the most part the contribution of the RH side. This means that our apprehension of the world focuses largely on the particular, with a view to controlling and manipulating it. It is driven by a search for certainty, which is achieved by a kind of “divide and rule” strategy, favoring the fragmentary and all that can be measured and analyzed, while ignoring or deeming “subjective” all that which cannot be subjected to this regime.
Such a “scientific” approach has been immensely successful, especially by enabling vastly powerful technology that has transformed our world. But that has happened in ways that have had increasingly negative, and often destructive, consequences for human society, and still more for the world around us. We have come to regard the latter just as an “environment,” there for our exploitation, which has resulted in damaging and often destroying nature itself, making it less and less hospitable to its human guests.
In The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist set out his evidence for the “divided brain” and then discussed, through an outline of the intellectual history of the West, how left-brain dominance has led to this state of affairs. In this second book, he explores in greater detail the way the brain’s two hemispheres engage in the human search for truth.
In The Matter with Things, McGilchrist concentrates on developing an understanding of how the human engages with the world, of which it is a member, that takes full account of the different capacities of the brain’s two sides. Volume I consists of two parts: in the first, he addresses what he calls the “means to truth” (attention, perception, judgment, apprehension, emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence, and creativity), and in the second, the “paths to truth” (science, reason, intuition, and imagination).
For the most part, it is the RH side of the brain that is able to use the means to truth most fully, while the LH side is very selective, missing a great deal but coming up more readily with successful results. Hence the temptation to attend to what the LH side of the brain has come up with — a temptation that has been thoroughly indulged since the time of Descartes and Bacon. To sum up like this is inevitably to simplify, but McGilchrist’s presentation is not in the least simplistic, though his conclusions are clear: the RH side of the brain, which can accommodate the achievements of the LH side, yields a sounder approach to the truth; the result of relying on the LH, which can make nothing of what the RH side comprehends, narrows down “truth” and robs it of much of its meaning.
Some of the salient points need to be brought out: McGilchrist is wary of the tendency of the LH to reductionism, and so pursues the way the RH side goes more deeply into truth than the LH; RH attends to the implicit, the complex, the potential, and to curves, whereas LH only notices the explicit, the simple, the actual, and thinks in terms of straight lines, which should be seen as asymptotic limits of what RH perceives. In coming to know the world, we are not confronting a reality out there, for we are also part of the world.
In Part II, on the paths to truth, McGilchrist explores what kind of truth is yielded by the scientific method, paying attention as well to the institutional features of modern scientific inquiry. He discusses the way in which reason’s progeny can be seen as a series of twins, one LH, the other RH: abstraction versus embodiment, brain-self versus the whole person, precision versus accuracy, calculation versus judgment (in which calculation values quantification), linearity versus the gestalt, impersonal versus personal. This leads into a discussion of logical paradox, shunned by LH, seen as significant by RH. The final section of this part discusses intuition and imagination, again something valued by RH.
Part III, the main substance of the second volume, seeks to explore the truth of the world yielded by the means and paths to truth. This section is more philosophical than the others. It is headed by a chapter on coincidentia oppositorum (the unity of opposities), followed by chapters on the one and the many; time; flow and movement; space and matter; matter and consciousness; value; purpose, life, and the nature of the cosmos; and finally, the sense of the sacred. Coincidentia oppositorum picks up from logical paradox, already discussed provisionally — which is something LH can make nothing of.
These chapters are full of interest, with many fascinating passages, though there is a sense of déjà vu, for the complementarity of RH and LH, which led McGilchrist to state that “it is the deep coherence of each world that is to me striking,” has yielded to a strong conviction of the superiority of RH. This is partly, I think, tactical. McGilchrist is convinced that the LH worldview that has so deeply affected our Western world is the cause of our increasingly urgent problems in the last few decades, and that the solution is to reengage our RH. Otherwise, we shall never grasp how distorted and limited our worldview is. McGilchrist is arguing a case that urgently needs to be heard.
There is something, however, about the way McGilchrist presents his discussion that needs mention. Besides his strictly scientific learning, he is a man of wide and deep reading who supports his case by appeal to philosophers and poets, as well as scientists, especially physicists, reflecting on the implications of their discoveries. I felt, however, that his appeal for their support amounted too often to quotations and too little to real engagement with their thought. Frequently, a case is presented, largely in terms of recognizing the perspective of RH and its significance/contribution, which is then supported by quotations from those philosophers who mean the most to him. The thinkers he returns to, time and again, are an interesting and unusual bunch: philosophers such as William James (altogether too neglected in current discussions), Henri Bergson, A. N. Whitehead, Max Scheler, R. G. Collingwood, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and German Idealists of the 19th century such as Friedrich Schelling; scientists such as Einstein, Sir Arthur Eddington, and Niels Bohr; other, more marginal thinkers such as Evelyn Underhill; and unclassifiable people like Pascal and Goethe. It seems to me, however, that some of these are sold short when treated as a source for striking quotations. They were all thinkers; it will not do to pass over their modes of thoughts, even their arguments, and treat them as oracular sources.
Another thing that worries me is the general intellectual history that seems to lie behind McGilchrist’s approach: the trouble with such overarching accounts is that they cut too many corners and run the risk of misrepresentation.
One great figure I find deeply misrepresented here is Plato, who, along with Descartes, usually appears as a preeminent LH thinker. That seems plausible so long as one confines oneself to some of those who claimed Plato’s mantle. Nevertheless, there are others who preserve a fuller picture of Plato, amongst whom was Plotinus, always lauded by McGilchrist. McGilchrist himself is aware of another side to Plato; twice he cites the passage from the seventh epistle: “[S]uddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another.” He recognizes, implicitly at least, that the very form of the dialogue, as a philosophical genre, suggests that philosophy takes place in the second-person and perhaps should not be written down at all. Plato would, it seems to me, make a good ally for McGilchrist’s thesis, were he not ironed out by his place in McGilchrist’s intellectual history of the West. I was surprised, for example, in the discussions on time and space, that there is no reference to Plato’s Timaeus, where many of the points McGilchrist wants to make are raised, perhaps for the first time in Western thought.
George Berkeley, too, perceived as an empiricist philosopher, is consigned to the LH, despite the fact that, twice, McGilchrist cites others who make him sound much more interesting. The real Berkeley — no empiricist, but a Christian Platonist — is “The Other Bishop Berkeley,” as Costică Brădățan styles him in a book too little read.
A more serious failing, or missed opportunity, is McGilchrist’s treatment of paradox, hailed as something grasped by RH and incomprehensible to LH. In Part II, this is treated in a chapter called “Logical Paradox,” which, despite the author’s disclaimer, does provide “solutions” to paradoxes by appeal to a different perspective.
Things seem to get more interesting in Part III. In the chapter on coincidentia oppositorum, McGilchrist begins to discuss antinomy, where — to my delight — I noticed a reference to the great Russian polymath Pavel Florensky. But he cites Florensky indirectly (via Sergei Bulgakov) and never gets close to what Florensky actually has to say about antinomy.
I have only made these points of criticism because, although McGilchrist is clearly arguing a case (a case that he feels needs to be accepted, if there is to be any future), his mind is profoundly capacious, capable of entertaining ideas coming from elsewhere than he is coming from. The case he is making, however, is not unheard of: it coincides with all-too-common laments about modernity, pointing to the reign of quantity, the rise of individualism, the abandonment of tradition — opinions easily dismissed by those who pride themselves on the achievements of modernity. Perhaps it is to these “cultured despisers” that McGilchrist’s case is directed — a LH case against the hegemony of the LH.
Whether that is so or not, this book is almost unique in combining extensive scientific expertise with learning characteristic of the humanities, a sensitivity to language, and an appeal to poetry as the ultimate language of truth. McGilchrist sounds like someone who knows of what he speaks. RH, he tells us, is disposed to pessimism, but this book gives grounds for at least a cautious optimism, amounting to “good thoughts in bad times.”
Andrew Louth is professor emeritus of theology at Durham University.
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