In the beginning, Heraclitus contemplated the nature of reality and saw that everything flowed: πάντα ῥεῖ (panta rhei), he wrote, cleverly remembering the rule that the neuter plural in Greek takes a singular verb. But his vision of eternal flux and movement was contested among the pre-Socratic philosophers. Parmenides by contrast went so far as to deny the existence of change; his celebrated pupil Zeno argued that an arrow could never travel from A to B (and so it follows, as a character in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers deduced, that Saint Sebastian died of fright). Plato, who took the path of Parmenides not Heraclitus, was another who thought that change was a delusion. What mattered were things—the material and timeless entities of which the universe was composed, and from which could be inferred (thanks to another Greek invention, the definite article) the existence of abstract realities. Together with their more concrete brethren, these realities were the fundamental currency of whatever it is that we know. As Iain McGilchrist writes in his superlative new book The Matter With Things, on this view the world was “composed of a single timeless unchanging unity, in which true creativity, individuation, and history come to be merely illusions, or at least fallings away from an ideal.”1
The enduring legacy of the Greek philosophers was therefore the primacy of things, and Western thought followed this path without much of a contest for more than two millennia. Objects could admittedly be made to move if energy was imparted to them, but their natural condition was to remain at rest. The billiard-ball model of the universe, definitively expressed in Newton’s science, held sway until the radical discoveries made by quantum physicists in the early 1900s. Thinkers of the same era as Newton, notoriously Descartes, had developed a philosophic vision to match. No scientific rationalist of the seventeenth or eighteenth century would ever have said of his own discoveries that anyone who thought he understood them axiomatically did not. By contrast, such were the mysteries of the new science that initiates such as Richard Feynman found themselves echoing the paradoxical utterances of ancient wisdom traditions. Lao Tzu wrote in the sixth century B.C. that “The Dao that can be expressed is not the true Dao.”
Our contemporary scientific vision of the microcosm postulates a dynamic model in which the very objects on which our daily perceptions are built turn out not to be fundamental but are better understood as occasional precipitations in a universe governed by forces more akin to Heraclitus’s core insight than Plato’s. The physicists who now embrace these more elusive and less mechanistic theories can be said to have exposed thinkers in other disciplines (like Richard Dawkins, with his push-me pull-you interpretation of evolution) as mastodons grazing in the primeval swamp; for in the words of Carl Woese, “Molecular biology could read notes in the score, but it couldn’t hear the music.” No less obsolete are the analytical philosophers who dominated the academies of the twentieth century and whose obsession with the primacy of words as the sole guide to truth left them vulnerable to Bryan Magee’s fine remark:
The assumption that everything of significance that can be experienced, or known, or communicated is capable of being uttered in words would be too preposterous to merit a moment’s entertainment were it not for the fact that it has underlain so much philosophy in the twentieth century.
It is almost as if there are two fundamentally different ways of seeing the world—the static, literal, explicit, mechanical view and, by contrast, the dynamic, vivid, metaphorical, mysterious, implicit view. Many poets, thinkers, and philosophers have discerned just such a division—a similar epistemological gulf to that which divided the ancient Greek sages. Goethe’s Faust exclaims “Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust” (“Two souls there dwell, alas! within in my breast”); Schopenhauer describes two distinct forms of experience, which he calls “will” and “representation”; Henri Bergson provides another instance, “deux réalités d’ordre différent” (“two realities of a different order”). Where could the origin of such a persistent duality lie? Is it to be found in the world itself, or in ourselves and the way in which we know it? This is the essential question that Iain McGilchrist explores.
McGilchrist originally intended to study philosophy as an undergraduate at Oxford but, owing to a quixotic rigidity in that university’s degree courses, found that he could only do so in combination with other subjects less congenial to him. So he read English literature instead. In the process, he became dismayed by the faculty’s approach to literary criticism, which proceeded by a technique of soulless deconstruction. Take, for example, the way in which we discover a great poem. Most of us encounter it as an embodied presence in the world, full of meaning—albeit meaning that can never be rendered fully explicit—capable of altering our breathing, heart rate, hair follicles, tear ducts, a whole experience that can no more be explained by its individual elements than a piece of music by its individual notes. The general Oxford method was to separate the whole into parts, to de-contextualize, to reduce the work to a series of labels or abstractions, and, in the name of literary criticism, to diminish the poem into something else that wholly lacked its original quiddity and magic. McGilchrist’s disillusion led to his first book, Against Criticism.
The only way, he felt, by which to understand better how the mind works was to study medicine.
What followed was a prolonged intellectual journey, stimulated by McGilchrist’s continuing interest in philosophy, especially the relationships between the brain, the mind, and the external world. From an early stage, he was intuitively convinced that analytical approaches to the mind–body problem, of which the precepts of Cartesian dualism were the high-water mark, entirely failed to capture the complex, interactive reverberation between the individual and all that he experiences. The only way, he felt, by which to understand better how the mind works was to study medicine, and so McGilchrist became successively a physician, a neurologist, and a psychiatrist. The writings of Oliver Sacks were an early influence, but a key revelation came when McGilchrist attended the delivery of a paper by John Cutting, the author of The Right Cerebral Hemisphere and Psychiatric Disorders. This work found, with evidence culled from numerous patients who had experienced strokes or other trauma to the right hemisphere, that while many of their abilities (especially linguistic and logical) were unimpaired by their injury, what they could no longer do, in a whole range of ways, was understand the world.
An initial discouragement to the pursuit of this area of engagement was that it carried a health warning. The smart view in the medical profession was that to specialize in the study of hemisphere difference was career suicide. Popular psychology had given rise to a whole series of superficial and inaccurate assertions about the hemispheres, for instance that the right hemisphere governed emotions and the left was the seat of the intellect. It did not occur to those who advised McGilchrist, however, that the fact that people made trivial false statements about the two halves of the brain did not preclude the possibility that important true statements could be made about them.
The book, like the brain, is in two halves.
Undeterred, McGilchrist set about writing a book that would develop his hemisphere hypothesis. The Master and his Emissary (2009) was twenty years in the realization. The book, like the brain, is in two halves. The first starts by asking the question: why have we evolved to have the asymmetric brains we possess? It then examines the ever-growing corpus of neurological evidence that the two halves of the brain, albeit in a healthy person they are in constant cooperation and communication, do indeed perceive the world in radically different ways. The differences in the way in which the two hemispheres attend to the world also provide the substantive point of departure in The Matter With Things, which traverses in greater detail and with ample and updated citation of sources the basis for the clinical claims in the earlier book. The intention and effect are to put the hemisphere hypothesis itself beyond serious argument.
In summary, what McGilchrist explains is this: The external world is initially encountered by the right hemisphere (RH); the function of the left (LH) is to process and analyze the product of that encounter. The RH is concerned with understanding the world, the LH with manipulating it. Language is intimately related to manipulation, as is the grasp of the right hand, hence both are primarily located in the LH. The LH deals with the specific, the detailed, the fragmentary, the foregrounded; the RH is concerned with the whole picture—the Gestalt. The RH focuses on what is new and is alive to the possible; the LH focuses on the familiar and certain. The RH’s ability to entertain uncertainty equips it to deal with things the LH does not understand: ambiguity, metaphor, irony, humor. The LH world tends to fixity and stasis, the RH towards dynamism and flow. The LH sees things as explicit and decontextualized—hence literally; the RH has an eye for the implicit and the context. The LH is the hemisphere of the inanimate (including tools—though fascinatingly not musical instruments), while the RH prefers the animate. The RH is largely the hemisphere of music and empathy. An imbalance in favor of the LH is associated with autism and schizophrenia. Countless studies demonstrate that in many matters the LH is obtuse, overconfident, inclined to confabulation, angry, and often wrong.
Countless studies demonstrate that in many matters the LH is obtuse, overconfident, inclined to confabulation, angry, and often wrong.
The Master and his Emissary proceeds to explore the implications of our two views of the world. These include the nature of language, its relationship to music (including which came first), and philosophical questions about the nature of reality itself. Characteristically, McGilchrist occupies a middle position between pure subjectivity and objectivity: we do not create the world in our own imaginations, nor do we passively respond to a complete world “out there.” Rather we are in a responsive relationship with the world in which each calls forth something in the other, like the relationship between the sculptor’s hands and the block of marble. Only with the rise of the phenomenological school of philosophy on the European continent in the twentieth century did such ideas begin to find common expression. Writers such as Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger (qua pure philosopher, not Nazi fellow-traveler), Scheler, and the later Wittgenstein are a world away from the arid, LH-dominated limitations of much that came before.
Given its nature, the RH should be the master in the task of understanding the world, to which the more precise and limited insights of the LH are returned and reintegrated in a transformative process for which McGilchrist adopts the Hegelian term Aufhebung. The result is a unified and enriched vision of reality. But what if the emissary should cease to acknowledge the superior, holistic view of his master and, like the sorcerer’s apprentice in the old story, seek to take control himself?
The second half of The Master and his Emissary is an examination of Western culture in the light of the hemisphere hypothesis from the days of the ancient Greeks through to the frequently banal offerings of postmodern culture. Sometimes, significant historical movements have reflected LH dominance (the Reformation; the Enlightenment); others have indicated a rebalancing in favor of the RH (the Romantic movement, for example).
The current predicament of Western civilization appears to betoken, in McGilchrist’s metaphor, a final betrayal of the master. In a healthy brain, both hemispheres constantly work together. Since many aspects of language engage the LH, however, our overwhelmingly verbalized modern existence promotes LH dominance. The results are seen about us: the fragmentation of society, the atrophy of value, the sterility of contemporary art, the increasing dominance of mechanical and bureaucratized thinking, the triumph of procedure over substance, and environmental despoliation. Today, we exist in a hall of mirrors where our self-validating left-brain modes of thought continually push us in the wrong direction. Recent phenomena such as critical theory and its baleful progeny are part of this picture.
Today, we exist in a hall of mirrors where our self-validating left-brain modes of thought continually push us in the wrong direction.
Though politics is not his main preoccupation, McGilchrist is profoundly conservative in temperament: Roger Scruton is frequently cited in his work; he has collaborated with Jordan Peterson; his opinions on cultural questions are broadly similar to, say, Douglas Murray’s. He possesses the conservative’s appreciation of the nuanced complexities of the world, a distrust of simple “either/or” solutions, a distaste for shrill judgmentalism. He thus rejects the rectilinear, polarized thinking—the relentless, dichotomizing jiggery-wokery—of the neo-liberal consensus.
Over time, The Master and his Emissary made a huge impact. It has sold 150,000 copies and gained many high-profile admirers, of whom John Cleese and the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams are two. Unlike Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, people bought it in order to read it and, having done so, were eager for more. So when The Matter With Things was published in November 2021, its initial print run sold out before Christmas despite a price tag of £90 (though much less as an e-book) and the absence at that stage of any reviews. Its hardback sales have just passed the ten-thousand mark; a paperback is expected before Christmas 2022.
It is a striking fact that McGilchrist’s earlier work, impressive as it was, turns out to have been a mere anacrusis—an upbeat to The Matter With Things. The latter is undeniably very long. But one does not find those who have read it complaining about its length. On the contrary, the impulse experienced by many who make the journey is immediately to start over again. The book can be read from beginning to end or dipped into. As with a Mandelbrot set, one finds the overall thesis expressed in miniature on almost every page. Yet when McGilchrist submitted the completed manuscript to Penguin, who had commissioned it, they felt unable to publish unless the book was halved in length—notwithstanding the success of its (five-hundred-page) predecessor. To add insult to injury, the author, a fastidious stylist and excellent company on the page, was offered the services of an editor to help him butcher his own work. He declined and took matters into his own hands. He engaged a small publishing house, Perspectiva Press, to whom praise be, and assumed an active role in layout, typography, and all the other tasks that authors might generally hope to be spared. But this too inures to the reader’s benefit, for the production values of these two volumes are exceptionally high. Though heavy, they are a pleasure to hold, and the drawings and notes are agreeably integrated into the text. Unusually, the latter are sidenotes, not footnotes or (as in The Master and his Emissary) inconvenient endnotes. Their placing is a happy decision, for, as usual with McGilchrist, there is much treasure in them.
The novelty and ambition of The Matter With Things is to take the hemisphere hypothesis and through its lens to conduct a detailed examination of truth itself. McGilchrist identifies the paths by which we might reach truth: science, reason, intuition, and imagination. A professional scientist and therefore a believer in the power of reason properly understood, he shows that all approaches are abused by excessive LH thinking. The results of hyper-rationalism are often absurd: philosophers who deny the existence of consciousness (with what faculty?) or geneticists who persist in arguing—in Darwin’s name but contrary to his own intuitions—a machine theory of evolution, whereas in truth life evolves not randomly but with a purpose. (As J. B. S. Haldane said, “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist; he cannot live without her, but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.”)
As J. B. S. Haldane said, “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist; he cannot live without her, but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.”
The scope of McGilchrist’s inquiry is breathtaking, and he finds the time along the way to examine large questions such as the nature of artistic creativity, to point up the problems with institutionalized scientific thinking, to analyze the essence of paradox, and also to mix the serious stuff with lighter moments, reminding us for example of the clear evidence that habitual heavy drinkers live longer than teetotalers. (A disappointingly frivolous review of the book by Raymond Tallis in Literary Review argues that there is something illogical or self-defeating in a scientist criticizing aspects of the modern scientific establishment. This is just wrong.)
Even this massive enterprise is not the book’s central concern, for in its second volume McGilchrist turns to examine the yet larger question: what, then, is true? He is inspired in his quest by Donne’s image: “on a huge hill,/ Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will/ Reach her, about must, and about must goe.” This is an even more profound and rewarding read than its predecessor. In it, the author combines neurology, philosophy, and physics to address in detail all the most intractable metaphysical questions, threading through them a consistent and consistently anti-reductionist worldview. It is like watching some fantastic antithesis of Middlemarch’s Edward Casaubon at work, totally in command of the material listed in the 180-page bibliography. The erudition is colossal; even if one used it for no other purpose, his book is a treasure store of quotations. A polymath who seems to have read and remembered everything, he stands upon the shoulders of the giants whose works he generously quotes. His heroes, other than those mentioned, include Pascal, Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. N. Whitehead, and William James. He draws heavily on the wisdom literature of the Jewish and the Far Eastern traditions, taking the unfashionable view that the secrets of life are more likely to have been disclosed to those of our distant forebears whose thoughts have been handed on to us than by the modish vacuities of contemporary values.
Thus, the second volume examines the truth about time, space and matter, flow and movement, value, consciousness, purpose, and, as a tremendous climax that itself justifies buying the book, our sense of the sacred. McGilchrist hopes to have offered an account that, “at last, is true to experience, to science and to philosophy.” He argues with rigor for positions that many have long intuited—a result that would not surprise him, for he places much store on intuition—namely that truth, beauty, and goodness, along with consciousness itself, are innate properties of the universe, ontologically prior to the material world from which we consistently fail to derive them (precisely because we approach these hard problems the wrong way round). Ours is a world not composed of static objects, but of dynamic processes and relationships; a world not separated from and dispassionately observed by us, but one that through us comes into complete being. Enthusiasts have described McGilchrist’s insights as a Copernican revolution in metaphysics. He himself would more modestly claim that he is simply reminding his readers, with the aid of the hemisphere hypothesis, of older and more enlightened ways of thinking.
McGilchrist hopes to have offered an account that, “at last, is true to experience, to science and to philosophy.”
McGilchrist originally intended to entitle the book There Are No Things, but in time decided that this struck too uncompromising a note, as well as suggesting a nihilistic deconstructionism which is the opposite of all that he believes. Nonetheless the discarded title expresses an important truth. Niels Bohr thought that it would be a step forward to eliminate the word “particle” altogether. The book argues that everything is better understood as becoming, not being, that truth is adverbial, relationships are more important than relata (the things related), and God himself can be no other than a dynamic participant in the ever-unfolding mystery and purpose of the cosmos. Heraclitus was right all along.
The book-length final chapter is a moderate, subtle, patient, and (some may think) irrefutable defense of the religious disposition and the existence of that to which we have no choice but to give a name such as God. While rejecting the propositional tenets of organized religions, he administers to the reductionist atheist position a thorough and well-merited drubbing. The author has said that this was the most difficult chapter to write but also the most necessary. McGilchrist here proves to be, as well as everything else, a spiritually nourishing guide to the true nature of faith. Like love, he writes, it cannot be understood until it is experienced, and people who think that they can denigrate faith from the outside simply do not know what they are talking about. “There is nothing blind about faith, but there is nothing certain about it, either. It is like trusting the outstretched hand that helps you ford the stream: you see the stream, you see the hand; you do not blindly step, but step you must.”
The tone of the book is likeable, gently humorous, above all wise. Like everything else, it flows. Those who do not normally read science or philosophy will never do so in better company. As with the Bible in a Victorian drawing-room, this is one book that you should never put away, for the simple fact is that The Matter With Things will enrich and change your life.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 3, on page 62
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