Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Iain McGilchrist's The Master and his Emissary


The Master and his Emissary: the divided brain and the making of the Western world.

Iain McGilchrist, Yale University Press, 2009.


If you are interested in the brain and consciousness, this is one of the best books ever written.

Indeed, it is such a good book of its kind (philosophically-informed science) that it reveals with great clarity the limitations of the kind of book this is - the limitations, in other words, not only of science but of philosophy.


I will not try to summarize the book - suffice to say it is about the right and left hemispheres of the human brain.

Further information (and excerpts) are available at http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com/


Indeed, although I have been dipping-into and stepping-away-from the book for more than a year, I still keep coming across sections that jump out at me as if I hadn't seen them before.

Today I noticed on page 137:

If one had to characterise the left hemisphere by reference to one governing principle it would be that of division.

Manipulation and use require clarity and fixity, and clarity and fixity require separation and division.

What is moving and seamless, a process, becomes static and separate - things. It is the hemisphere of either/ or: clarity yields sharp boundaries.

And so it makes divisions that may not exist according to the right hemisphere.

Just as an individual object is neither just a bundle of perceptual properties 'in here', nor just something underlying them 'out there', so the self is neither a bundle of mental states or faculties, nor, on the other hand, something distinct underlying them.

It is an aspect of experience that perhaps has no sharp edges.


You won't find better quality scientific writing this side of Erwin Chargaff!

And for the sheer number and density of insightful and suggestive points, there is little else in this league.


Indeed, The Master and his Emissary is so good that you recognise where the book falls short of timeless greatness (although there is still time for a revised version which might scale this ultimate height).

As it stands, The Master and his Emissary is a brilliant and beautiful set of essays which is not unified due to a reluctance to ground its arguments in the metaphysical. It goes, that is, as far as science can go, and then as far as philosophy can go; but does not take the next step - which would be metaphysics, and indeed an explicit statement of religion.

The solution is pointed-at, implied, but not itself stated; not because a solution cannot be stated, but for whatever reason it is not stated.

It is, as a matter of fact, unstated - or at least not stated here.


The book is like a hemispherical dome that lacks its capstone - and therefore the book resembles a series of incomplete arches - each of which (because the dome is incomplete) requires substantial buttressing with the end result that the book needs far more 'building material' (words, evidence) than would be the case were the dome completed and self-supporting.


In other words, the component arguments are necessarily elaborated beyond what could potentially be an achievable level of clarity and brevity.


However, if The Master and his Emissary had indeed  been capped-off with its implicit key metaphysical and religious statement, then it would probably (in these corrupt times) have alienated both publishers and many sympathetic readers.

So it is quite understandable that this was not the case.

Nonetheless, it is a wonderful achievement, especially for the time and place it was published - very much an old style piece of scholarship, written from the heart by a man of exceptional brilliance and erudition who expended two decades of his best efforts on the task. .