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. .



SonofMoses said...
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dearieme said...

I'm impressed that you forbear to explain the meaning of the surname Gilchrist and hence McGilchrist.

darrenk said...

The subtitle recalls Julian Jayne's "bicameral mind" book. I wonder if there is any influence or relation?

Bruce Charlton said...

wrt @dearieme

Gilchrist is Gaelic for Christ's Servant - Mc means Son-of..

This hadn't crossed my mind, since I used to live in Scotland, for me Mc/Gilchrist was 'just another surname'...

Bruce Charlton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PatrickH said...

I have ordered TMahE on the strength of the recommendation here. I wonder how much emphasis McGilchrist places on the dominant emotion of the left hemisphere, which I believe to be anxiety. He mentions in his introduction that 'paranoia' is associated with the dominance of the left brain, but I refer to the necessary emotional state of normal left-brain function...anxiety in the face of novelty that drives the urge to name, classify, divide, measure in order to reduce anxiety through the achievement of control. This anxiety is absolutely opposed to trust, and trust is essential to beginning the spiritual life.

In any case, I look forward to reading the book, and hope to use its insights to engage with a hopelessly (even pathologically) left-brained friend, who has lapsed into a disturbingly rigid scientism since he drank the kool-aid of the New Atheists some years back. Direct appeal from religion won't work, as Son of Moses told us McGilchrist himself recognizes.

Do you think, Bruce, that the limitations of the book--its pulling back from outright metaphysics--might actually make it more effective as a bridge to a prisoner of his own left brain?

I hope I can reach my friend with TMahE. I am actually concerned about his eternal soul here.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PH - The book can be and usually is read as a straightforward piece of science - putting forward a new and better theory (or refinement of the theory) of the right and left brain distinction.

Wurmbrand said...

I also ordered a copy. Even though I expect that much of the book will be over my head, it may be encouraging and useful as I continue to deal, as an American university teacher, with the strange compulsion now abroad for "measurable outcomes" and "maximizing efficiencies."

Anonymous said...

Thank you Bruce and SonofMoses to share. This has been really insightful.


Ben said...

This book wouldn't exist without Julian Jayne's "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", and THAT book is insightful to the point of fatigue.

I'll share a few:
"The grand and vigorous function of metaphor is the generation of new language as it is needed, as human culture becomes more and more complex."

"Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics."

"We constantly rate others and pigeonhole them in often ridiculous status hierarchies simply to regulate their control over us and our thoughts. Our personal judgments of others are filters of influence. If you wish to allow another's language power over you, simply hold him higher in your own private scale of esteem."

You should read it, although it IS atheist in bent (which is no problem for me).

Cantillonblog said...

Outstanding book - thanks for the suggestion, Bruce.

Have you tried the Alexander Technique? I personally have experienced a significant shift in consciousness towards a more balanced/right-hemisphere approach having been super-analytical until a few years ago, and I attribute these changes to Alexander Technique/Rolfing/Feldenkrais.

A link here may be interesting:-


Would love to hear any other suggestions you have for encouraging this mode of consciousness. I suppose prayer and attending to great art can both help.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Son of Moses - I made the decision to delete your interesting comment because IM prefers that this information not be published at present.

It was my decision and responsibility to publish your comment, so please do not be put-off or offended by this reversal of my original decision.