McGilchrist on Language
I just wanted to make a brief comment on Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary while it’s still fresh in my mind, and that is what I perceive to be something of a short-coming (a surprising shortcoming) in his description of language in relation to neurodynamics. Language, speech, talk all seem to be treated the same in his discourse on the subject of language and the brain. It’s all “words” and “syntax”. But that’s not it at all.
The reason why it’s so surprising is that names and words are completely different. They accomplish different things. And they accomplish different things precisely for the reasons that Mr. McGilchrist identifies as salient features of the two hemispheres of the brain — the right and the left. One of the salient features of the right-hemisphere — perhaps its main feature — is it pays attention to wholes, and more generally to the “betweenness” of things, the relationships and interconnectedness of the whole (akin to Thich Nhat Hanh’s “interbeing”). It’s also the real meaning of the word “intelligence” — to connect between. So, I would have to say “intelligence” is truly the province of the right-hemisphere of the brain. It’s the part that supplies the intelligence. The other part, the left-hemisphere, is a kind of zombie or servo-mechanism without the inputs of the intelligence focussed in the right-brain and its mode of attention. That’s the implication. The more consciousness becomes focussed in the left-hemisphere, the more the human being becomes little more than a servo-mechanism or automaton. That’s his meaning, for the most part, in describing the relationship as one of “master” and “emissary”.
Now, associated with the activities of the right-brain are symbol formation and metaphoric imagination, whereas the left-brain glosses the symbolic-metaphoric perception of the right, or devalues them really, as sign and simile. This is precisely, however, what distinguishes names from words. And at the very origins of speech itself lies the naming power. Everything originally was a name, not a word. Why is this important in terms of neurodynamics?
A name differs from a word in exactly the same way as Mr. McGilchrist characterises the features of the two brain hemispheres. The name is a evocation, a summons, to establish a relationship. Naming is drawing into relation. But “words”, even as Mr. McGilchrist acknowledges, are intended to achieve just the opposite — distantiation. Words distantiate, names presentiate. Names and words achieve completely opposite results, and those results correspond to the differing “modes of attention” of the right-brain and left-brain.
Again, just as real “intelligence” is the real province of our woefully under-appreciated right-brain’s mode of attention, in relation to its interest in “interconnectedness” or “betweenness” or “interbeing”, so too is “interest” itself. Inter esse means “inter-being”, and refers to empathy, relationship, and drawing into relationship. But this is not how the left-brain interprets “interest” at all, is it? The vital impulse provided by the intelligence is perverted by the mentation of the left-hemisphere, so that it becomes something else completely. And most of what the left-hemisphere accomplishes in relation to the right can be described as “perversion”. It actually corrupts the insights of the right’s mode of attention, hence Khayyam’s Caution that “only a hair separates the false from the true”.
And so it is with names and words. Names are symbolic forms (integrating, presentiating), while words are simply signs (distantiating, abstraction) and in those terms, they reflect the two different modes of attention corresponding to the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. Names and words are different critters. A name is an invitation to establish a relationship, while a word attempts to gain psychological distance. This distinction between names and words, however, actually supports Mr. McGilchrist’s neurodynamics, so it’s surprising that he overlooked it.
But I’ll have more to say on that later.