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.




12 responses to “McGilchrist on Language”

  1. abdulmonem says :

    Words are our tools to ignite the perceptual faculty of each others to move to a better understanding of ourselves and our world. Thank you. The named is prior in existence to the names, the names that play the role of signifier in the way of the named. The name horse is a different being from the being of the actual horse. Ibn Arabi speaks about the four beings of our existence, the actual being , the mental being. the word being in its both forms of writing and sound. The difficulty augments as we move in the territory of the non-physical concepts and their names. One has to know the distance between these different beings to avoid being submerged in the Mara of the world that engulfed humanity over the ages. That is the reason for the parables of the fire ,the tree and the cave as abodes for igniting the divine light as the only light that helps the human to see in this dark mess of perverted interpretations and rimless thoughts. It is not strange, as there is stomach to digest food, lungs to utilize air. there is the left brain to accommodate the devilish negative vibrations and the right side to accommodate the positive vibrations of both the source and its other healthy radiations. We live in a wonderful world where all possibilities are present, the knowing presence the acting presence. Is it not awesome to participate in this knowing and acting presence despite all the pains and sufferings that cloud the beautiful vision of the presence that used disaster as an opportunity and calamity as an outlet for new hope. Never lose hope, the adage Abraham lifted up in the jouney of his wealthy and healthy life and never apply human attributes to the non-comparable, non-identified god.

  2. Steve Lavendusky says :

    Scott – Google – MALCOLM GUITE ON POETRY AS A DOOR INTO THE DARK. Very nice interview. THE MASTER AND THE EMISSARY becomes a topic of conversation.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    Enlightening essay. Thank you.

    “And most of what the left-hemisphere accomplishes in relation to the right can be described as “perversion”.”

    Thought provoking.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    Hi Scott, i read an article on mystical experience by Gary Eachman on reality sandwich, in which he talks about the gnostic knowledge vs epistemic knowledge, intellectual vs spiritual, referring at the end to McGilchrist book the master and the emissary emphasizing the integral approach to the brain without division. I think he has something to the subject you are intending to address. Look forward to your input.

    • alex jay says :

      Hi my Sufi friend:

      “… gnostic knowledge vs epistemic knowledge, intellectual vs spiritual …”

      Why the “vs”? Two sides of the same coin … are you getting Hegelian on us? (P.S. I’m a bit of a Gnostic fan, but not the way you might think)

      Take this well put paragraph from today’s UK Guardian’s (a schizophrenic newspaper) article on Einstein’s relativety from a science fiction point of view:

      “In Shikasta, the wide-ranging imagination of Doris Lessing took the union of consciousness and physics to its ultimate conclusion, in a universe where travel between worlds is achieved by the passage through higher planes of existence that we would probably recognise as forms of heaven or nirvana. It’s one of SF’s strange conundrums, that the further it projects hard scientific fact into our future, the more it arrives back at a vision that echoes the myths of spirituality and religion.”

      Heck, I think Longsword and I have been down this road for longer than I can remember. But then again the memory is not as good as it once was?

      • alex jay says :

        Oh .. I didn’t quite clarify:

        “in a universe where travel between worlds is achieved by the passage through higher planes of existence that we would probably recognise as forms of heaven or nirvana.”

        It’s totally Gnostic (derivitive from eons before) in the sense of the journey of the soul! For that you will have to reference the various citations I attributed to Manly P. Hall in previous posts.

      • Scott Preston says :

        It’s one of SF’s strange conundrums, that the further it projects hard scientific fact into our future, the more it arrives back at a vision that echoes the myths of spirituality and religion.”

        this is quite true. Nietzsche’s “post-modernism” is actually pre-Socratic influence — particularly the influence of Heraclitus. T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” also addresses exactly this same thing

        The reasons are, in a way, quite simple. All Time Past and Time Future are being integrated with time present in exactly the way Gebser anticipated it would be — all abiding aspects of the ever-present origin. It’s not a cycling back, but an integration, so that the imagination of the future is shot through with ancient insights.

        But this also pertains somewhat to McGilchrist’s observation that consciousness is beginning to shift once again toward the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere — ergo what we call “enantiodromia” or “chaotic transition” or coincidence of opposites or conjunction of opposites. All completely explicable in terms of brain asymmetry — ie, the two contrary modes of attention of the brain hemispheres. Until McGilchrist, we really didn’t know the why of “enantiodromia” or reversal at the extremity, or hybris followed by Nemesis. Why wouldn’t we expect to find the cosmic laws encoded also in the functions and structure of the brain itself?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes, abdulmonem. Thanks for the suggestion. I found two articles by Gary Lachman on Reality Sandwich that are pertinent here. The one you are referring to is “Mystical Experience and the Evolution of Consciousness” and is located here for those interested,

      the other essay is called “Consciousness Wars”, and brings together Gebser and McGilchrist. It also covers a lot of the same themes raised in The Chrysalis, of which I’ll have more to say later

      I didn’t get as far into McGilchrist’s book as I had hoped while I was away (and I have to leave again next week for another week, so may not build up much of a head of steam to finish it then either). It has a few shortcomings, but overall The Master and His Emissary is a significant contribution to human self-understanding — a great contribution, in fact. It provides solid empirical evidence for all those things we’ve talked about in The Chrysalis.

      Further evidence for McGilchrist is found in Jill Bolte-Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight. She was also a neurologist, and she suffered a debilitating left-hemisphere stroke in 1996. The right-hemisphere remained intact, and her experience is pretty much full verification of McGilchrist’s description of the different (holistic) mode of attention of the right-hemisphere compared to the left. So, those who are familiar with McGilchrist’s book should really also become familiar with Bolte-Taylor’s book also. Together, they make a powerful case for the judgment that the left-hemisphere dominance or usurpation is the cause of our delusions and, indeed, human narcissism.

      In other words, what I’ve been calling “point-of-view” consciousness and “overview” consciousness is grounded in McGilchrist’s description of the two different “modes of attention” or perception of the two brain hemispheres. Wow.

      But, there’s also more to it. McGilchrist himself speaks of a “horizontal axis” between the left and right hemispheres, but also of a “vertical axis” between the anterior and posterior functions of the brain. This “anterior-posterior” bilateralism doesn’t play much of a role in his book (although he brings it up on occasion). Once you include this “vertical axis” in the overall picture, you get Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” and the symbolic of the Sacred Hoop (or Medicine Wheel) too.

      Hegel and dialectics plays a big role in McGilchrist, and I think that represents a limitation of the book (although a forgiveable one, given the complexity of the matters he has to address and the need to simplify things). It is not yet “fourfold vision”. There’s a certain irony in McGilchrist’s need to explain and express the mode of attention of the right hemisphere in terms of the thinking technology of the left hemisphere (dialectics) but that’s not a sin, only an irony. Fourfold can’t be fully accounted for in terms of the twofold or threefold, but only hinted at. Dialectics is a valid aspect of the fourfold, still.

      McGilchrist is himself aware of this, of course — in a way. But he also needs to take into account the anterior-posterior relation as well as the right-left relationship. To do that, requires a quadrilateral logic rather than a dialectical one. Only then can we begin to speak of “integral consciousness”. in its fullest sense an in empirical terms — as reflected in neurobiology and neuropsychology. The anterior-posterior relationship is the relationship between the “later” and the “earlier” — the temporal. But this doesn’t play much of a role in McGilchrist’s book, although it’s not totally absent either.

      But more on that later.

      • Scott Preston says :

        I might add to this comment that “gnosis” isn’t sufficient in itself. It must be made effectual. Effectuality is what we mean by “power”. Effectuality is what we mean by “fruits” or “deeds”. Gnosis is not sufficient in itself, and this is what don Juan means by “claiming knowledge as power” — that is, effectuality.

        The objections to “mysticism”, in its worst sense, is just that. Unless it is effectual, it is worse than useless. To a certain extent, this is addressed by the Bodhisattva vow in Buddhism — that unless enlightenment is claimed as power — being effectual — it is nothing.

  5. abdulmonem says :

    Scott I concur, lion without teeth is a hopeless carcass. Moral effectuality in serving god in the forms of others including ourselves.
    Alex I am quoting not saying but I agree with what you said.
    Thank you all.

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