Peterson versus McGilchrist, II

I think of the Peterson-McGilchrist encounter as one of the seminal debates (if debate it was) of our time, so I’ld like to continue my discussion of that which I began with the previous post on the subject (“Peterson versus McGilchrist I“). It was, in fact, more akin to a Socratic dialogue, and given my preference for McGilchrist, I, of course, see McGilchrist in the role of a new Socrates. I think he fits that role very well.

So, it we re-imagine the “Peterson versus McGilchrist” debate as a Socratic dialogue, some things about it become very revealing also about the difference between dialogical process and dialectics, as well as being an encounter between the perspectival and the aperspectival.

Dialogics and dialogical metod is undergoing something of a revival today — Bohmian dialogue, Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical method“, M.M. Bakhtin’s “dialogical imagination“, Jean Gebser’s “grammatical mirror“, and so on. The dialogical approach represents something of an assault on “the Greek Mind” and the excessive abstraction of dialectics, probably best exemplifed by Rosenstock-Huessy’s essay “Farewell to Descartes“. Dialectic — in terms of thesis-antithesis-synthesis — itself represents an abstraction from dialogue, ie, from the real world process of people speaking and listening as performed in the Socratic dialogues.

For Socrates, in fact, reason and thinking were public and not private, inward affairs. When Socrates wished to reason and think, he went down to the agora (the market) in Athens. He emphasised that point, too, by never writing anything down. What we have of the Socratic dialogues are Plato’s interpretation, and there’s plenty of suspicion that Plato may have used Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own philosophy. But what is not disputed is this Socratic dialogical process itself as Socrates’ prefered method of thinking, and that for Socrates thinking and reasoning were almost completely public and social processes.

Plato is another matter. Plato has been charged with having been the first to separate mythos and logos (become, in our parlance “arts & sciences” and the “two cultures”, or also the intuitive and the rational). You see in this segregation of mythos and logos also the incipient manifestation of the division between McGilchrist’s “master” and “emissary” modes of attention and of what Gebser calls “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” (Plato evidently despised poets). So, in these terms “mythos” corresponds to McGilchrist’s “Master” while the “logos” corresponds to McGilchrist’s “Emissary”. To put that another way, the lyrical (also the dramatical and epical) was henceforth to be subordinate to the analytical, and Plato laid the basis for the separation of dialogue and dialectics (even though the two words have the same meaning).

(So, we have these four styles of speech in terms of dramatics, lyrics, epics, and analytics, corresponding also to Blake’s four Zoas. But Urizen is the analytical or indicatival mode. Another way of expressing that is imperatival, optative, narrative, and indicative grammatical forms — see Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Origins of Speech and his Speech and Reality).

In Descartes, especially (but also before Descartes) dialectics and dialogics become formally separated in mind-body dualism. Thinking becomes an almost completely abstract inward and private affair. As Rosenstock-Huessy put it, the same mind that puts and debates the question is the same mind that is expected to answer and resolve the question. Thinking becomes a kind of monologue one conducts with oneself — the internal monologue, which is supposed to transpire according to formal rules of logic. There is, in this formulation, already a kind of incipient narcissism. As Rosenstock-Huessy also wryly observed, with Descartes “the abstractions of the eighteenth century enlightenment sill lingered sufficiently to veil the struggle for existence that is implied in every word we speak. The body was delegated to the struggle for food and shelter; the ‘mind’, however, with the optimism of the age of reason, was contemplating the truth of the matter.” (Speech and Reality, p. 10).

This also sets the tone for understanding “why Socrates?” and for understanding what is often mistakenly calls “the Greek Golden Age”. Certainly the Greeks of Socrates time did not think of it as such, but as an age of corruption and decadence. Gebser would describe that as the “deficient mode” of the mythological consciousness structure. So, far from being a “Golden Age” it was quite the contrary to the Greeks themselves. Socrates and Plato were seen as impious corrupters of youth, and this accounts for Plato’s antipathy towards mythos. The new mental-rational consciousness was actually understood by them to be the salvation of Greece from its decadence, and it arose in that context. So while it is conventional to describe Socratic dialogue in terms of a tripartite structure of speaker-listener and their subject matter, there is a fourth factor which conditions all these — the decadence of Greek civilisation and the breakdown of the mythical consciousness structure. For Plato, especially, the old consciousness was hopelessly decadent and corrupt.

This is also the historical context for understanding the Peterson-McGilchrist dialogue. Both men also see our times as hopelessly corrupt and decadent. That forms the “fourth” term — the background pressure — of the dialogue. But they take very different standpoints in relation to that. They have very different understandings of the correctives needed. Both are in agreement about the corruption and chaos of the present, but they don’t understand the reasons for that in the same way. It’s quite obvious. Peterson appeals for a revival of the mental-rational (and Enlightenment or “classical liberal” values), while McGilchrist (a Blake scholar as well) hopes against hope for a new integration of his “master” and “emissary” modes, which we might understand as healing Plato’s dichotomy between mythos and logos.

This backdrop of chaos, corruption, Angst, amidst the decline and crisis of the mental-rational consciousness (perspectival) is what makes this dialogue between Peterson and McGilchrist so engaging, and quite seminal in my view. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room. And, of course, I’ve made my own preference for McGilchrist’s approach quite clear in The Chrysalis, and expressed also why I think Jordan Peterson’s response to all this is quite deficient.

There are many ways to frame the encounter between Peterson and McGilchrist, and I’ve noted many such ways in previous posts and comments, but principally as the “perspectival” meets the “aperspectival”. But it could also be framed as the formal versus the informal, the psychistic versus the spiritual, the value of order versus the value of spontaneity, the rational meets the intuitive, the totalising versus the holistic, and so on. These are, of course, relative terms, and represent only accents, not absolute differences. Peterson’s accent is on the Emissary, and McGilchrist’s is on the Master, as it were. And to these might also be added the dialectical meets the dialogical (and perhaps also the individualistic versus individuation, which are also subtlely different)

Yet, in many respects, the Peterson-McGilchrist dialogue very much resembles Socrates and his various interlocutors in the Socratic dialogues, including the historical context of civilisational confusion, corruption and decline in which those dialogues transpired, and which provided the context for their meaning — the quest for a way out of all that. Socrates and Plato never did find a way out of the quagmire, but they did leave an impressive legacy (it’s said that all philosophy is but “a footnote to Plato”).

Some people are arguing that we are at “the end of philosophy” (perhaps just another “end of history” meme of which there are plenty enough today) — at the terminus of a 2500 year cycle, as it were, where nihilisms of all kinds are rampant. But there is a certain irony and paradox in “the end of philosophy” and “the end of history”, for they might very well be deficient interpretations of the twilight of the dominance of the mental-rational or anticipations of Gebser’s “time-freedom” which endings also point to the dawn of something really new.

For millennia, human beings learned to think through philosophy, and that time seems to be passing away. This may herald a disaster and a new Dark Age or it may well signal Gebser’s “restructuration” or “mutation” of consciousness towards the integral. Perhaps even both.







10 responses to “Peterson versus McGilchrist, II”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Another interesting question to explore in relation to the Peterson-McGilchrist dialogue — what is the status of “truth” in their respective views? This is also an important question, because I sense their is a difference here in their respective viewpoints. It’s not a question I recall having come up in The Master and His Emissary directly, but I suspect that McGilchrist would accept the Buddhist distinction between the Ultimate Truth and Relative Truth as corresponding to his “master” and “emissary” modes. That would be consistent with Blake’s views — that the Zoas have their “Eternal Forms” (absolute forms) but also their “fallen forms” and emanations as they manifest within spacetime (or Ulro or “the Mundane Shell”).

    These are the matters that become accessible to Gebser’s “diaphanous” consciousness as well — the transparency of the world.

  2. mikemackd says :

    I would like to leapfrog your insight from the still-live National Icons discussion into this string, in terms of this struggle you mention here as a battle between the routine and the spontaneous. There, you said:

    The irony in that is, it is no longer “cognitive perspectivism” but aperspectivity. That is, in some respects, Bohm’s proprioception. In order to enter into the consciousness of another’s “perspective” means you have to be able to suspend it or transcend it in yourself. That’s the principle of knowledge we call “empathetic epistemics”.

    When our Emissaries are our (including that processes’) Masters, that capacity may be abused big time by our Satanic states, both within ourselves and in societies, within the process of our fading the spontaneous into the routine.

    It is increasingly apparent that the battle for hearts and minds is easier won by working from hearts to minds than from minds to hearts. Our fears and hates are particularly vulnerable to that process. Our wish to dominate, judge etc. others via Ulro’s error is routinely manipulated via our wegos by our spontaneous impulses being directed like this: “identify with poor innocent X: bad Y. Here, buy our guns and kill Bad Y with them”.

    The links I supplied back there at National Icons, dividing problems into simple to complicated on the one hand, and complex to wicked on the other, also recommend horses for those courses. As I was saying to I.W., you can make problems worse by applying the wrong horses to try to tackle the courses. For example, the megamachine’s treating on people (on the complex to wickedly difficult side) like machine components (on the simple to complicated side), is a source of many a making of wicked problems worse, even for the well-intentioned..

    There is a difference between rules and heuristics (rules of thumb: Gerd Gigerenzer’s the go-to-guy on them). In that “rules” attract out Satanic states. Heuristics? Not so much.

    Presumably Peterson’s editors would have kicked him out the door if he had tried to entitle his book “12 Heuristics for Life”. I have not read it, but from what you have said and what others’ say, it seems he really meant “rules”.

    • mikemackd says :

      I went to my Academia feed after posting this. Isn’t confirmation bias wonderful?

      It had this paper by Dana Amir:

      The Other as an Object of Conquest Versus the Other as Horizon: A Reading in Stephen Mitchell and Clarice Lispector

      This paper presents a dialogue between Clarice Lispector’s story “Love” and Stephen Mitchell’s ideas in his book Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time. Using Freud’s, Meltzer’s, Bion’s, and Lacan’s ideas as a starting point, the close reading of both texts offers an understanding of love as a unique interaction between the heimliche and the Unheimliche as well as between the capacity to relate to the other as a destination to be conquered and the capacity to relate to the other as a horizon that generates a perpetual motion within. The final sections of this paper offer that what makes movement possible is the commitment to the movement itself rather than to its target. Wherever the other is constituted within us as a horizon rather than as an object of conquest, movement toward that other, no matter its vicissitudes, will always be maintained.

      As I said, I haven’t read Peterson, but how far could his work be said to focus on conquest, in contradistinction to how I read McGilchrist, as focussing on “a horizon that generates a perpetual motion within”?

      • Scott Preston says :

        As I said, I haven’t read Peterson, but how far could his work be said to focus on conquest

        Probably quite a lot, as he’s known to be aggressive and combative (at least, according to an article about him in The Guardian).I certainly can’t imagine McGilchrist like that — more like a big cuddly teddy bear.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      There is a difference between rules and heuristics (rules of thumb)

      Yes, there is. And it’s, primarily, “cultural.”

      I suppose we’ll soon be passing laws against the usage of the term, “rules,” i.e. “rules of thumb,” as “rules” is not the “politically correct” term to use?

      I gather we’re to “do away” with “measurements” as well as “judgmentalism?”

      • mikemackd says :

        >> I suppose we’ll soon be passing laws against the usage of the term, “rules,” i.e. “rules of thumb,” as “rules” is not the “politically correct” term to use?

        >> I gather we’re to “do away” with “measurements” as well as “judgmentalism?

        …. Why?

        Well, gather ye whatever while ye may.

  3. mikemackd says :

    I would like to generalise Dr Dana Amir’s focus on interpersonal relations in her abovementioned paper “The Other as an Object of Conquest Versus The Other as Horizon” to the broad focus of self versus other here.

    As well as being a clinical psychologist and an academic she is a poetess, so I shall set the scene with a poet I have quoted here before, Guilluame Apollinaire, from his Calligrammes (1918):

    “We would show you kingdoms vast and strange
    Where the wisdom in flowers reveals itself to those who pick it
    There are new worlds, of colours rarely seen,
    Which, we must say, are real.”

    When she emerges into one such kingdom, I believe she will find James M. Corrigan’s there, with his (to me, Blakean) way of seeing the world differently, awareness as “the nature of all manifestation … it cannot be a faculty; it must be the whole”. She may well meet Iain McGilchrist there, if my anticipations of what he will write in his impending book are anywhere near the mark. She will wave happily to Whitehead, and she will sit down with the Spanish poet Ricardo Molina, and he will ask her the question from his “Respuestas”:

    “What if
    In the very question the answer hid?
    What if
    In the divine silence were heavenly acquiesence?
    What if
    The inquiry itself were our salvation?”

    And she will answer him as follows, from pp. 207-208 of that paper:

    Bion … pointed at three possible types of interaction he called “symbiotic,” “commensal,” and “parasitic”:

    “I shall not trouble with the commensal relationship: the two sides coexist and the existence of each can be seen to be harmless to the other. In the symbiotic relationship there is a confrontation and the result is growth producing though that growth may not be discerned without some difficulty. In the parasitic relationship, the product of the association is something that destroys both parties to the association” (Bion, W. R. 1970. “Container and contained transformed”. (In Attention and interpretation (pp. 72–82). London, UK: Tavistoc.p. 78).

    “If one formulates the relations between the familiar (or domestic) and the uncanny … one could conceive of a parasitic interaction between the uncanny and the familiar in coupledom …: In this relationship the uncanny and the familiar don’t entertain dialectic relations but rather negate each other. Commensal interaction, by contrast, will give rise to parallel lines of existence which neither disturb nor nourish each other. … The symbiotic mode, however, in which the uncanny produces a conflictual encounter with the familiar, yet also eventually learns to contain it (an option that Bion formulates as the capacity of the “Establishment … to contain the “Messianic idea,” e.g., the element of desire) is the one option for real growth.

    “Mitchell’s answer to the question, What makes it possible for love to remain in a state of ceaseless becoming? is on the face of it a circular one … that is, what enables transformation is transformation. But this apparent circularity encloses a crucial truth: for what makes movement possible is the commitment to the movement itself rather than to its target. Wherever the other is constituted within us as a horizon rather than as an object of conquest, movement toward that other, no matter its vicissitudes, will always be maintained.”

    And there Dana Amir and Ricardo Molina and the others there will find the vast and strange kingdom they are in is itself in that movement, and that kingdom is the one that, unless we turn and become like children, we cannot enter.

    • mikemackd says :

      Oh, and Albion will be there too, accompanied by Didymus Judas Thomas. Albion shall be as naked as Blake portrayed him, and Thomas will explain that “Jesus said: When you unclothe yourselves and are not ashamed, and take your garments and lay them beneath your feet like little children, and tread upon them, then [shall ye see] the Son of the living One, and ye shall not fear”, and that the kingdom they are in “is spread over the earth and men do not see it.”

      • mikemackd says :

        Most long here will understand that I read Thomas in this context as referring to clothes as body armour, rules armour, against the ridicule and other weapons of the other. But for anyone not familiar with earlier posts, I mean to to see the world through beginner’s mind, as in the Krishnamurti / Bohm dialogues, and, thus naked, the other not as a potential conqueror or conquest but as a horizon.

  4. donsalmon says :

    IW – I assume you were joking about passing laws. But I ask again – is there even a scintilla of evidence, outside of conservative publications and obscure, usually misquoted left wing academics (including undergrad and grad students) that “political correctness” is a real problem? Does it affect ANYBODY in any substantial way in their real (as opposed to media-mediated) day to day lives?

    (note, these are rhetorical questions)

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