McGilchrist and Late Modern Madness

I am slowly working my way through Iain McGilchrist’s marvelous new book The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. It is certainly makes for rewarding reading, and has led me back to some earlier postings in The Chrysalis for which McGilchrist provides an even fuller account. Those postings explored the limitations and functional deficiencies of the Late Modern Mind, or what Jean Gebser called “the mental-rational” (or “perspectival”) structure of consciousness now functioning in “deficient mode”. McGilchrist’s thesis about the “two modes of attention” of the divided brain, and the problem of the hypertrophy of the left-hemisphere mode helps deepen our appreciation for Gebser’s diagnosis of our present condition. So, let’s review once more those earlier postings in light of McGilchrist’s insights.

In those past postings, we discussed how the Cartesian method (and the Enlightenment more broadly) was rooted in the invention of perspective in the Renaissance, and we illustrated that by an illustration of Descartes’ new method of thinking said to be in his own hand, as well as associated illustrations. This structure is what Jean Gebser calls “the perspectival” mode of consciousness and perception in contrast to other structures he refers to as “unperspectival” or “pre-perspectival” (and also “aperspectival” or “integral”). Unlike the unperspectival or pre-perspectival modes, the perspectivising mode is a form of consciousness adapted to the mastery of reality conceived as a space of three-dimensions but, as it turns out, is ill-adapted to handling a reality now conceived as a spacetime structure of four dimensions. For Gebser, then, the “irruption” of time into consciousness is the initial condition for the increasing deficiency and incipient breakdown of the perspectival structure of consciousness.

Now, when we examine Descartes’ illustration of his own “wondrous strange method”, we see that it is clearly perspectivising.

And such was the enthusiasm for this new way of looking at things that others constructed their own illustrations of this novel way of looking

What leaps out from these illustrations is that the mind is very narrowly focussed on and within only a very narrow section of reality, like the beam of a flashlight, and the individuals illustrated with their own “point of view” seem entirely isolated from one another equally, seemingly focussed only on their own special fragment of reality. Meanwhile, a whole 3/4 of the whole lies outside the parameters of this visual pyramid, effectively now become “the unconscious”.

This situation does, I think, perfectly illustrate the meaning of Blake’s objection to “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”.

Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton’s sleep!

And if you examine Blake’s own illustration of Newton, you see also that Newton is in the same pose as the the illustration of Descartes’ method, which is why the classical worldview is together often referred to as “Newtonian-Cartesian”

Blake’s “Newton”

Furthermore, this is also the posture of Blake’s deranged god “Urizen” (but who is only a fragment of the fuller entity he calls “Albion” along with the other three Zoas who “reside in the Human Brain”). In effect, Urizen is the god of Single Vision.

Moreover, the Cartesian method, which is quite characteristic of what we mean by “the Enlightenment”, became the image on the Great Seal of the United States. This is because this new nation called “the United States” wanted to be a nation founded solely on Enlightenment principles and ideals, so it adopted this structure as its symbol, and was quite proud not to have to contend with the historical baggage of the Old World.

As a consequence, the structure of American society and its institutional arrangements (including its “Social Contract”) are very tightly bound to the Enlightenment innovation, as evinced even by the motto on the Great Seal — novus ordo saeclorum — far more even than most other nations.

This is where McGilchrist’s insights into the divided brain and the “hypertrophy” of the left-hemisphere mode of attention becomes quite illuminating. This “hypertrophy” (or “hyperactivity” equivalently) is simultaneously the “hemineglect” of the more holistic and “global” view of the right-hemisphere mode of attention. These illustrations of the perspectivising mode of consciousness above beautifully illustrate this problem of hypertrophy and hemineglect, since this mode of attention and focus excludes, by its very structure, vast regions of reality around it. What we see illustrated, then, is the meaning of McGilchrist’s thesis that the right hemisphere mode of attention is “global” while the left-hemisphere mode of attention is more “local”. Or, to put that another way, the Whole and the Part respectively. So, the left-hemisphere mode, by its very structure, cannot help but be partial.

Currently, the left-hemisphere mode is the dominating mode, which McGilchrist considers a “usurpation” of the right-hemisphere’s more holistic approach which should be the dominant one, for which reason, of course, he calls it the “Master” mode and that of the left-hemisphere awareness (or what we would call the “ego consciousness”) the “Emissary” mode. The resolution of our difficulties and dysfunctionalities is for the Emissary to resume it’s role of service to the “master” mode — in effect, an integration of the two attentions.

This does, in many respects, recall Jean Gebser’s prospective “aperspectival” or “integral” structure of consciousness.

In Gebser’s understanding, the great anxieties or Angst of the present period represent a double situation — great anxiety about the seeming breakdown of the familiar certainties and roles of the past, simultaneous with the “breakthrough” of the radically new but unknown and unfamiliar. So, we are very much akin to Nietzsche’s tight-rope walker over an abyss, which is why Gebser asks us to rely on “Primal Trust”.

McGilchrist’s thesis certainly helps deepen our understanding of Gebser, and when Gebser draws a distinction between “the Whole” and the “Totality” (that is, the root paradox of the One and the Many) McGilchrist provides the neurological correlates to fully understand and appreciate Gebser’s distinction, that the right hemisphere mode of attention (the “Master”) is attuned to the Whole, while the left-hemisphere mode of attention (the “Emissary”) is concerned with details and with aggregation, summing, systematisation, etc. It also provides some insight into why Nietzsche stated that “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”, for Nietzsche was pretty sensitive to these two modalities, especially when he makes the distinction between the “intuitive” and the “rational”, or between the “Self” and the “Ego”, or to “switch perspectives” between foreground and background effects.

Finally, despite the anxieties we might experience about the global climate crisis or the pandemic, these are also compelling us to now think in planetary terms — the Earth as a whole and not as a mere confused jigsaw puzzle and patchwork of races, nations and nationalities with their “national interests”, and so on. Pity that it had to come in this way, but it is a rather blunt way to learn the lesson, since a crisis is a wake-up call.

15 responses to “McGilchrist and Late Modern Madness”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Another interesting matter I could have brought into the above post is McGilchrist’s characterisation of the right-hemisphere mode as attending to process and “betweenness”, while the left-hemisphere mode attends to “things” and thingness (hence the title of his book). That characterisation of the right-hemisphere mode as attending to “betweenness” is Buddhism’s interdepent origination or co-arising, or what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-be”.

  2. Krista Marson says :

    makes me proud to be a left-hander!

  3. davidm58 says :

    Thanks Scott. It’s great to have this review of what you’ve covered in the past, and I look forward to hearing more of your reflections on McGilchrist’s new book!

  4. TheOakofNormal says :

    Really great line, “The Earth as a whole and not as a mere confused jigsaw puzzle and patchwork of races, nations and nationalities.” I always really took to heart when Emerson wrote in his journal and touched on in a few of his essays how Nationalism is kind of childish. He wasn’t approaching it in any leftist sense of get rid of borders, more just outgrowing the old herd mind/identity and joining with something much larger (to him The Oversoul). Of course people want to belong and group identity isn’t going anywhere, looks to be the opposite is going to happen for a good while, but the gift of becoming yourself and a true human being necessarily requires one to grow out of it and leave that all behind. I wonder what could be born once all these “Free Spirits” start getting together outside the old boundaries, customs, identities, etc.

  5. InfiniteWarrior says :

    The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake

    I won’t be able to read this essay in The Atlantic until the time once again rolls around that I have unfettered access to the site, so I can’t assess its merits at the moment, but I think it may be of interest to us here as the very term “nuclear family” is on my radar, at least. As often discussed in these pages, the “atomization” of society — from its inordinate emphasis on individualism (as opposed to individuation) to the very idea of the “nuclear” (as opposed to “extended”) family about which Brooks writes — is a very real phenomenon based on an historical worldview that has exceeded its limits and become deficient and distorting: the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview about which Scott writes herein. As also discussed here often, this worldview and paradigm has invaded and overrun the so-called “soft” sciences (psychology and sociology) and set its sights even on the arts and humanities, all of which historically have struggled to be taken as seriously as the so-called “hard” sciences, e.g. physics.

    If anyone is interested, kindly let me know what you think.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Woot! Yeah. Managed to read it and am definitely seeing the aforementioned, underlying dynamics explored thus far.

    • TheOakofNormal says :

      How do you separate proper and healthy individualism from individuation? To me, they are one in the same. When most institutions are in deficient mode, couldn’t the atomization of society be an opportunity?

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        You bet. I think so, at least.

        I think the keywords in your comment are proper and healthy as differentiated from improper and unhealthy (or unwholesome), i.e. the idea of “individualism” held up to us by society, which we’ve had quite enough of, thank you very much — “rugged” individualism and notions about “the individual” being completely separate and apart from all else.

        In natural processes of individuation, the principle of self-similarity is in play, but so is a slight difference in reflection of the original pattern. I’m fond of the idea that we are all very similar in nature, but also each unique and often liken us to snowflakes in that regard. (Not that kind of “snowflake,” of course, but actual snowflakes.)

        None of this is either/or from our perspective here, but Scott is much better at weaving such concepts together than I am. I just deposit links to things I think worthy of contemplation…when I’m not kidding around and trying lift our spirits, of course. (What can I say? I enjoy being silly sometimes.)

      • Scott Preston says :

        The distinction between individuation and individualism (all such “isms” being the production of the left-hemisphere of the brain) is an ideal illustration of what McGilchrist describes as the two modes of attention of the divided brain.

        Individuation begins with the premise of the whole, whereas individualism reverses that, or mirrors it in a somewhat distorted way. Steve posted something from John Wren Lewis a little while ago, and it’s a perfect description of what is meant by “individuation”

        ” He spoke about his experience being, not “John”, but “Eternity John-ing”, or “Eternity focusing down into this body-mind perspective”, with “Eternity” (that is, “Light”) being his true nature and the one that emanates and perceives everything that is objective.”

        In other terms, the distinction between individuation and individualism runs precisely parallel to Gebser’s distinction between the Whole and a Totality. What happens, in McGilchrist’s terms, is that the “Emissary” “usurps” the truth of the Master’s perceptions and knowledge, and that usurpation is an inversion of that perception and knowledge, for which reason McGilchrist speaks of the left-hemisphere as a “house of mirrors”. Individualism is only a pale reflection and shadow-form in the mind of what is otherwise known to the right hemisphere mode as what we call “individuation”.

        • steve says :

          Man is placed on this planet and put into the occupation of a body to develop Individuality, Consciousness and Will.

          Individuality – by separating “I” and “it”.

          Consciousness – by manifesting differently mechanical negative reactions.

          Will – by always living purposively.

          You know the object, the means and you know that no one will help you in this world. Conscious effort is continuity in having always a purpose.

          A.R. Orage…Gurdjieff Work

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