Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being. (Heidegger)
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him? (Zhuangzi)
To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality. It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture. Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe. It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years. This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality. This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are. It is not a case of what we think, but how. This is such a simple statement to make, but a much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.
I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place. Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year. McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.” And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today. Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson. I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s. It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.
The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life. Eisenstein says:
Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control. Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite. This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.
What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books. A few disclaimers: I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible. It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation. Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked. Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly. My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion. I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.
Adam John Miller
20th December 2018
The Master and his Emissary
The Divided Brain and the Making of the western World
There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own – the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins. (McGilchrist)
Divided Brain, Divided World
Iain McGilchrist was a professor of English Literature at Oxford University before retraining in medicine to become a neuroscientist and psychiatrist. His 2009 book, The Master and his Emissary, the result of twenty years research and writing, develops a theory based on the way that the two hemispheres of the brain each ‘attend’ to the ‘world’ differently, and the implications this has had with regards to the history of ‘Western’ thought. The book asks why an organ seemingly evolved to create connections would be completely divided in half and what ‘purpose’ this might serve. Historical dichotomies of reason vs emotion, or language vs imagery are dismissed in the light of recent neuroscience research into stroke victims who lose the function of one or the other brain hemisphere. The results of this research suggest instead that it is not what each hemisphere does, but how, and that every function of the brain is served by both hemispheres. McGilchrist’s theory is that the relationship between the two brain hemispheres is far from symmetrical (as might be expected) and that an analysis of the history of western civilisation (philosophy, art, literature and science) suggests times when this asymmetry has been more or less pronounced. Before this analysis, the book begins by looking in detail at the structure of the brain and describing the differences between the ways in which each hemisphere attends to and processes reality.
Right, Left, Right
The right hemisphere of the brain is the Master of the book’s title and the left hemisphere, the Emissary. Previous theories of brain lateralisation have suggested that the left hemisphere, which controls the right hand, has been the scientist, the rationalist, the language centre that ‘grasps’ meaning and that the right hemisphere is the artist, the dreamer, the emotional and exploratory centre. Recent cognitive neuroscience findings suggest this is not the case, and that both hemispheres of the brain are to a large extent involved in everything. It is not what they are involved with, but how. It could even be said that each hemisphere possesses its own personality. The right hemisphere of the brain receives all of the unfiltered, unprocessed data from the environment, through the sensory organs of the body (skin, eyes, ears, nose, mouth). It is how we are ‘present’ in the ‘now’, intimately connected to ourselves, each other and our environment. So connected, in fact, that the strict spatial and temporal boundaries between ‘things’ are absent and instead, there are flows of energy quite similar to the ‘ultimate reality’ described by contemporary physics. Alone in this hemisphere, there are no eternal things as such, the sense of ‘self’ is embodied, unmediated and ‘one’ with the flux of everything else. In some ways it could be said that there is no experience, just the territory, the field, chaos. This is obviously not the best ‘state of mind’ to be in for survival and so this data must be processed by the left hemisphere of the brain, the data must be re-presented into useful information in order to navigate the territory. It must be mapped, focused and ordered. This is how the brain has evolved to find food, to be able to distinguish what is necessary for survival from what is not. The left hemisphere of the brain controls the right hand, which for a statistical majority of people is their stronger hand, that grasps at things, providing us with our metaphor for comprehension and understanding. The world of the left brain hemisphere is mechanical, lifeless and disembodied. It sees ‘things’ as made up of disconnected, discrete bits that can be categorised for utility and consistency of reference across time and space. McGilchrist suggests:
Experience is forever in motion, ramifying and unpredictable. In order for us to know anything at all, that thing must have enduring properties. If all things flow, and one can never step into the same river twice – Heraclitus’s phrase is, I believe, a brilliant evocation of the core reality of the right hemisphere’s world – one will always be taken unawares by experience, since nothing being ever repeated, nothing can ever be known. We have to find a way of fixing it as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow. Hence the brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing to bring two different worlds into being. In the one, we experience – the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other we ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power.
These two aspects of the world are not symmetrically opposed. They are not equivalent, for example, to the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ points of view, concepts which are themselves a product of, and already reflect, one particular way of being in the world – which in fact, importantly, already reflect a ‘view’ of the world. The distinction I am trying to make is between, on the one hand, the way in which we experience the world prereflectively, before we have had a chance to ‘view’ it at all, or divide it up into bits – a world in which what later has come to be thought of as subjective and objective are held in a suspension which embraces each potential ‘pole’, and their togetherness, together; and, on the other hand, the world we are more used to thinking of, in which subjective and objective appear as separate poles. At its simplest, a world where there is ‘betweenness’, and one where there is not. These are not different ways of thinking about the world: they are different ways of being in the world. And their difference is not symmetrical, but fundamentally asymmetrical. (McGilchrist)
Having set out the evidence for the differences between the two hemispheres, McGilchrist undertakes a thorough and extensive analysis of the history of Western civilisation from the pre-Socratic Greeks through philosophy, art and science, right up to the present and the ‘world’ we find ourselves in today. As the parable of the Master and his Emissary, borrowed from Nietzsche, that gives the book its title suggests, it is McGilchrist’s opinion that the left brain hemisphere, consumed by self-importance, has usurped the right hemisphere and ‘taken the reins’. At certain times throughout the recorded history of Western civilisation, this asymmetry has been more or less pronounced, but it is with the birth of the idea of discrete and separate selves and, coincidentally or not, the beginnings of the alphabet and written word that the left hemisphere can be said to have become dominant. The ‘values’ of the left hemisphere can be said to have ‘infected’ all of our narratives, indeed, the very idea of narrative, of linearity, is a product of the way the left hemisphere sees the world. It brings to my mind the famous image of the evolution of man, which sees evolution from the point of view of progress, as teleological. This is not to say that to see the right hemisphere as the Master is to say that the left hemisphere, the Emissary, is unnecessary. Indeed, the lateralisation of the brain suggests that the two hemispheres need each other. Without the ability to discriminate between ‘things’ we would be completely inert and not survive. Rather, the process of the raw data of the field, of chaos being mapped, must thereafter be ‘returned’ to the context of the whole from which it came, to be assimilated back into the right hemisphere. Otherwise we are mistaken in thinking that our map is synonymous with the territory. As in Jorge Luis Borges’ wonderful poetic evocation of this very idea, On Exactitude in Science, Alfred Korzybski’s famous maxim “the map is not the territory” and, more wittily as “the menu is not the meal” by the great Alan Watts. McGilchrist says, “Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance – second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole. These gifts of the left hemisphere have helped us achieve nothing less than civilisation itself, with all that that means. We need the ability to make fine discriminations, and to use reason appropriately. But these contributions need to be made in the service of something else, that only the right hemisphere can bring.”
So, what does all this mean for our idea of ourselves? If ‘ultimate reality’ is really nothing more than a constant flux of energy and the ‘reality’ in which we function is a narrow mapping of this, if each of our brain hemispheres attends to the world in completely different ways, what is the essence of self we feel that transcends this? Is it biological? The Corpus callosum is the knot of tissue that connects the two hemispheres, processing the information flow between the two, is this the self? Or is it spiritual? Is it the soul? If, as Heraclitus says, you can’t step in the same river twice, who are we?
Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard neuroanatomist who, in 1996, suffered a massive stroke and lost the functions of her left brain hemisphere. Her brilliant book, My Stroke of Insight, describes her experience of this happening: “My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me. I understood that at the most elementary level, I am a fluid.” This is the experience described by the stroke victims interviewed by McGilchrist for his book. Those that had a stroke in the left hemisphere lost the ability to speak, to comprehend numbers and their sense of self as we would commonly think of it. Those that lost the functions of their right hemisphere lost the ability to contextualise, to put together in their minds the discrete and separate parts they saw as comprising the world.
It seems to me that the psychological ‘self’ is a constant embodied process, not a linear process, more of a spiral. It is being, what Heidegger calls Dasein, ‘presence’, the balanced operations of raw data from the body’s sensory organs being re-presented and mapped by the left hemisphere, then returned to the context of the whole in the right hemisphere. A process that is ever-present. Our spatial and temporal concepts, of boundaries and linearity, are a part of the map, of utility, and whilst useful and necessary, not commensurate with ‘ultimate reality’. The asymmetry of our hemispheric functions, where this process is getting ‘stuck’ at the level of the re-presented order of the left hemisphere, creates our sense of ‘self’ that has created civilisation, but also all of the problems synonymous with it. It creates the psychological trauma that we all carry in some form and the longing for experiences that transcend, be that through love, drugs, art or religion. The very language we use to communicate is the language of the emissary, the map, of bureaucracy. We have convinced ourselves that only through the lens of science can we ‘know’ reality and that the lens of poetry and prayer is a delusion. In fact, the concepts of ‘reality’ and ‘illusion’ are both products of left hemispheric thinking. Indeed, of thinking itself. One example that McGilchrist uses to illustrate this perfectly is music. Our transcendent experience of music is not in the disembodied notes, which individually are meaningless. It is not in the gaps between the notes, as that is silence. Rather, it is in the context of the whole. When a pianist learns a piece of music they must study the notes and cadences, but in order to perform the piece effectively, they must ‘lose themselves’ in the music. Top athletes ‘lose themselves’ when competing, when they have assimilated their training and act instinctively. Religious prayer, fasting and ritual are methods of ‘losing yourself’ to be one with God. ‘Eureka!’ moments in Science are often described in similar terms.
There is not a transcendent ‘self’ that these ‘things’ happen ‘to’. But that is not to say that ‘we’ do not participate. Attention is a necessary neural function of the brain. It is attention that alerts ‘us’ to potential dangers, to the unknown, to things that have not been mapped. Alan Watts says, you are making it happen and it is happening to you. These are the equally balanced processes that create our ‘world’, sensory data streaming into the right hemisphere unfiltered, being mapped by the left hemisphere to create a model which creates action and then that information returned to the context of the whole in the right hemisphere. This is always happening. McGilchrist says, “Through the direction and nature of our attention, we prove ourselves to be partners in creation, both of the world and of ourselves. In keeping with this, attention is inescapably bound up with value – unlike what we conceive as ‘cognitive functions’, which are neutral in this respect. Values enter through the way in which those functions are exercised: they can be used in different ways for different purposes to different ends. Attention, however, intrinsically is a way in which, not a thing: it is intrinsically a relationship, not a brute fact. It is a ‘howness’, a something between, an aspect of consciousness itself, not a ‘whatness’, a thing in itself, an object of consciousness. It brings into being a world and, with it, depending on its nature, a set of values.”
The realisation of [the reality of experience] dissolves the beliefs in distance, separation and otherness. The common name we give to this absence of distance, separation and otherness is love and beauty. It is that for which everyone longs. In this realisation true knowledge and love are revealed to be one and the same – the experiential realisation that the true nature of the apparently inside self and the apparently outside world are one single reality made out of the transparent light of Awareness, that is, made out of the intimacy of our own being.
This revelation of understanding and love strikes at the heart of the fundamental presumption upon which our world culture is founded, the presumption of duality – I, the separate inside self, and you or it, the separate outside object, other or world. All conflicts within ourselves and between individuals, communities and nations are based upon this presumption alone and all psychological suffering proceeds from it. Any approach to these conflicts that does not go to the heart of the matter will postpone but not solve the problem of conflict and suffering. Sooner or later as individuals and as a culture we have to have the courage, the humility, the honesty and the love to face this fact. The highest purpose of all art, philosophy, religion and science is to reveal this truth in an experiential manner although all these disciplines have temporarily forgotten this in our culture. (Rupert Spira, The Nature of Experience)
Logos and Dao
The Daodejing is a classic of Chinese philosophy, generally attributed to the apocryphal 6th Century BC sage, Laozi. Not unknown in the ‘West’, the Daodejing has been translated into English hundreds of times by such luminaries as Ursula K. Le Guin and Aleister Crowley and written about by many more. McGilchrist does make mention of the Dao in his book but I think there is an even deeper correlation of themes. Translation of ancient Chinese into English is extremely problematic, indeed, translation into Mandarin is difficult enough. The problem with English translations has been with the fact that the philosophy of the Dao has been interpreted through an Abrahamic lens. If it is not being dismissed as New Age or turned into well-being memes, then the concept of the Dao is often seen as synonymous with the traditional Western idea of God. This distorts the Daodejing considerably, which has much in common with process philosophy and, interestingly, with the 6th Century BC, Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. Heraclitus was somewhat of an anomaly and did not belong to any of the traditional schools of Pre-Socratic Greek thought. Indeed, he was known as Heraclitus the Obscure and shunned what he saw as a corrupt, degenerate and misguided society much in the same way that Laozi did. Whilst Heraclitus’ ideas have only survived in fragments of aphorisms, his concept of the Logos has, in one way or another, had a lasting effect on Western culture, not least via The Book of Genesis where it is traditionally translated as ‘word’, ‘reason’ or ‘plan’. Analysis of Heraclitus’ original meaning of Logos, however, shows many similarities with the Daodejing.
Comparisons of logos and dao have more often than not resulted in understanding both notions as transcendental or metaphysical principles. In religious studies, such comparisons or translations of dao as logos or even as ‘God’ are commonplace, since they both seem to have to do with the word bringing order, and with a higher transcendent being or guiding principle having provided the word. Such comparisons have overflowed to comparative philosophy, thus reinforcing and perpetuating the idea that Daoism is about some transcendental metaphysical entity or principle inadequately named dao.
There is nothing other than continuous transformation, and humans are no exception to this transformation; neither are humans somewhere outside this process, nor is there an overarching principle behind it all. The regularity in the process is not something other than the process. The Alpha-to-Omega teleology typical of Western thinking and conducive to an invention of a ‘First Cause’ or ‘origin’ that would see logos as a metaphysical principle that can be ‘counted on’ is absent in most classical Chinese thought, but especially in Daoism, because dao as the process itself does not aim at anything, and its ‘constancy’ is nothing more than constant change. Logos and dao are discourse, and both are impermanent structures that we need and live by. Dao is guiding discourse; it is speaking, signalling, leading. Both notions convey the idea that we are actively participating in the construal of the world and our place in it. Both Heraclitus and the Daoists suggest an attunement to what is larger than mere beings, without that larger ‘thing’ becoming a metaphysical principle, and they consequently advocate some way of thinking that accords rather than imposes. (Steven Burik, Logos and Dao Revisited: A Non-Metaphysical Interpretation in Philosophy East and West, Volume 68, Number 1, January 2018).
Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall’s ‘philosophical translation’ of the Daodejing from 1993 also addresses the problems inherent in interpreting Daoism through a metaphysical lens. Their analysis highlights the importance of the focus that must be situated within the field and not apart from it. Their interpretation of Daoism is, in my mind, a description of the very same processes described by McGilchrist’s theory of the importance of balance in the relationship between the two brain hemispheres. The field is synonymous with the right hemisphere and the focus with the left hemisphere.
The Daodejing encourages a comprehensive, processual view of experience that requires a full understanding of the larger picture and the ability to locate and appreciate the particular event within it. This broad view of the field of experience allows one to contextualise particular events, and it provides the peripheral vision needed to stay focused at the centre while at the same time anticipating future turns. By appealing to the inseparability of one and many, of continuity and multiplicity, of dao and the myriad of insistent particulars (de) we can identify two mutually reinforcing levels of awareness advocated in the Daodejing: what we might call focal awareness and field awareness.
In order to influence and anticipate the general flow of circumstances, we must have a focused awareness of each of the particular events that constitute our experience. We must be aware of the one as it is implicated in and influences the many. This kind of awareness is to see the insistent particular more broadly in terms of the continuous flow of experience.
One insight governing field awareness is that it requires a full cognisance of the mutual entailment of opposites, allowing one to track one’s collaboration in any particular situation. it foregrounds the relational character of the elements within the matrix of events, and the symbiotic continuities that obtain among them. (Hall and Ames)
The teleological interpretation of Dao and Logos as metaphysical principles is unsurprising when seen from the perspective described by McGilchrist, from the perspective of left hemisphere thinking, from the doctrines and ideologies of Abrahamic religion, the Platonic theory of Universal Forms, the rationality of Aristotelian Logic, from the perspective of analytic philosophy and dogmatic scientism.
Evolution and Imitation
The study of modern humans, of civilisation, is essentially the study of the records that have been left behind, of the written records and the anthropological and archaeological evidence of the transition from hunter gatherers, to tribes, to the first stirrings of agriculture, to civilisation. However valid we think the outcome of the interpretation of the historical record, it does seem to be the case that genetic evolution happens extremely slowly, almost certainly so in comparison to the seemingly exponential ‘progress’ of modern humans. If we view evolution teleologically, then we might ask why this has happened and pursue a path through a metaphysical labyrinth. If we view evolution, instead, as a symbiotic, ever-present, ever-occurring process of renewal and decay interrupted occasionally by random mutation, then we might ask how this has happened. It seems evident that abstract, symbolic language has played no small part in this process.
There are two sides to the language acquisition debate. On one side is Noam Chomsky and the adherents of his Universal Theory of Grammar, that we all have a ‘language gene’, an innate ability for language. This theory is challenged by the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, that the structure of a language affects its speakers world view, and the generative semantics of Chomsky’s pupil, George Lakoff. In addressing language acquisition and the “incomprehensibly rapid expansion of the brain in early hominids,” McGilchrist suggests that imitation has played a revolutionary part. Language is a reciprocal skill that can be imitated and is not to be treated the same, from an evolutionary perspective, as a physical attribute, which cannot. Language is a reciprocal skill in the way that it is of no use to an individual but has obvious advantages for a group:
An account of the development of skills such as language purely by the competitive force of classical natural selection has to contend not only with the fact that the skills could easily be mimicked by those not genetically related, thus seriously eroding the selective power in favour of the gene, but also with the fact that unless they were mimicked they wouldn’t be much use. Imitation would itself have a selective advantage: it would enable those who were skilled imitators to strengthen the bonds that tied them to others within the group, and make social groups stable and enduring. Those groups that were most cohesive would survive best, and the whole group’s genes would do better, or not, depending on the acquisition of shared skills that promote bonding – such as music [song], or ultimately language. Those individuals less able to imitate would be less well bound into the group, and would not prosper to the same degree.
The other big selective factor in acquiring skills and fitting in with the group would be flexibility, which comes with expansion of the frontal lobes – particularly the right frontal lobe, which is also the seat of social intelligence. Skills are intuitive, ‘inhabited’ ways of being and behaving, not analytically structured, rule-based techniques. So it may be that we were selected – not for specific abilities, with specific genes for each, such as the ‘language gene(s)’ or the ‘music gene(s)’ – not even ‘group selected’ for such genes – but individually for the dual skills of flexibility and the power to mimic, which are what is required to develop skills in general.
The achievement of imitation – the meta-skill that enables all other skills – may explain the otherwise incomprehensibly rapid expansion of the brain in early hominids, since there would be a sudden take-off in the speed with which we could adapt and change ourselves, and in the range of our abilities. Imitation is how we acquire skills – any skill at all; and the gene for skill acquisition (imitation) would trump the genes for any individual skills. Thus from a gene – the symbol of ruthless competition (the ‘selfish gene’), and of the relatively atomistic and oppositional values of the left hemisphere [of the brain] – could arise a skill that would enable further evolution to occur not only more rapidly but in a direction of our own choosing – through empathy and co-operation, the values of the right hemisphere [of the brain]. Genes could free us from genes. The great human invention, made possible by imitation, is that we can choose who we become, in a process that can move surprisingly quickly. As I put it above, we escape the ‘cheerless gloom of necessity’. This could also explain the apparent paradox for classical genetics, that communicative skills such as music and language would have to be acquired by individualistic competition, although the skills themselves would be of no use unless the whole group acquired them together. Perhaps we are not the ruthless competitors we have been conditioned to believe ourselves to be by mechanistic models of behaviour. Perhaps, even, the world is not a mechanism. (McGilchrist)
If we substitute ‘language’ in the theory above for ‘culture’ in general, then it seems apparent to me how we can account for the perpetuation of the idea of the separate, discrete, disembodied self. Our culture is built on the shoulders of giants. The current overriding narrative of our culture is scientism, a dogmatic belief in the intelligibility of a world ‘out there’, separate from ourselves. This is not to be confused with the scientific method: a methodology and process of enquiry, in the true sense of the practice, leading to theories becoming more or less likely, but never certain. A culture, or a person, who is certain has nothing to learn, and there is no real fixity to be certain of in nature (or ourselves) anyway. The fixity and certainty are the ordered mapping of left hemisphere thinking. It is the box-ticking, stagnant, lifeless bureaucracy of the Emissary. It seems to me that the idea of the intelligibility of a world separate from ourselves has been handed down through the history of Western civilisation from the first philosophers in Greece, through Plato’s articulation as knowledge from Universal Form and assimilated with Judaic monotheism into the Christian concept of the eternal individual soul. It is worth remembering that after classical antiquity, the first scientists in the Western tradition were the medieval Christian and Islamic monks who called themselves Natural Philosophers and sought God in nature. The term scientist did not exist until the 19th Century.
If, as McGilchrist suggests, we acquire reciprocal skills like language (and all the ideas and concepts built out of words) due to an innate ability for flexibility and imitation, if we can choose the narrative of the world we wish to inhabit and the sense of self implicit in that world, what is stopping us?
To sum up, it is fair to say that The Master and his Emissary has had a profound effect on me this year. It is a long book that does not leave a corner of the history of ideas untouched, but it is always engrossing and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in thinking about the world. Today, when everyone feels the need to be ‘right’ about everything, it is so refreshing to read and listen to humble, intelligent and articulate person. The book ends with the confession that “If it could eventually be shown definitively that the two major ways, not just of thinking, but of being in the world, are not related to the two cerebral hemispheres, I would be surprised, but not unhappy.”
Maps of Meaning
The Architecture of Belief
There are two ways of looking at the world: as a place of things, and as a forum for action. Because we are living beings, and must make our way, pragmatically, in the world, the second way of looking has to take precedence. This means that the world as a place of things is nested inside the world as a forum for action. This means that our conceptualisation of the world as objective must remain subordinate to our conceptualisation of the world as a place of Being. We are, in the final analysis, neither structure nor chaos. Each of us is instead best understood as a process. (Peterson)
Order and Chaos
Like many people, I have struggled with Jordan Peterson this year. Not with his ideas, but with the way they have been re-presented and (mis)interpreted by the media, by people from all points of the political and intellectual spectrum, and by Jordan himself. I was not properly aware of him prior to that Cathy Newman interview, but like a lot of people, I have been captivated by the ensuing spectacle. Having read very little in the way of legitimate or coherent criticism or praise for his ideas, after he was invited to have a discussion with Iain McGilchrist, I decided to read Maps of Meaning. What follows is my impression of that book and how it fits in with what I had been thinking about. It is not an analysis of the media circus, nor of Peterson as cultural commentator.
Peterson is a Clinical Psychologist and professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. Maps of Meaning was written over thirteen years whilst Peterson was an assistant professor of Psychology at Harvard University and, similarly to The Master and his Emissary, is an analysis of how the brain constructs meaning and an exploration of the history of civilisation and ideas from this perspective. Peterson and McGilchrist were brought together for a brief conversation by Dr Jonathan Rowson, a former chess Grand Master and Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). The premise of this conversation was to discuss to what extent Peterson’s theory of order and chaos mapped onto McGilchrist’s left and right hemisphere thinking. For Peterson, chaos is the unknown, the unmapped stream of data from our sensory organs and therefore, in this context, commensurate with McGilchrist’s right brain hemisphere. Order is the map, the categorisation of the left brain hemisphere. I would say that at this level, and indeed with Peterson’s extensive analysis of the relationship between order and chaos from a psychological and biological (as well as mythological and philosophical) perspective, that the postulation of the similarity with McGilchrist’s theory is certainly valid. The main difference between Peterson and McGilchrist, I think, is highlighted by the following exchange:
McGilchrist: In your talk, you talked about chaos and order, but, if I may say so, you seem—and maybe you’d like to gloss that a little—to suggest that it would be good… We can’t get rid of chaos, but you seem to imply that it would be better if we could, whereas my view is that chaos and order are necessary to one another, and there is a proper harmony or balance.
Peterson: Yeah, well, OK. I think that’s as deep a question as you could possibly ask, I would say, in some sense. I would say there’s a central theological issue there. The issue there is that, in Genesis, the proper environment of humanity is construed as a garden. I see that as an optimal balance of chaos and order. Nature flourishing, and it’s prolific and it’s chaotic. If you add harmony to that, you have a garden, so you live in a garden. You’re supposed to tend a garden. OK, so then a garden is created. It’s a walled space, because Eden is a walled space. It’s “paradeisos”. It’s a walled garden. The thing is, as soon as you make a wall, you try to keep outside out, but you can’t, because the boundaries between things are permeable. So, if you’re going to have reality and you’re going to have a bounded space, you’re going to have a snake in the garden. Then the question is, “what the hell should you do about that? Should you make the walls so high that no snake can possibly get in? or should you allow for the possibility of snakes, but make yourself strong enough so that you can contend with them?” I think there’s an answer, there, that goes deep to the question of, maybe, even why God allowed evil to exist in the world. It’s like, “well, do you make people safe or strong?” Strong is better, and safe might not be commensurate with Being. It might not be possible to exist and to be safe.
McGilchrist: Our existence is predicated on the fact that we die, so it’s never safe.
Peterson: Well, it’s certainly bounded, right? It’s inevitably wrapped up with that sort of finitude. There’s a lovely, lovely Jewish idea, an ancient idea. It’s one of the most profound ideas I’ve ever come across. It’s kind of a zen koan. It’s a question about the classic attributes of God: omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does a being with those three attributes lack? The answer is “limitation,” and the second answer is, “that’s the justification for being,” that the unlimited lacks the limited. And so the limited is us.
McGilchrist: For anything to come into existence, there needs to be an element of resistance, so things are never predicated on one pole of what is always a dipole. Everything always has that dipole structure.
Peterson: Yeah, it’s like a prerequisite for Being.
McGilchrist: It is, and it’s imaged in the yin-yang idea. But it seems to me very important, because, in our culture, we often seem to suppose that certain things are just good and other things are just bad, and it would be good if we could get rid of the bad ones. But, actually, by pursuing certain good things that are good within measure too far, they become bad, and so forth.
His career as a clinical psychologist must obviously go some way to explaining what he seems to suggest is a moral imperative for some extent of order being imposed upon chaos, but it is to this idea that I have kept coming back when thinking about Maps of Meaning and Peterson more generally. If you will permit a rather crude analogy, I see Peterson as something like Confucius to McGilchrist’s Laozi. Confucius was a contemporary of Laozi, a 6th Century BC Chinese sage, and his Analects had an extensive influence on Chinese life. Rooted in the same cosmology as the Daodejing, The Analects proposes that social cohesion is dependant upon a strict ethic of moral cultivation, virtue by way of devotion to one’s parents and ancestor veneration. It is my opinion that, from the psychological perspective, this can be read as similar to Peterson’s claim that “strong is better than safe” and that some imposition of order upon chaos is not only necessary, but good.
Whilst it is evident that this idea, and indeed all ethics and morality, can be seen as necessary for group cohesion and as evolving from generations of embodied behaviour being mapped and communicated to ensure group survival, I agree with McGilchrist when he says that “chaos and order are necessary to one another, and there is a proper harmony or balance.” Indeed, the fact of being able to make the differentiation between chaos and order, the acknowledgement of their ‘existence’ is only possible from the perspective of order. Chaos does not know itself to be chaos. The territory just is. Anything named is mapped and ordered. In the same way, Rupert Spira says that consciousness cannot truly know anything other than itself. The content of consciousness, what we say we know, is only the content of our map, our agreed upon categories. Therefore, any imposition of order can only come from the map that has decided what the necessary imposition of order is to be, which may well be commensurate with group survival, but to call this inherently good, in my opinion, is to impose a potentially dangerous constriction.
In their philosophical translation of the Daodejing, Ames and Hall make note of the difference between Confucianism and Daoism: “The Daodejing centres its discussion on cultivating the most productive relationship between the vagueness of the continuous field of experience and the narrowness of the insistent particulars. One pervasive theme of the text is that coercive, contentious activity diminishes the balance between focus and field… From a Confucian point of view, the vagueness of human relatedness is brought into focus through the performance of hierarchical roles and formal practices. Through these ritualising institutions all human beings are able to take a stand, and to find their place by establishing a value that is relative to the value of other members of their community.” The relationships referred to here are both between the focus and field of an individual (both brain hemispheres) and also between the individuals (foci) of a group (field).
Daoists ‘cultivate’ harmony through wuwei, which is often translated misleadingly as non-action, but is more accurately actionless-action. Ames and Hall say that wuwei “really involves the absence of any course of action that interferes with the particular focus of those things contained within one’s field of influence. Actions uncompromised by stored knowledge or ingrained habits are relatively unmediated: they are accommodating and spontaneous. As such, these actions are the result of deferential responses to the item or the event in accordance with which, or in relation to which, one is acting. These actions are “spontaneous” and “self-so-ing,” and as such, are nonassertive actions.”
In contrast, according to Ames and Hall, “in Confucianism, self is determined by sustained effort in deferential transactions guided by ritually structured roles and relations that project one’s person outward into society and into culture. Such a person becomes a focus of the community’s deference and a source of its spirituality.” To me, this seems synonymous with Peterson’s good imposition of order.
It seems to me that balance achieved by an imposition of order, either by the left brain hemisphere ‘deciding’ upon what is necessary to achieve harmony within an individual, or institutions within a culture, whether or not the individual or culture have decided at that time that the imposition is good, is not true harmony at all. This way of thinking is a product of the map, the mechanistic thinking of the left brain hemisphere that makes decisions based upon the narrow focus of itself, whilst confusing the data its decisions are based on with an ‘ultimate’ best (or right) course of action. Balance, in the sense that it is balance, is only achieved by order being returned to the full context from which it came. This process, which is always happening, is true harmony. It is love and beauty without attachment and coercion. It is individuality without separation. It is the natural cycle of growth and decay. Peterson himself says, “The old must die, must be destroyed, to give way to the new; the mysterious source of all things (that is, the unknown) is also their final destination.”
The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, as well as a place of things. We describe the world as a place of things, using the formal methods of science. The techniques of narrative, however – myth, literature, and drama – portray the world as a forum for action. The two forms of representation have been unnecessarily set at odds, because we have not yet formed a clear picture of their respective domains. The domain of the former is the “objective world” – what is, from the perspective of intersubjective perception. The domain of the latter is “the world of value” – what is and what should be, from the perspective of emotion and action. When identification with the group is made absolute, however – when everything has to be controlled, when the unknown is no longer allowed to exist – the creative exploratory process that updates the group can no longer manifest itself. This “restriction of adaptive capacity” dramatically increases the probability of social aggression and chaos.
We use stories to regulate our emotions and govern our behaviour; use stories to provide the present we inhabit with a determinate point of reference – the desired future. The optimal “desired future” is not a state, however, but a process – the (intrinsically compelling) process of mediating between order and chaos; the process of the incarnation of Logos, which is the world-creating principle. Identification with this process, rather than with any of its determinate outcomes (that is, with any “idols” or fixed frames of reference or ideologies) ensures that emotion will stay optimally regulated – and action remain possible – no matter how the “environment” shifts, and no matter when. In consequence of such identification, respect for belief comes to take second place to respect for the process by which belief is generated. (Peterson)
I think Peterson is right when stating that the world can be construed as a forum for action, and as a place of things ‘nested’ within it. This describes the process of the focus within the field, but the focus must be not be the result of coercion. To coerce is to impose hierarchy, which is to elevate something, either a process or a ‘thing’, as better than some other thing or process. Actionless-action is the true Logos, it is acting in accordance with the Dao. To me, Peterson seems to use Logos interchangeably, in some places as process and in others as word. Ames and Hall say that “the greatest obstacle to optimising relationships is coercion. If a healthy relationship is mutually accommodating, then the introduction of coercion, in which one party overwrites the importance of the other, entails a diminution of the creative possibilities of both.” This describes a relationship between people in a group, but also the true harmonious relationship between the two brain hemispheres. In McGilchrist’s terminology, the left brain hemisphere, the Emissary, has overwritten the importance of the right hemisphere, the Master. Without the proper balance, then the creative possibilities of both are diminished.
It seems to me that Peterson’s extensive references to mythology and the symbolism of Christianity could perhaps in some way explain what seems to me a muddled use of Logos. The Book of Genesis has generally been translated into English as In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, where ‘word’ in the original Greek is Logos. This is obviously where we get the modern meaning of the word ‘logic’ from and so it is obvious how the meaning of Logos is dramatically different to that of Heraclitus, for whom Logos was not a metaphysical teleological concept, but a process or dialogue, a conversation. It is also worth repeating that Peterson’s analysis is from a clinical psychological perspective, helping people to better participate in a world dominated by left hemisphere thinking, and therefore comes from, is a result of this very perspective. He is often asked whether he believes in God and often replies that he acts like he does. This is not avoiding the question. For Peterson, the symbolism of Christianity is a literal and metaphorical representation of the process of balance and harmony, both between order and chaos, and between individuals in a culture (group). God the father represents the protection and safety of culture (group behaviour) but also the danger of restriction and stagnation. The saviour is the ‘hero’ (the son) who confronts chaos and assimilates the new mapping of chaos back into the group (or the right hemisphere of the brain), into the full context, sacrifices themselves for the greater good (which is not a value). This process is the true Logos, not the Logos as word, as definition, as laws that must not be transgressed. It is from this idea that comes Peterson’s warning against group identity (wherever the group exists on the ‘political’ spectrum).
Loyalty to personal interest is equivalent to identification with the archetypal hero – the “saviour” – who upholds his association with the creative “Word” in the face of death, and in spite of group pressure to conform. Identification with the hero serves to decrease the unbearable motivational valence of the unknown; furthermore, provides the individual with a standpoint that simultaneously transcends and maintains the group.
The world of order and chaos might be regarded as the stage, for man – for the twin aspects of man, more accurately: for the aspect that inquires, and explores (which voluntarily expands the domain and structure of order, culture) and for the aspect that opposes that inquiry, exploration and transformation. The great story is, therefore, good vs. evil, played out against the endless flux of being, as it signifies. The forces of “good” have an eternal character (in the same way that Platonic objects are represented, eternally, in supracelestial space); unfortunately, so do the forces of evil. This eternality exists because all members of the species Homo Sapiens are essentially equivalent, equal before God: we find ourselves vulnerable, mortal creatures, thrown into a universe bent on our creation and protection – and our transformation and destruction. Our “attitude” towards this ambivalent universe can only take one of two prototypical forms: positive or negative. The precise nature of these two forms (which can only be regarded as complex “personalities”) – and of the background against which they work – constitutes the central subject matter of myth (and, dare it be said, the proper subject matter of the humanities and fine arts). (Peterson)
Heroes and Villains
Whilst I thought Maps of Meaning was a fascinating and rewarding book, it has been hard to escape the polarisation that Peterson has caused amongst people this year. I do not want to dwell on whether or not I agree with the content of his recent cultural commentary (Maps of Meaning is 20 years old), but I have a few things to say about the divide he has caused and to some degree, no doubt perpetuated. It has brought to my mind another divisive and demonised figure from the past, Aleister Crowley, dubbed by the media at the time as “The Wickedest Man in The World” but now a frequent pop-culture reference, adorning The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, name checked by David Bowie and influencing countless works of creativity and magick. Crowley’s life and work was, and still is, inaccurately re-presented and (mis)interpreted by both his adherents and detractors alike. One of many instances of Crowley trolling people is his repeated reference to child sacrifice, a ‘ritual’ he claimed to have performed 150 times a year. This was simply a reference to masturbation, but it sold papers and no doubt ‘raised’ Crowley’s profile amongst those who were drawn to his more nefarious antics. Whilst I make no claim to being well-versed in it, Crowley’s philosophy of Thelema bears many resemblances to modern clinical psychological practice, of pursuing your true will without interference, of shaking off the shackles of a restrictive and stifling culture and ‘achieving’ equilibrium. As has happened with Peterson this year, the media take things out of their context in order to sell papers, content (click bait). As is apparent from the many attempts in the media to intellectually engage with Peterson’s ideas, this is a result of a mixture of not understanding anything the person claims, ignorance, and preconceived agendas, the very things that Peterson warns against. No stranger to being misunderstood, Crowley, as well as extensive extrapolation of his own philosophy, also translated the Daodejing, noting:
The philosophy of Lao Tze communicated itself to me, in despite of the persistent efforts of my mind to compel it to conform with my preconceived notions of what the text must mean. Nothing exists except as a relation with other similarly postulated ideas. Nothing can be known in itself, but only as one of the participants in a series of events. Reality is therefore in the motion, not in the things moved. We cannot apprehend anything except as one postulated element of an observed impression of change. Tao is neither being nor not-being in any sense which Europe could understand. It is neither existence nor a condition or form of existence. One might suppose that the “Becoming” of Heraclitus might assist us to describe the Tao. To value [things] for themselves is deny the Tao and to be lost in delusion. To despise them is to deny the omnipresence of the Tao, and to suffer the illusion of sorrow. To discriminate between them is to set up the accursèd dyad, to permit the insanity of intellect, to overwhelm the intuition of truth, and to create civil war in the consciousness. It is a fatal mistake to discriminate between the spiritual importance of meditation and playing golf. (Crowley)
Ideas (or ‘things’) being taken out of (their) context is indeed nothing new. Another person whose ideas often suffer this fate is Friedrich Nietzsche. I am reminded of his infamous maxim, God is dead, often taken as a herald of the scientistic world view ‘conquering’ that of religion and mythology. This could not be further from the truth. Whilst Nietzsche did indeed mean that belief in God was dying out, the maxim in context is a warning that without the morals encoded in the symbolism of religion, there will be no basis for ethics. Science and politics are empty of the morality encoded into religious and mythological beliefs. This is exactly what Peterson warns of, and indeed, his use of religious symbolism in his academic work is one of the many points his detractors take issue with. Peterson, like Nietzsche, warns us:
The great myths of Christianity – the great myths of the past, in general – no longer speak to the majority of westerners, who regard themselves as educated. The mythic view of history cannot be credited with reality, from the material, empirical point of view. It is nonetheless the case that all of western ethics, including those explicitly formalised in western law, are predicated upon a mythological world-view, which specifically attributes divine status to the individual. The modern individual is therefore in a unique position: he no longer believes that the principles upon which all his behaviours are predicated are valid. This might be considered a second fall, in that the destruction of the western mythological barrier has re-exposed the essential tragedy of individual existence to view. (Peterson)
Obviously, Peterson is not for everybody and it is unlikely that people whose minds are already made up are going to read his work properly to form the basis of a coherent argument for or against him. This is one of the deep problems with the culture we have created, or at least found ourselves in, and one of the very things people like Peterson are trying to rectify. We do not all agree, but we would be better off if we were able to do so constructively.
Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition
Up until now, we have sought to make the infinite finite, and thereby debased art, love, knowledge, science, and beauty all. We have sold them out. When commercial application guides science, we end up not with science but with its counterfeit: pseudoscience in service of profit. When art bows to money, we get “art” instead of art, a self-conscious self-caricature. Similar perversions result when knowledge is subordinated to power, when beauty is used to sell product, and when wealth tries to buy love or love is turned toward gaining wealth. But the age of the sellout is over. (Eisenstein)
Money on my Mind
Charles Eisenstein is a public speaker and author of several books comprising a philosophy of the history of civilisation and ideas and how this has shaped the situation we find ourselves in today. His philosophy highlights the narrative of ‘separation’ that underpins our culture and informs ‘Western’ religion, art and science. It seems to me that this idea is synonymous with McGilchrist’s thesis of the Emissary usurping the Master, of the mechanistic and lifeless left brain hemisphere thinking not being returned to the greater context of the right brain hemisphere thinking. Sacred Economics is a long thesis that looks at the history and philosophy of exchange, from gifting to trade and modern economics, and also extensively details potential solutions to ease a transition into a new form of economy. It is no secret that money is often seen as both the root of the world’s problems and simultaneously the solution to them. It is both a barrier and an enabler. Only something with the unique properties of money could be so. Both Eisenstein and McGilchrist make the same points about the origins of money and the philosophical impact that had on culture and, indeed, continues to do so. Eisenstein says:
It is no accident that ancient Greece, the place where symbolic money originated, also gave birth to the modern conception of the individual, to the notions of logic and reason, and to the philosophical underpinnings of the modern mind.
Among [the properties of money] are that it is both concrete and abstract, that it is homogeneous, impersonal, a universal aim, and a universal means, and that it is unlimited. The entrance of this new, unique power into the world had profound consequences, many of which are now so deeply woven into our beliefs and culture, psyche and society, that we can barely perceive them, let alone question them. This was something new in the sixth century BCE. Quality is not important, only quantity. Because money is convertible into all other things, it infects them with the same feature, turning them into commodities.
No wonder Greek philosophers of this era began elevating the abstract over the real, culminating in Plato’s invention of a world of perfect forms more real than the world of the senses. No wonder to this day we treat the physical world so cavalierly. No wonder, after two thousand years’ immersion in the mentality of money, we have become so used to the replaceability of all things that we behave as if we could, if we wrecked the planet, simply buy a new one.
Very much like the fiduciary value of money, mind is an abstraction riding a physical vehicle. Like monetary fiduciary, the idea of mind as a separate, non-material essence of being developed over thousands of years, leading to the modern concept of an immaterial consciousness, a disembodied spirit. Tellingly, in both secular and religious thought, this abstraction has become more important than the physical vehicle, just as the “value” of a thing is more important than its physical attributes. (Eisenstein)
McGilchrist comes to a similar conclusion in The Master and his Emissary:
Money has an important function which it shares with writing: it replaces things with signs or tokens, with representations, the very essence of the activity of the left hemisphere. Monetary currency necessitates an antithesis of sign and substance, whereby the sign becomes decisive, and implies an ideal substance underlying the tangible reality. This bears an uncanny resemblance to Plato’s theory of Forms. I would not favour seeing either the alphabet or currency as the prime movers, but as epiphenomena, signs of a deeper change in hemisphere balance evidenced in both.
Before the development of currency, there is an emphasis on reciprocity. Gifts are not precise, not calculated, not instantaneously enacted or automatically received, not required; the gifts are not themselves substitutable, but unique; and the emphasis is on the value of creating or maintaining a relationship, which is also unique. With trade, all this changes; the essence is competitive: the exchange is instantaneous, based on equivalence, and the emphasis not on relationship, but on utility or profit. Money is homogeneous, and hence homogenises its objects and its users, eroding uniqueness. (McGilchrist)
To view money as a root of problems in the world is itself a symptom of left hemisphere thinking. Simply redistributing money or radically changing the economic system is not going to bring about the change in the world that people may think it will. The way that we think about ourselves, indeed, the very way we think, must also undergo a radical transformation. In fact, were this psychological transformation to take place then we would begin to see the systems and institutions of the world, such as the economy, as redundant. Eisenstein reiterates that “by the time of Socrates, the Heraclitean respect for the testimony of our senses had been lost. The phenomenal world yields only deception: the ideas of things come to be prioritised over things themselves, over whatever it is of which we have direct knowledge. Plato’s doctrine of the eternal Forms gives priority to the unchanging categorical type (say, the ‘ideal table’) over the myriad phenomenal exemplars (actual tables in the everyday world), which are no more than imperfect copies of the ideal form.” Similarly, McGilchrist says that the “separation of the absolute and eternal, which can be known by logos (reason), from the purely phenomenological, which is now seen as inferior, leaves an indelible stamp on the history of Western philosophy for the subsequent two thousand years.”
Mind on my Money
A common response to talking and thinking about thinking, is that it has no practical application in the ‘real world’. This attitude is a symptom of left brain hemisphere thinking. It is important to remember that even noble causes and aims, such as saving the rainforests, or reducing carbon emissions are based on a folk theory of humanity as separate from and elevated above their environment. We are, at the end of the day, inseparable from the nature we destroy or save. In this way, and on a fundamental level, what happens to ‘others’ happens to ‘us’. By ‘other’ I mean nature, the planet as well as all creatures including humans. To see ourselves as separate from nature, even in the capacity of protecting nature, is a symptom of the problem just as much as treating nature as a resource to be exploited. This is not to say that we should not treat our planet, ourselves and each other with more ‘respect’, but a psychological change is necessary and underpins everything else. Hence, when asked what the practical uses of thinking about thinking are, I would say there are none, that practical thinking is part of the problem, but that changing the way we think will automatically (gradually) have practical implications that from a left hemisphere perspective would be seen as ‘positive’ or ‘desirable’. Charles Eisenstein’s books address the way that changing how we think will impact the issues that face us today and in Sacred Economics he makes radical but practical and achievable suggestions for changing the economic system to ease a transition into what he calls the story of interbeing. I refer you to the book for a full appraisal (the whole book is made freely available to read, as a gift, on Charles’ website), but as an example, one suggestion that seems so simple but would have an almost unimaginable immediate impact is the idea of negative interest. This is the idea that money more closely resemble the goods for which it is used as a substitute of exchange, and depreciate over time, rather than accumulate interest. This is in no way a new idea and Eisenstein references Silvio Gesell’s 1916 work, The Natural Economic Order:
Gold does not harmonise with the character of our goods. Gold and straw, gold and petrol, gold and guano, gold and bricks, gold and iron, gold and hides! Only a wild fancy, a monstrous hallucination, only the doctrine of “value” can bridge the gulf. Commodities in general, straw, petrol, guano and the rest can be safely exchanged only when everyone is indifferent as to whether he possesses money or goods, and that is possible only if money is afflicted with all the defects inherent in our products. That is obvious. Our goods rot, decay, break, rust, so only if money has equally disagreeable, loss-involving properties can it effect exchange rapidly, securely and cheaply. For such money can never, on any account, be preferred by anyone to goods.
Only money that goes out of date like a newspaper, rots like potatoes, rusts like iron, evaporates like ether, is capable of standing the test as an instrument for the exchange of potatoes, newspapers, iron, and ether. For such money is not preferred to goods either by the purchaser or the seller. We then part with our goods for money only because we need the money as a means of exchange, not because we expect an advantage from possession of the money. (Gesell)
Another obvious and achievable solution is a return to local community, sharing and pooling resources and downsizing. Sustainable growth on a finite planet is a paradox seemingly lost on the global economic order. McGilchrist says, “we need smaller communities. We are not equipped to deal with social groups on the scale of a modern city…. . We also need to live closer to our ultimate context, the natural world. We are part of it, not as we see ourselves, standing over against it, taming or subduing it to serve our deracinated urban existence.” Similarly, Eisenstein suggests that “the transition to a sacred economy accompanies a transition in our psychology. Community, which in today’s parlance usually means proximity or a mere network, is a much deeper kind of connection than that: it is a sharing of one’s being, an expansion of one’s self. To be in community is to be in personal, interdependent relationship, and it comes with a price: our illusion of independence, our freedom from obligation.”
We begin to think of objects as representatives of a category, and not unique beings in themselves. So, while standard, generic categories didn’t begin with money, money vastly accelerated their conceptual dominance. Money as a universal aim is embedded in our language. We speak of “capitalising” on our ideas and use “gratuitous,” which literally means received with thanks (and not payment), as a synonym for unnecessary. That there is even such a thing as a universal aim to life (be it money or something else) is not at all obvious. In religion this corresponds to the pursuit of an ultimate aim, such as salvation or enlightenment, from which all other good things flow. How would it feel to release the endless campaign to improve ourselves, to make progress toward a goal? What would it be like just to play instead, just to be? Like wealth, enlightenment is a goal that knows no limit, and in both cases the pursuit of it can enslave. (Eisenstein)
Philosophy in the Flesh
The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought
“Being” is, on the face of it, a very odd category indeed… and like every other basic philosophic concept, is a human category, the very articulation of which depends on a cluster of common folk theories and conceptual metaphors. Being, regarded as the fundamental ontological category, emerged historically, as we have seen, in pre-Socratic philosophy and was given an elaborate articulation and refinement in Plato and Aristotle.
Many of these folk theories and conceptual metaphors are so deeply rooted in our Western philosophical tradition that they may seem to us not to be folk theories or metaphors at all. Many people, for instance, take it as a self-evident metaphysical fact that things consist of matter organised by form, or that everything has an essence that makes it the kind of thing it is, or that reality is organised in a hierarchy of categories, with the category of everything that exists at the top. There is nothing ontologically absolute about either the form/matter distinction or the idea of substance/attribute metaphysics
The metaphysical impulse remains strong because the metaphors and folk theories defining it are so deeply embedded in our shared cultural understandings. As long as we believe that the world consists of general kinds of things defined by essences, that essences are the source of all natural behaviour, that the world is intelligible, and that there is an all-inclusive category also defined by an essence, we will continue the search for Being. (Lakoff & Johnson)
For the Aymara people of the Andes of South America, the past is in front of them, as they have ‘seen’ it, and the future is behind them, as they have not. It is not that time flows in a different direction for them, but that their metaphors, the very language they use, reflects the high value their culture places on ‘evidence,’ in that only what has been seen can be talked about. The traditional subject-object grammar structure of the English language implicitly ‘others’ the speaker (or thinker) from the object. Whilst it may seem that the language we use can describe literally, this is a result of our language and grammar imposing this structure upon the ‘world’. If all is flux and process then words cannot describe ‘things’ literally. Remember, the menu is not the meal. We can only describe metaphorically, but some of our conceptual metaphors are so deeply embedded that we have ‘forgotten’ that this is what they are. Noting the importance of metaphor, Iain McGilchrist says, “The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to… A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to the prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There is no ‘real’ mountain which can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking which reveals the true mountain. We can only ever understand anything as a something.” The words we use and the structure of our language create the world in which we operate.
Philosophy in the Flesh is a book from 1999 coauthored by George Lakoff (a former pupil of Noam Chomsky) and Mark Johnson, which details their theory of cognitive linguistics and a philosophy of the embodied mind. Cognitive linguistics deals with such matters as the relationship between language and thought, the structural characteristics of natural language categorisation and asks questions about linguistic relativity and universal concepts. The book takes an extensive look at how the metaphors we use are conceptualised, often rooted in imagery of the sensorimotor system and the implications this has (and has had) for the history of ‘Western’ philosophy. That many of our conceptual metaphors are rooted in the imagery of the sensorimotor system should not really come as a surprise. Whilst the written word is historically relatively recent (we have a record of it) it is much more difficult to guess at the history of spoken language and how it came about. Certainly, oral culture pre-dates the written word by some considerable time. Singing and music must undoubtedly be precursors to spoken language and, indeed, bodily gesticulation as well. The idea of ‘naming’ is a central tenet of Daoism and also important for ‘Western’ Abrahamic religion. In The Book of Genesis, God gifts the animals to Adam to name. This is obviously taken as literal by some fundamentalists, but seen allegorically can be read as referring to the first stirrings of categorisation, of creating human concepts, of giving order to chaos. Naming ‘things’ fixes them as a referent over time and space, it allows us to communicate about them, but it also narrows the focus and gives us power. The opening line of the Daodejing is most often roughly translated into English as “The Dao that can be named is not the Dao.” Of course, to most modern ‘Western’ readers this sounds like nonsense. Ames and Hall’s translation offers a deeper insight into what the Ancient Chinese characters mean, “Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making, and naming that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming.” They elaborate on what is meant by this in the commentary, saying:
In order to function effectively in negotiating our environment, we need to rely upon our ability to make distinctions. These distinctions in themselves are certainly functional and enabling, but can distort the way in which we understand the world. We can easily fall into the fallacy of what Whitehead describes as “misplaced concreteness,” reifying what is abstract and treating these hypostasized “things” as more real than the changing events of our experience. We can easily and at real expense overdetermine the continuity within the life process as some underlying and unchanging foundation. Such linguistic habits can institutionalise and enforce an overly static vision of the world, and in so doing, deprive both language and life of their creative possibilities. The referential use of language as someone’s technical morality – expressing the way the world ought to be – can too easily lay claim to the power and control that would make it so.
Naming as power undermines the importantly creative aspect in the effective use of names. In a processual world – a world ever under construction – to be able to name something is to be able to trace out its concrete relation to you and the world, and on that basis, respond to it productively. While naming can’t be understood as an abstractive and isolating gesture, Daoist naming personalises a relationship and, abjuring any temptation to fix what is referenced, instead understands the name as a shared ground of growing intimacy. Such naming is presentational rather than just representational, normative rather than just descriptive, perlocutionary rather locutionary, a doing and a knowing rather than just a saying.
Naming as knowing must have the provisionality to accommodate engaged relationships as in their “doing and undergoing” they deepen and become increasingly robust. Such knowing is dependent upon an awareness of the indeterminate aspects of things. The ongoing shaping of experience requires a degree of imagination and creative projection that does not reference the world as it is, but anticipates what it might become.
In the Classic of Mountain and Seas, an ancient “gazetteer” that takes its reader on a field seminar through unfamiliar lands, the calls of the curious animals and birds that are encountered are in fact their own names. They (like most things) cry out what they would be. And having access to the “name” of something is not only a claim to knowing it in a cognitive sense, but more importantly, to knowing how to deal with it. Naming is most importantly the responsiveness that attends familiarity. Hence such knowing is a feeling and a doing: it is value-added. It is naming without the kind of fixed reference that allows one to “master” something, a naming that does not arrest or control. It is a discriminating naming that in fact appreciates rather depreciates a situation. (Ames and Hall)
When it comes to the ‘naming’ of animals, the difference between Daoism and The Book of Genesis is profound. In the ‘Western’ tradition, man is given the power to name his surroundings and so begins man’s dominance over the environment. In the Daoist tradition, the animals ‘name’ their relationship to man with their own song and, indeed, the Daodejing suggests this is how man should also ‘act.’ It is very difficult for a ‘Western’ mind so rooted in the history of such a philosophy to let go of the fixity and categorisation of left hemisphere brain thinking. Peterson says the “capacity for meanings to shift is not illogical, it is just not “proper.” Meaning transforms itself endlessly with shift in interpretive context – is determined in part by that context (that frame of reference, that story).” When we ‘name’ something, we categorise it by its ‘essence’, an abstract, metaphysical property that we impose upon an object. For example, we know that colour is not an inherent property of ‘things’ but exists only in our brains. We know that time has no motion but it is impossible to think of time without it. We know that the boundaries between ‘things’ are in fact permeable, and yet we function as if space has strict boundaries. All of these examples are products of the map, of order, of the left hemisphere’s categorisation for utility, to enable us to ‘function’ in the ‘world’. This is entirely necessary, the problem is that we confuse this narrow simplification of the ‘world’ for ‘ultimate reality’. We assume there is a world outside of our heads that is intelligible, but:
Our experience of the world is not separate from our conceptualisation of the world. Indeed, in many cases, the same hidden mechanisms that characterise our unconscious system of concepts also play a central role in creating our experience. Because the mechanisms of conceptualisation are hidden from us, those mechanisms are not included in our commonplace understanding of truth. But truth for a language user, in fact, is relative to our hidden mechanisms of embodied understanding. A person takes a sentence as “true” of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understands the situation to be. Truth doesn’t exist without (1) beings with minds who conceptualise situations and (2) a language conventionally used by those beings to express conceptualisations of situations.
Philosophically, the embodiment of reason via the sensorimotor system is of great importance. It is a crucial part of the explanation of why it is possible for our concepts to fit so well with the way we function in the world. They fit so well because they have evolved from our sensorimotor systems, which have in turn evolved to allow us to function well in our physical environment. The embodiment of mind thus leads us to a philosophy of embodied realism. Our concepts cannot be a direct reflection of external, objective, mind-free reality because our sensorimotor system plays a crucial role in shaping them. On the other hand, it is the involvement of the sensorimotor system in the conceptual system that keeps the conceptual system very much in touch with the world. (Lakoff & Johnson)
To some extent, the history of ‘Western’ thought since the time of Plato and Aristotle can be read as the history of the Emissary, the left brain hemisphere’s gradual dominance over the Master, the right brain hemisphere. This has lead to an abstraction of mind and the properties of the human soul, or underlying essence. McGilchrist notes that “truth becomes something proved by argument. The importance of another, ultimately more powerful, revealer of truth, metaphor, is forgotten; and metaphor, in another clever inversion, comes even to be a lie, though perhaps a pretty one. So the statements of truth contained in myth become discounted as ‘fictions’, that is to say untruths or lies – since, to the left hemisphere, metaphor is no more than this.”
Not Everything that Counts can be Counted
Lakoff and Johnson go into great depth describing the metaphorical basis of ‘Western’ philosophy, and of our human concepts. I would refer you to Philosophy in the Flesh for a full account of this, but I will make a brief mention of ‘time’ and ‘causation.’ In My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor describes the deterioration of the functions of her left brain hemisphere as losing “the clock that would break my moments into consecutive brief instances.” Similarly, Lakoff and Johnson say that “when we conceptualise time as a resource – and live by this metaphor – then we experience time as limited resource that can be wasted or saved or squandered or used wisely… From the metaphorical scientific perspective of general relativity and superstring theory, gravitational force does not exist as an entity – instead it is space-time curvature. From the literal, non-scientific perspective, forces exist.”
We cannot think about time without numbers, but not every language in the world has number words. In Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures, Caleb Everett says “number words are conceptual tools that get passed around with ease, tools most people want to borrow.” Number concepts are metaphorical in nature and rooted in our sensorimotor system, most obviously demonstrated by the fact that we count on our hands. The number of digits seems obviously to be the basis of the decimal system, however, there are cultures and languages today that have few number words, some only for ‘one’, ‘few’ and ‘many.’ It is the culture we live in in the ‘West’ (arguably now a global culture) that necessitates the need for numbers. Time is money. Similarly, causation is predicated on the idea that there is a subject and object. Our language structure denotes an agent with an essence, a ‘will’ that is separate from the body (vehicle) that it operates, that exists over time. This is the model of the ‘self’ that the left brain hemisphere perpetuates, drunk on the power it has imagined itself to have. Indeed, the very concepts of ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’ are concepts of the left hemisphere.
When someone asks, “Does causation exist?” that person usually wants to know whether there is a single unified phenomenon (which is called “causation”) objectively existing in the mind-independent world and operating according to a single logic. But the presuppositions lying behind this apparently simple question are massively false. First, causation is a word in a human language and it designates a human category, a radial category of extraordinary complexity. Certain of those embodied human concepts, the basic-level ones, accord very well with middle-level physical experience and therefore have an epistemic priority for us. Given that causation is a multivalent radial concept with inherently metaphorical senses, the theory of the one true causation becomes not merely false, but silly. Once we know that it is multivalent, not monolithic, and that it is largely metaphorical, it turns out not to be the kind of thing that could have a single logic or could be an objective feature of the world. The study of human categorisation has revealed that our conceptual system is organised around basic-level concepts, concepts that are defined relative to our ability to function optimally in our environment, given our bodies. Concepts of direct human agency – pushing, pulling, hitting, throwing, lifting, giving, taking, and so on – are among the basic-level anchors of our conceptual system in general and our system of causal concepts in particular.
My lifting a glass can be understood from many perspectives. From the perspective of the subatomic level, there is no lifting and no glass. From the perspective of superstring theory, no ‘force’ entity exists, only curvatures in multidimensional space. But from the human, experiential stance, the optimal way for me to conceptualise the situation, given my normal purposes, is in terms of the basic-level concepts lift and glass. Lifting an object directly involves the direct application of “force.” From this perspective, given the understanding I naturally project onto such a situation, “force” exists. From the standpoint of the human conceptual system in the cognitive unconscious, there is a concept of causation with human agency as the central prototype. From the ordinary human standpoint, force exists and causation exists, and lifting a glass is an instance of both the exertion of force and of causation. (Lakoff & Johnson)
First there is a mountain. Then there is no mountain. Then there is.
It is impossible for me to summarise all the evidence presented in these books that took people infinitely more intelligent than me years to research and write, but I hope I have at least done justice to the main premises and offered a cohesive narrative as to how they have informed how (and what) I think. I was planning on writing a brief summary here, but then two days before I finished writing, a new interview with Iain McGilchrist was put up online. I almost didn’t finish writing, and certainly the end of this essay has not been as thought through as the start, as McGilchrist essentially describes far more eloquently than I am capable of, the main thesis I have been outlining (which admittedly is based largely on McGilchrist’s in the first place). If you’ve read this far, then thank you, and I would love more than anything to engage with people about these ideas. Please feel free to ask questions, make comments and tell me what you think yourself.
Best Music of 2018