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The Master and his Emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world

April 15, 2010

By Roger Cooter

There comes a point in this book when one begins to wonder about the cerebral solidity of its author, Iain McGilchrist. For me that was after the first few pages, when the number of “I believe”, “likely”, “might” and “if it is true that” came to match the number of unsupported assertions and non sequiturs.

Then comes the proposition and the point of the book: that human nature can be reduced to the interactions between the brain’s right and left hemispheres with their different modes of experience, and, hence, that the whole of the history of the Western world can be read through this divide. Like the brain, the book is parted into two asymmetrical halves, the first providing the ‘evidence’ to overturn the view that the brain’s left hemisphere is its better half with its alleged monopoly on reason, the second applying this insight to the history of the Western world.

Part one showers the right hemisphere with the noblest human attributes: the gift of metaphor, empathy and intersubjectivity, unfocused attention and concern “with the whole of the world as available to the senses”. Its frontal lobe, in particular, is prized as “important for flexibility of thought”. The left, on the other hand, concerned with the “whatness” of things in contrast to the right’s “howness”, is cast as wicked beyond belief when left to its own devices. Operating apparently according to a “local strategy”, as opposed to the right’s “global strategy”, it can only “re-present” things, categorise them, reduce them. Logic, linearity and philosophy are its boast, along with “scientific materialism with its reductive language”. It is what permits TV, the internet and technology in general to dominate our lives; it is what facilitates “bowling alone” or social anomie, together with self-abuse, suicide and the disparagement of religiosity, spirituality and transcendence. It is what enables the commodification of the natural world via appeals to “biodiversity”. And it is what lies behind the failure to appreciate classical music, the production of shallow and meaningless postmodern art, and just about everything else, it seems, that does not befit the value system of McGilchrist, consultant psychiatrist and thrice-elected Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. The left might be the ‘master’ but it needs its ‘emissary’ on the right, he insists, and vice versa. In fact, however, the left hemisphere is “a wonderful servant, but a very poor master”.

This anthropomorphism of the brain’s hemispheres reaches its apogee in part two, where the evolutionary bihemispheric history of mankind reads like a crude version of Colin Wilson’s Mind Parasites, with the tyrannical-tending left hemisphere – “ultimately narcissistic” and “subject to paranoia” – capable even of issuing propaganda to the right. Except for during the Renaissance, the history of the West is little more than the story of the left outflanking the right, literally outgrowing it. Predictably, it all begins in ancient Greece with those damn philosophers and their logic. Then there is the Enlightenment with its effort to master dear old nature, and on up to today. We learn how the left “pissed on religion, as it had pissed on art”, driven by its by relentless desire “to manipulate and control the world for its own pleasure” and its compulsion to bureaucracy, systems of abstraction and reification. The Industrial Revolution was a particularly nasty cerebral moment, enabling the left hemisphere “to make its most audacious assault yet on the world of the right hemisphere”. As “man’s most brazen bid for power over the natural world”, the Industrial Revolution swept away “cultural history”, “creating of a world in the left hemisphere’s own likeness”. It goes without saying that, like modernism in art (to which many pretentious pages are devoted), fascism and Stalinism were both expressions of “the deep structure of the left hemisphere’s world”, though it’s not too clear who is actually meant to be in history’s driver’s seat.

And so it goes on through near 600 pages of dense print. Lost in his effort to restore a master/servant relationship without “left hemisphere hubris”, McGilchrist fails to see how profoundly “leftist” he himself is in his neo-phrenological reduction of history and personhood to brainhood. Wholly premised on an evolutionary model of change (condensed to actual changes in the asymmetry of the brain over 500 years), The Master and his Emissary remains locked in the categories and linearity it attributes to the left hemisphere in the making of the Western world. Neither “nature”, “human nature”, “the individual” and “consciousness”, nor the “brain” and “history” are ever considered as categories historically constructed for political purposes. To claim, for example, that “moral judgment involves a complex right-hemisphere network” is to leave more unsaid than spoken about what constitutes “moral sense,” never mind that it has been differently constituted over time and place. So, too, with McGilchrist’s abundant tabloid provision of cerebral “deficiency” explanations for gambling, homosexuality, eating disorders, alcoholism, drug addition and so on – all nothing more than (and long since critiqued as) reductive medicalised means to asserting social normativity.

Such, alas, are our ‘neural’ times. The Master and his Emissary is but one of more than a dozen books that have been issued over the past two or three years – all by academically prestigious publishers – on how neurological evidence is supposed to allow us to understand ethics, aesthetics, philosophy, politics and history. It is easy to dismiss as it nonsense on stilts, as ‘pop neuro meets pop history’ or, more critically, as a cerebrally mediated celebration of elitist liberal individualism dressed up in would-be learned quotations from Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, Woolf, Wordsworth and other ‘great minds’ (pardon, ‘great brains’). But the trend runs much deeper, culturally speaking, and has serious implications for the understanding of the making of the modern world gained over the last half century or so, not least through the history and philosophy of science and through the literary turn. Books like this, written in ignorance of these developments or arrogantly over them, should be dismissed, but not lightly. In constituting the ‘neuro-turn’ their implications are far more historically profound than the neuro-based profundities they purport to reveal.

McGilchrist I. The Master and his Emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven and London: Yale University Press; 2009.

Roger Cooter is a Professorial Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL.

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