Thoughts on McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary

It is not difficult to encounter surprising and persuasive “ahas” throughout Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In fact I found myself dog-earing dozens of pages, among which I was also underlining, bracketing, and circling various passages, then scribbling comments in the margins. But this isn’t what makes his book so compelling. Likewise, it’s not the writing style, which is both erudite, entertaining and fluid. And it’s not the tone, which is refreshingly humble in its speculative claims. Although impressive, it also isn’t the breadth of McGilchrist’s knowledge across so many different disciplines, nor is it his interpretations of Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche and others – interpretations that shine with clarity and what seems a genuine desire to understand these often inaccessible thinkers. Any one of these characteristics would make it a good read, in my view, but there is something more here. At first, I suspected I was lured in because so many perspectives McGilchrist offers up resonate with my own observations and experiences – sometimes it was like hearing my own questions and cogitations spoken aloud (albeit much more clearly and concisely than they occur in my own head, and followed up with a lot more research and supportive evidence than I’ve encountered before). So was this what prejudiced me to favor his thesis, or to find ready agreement with so many of his proposals? Well, after finishing the book and letting its content settle for a while, I realized it wasn’t subjective sympathy, either, that inspired me to feel the way I do about this book. No, it’s something rarer, and I think more notable.

Continuity of thought, cohesiveness of vision, and relevance to the modern world – these are what make The Master and His Emissary exceptional in my view. Across 500 pages, the centrality of focus is relentless – even to the point of repeating the same point in probably too many variations. But amid that expansive repetition, I encountered very few diversions or distractions from the central theme – very few hiccups in logic, or unresolved questions, or insouciantly hedgy language. In addition, I found I wasn’t stumbling over the fallacious, clouded and sloppy analysis that so often plagues mainstream scientifically-minded books. All of the discourse and evidence seemed to flow in the same direction, bolstering and enlarging the central ideas. At the same time, the author is honest about the speculative nature of his work, and his inability to “prove” (at least to skeptics with left-hemisphere dominance) that his thesis is viable or meaningful. It’s just a theory, after all, and although McGilchrist identifies some intriguing connections between history, philosophy and neurobiology, the jury is still out in terms of his grandest generalizations. And of course this points to a sad irony for his book, because, if McGilchrist is correct, it is precisely the communities with a left-sided “hemispheric utilization bias” that are in greatest need of its persuasion. Still, irony aside, the overall cohesion, continuity and relevance of its ideas are what elevate The Master and His Emissary from an interesting and stimulating book to what I believe is essential reading.

With all this said, are McGilchrist’s ideas new? Not entirely. I think folks have been making similar observations about the stark divisions among humanity’s worldviews, their historical development and their impact for a long time, but those writers have usually attributed that division to different factors. I was put in mind of Riane Esler’s The Chalice and the Blade, for example, which portrays a bifurcation and competition that parallels McGilchrist’s left/right hemisphere hypothesis on some fronts, but does so through the lens of masculine vs. feminine. Fritjof Capra’s work covers similar ground in its disparaging of the West’s Cartesian orientation, promoting the shift to a more holistic paradigm. Clare Graves and Don Beck have proposed a schema of competing values systems that charts a predictable course for human cultural development, and explains the same divisions in worldviews in a hierarchical way. Piaget, Gebser, Kohlberg, Wilber and others (including me) have thrown their hats into this particular ring in terms of models that implicate values orientations and stages of moral development. Likewise, when McGilchrist begins to frame schizophrenia within left-hemisphere dominance, I was reminded of studies on empathy, emotional intelligence, intolerance of ambiguity and tolerance for cognitive dissonance among populations that could easily fit within McGilchrist’s characterizations of the left-hemisphere-biased. So all of this begs the question: is McGilchrist just finding a new explanation for what are already long-observed differences in apperception, values hierarchy and worldview? And is his explanation more persuasive than previous hypotheses? Well…I was certainly fascinated with the breadth of his vision, but I suppose only time will tell.

Do I disagree with anything McGilchrist posits? There are times – especially in the latter half of the book – where I found the author reaching a bit for data he could fit into his model, or where his observations seemed somewhat extraneous. For example, at one point he writes “Roundness and the image of the sphere come and go with the influence of the right hemisphere,” following up with frequent spherical representations in Romanticism, then leaping to the statement “This reflected the shape of the cosmos, the universe, and ultimately of the Divine.” In this section, either McGilchrist was moving too fast for me, wasn’t providing enough supportive evidence, or just wasn’t connecting the dots. Whether the fault lay with the writer or the reader, this is one of the few times in the book where he lost me.

In addition, there is one area where I found the author sidestepping what I believe to be an important question, and that is when he asks “Are there drives behind the differences I have outlined between the hemispheres?” and then, alas, doesn’t really answer this fully. In fact, earlier in the book he says “One does not need to posit drives that are instantiated in the hemispheres.” A discussion of why humans choose to do what we do is conspicuously absent, and I think this is a significant flaw. Yes, he does explain how the left hemisphere may have usurped the right…via the mechanisms of mimeses, epigenetics, etc.…but, again, not why. McGilchrist offers Nietzche’s Apollonian and Dionysian drives as the de facto metaphors (or agents?) of each hemisphere, and he dedicates a sentence or two to Freud, Jung and Dawkins, but really he just brushes the surface of what are almost certainly are deeper structures. For example, does our current understanding of complex emotional, social and physiological drives – along with values hierarchies that tend to correlate with them – suggest why we would prioritize the left hemisphere over the right, or be compelled to imitate its expression in the world around us? In fact, research into the relationship between prosocial traits and individual and collective fitness has provided convincing evidence of why humans likely wouldn’t adopt a left-hemisphere bias as proposed in The Master and His Emissary…so why did we? What has energized that transition? Given the speculative nature of his thesis, I felt McGilchrist should have spent more time developing this component of his theory.

And this is where I feel the urge to depart from a strictly left-brain approach to this book. Those who have read Mark Booth’s The Secret History of the World will recall that, in the esoteric tradition he describes, Satan is the agent of individual identity, materialism and destruction, while Lucifer is the agent of self-delusion, yet both of them are considered instrumental in the evolution of the human psyche. Booth reinforces this perspective when he says “Humans would never have been able to become freely creative, brave or loving if they had not been able to make mistakes, to see things as other than they are and to believe things to be other than they are.” As I read The Master and His Emissary, I couldn’t help but notice parallels between McGilchrist’s narrative around competing hemispheres, and the narrative of many faith traditions about the unending struggle between Light and Darkness. Even the Nietzschean tale that titles the book reminds us of more mainstream religious conceptions of a Luciferian rebellion against God. And, just as with Booth’s mystery schools, the proclivities of the left hemisphere described by McGilchrist (power-hungry, competitive, overconfident, negating, discompassionate, mechanistic, schizoid, propagandizing, stunted in values and lacking common sense, while maintaining “fantasies of human omnipotence”) become a necessary evil, part of a critical reverberation from which creative imagination springs forth, but which is ultimately destructive if not balanced and integrated with the right hemisphere. As McGilchrist writes: “One can see that the generation of the greatest feats of the human spirit require integration of both hemispheric worlds, and split-brain patients do appear to have an impoverished level of imagination and creativity, suggesting, as I believe to be clearly the case, that integrated functioning of both hemispheres is needed for such activity.” So are these parallels purely coincidental, or are they part of the metaphorical understanding, or mythos, McGilchrist is summoning back to the modern world? Is this what he is alluding to when he writes “Surely these, it seems to me, represent the most positive aspects of the left hemisphere, in its guise as Lucifer, bringer of light?”

Lastly, I do have one ethical criticism of the book: I believe McGilchrist would have done well to make it available as a public domain resource. Work like this should not, I feel, have been confined to a for-profit model, and in fact it speaks a bit against the genuineness of McGilchrist’s convictions that he chose to publish it in the conventional way. In the same vein, McGilchrist doesn’t really take capitalism to task as you would expect, given his critical views of our left-brain dominated world and his implication that materialism, industrialization, commoditization and acquisitiveness are consequences of left-brain bias. The focus of my own writing for over a decade has been to rejuvenate what I believe this author would call “the primacy of the right hemisphere,” and critiquing our current, highly destructive forms of commercialist corporationism has been an inherent outgrowth of those efforts. In my view, it is impossible to overlook the correlations between the values and priorities of the left hemisphere and the machinations of state capitalism, and to then not emphatically advocate attenuation of both. McGilchrist does note this correlation, supporting it with the observations of Comte, Weber, Giddens, Putnam and others, but he does so very briefly, and without a clear call-to-action or expressing a necessity to move beyond capitalist systems. I thought this was an unfortunate omission.

In any case, in conclusion I would say that if you haven’t yet perused Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, you are in for a broad, deep, enriching journey. I think it’s an important tome for our time, replete with the very nuance, insight, contextualization, and “reaching beyond” that McGilchrist credits to hemispheric harmony. For me, it was well worth the read.


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