The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist (2009)
Part I. THE DIVIDED BRAIN
Chapter 4. THE NATURE OF THE TWO WORLDS
IN THE FIRST CHAPTER I DREW ATTENTION TO THE DIVIDED NATURE OF THE BRAIN AND suggested it had a purpose: perhaps there were things that needed to be kept apart. I also drew attention to the brain's asymmetry, a suggestion that difference did not necessarily involve equality. In the second chapter I looked at what the nature of the differences between the hemispheres might be. In the third chapter I suggested that the hemispheres were not just randomly assorted ‘databanks’, but had coherent and possibly irreconcilable sets of values, imaged in the left hemisphere's control of manipulation through the right hand, and the evolution of language out of music, with language coming to reside largely in the left hemisphere, and music largely in the right. In this chapter I will look in greater detail at the kinds of world the two hemispheres bring into being, and raise the question whether they really are symmetrical, or whether one takes precedence. To begin with, let's return to attention, where we began our exploration of hemisphere difference.
Our attention is responsive to the world. There are certain modes of attention which are naturally called forth by certain kinds of object. We pay a different sort of attention to a dying man from the sort of attention we'd pay to a sunset, or a carburettor. However, the process is reciprocal. It is not just that what we find determines the nature of the attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find. In special circumstances, the dying man may become for a pathologist a textbook of disease, or for a photojournalist a ‘shot’, both in the sense of a perceived frozen visual moment and a round of ammunition in a campaign. Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes others recede. What a thing is depends on who is attending to it, and in what way. The fact that a place is special to some because of its great peace and beauty may, by that very fact, make it for another a resource to exploit, in such a way that its peace and beauty are destroyed. Attention has consequences.
One way of putting this is to say that we neither discover an objective reality nor invent a subjective reality, but that there is a process of responsive evocation, the world ‘calling forth’ something in me that in turn ‘calls forth’ something in the world. That is true of perceptual qualities, not just of values. If there is no ‘real’ mountain, for example, separate from one created by the hopes, aspirations, reverence or greed of those who approach it, it is equally true that its greenness, or greyness, or stoniness lies not in the mountain or in my mind, but comes from between us, called forth from each and equally dependent on both; as music arises from neither the piano nor the pianist's hands, the sculpture neither from hand nor stone, but from their coming together. And then the hands are part of the lived body – or, put more conventionally, are the vehicle of the mind, which is in turn the product of all the other minds that have interacted with it, from Beethoven and Michelangelo down to every encounter of our daily lives. We are transmitters, not originators.
Fig. 4.1 Drawing Hands, by M. C. Escher
Our attention is responsive to the world, but the world is responsive to our attention. The situation presents a paradox for linear analysis, like M. C. Escher's hand that draws the hand that draws the hand … (see Figure 4.1).
This paradox applies to the problem of how we get to know anything, but is peculiarly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very processes whereby knowledge itself comes into being. It is not possible to discuss the neuropsychological basis of our awareness of the world without adopting a philosophical position, whether or not one is conscious of doing so.1 Not to be aware of doing so is implicitly to have adopted the default standpoint of scientific materialism. Unfortunately, according to this position, one of the hands in Escher's picture must come first.
Neuropsychology is inextricably bound up with philosophy. In recent years this has been increasingly recognised, more by philosophers than neuroscientists, with one or two important exceptions. Some of these developments are very much to be welcomed. However, all too often there is a potentially treacherous, because undetected, process at work. What science is actually doing when it delivers its revelations goes unexamined: the scientific process and the meaning of its findings is generally taken for granted. The model of the body, and therefore the brain, as a mechanism is exempted from the process of philosophical scepticism: what it tells us becomes the truth. And, since the brain is equated with the mind, the mind too becomes a mechanism. The philosophical world view is brought into line with that, and reveals – the truth of the mechanical model as applied to brain and mind. As a result, in a spectacular hijack, instead of a mutually shaping process, whereby philosophy interrogates science, and science informs philosophy, the naïve world view of science has tended by default to shape and direct what has been called ‘neurophilosophy’.
If the world of the left hemisphere and the world of the right hemisphere are both present to the mind, and form coherent aspects of experience, should we expect to find the resultant incompatibilities reflected in the history of philosophy? The hemispheres have different answers to the fundamental question ‘what is knowledge?’, as discussed in the last chapter, and hence different ‘truths’ about the world. So on the face of it, yes. But the default approach of philosophy is that of the left hemisphere, since it is via denotative language and linear, sequential analysis that we pin things down and make them clear and precise, and pinning them down and making them clear and precise equates with seeing the truth, as far as the left hemisphere is concerned. And since the type of attention you bring to bear dictates the world you discover, and the tools you use determine what you find, it would not be surprising if the philosophical vision of reality reflected the tools it uses, those of the left hemisphere, and conceived the world along analytic, and purely rationalistic, lines. It would be unlikely for philosophy to be able to get beyond its own terms of reference and its own epistemology; and so the answer to the question whether the history of philosophy would reflect the incompatibilities of the hemispheres is – probably not.
If there were, however, evidence that, despite this, philosophers had increasingly felt compelled to try to give an account of the right hemisphere's reality, rather than the left's, that would be of extraordinary importance. Admittedly, trying to achieve it at all using the conventional tools of philosophy would be a bit like trying to fly using a submarine, all the while making ingenious adaptations to the design to enable one to get a foot or two above the water. The odds against success would be huge, but the attempt alone would be indicative that there was something compelling beyond the normal terms of reference, that forced one to make the attempt. This would be far stronger evidence for the ultimate reality of the right hemisphere's world than any amount of philosophy that confirmed the left hemisphere's reality, which would be only to be expected.
What I shall argue in this chapter is that precisely such a development has in fact occurred in philosophy, and that it has been evident in the work of the most influential philosophers of our age. Such a development seems to me as striking as the developments in mathematics and physics since the 1880s to which it is in some important respects a parallel. It's hardly surprising that scientific method for a long time led to a vision of the universe – the Newtonian universe – which reflected the principles of the scientific method. But when it began to compel conclusions incompatible with the model assumed by its method, a ‘paradoxical’ universe, that was a more revealing finding. In the late nineteenth-century Georg Cantor struggled with the idea that there was a necessary uncertainty and incompleteness to the realm of mathematics. Infinity was no longer tameable by turning it into an abstract concept, giving it a name, and then carrying on as though it were just another number. He came to the realisation that there is not just one ‘infinity’, but an infinity of infinities, beyond anything we can capture or re-present, something that was real, not just taking series ‘as far as they will go’, but beyond; something Other in nature than the series that tried to reach it, and that could in principle never be reached by any kind of known cognitive process. His contemporary Ludwig Boltzmann introduced time and probability into the timeless and certain realm of physics, showing that no system can be perfect; Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorems proved that that would always inevitably be the case, that there will always be truths within any system that cannot be proved in terms of that system. Niels Bohr's ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics and Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle established a universe in which uncertainty is at the core, not just a product of human imperfection, to be remedied in time by advances in learning, but in the very nature of things. Though the insight or intuition that led them to these discoveries came, I suggest, from the right hemisphere, or from both hemispheres working together, in every case their conclusions followed clearly from left-hemisphere processes, the logic of sequential analysis. These transformative developments nonetheless validate the world as given by the right hemisphere, not the left.
To return to philosophy and the brain, we should expect them to illuminate one another: philosophy should help us understand the nature of the brain, and the nature of the brain should help to illuminate philosophical problems. There are three questions in particular worth asking here. Has what we know about the hemispheres anything to offer in illuminating philosophical debate? Equally, does philosophy help make sense of the hemisphere differences we know exist? And what can the answers to both questions tell us about the nature of the brain?
The first question takes us into deep water immediately. Philosophers themselves will be the best judges, and the issues are as extensive and complex as the mind itself. However, some possible areas for discussion naturally suggest themselves.
In Western philosophy for much of the last two thousand years, the nature of reality has been treated in terms of dichotomies: real versus ideal, subject versus object. Over time the meanings of the terms, and sometimes the terms themselves, have changed, and the constant need to transcend such dichotomies has led to modifications and qualifications of the kind of realism or idealism, the type of objectivism or subjectivism, but the essential issue has remained: how are we to connect the world and our minds? Since our world is brought into being by two hemispheres which constitute reality in profoundly different ways, it might seem likely that some of these dichotomies could be illuminated by the differences between the worlds each of the cerebral hemispheres brings into being.
It has nothing to do with the idea that, for example, one hemisphere might be subjective and the other objective. That's obviously untrue. Rather the point is that philosophy in the West is essentially a left-hemisphere process.2 It is verbal and analytic, requiring abstracted, decontextualised, disembodied thinking, dealing in categories, concerning itself with the nature of the general rather than the particular, and adopting a sequential, linear approach to truth, building the edifice of knowledge from the parts, brick by brick. While such a characterisation is not true of most pre-Socratic philosophers, particularly Heraclitus, it is at least true of the majority of philosophers since Plato in the West until the nineteenth century, when, for example, Schopenhauer, Hegel and Nietzsche began to question the basis on which philosophy made its advances. Philosophy is naturally given, therefore, to a left-hemisphere version of the world, in which such divides as that between the subject and the object seem especially problematic. But these dichotomies may depend on a certain, naturally dichotomising, ‘either/or’, view of the world, and may cease to be problematic in the world delivered by the right hemisphere, where what appears to the left hemisphere to be divided is unified, where concepts are not separate from experience, and where the grounding role of ‘betweenness’ in constituting reality is apparent. The key to such philosophical dichotomies lies not, then, I suggest, in the division between the hemispheres, but within the nature of the left hemisphere itself.
If one had to characterise the left hemisphere by reference to one governing principle it would be that of division. Manipulation and use require clarity and fixity, and clarity and fixity require separation and division. What is moving and seamless, a process, becomes static and separate – things. It is the hemisphere of ‘either/or’: clarity yields sharp boundaries. And so it makes divisions that may not exist according to the right hemisphere. Just as an individual object is neither just a bundle of perceptual properties ‘in here’, nor just something underlying them ‘out there’, so the self is neither just a bundle of mental states or faculties, nor, on the other hand, something distinct underlying them. It is an aspect of experience that perhaps has no sharp edges.
Heraclitus (like the Oriental philosophers who influenced Greek thought until Plato) was unperturbed by paradox, taking it as a sign that our ordinary ways of thinking are not adequate to the nature of reality. But around the same time that the Platonic mode of discourse, with its insistence on the Law of the Excluded Middle,3 came into play – as, in other words, thinking became philosophy in the accepted sense – paradox started to emerge as a focus of intellectual disquiet. Some of the most famous are:
The sorites paradox (from Greek soros, a heap). Thought to have originated with Eubulides of Miletus (c. 350 BC). If one grain of sand is not a heap, and at no stage adding one more grain of sand is going to make the difference between not being a heap and being a heap, how can it ever be that (by, for example, the time 100,000 grains are reached) a heap has come into being?
The Ship of Theseus paradox. Plutarch wrote in his life of Theseus:
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.4
The reference to Demetrius Phalereus dates this from about 300 BC. The ‘logical question of things that grow’ alluded to, known usually as the ‘Growing Argument’, is the basis of numerous paradoxes, such as Chrysippus' paradox, the point being that, as things grow, at least one particle is added to them or lost by them, and so, according to one interpretation, they cease to be the same entity. In effect all living things present this problem, that of a thing that flows, since they are always in a state of change and self-repair. (As the German philosopher Novalis was to put it 2,000 years later: ‘There is no doubt that our body is a moulded river.’)5
Zeno's paradoxes. Originating with Zeno of Elea (c. 450 BC):
· Achilles and the tortoise. In a race in which Achilles gives the tortoise a head start, Achilles can never overtake the tortoise, because first he has to reach the point where the tortoise began, then the point the tortoise reached while Achilles reached the tortoise's starting point, and so ad infinitum.
· The dichotomy. We can never move at all, because first we have to get halfway to where we are going, but before that, a quarter of the way, and before that an eighth, and so ad infinitum.
· The arrow. An arrow fired at a target cannot move, because, at any one moment, the arrow either is where it is, or it is where it is not. If it remains where it is, then it must be standing still, but if it moves where it is not, it can't be there. So it cannot move at all.
The Epimenides paradox. Named after Epimenides of Knossos (c. 600 BC), a possibly mythological Cretan seer, who wrote in a light-hearted poem or song that ‘Cretans are always liars’ – false if true, true if false. It seems that this only started to look like a real problem when examined retrospectively by later Greek writers.
Looked at with an understanding of the different worlds disclosed by the two hemispheres, the development of paradox starts to make sense. There is a sudden obtrusion of the left hemisphere's take on reality, which then conflicts with the right hemisphere's.
Take the sorites paradox. This results from believing that the whole is the sum of the parts, and can be reached by a sequential process of incrementation. It tries to relate two things: a grain of sand and a heap, as though their relationship was transparent. It also presupposes that there must either be a heap or not be a heap at any one time: ‘either/or’ are your only alternatives. That is the left-hemisphere view, and sure enough it leads to paradox. According to the right-hemisphere view, it is a matter of a shift in context, and the coming into being of a Gestalt, an entity which has imprecisely defined bounds, and is recognised whole: the heap comes into being gradually, and is a process, an evolving, changing ‘thing’ (this problem is related to the Growing Argument). Failure to take into account context, inability to understand Gestaltforms, an inappropriate demand for precision where none can be found, an ignorance of process, which becomes a never-ending series of static moments: these are signs of left-hemisphere predominance.
Or the Ship of Theseus. Here again the problem is caused by a belief that the whole is the sum of the parts, and disappears as the parts are changed. There is also a belief that there must necessarily come a ‘point’ in a process where identity changes. The fact that this type of paradox was known as the Growing Argument (auxanomenos logos) demonstrates that there is a difficulty here in dealing with all living, changing forms. All, once more, points to a dominance of the left-hemisphere view over that of the right.
Zeno's paradoxes similarly rest on the adoption of the left hemisphere's view that every flowing motion in space or time can be resolved into a series of static moments or points that can then be summed to give back the living whole. The ‘seamless’ fluidity of motion in space or time is ‘reduced’ to a series, akin to the series of still frames in a ciné film. This is what happens to subjects who suffer right-hemisphere damage, and develop palinopsia (see p. 76 above). This fragmentation of experience is also what underlies delusional misidentification, another right-hemisphere-deficit syndrome, where the seamlessness, the individual quiddity, of a living being, is broken down into a series of manifestations, taking us back to the Growing Argument: my wife one day is not the same person as my wife the next.6
The Cretan liar paradox is a little different, but here, too, the problem is caused by relying on the left hemisphere only to construct the world. It does so by rules, and with precision. Meanwhile, the right hemisphere, like Achilles in real life, overtakes the left-hemisphere tortoise in one effortless stride: right-hemisphere pragmatics mean that we know precisely what Epimenides is getting at. We don't have to get hung up on the rules. In the real world nothing is absolute, and with a lack of pedantry appropriate to the fact that his remark actually comes from a poem, and is probably humorous in intent, since he is well aware that he is a Cretan, we understand that Epimenides has stepped outside the frame for a moment, to take a look at the people he belongs to. In real life one has come across people who take humorous remarks literally, or who laboriously attempt to replace understanding by the application of absolute rules and come up with a paradox, and they are usually somewhere along the Asperger spectrum. It looks like right-hemisphere failure again: misunderstanding of context, lack of humour, lack of flexibility, insistence on the certainty obtained by rules. What this paradox also illuminates is that any enclosed, self-referring system the left hemisphere comes up with, if taken strictly on its own terms, self-explodes: there is a member of the system that cannot be accommodated by the system.7 There is always an escape route from the hall of mirrors, if one looks hard enough.
Paradox means, literally, a finding that is contrary to received opinion or expectation. That immediately alerts us, since the purveyor of received opinion and expectation is the left hemisphere. I called it a sign that our ordinary ways of thinking, those of the left hemisphere, are not adequate to the nature of reality. But – wait! Here it seems that the left hemisphere, with its reliance on the application of logic, is stating the opposite: that it is reality that is inadequate to our ordinary ways of thinking. Contrary to received opinion, it asserts, arrows do not move, Achilles cannot overtake the tortoise, there can never be a heap of sand, Theseus' ship is not really his ship after all, Epimenides was inevitably talking nonsense. In other words its understanding of paradox is – not that there must be problems in applying this kind of logic to the real world – but that the real world isn't the way we think it is because logic says so. This looks like an interesting usurpation, a swapping of roles, with the new dispensation redefining who is Master, and who emissary.8
Problems arising from whether we see the world as a process, always in flux, or as a series of static, finished, entities, have inevitably persisted in philosophy. In the Middle Ages it was acknowledged in the distinction between the world seen as natura naturans, nature ‘naturing’, doing what nature does, a process ever evolving, and to that degree unknowable, and natura naturata, nature ‘natured’, a something completed, perfect (which always implies past tense, an arrest of the flow of time), static, knowable. Spinoza was one of the few philosophers, apart from Pascal, between Plato and Hegel to have a strong sense of the right-hemisphere world.9 For him this distinction, understandably, had a particular importance; he also pre-eminently understood the way in which the universal is attained to only via the particular; ‘the more we understand individual things, the more we understand God’.10
But the area in which the hemispheres and philosophy can be mutually illuminating that is of chief interest in this book is that of the relationship of the mind to the world. Just because of the immensity of that topic, I want to limit it by moving on to look at things from the other end of the process, and attempt my second question, what philosophy can tell us that will help us understand the hemisphere differences.
Let's return to the main point of hemisphere difference, division versus cohesion. Since the notorious Cartesian subject–object divide, philosophy has grappled with the spectre of solipsism. To know something is to encounter something other, and know it as separate from ourselves. If all I am certain of is my own existence (cogito ergo sum), how does one ever cross the gap? For the solipsist, there is nothing to encounter, since all we know stems from our own mind alone: according to Wittgenstein, the solipsist is like someone who tries to make the car go faster by pushing against the dashboard from inside. There is a paradox here, too: the position is self-undermining, in that it nonetheless demands another mind, another consciousness that can constitute the solipsist (as Hegel's master needs the slave in order to be a master): to use the term ‘I’ requires the possibility of there being something which is ‘not-I’ – otherwise, in place of ‘all that is, is mine’, we just get the vacuous ‘all that is mine, is mine’.11
As Louis Sass has demonstrated in relation to the world of the schizophrenic, solipsistic subjectivity on the one hand (with its fantasy of omnipotence) and alienated objectivity on the other (with its related fantasy of impotence) tend to collapse into one another, and are merely facets of the same phenomenon: both imply isolation rather than connection.12 The attempt to adopt a God's eye view, or ‘view from nowhere’ in Thomas Nagel's famous phrase, the position pretended by objectivism, is as empty as solipsism, and is ultimately indistinguishable from it in its consequences: the ‘view from nowhere’ pretends to equate to a ‘view from everywhere’.13 What is different is the ‘view from somewhere’. Everything that we know can be known only from an individual point of view, or under one or another aspect of its existence, never in totality or perfection.14 Equally what we come to know consists not of things, but of relationships, each apparently separate entity qualifying the others to which it is related. But this does not entail that there can be no reliably constituted shared world of experience. Because we do not experience precisely the same world does not mean that we are condemned not to meet in a world at all. We cannot take refuge in fantasies of either omnipotence or impotence. The difficult truth is less grand: that there is a something apart from ourselves, which we can influence to some degree. And the evidence is that how we do so matters.
DEWEY AND JAMES: CONTEXT AND THE NATURE OF TRUTH
Towards the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century the American pragmatist philosophers John Dewey and William James, in different ways, began to signal dissatisfaction with the atomistic, rationalistic approach in philosophy and the abstraction that necessarily goes with it. Dewey wrote:
Thinking is always thinking, but philosophical thinking is, upon the whole, at the extreme end of the scale of distance from the active urgency of concrete situations. It is because of this fact that neglect of context is the besetting fallacy of philosophical thought … I should venture to assert that the most pervasive fallacy of philosophic thinking goes back to neglect of context … neglect of context is the greatest single disaster which philosophic thinking can incur.15
If the process of philosophy is to understand the world, and in reality things are always embedded in a context of relation with other things that alter them, you are not going to succeed in understanding them if you start by taking them out of context. ‘We are not explicitly aware of the role of context just because our every utterance is so saturated with it that it forms the significance of what we say and hear.’16 Here Dewey refers to the implicit nature of the right hemisphere's world, its insistence on the importance of context and the ultimate importance of right-hemisphere pragmatics in yielding the meaning of ‘what we say and hear’. And context implies change and process:
To see the organism in nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy. And when thus seen they will be seen to be in, not as marbles are in a box but as events are in history, in a moving, growing, never finished process.17
Dewey and James addressed the problem of how one can know truth in a world where things vary depending on context, and part of that context is the nature of the mind that does the knowing. ‘The qualities never were “in” the organism; they always were qualities of interactions in which both extra-organic things and organisms partake.’18 James, like Dewey, saw that there was a something other than ourselves, and that therefore, despite the impossibility of a ‘detached’ objectivity, truth to it was important:
The much lauded objective evidence is never triumphantly there; it is a mere aspiration or Grenzbegriff [limit or ideal notion] marking the infinitely remote ideal of our thinking life … [But] when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think. Our great difference from the scholastic lies in the way we face. The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo of his thought; for us the strength is in the outcome, the upshot, the terminus ad quem. Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide.19
This account of James's illuminates the difference between two approaches to knowledge or understanding, those of the two hemispheres. According to the left hemisphere, understanding is built up from the parts; one starts from one certainty, places another next to it, and advances as if building a wall, from the bottom up. It conceives that there is objective evidence of truth for a part outside the context of the whole it goes to constitute. According to the right hemisphere, understanding is derived from the whole, since it is only in the light of the whole that one can truly understand the nature of the parts. One process is pushed from behind (from a terminus a quo), the other pulled from in front (towards a terminus ad quem). According to the latter vision, that of the right hemisphere, truth is only ever provisional, but that does not mean that one must ‘give up the quest or hope of truth itself’.
Dewey was also dissatisfied with the idea that knowledge was a passive process, whereby clear and certain truths were ‘out there’ to be accessed by a process in which the human mind and imagination did not have to play an active part. His Gifford lectures of 1929, The Quest for Certainty, ‘claimed that the debate in philosophy had rested, ever since the 1630s [Descartes's era] on too passive a view of the human mind, and on inappropriate demands for geometrical certainty’.20 He deplored the resultant ‘spectator’ theory of knowledge, ‘the traditional conception, according to which the thing to be known is something which exists prior to and wholly apart from the act of knowing’.21
This theme was taken up by the German and French philosophers of the phenomenological tradition. It is with them that things took a remarkable, almost unforeseeable, step, and it is to them that I now turn. My point in doing so should not be misunderstood. It is not to assert that these philosophers are ‘right’ – though I believe they do reveal important truths about ourselves and the world, known to other traditions, that were until recently completely lost sight of in Western philosophy. There are always different views in philosophy, and argument literally knows no end. There will always be some who remain unconvinced of what these philosophers seem to have seen and tried to convey. No – my point is that these philosophers, none of whom could possibly have had access to what we now know about hemisphere differences, nonetheless each found himself compelled, unawares, to derive the reality and ultimate importance of the right-hemisphere world, even though each started from the premises and tools of philosophy, with their naturally inbuilt bias towards the way of thinking of the left hemisphere.
HUSSERL AND THE IDEA OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY
Edmund Husserl was born in Moravia in 1859, and began by studying mathematics, physics and astronomy, though he became increasingly concerned with the relationship between psychology and philosophy. His main works were published between the turn of the twentieth century and the Second World War (he died in 1938); as with Wittgenstein, his philosophical position evolved dramatically, and his later works grapple with the problems of rationalism in a world partly constituted by human consciousness. He was the first, and perhaps the only, true phenomenologist in the strictest sense, aiming to study consciousness and conscious experience (phenomena) objectively, but nonetheless from a first-person, rather than a third-person, perspective. He used particular kinds of thought experiments, called ‘reductions’ (nothing whatever to do with reductionism), in a painstaking attempt to get at things as they are in themselves, aiming to transcend all preconceived theoretical frameworks, and the subject–object divide. Since phenomenology has been the major influence on European philosophy in the twentieth century, Husserl, as its founder, is generally seen as one of the most influential thinkers of our age. Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Scheler and many others are often called phenomenologists, and Hegel, a century earlier, has been seen as a forerunner.
Though Husserl brought a background in Cartesian philosophy and the methodology of science to bear on mental phenomena, he came to realize that this philosophy and this methodology failed to account for the nature of experience. According to Husserl, the roots of the European crisis of modernism lay in ‘verirrenden Rationalismus’ and ‘Blindheit für das Transzendentale’:22 a sort of mad rationalism and a blindness to the transcendental. In his later philosophy, Husserl aimed to transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism, that had so troubled philosophy since Plato: he emphasised the role that empathy, the capacity not just to put oneself in someone else's shoes but, importantly, to feel what they are feeling, plays in constructing the world.23 He came to the conclusion that there was an objective reality, but that it was constituted by what he called intersubjectivity. This comes about through shared experience, which is made possible for us by our embodied existence alongside other embodied individuals.24 He distinguished between the two ways in which we know the body: as a material object (Körper), alongside other objects in the world, and in that sense alien to us, and the way we experience it as something not just living, but lived (Leib), as it were from the inside. When we see others engaged in action in the world, we feel them to be leibhaft, as though we shared with them our consciousness of embodied existence.25
In this emphasis on the body, the importance of empathy, and intersubjectivity (which forms part of what I mean by ‘betweenness’), Husserl is asserting the essential role that the right hemisphere plays in constituting the world in which we live. He, too, emphasises the importance of context: things only are what they are because they find themselves in the surroundings in which they find themselves, and are connected to whatever it is that they are connected to. This raises the spectre of epistemological circularity, since achieving an understanding of any one thing depends on an understanding of the whole; and the tools of language and logical analysis take one away from context, back to the set of familiar concepts that, if one is a philosopher, one is constantly trying to transcend through analysis in language. That was the purpose of what he called the phenomenological reductions. His own approach is linear, but is forced to acknowledge the awkward truth displayed in Escher's hands. The world arises from a circular process that circles and searches its origins, more like a picture that comes into focus all at once, than a linear address to a target: by a right-hemisphere process, in other words, rather than a left.
The fact that empathy with others grounds our experience not just of them, but of ourselves and the world, has been borne out by research in psychology in recent years. One might think, in Cartesian fashion, that we attribute an ‘inwardness’ to others on the basis that we recognise our own feelings first, link them to outward expressions, utterances and actions that we make contemporaneously with those feelings, and then, when we see those same expressions in others, attribute the same feelings to them by a sort of logical analogy with ourselves. But developmental psychology shows that this is a false assumption. The direction in which it works appears not to be from within our (separate) selves to within (separate) others, but from shared experience to the development of our own inwardness and that of others. We do not need to learn to make the link between our selves and others, because although individual we are not initially separated, but intersubjective in our consciousness.26 As one philosopher of mind, reflecting on the relevance of phenomenology to neuroscience, has put it,
there is a remarkable convergence between these two traditions, not simply on the topic of intersubjectivity, but on virtually every area of research within cognitive science, as a growing number of scientists and philosophers have discussed. In the case of intersubjectivity, much of the convergence centres on the realization that one's consciousness of oneself as an embodied individual in the world is founded on empathy – on one's empathic cognition of others, and others' empathic cognition of oneself.27
Again the process is circular (or spiral-like), rather than linear.
The left hemisphere is not impressed by empathy: its concern is with maximising gain for itself, and its driving value is utility. As a result, philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition, more or less untouched by the European phenomenologists, have been nonplussed by altruistic behaviour. They have had to resort to complex logical formulations that defy common sense and experience to explain behaviour that is obviously the product of care as being ultimately selfish (despite the fact that the Prisoner's Dilemma – see below – appears to demonstrate that the rational person should not in fact act selfishly, another paradox that illuminates one of the ‘Gödelian’ points within the left hemisphere's system). Naturally there are ways of logically taking into account such problems of logic. More and more refined riders, more self-referential loops, are added, reminding one of nothing so much as the epicycles upon epicycles that were added by pre-Keplerian astronomers to planetary orbits in order to ‘save the phenomena’. It is like the attempt to describe a living curve using only straight lines: more and more are added, and the curve is ever more approximated, with infinite complexity, the lines never quite reaching their target and always remaining outside the curve – which a free hand could have delineated in one sweep. Or like a complex construction of cogs and wheels to produce a simulacrum of a living person, there being always, however closely, even exquisitely, approaching its goal, something more that it lacks.
The Prisoner's Dilemma is a problem that will be familiar to many readers, originating in an aspect of economic and social modelling known as games theory, and first posed by Flood and Dresher in 1950.28 It goes like this. The police suspect two individuals, A and B, of a serious crime, but have insufficient evidence to pin it on them. They arrest the suspects and interrogate them separately. Each is told that if he testifies for the prosecution against the other, and the other remains silent, he will go free and his opposite number will receive the maximum sentence of 10 years in jail. In the case where they both remain silent, the police would be able to make only a much lesser charge stick, for which they would each serve six months. If each were to betray the other, each would receive a two-year sentence. Neither prisoner is in a position to know what the other prisoner will do. How should each respond – by remaining silent or betraying the other (defecting)?
Their options are summarised below.
B is silent
A is silent
A gets six months
A gets 10 years
B gets six months
B goes free
A goes freeA gets 2 years
B gets 10 years
B gets 2 years
The essence of the problem is that the best outcome for both is where each remains silent, and they each serve six months (top left option). But, if each behaves rationally, they will end up doing worse: each will defect, and they will both end up serving two years (bottom right option). The reason for this is clear. A does not know what B will do, so he weighs up his options. If B is silent, A will do better by defecting: he will go free, instead of serving six months in jail. If, on the other hand, B defects, A will still do better by defecting, since he will get two years instead of 10. So whatever happens he is better off to defect. And, of course, the situation being symmetrical, B will reason similarly: hence they are stuck in the bottom right hand corner of the diagram, while they would both be better off in the top left.
As the game is repeated, various attempts to anticipate what the other may be thinking can be made, affecting the outcome. For example, A may learn from experience that neither can emerge from this trap unless they are prepared to trust and take a risk. So he may behave altruistically in the next round. If B does also, they will both be rewarded. If B does not, A may decide not to be a sucker in the third round, but instead to punish A by defecting next time. Even if B does reciprocate in round two, A may decide to defect in round three, on the expectation that B may carry on reciprocating, to A's advantage. Obviously there are an infinite number of such tangles that can be worked through, but they are worked through only in such artificial settings by computer scientists and philosophers. In the real world we realize that, in a nutshell, we cannot get anywhere unless we are prepared to take a risk and we are prepared to trust. Calculation is unhelpful, and is superseded by a habit of beneficence in most of us for whom the right orbitofrontal cortex, the basis of empathy, is still functioning properly. For highly unempathic individuals, such as psychopaths, in whom this part of the brain is defective, and therefore for whom this aspect of the world is missing, they will devote themselves, like philosophers, to calculation.29
Most subjects in the Prisoner's Dilemma prefer mutual co-operation over unilateral defection, even though the dilemma is set up so that it is apparently in their self-interest to defect, regardless of what the other player does.30 It seems we do not seek simply to maximise our material advantage at the expense of others, and this is not explained by ‘selfish’ prudential reasoning. Altruism is a necessary consequence of empathy: we feel others' feeling, engage in their being. The great apes are capable of empathy and can be altruistic: for example Binti Jua, a gorilla at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, saved a young boy who fell into her compound.31 Dogs that have lived with humans can act in ways that are driven neither by instinct nor by any conceivable self-interest, and would be counted altruistic if they occurred in humans: they cannot be making a calculation of any kind. Why should we not also be capable of acts of love?
We should remember that in mammals the social bonding mechanisms are based on learning and are certainly more pervasive than the innate mechanisms for ‘kin recognition’. We can learn to love other animals … the acquisition of nurturant behaviour leaves a seemingly indelible print on a creature's way of being in the world.32
Altruism in humans extends far beyond anything in the animal world, and also beyond what is called ‘reciprocal altruism’, in which we behave ‘altruistically’ in calculated expectation of the favour being reciprocated. It is not a matter of the genes looking after themselves at the expense of the individual, either; human beings co-operate with people with whom they are not genetically related. It is also far more than merely co-operation based on the importance of maintaining one's reputation; we co-operate with, and put ourselves out to help, those we may barely know, those we know we may never meet again, and those who can in no way reward us. The possibility of future reciprocation may, of course, influence decisions, where it operates, but it is not fundamental to the phenomenon.33
It is mutuality, not reciprocity, fellow-feeling, not calculation, which is both the motive and the reward for successful co-operation. And the outcome, in utilitarian terms, is not the important point: it is the process, the relationship, that matters. At the neurological level, we know that in experimental situations using the Prisoner's Dilemma, subjects that achieve mutual co-operation with another human individual show activity in areas of the brain associated with pleasure (parts of the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex); they do not, however, in a situation where they achieve the appearances of ‘mutual co-operation’ with a programmed computer rather than a living person. It is also interesting that when playing with a human partner the majority of the regions showing particular involvement in co-operation are right-sided, whereas with a machine partner they are mainly left-sided (stuff the empathy, we're just both out to win).34 And in case anyone should think that empathy necessarily means being soft on others, those right-sided regions include the right caudate, an area known to be involved in altruistic punishment of defection.35
MERLEAU-PONTY: EMPATHY AND THE BODY
The discussion of empathy obliges me to step out of chronological sequence here, to look at the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, since the part played by empathy and the body in the construction of reality is central to his thinking. He was born in 1908, and his major works were published in French between the war years and the 1960s, with translations into English following by ten to twenty years in most cases: it would be hard to overstate his influence on philosophy, psychology and art criticism from the second half of the twentieth century onwards. He was among the many thinkers that were influenced by Husserl's philosophy of intersubjectivity.
Merleau-Ponty wrote about the reciprocity of communication that ‘it is as if the other person's intentions inhabited my body and mine his’.36 The concept of what may be called the ‘lived body’, the sense of the body not as something we live inside, not even as an extension of ourselves, but as an aspect of our existence which is fundamental to our being, could be seen as the ultimate foundation of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. He recapitulated the view of Henri Bergson that the self-experience of the human being is embedded in the world, with the body as the mediator, and held that the human body is the means whereby consciousness and the world are profoundly interrelated and engaged with one another. For Merleau-Ponty the ‘object’ of perception cannot be viewed in isolation, because it is in reality embedded in a context, the nexus of relations among existing things which gives it meaning within the world. Thus no one object exists independently of others, but reflects a part of whatever else it co-exists with, and in turn is itself similarly reflected there. This is related to a sense of the intrinsic incompleteness of perspective available on any given entity at a given moment. Such partial disclosures, ‘takes’ or Abschattungen (a term of Husserl's, often, rather unhelpfully, translated as ‘adumbrations’), are a necessary part of the true experience of any existing thing, which ultimately exists in the totality of possible views. Such partial views do not undermine, but tend to confirm, such a thing's real existence: only the representation of a theoretical ideal could pretend to completeness. Merleau-Ponty emphasised specifically the importance of depth as a foundation for such experience in the lived world, contrasting the different aspects, or Abschattungen, of a single whole, which reveal themselves in an object that has depth, with the parts that are all that one is left with where the object lacks depth.37
That the relations between ‘the subject and his body’, and in turn between the body and the world, the relations which form the focus of Merleau-Ponty's philosophical concerns, are underwritten by the right hemisphere is knowledge potentially available to anyone who has cared for stroke patients. It becomes obvious when something goes wrong with right-hemisphere functioning. This was remarked nearly 50 years ago in a now classic paper on the apraxias, neurological syndromes in which there is an inability to carry out an action, despite there being no impairment of sensory or motor function. Of these conditions Hécaen and his colleagues wrote: ‘It is indeed remarkable that the apraxias expressing an impairment of relations between the subject and his body or between the body and the surrounding space are found in connection with lesions of the minor [i.e. right] hemisphere.’38 All the same, when the issue is how to use an object, at least if the use is straightforward, the lesion is usually in the left hemisphere; but where it is not a question of straightforward use, the right hemisphere tends to be implicated.39 Constructional apraxias, which depend on the loss of the sense of the whole, are commonest and most severe after right-sided lesions.40
For Merleau-Ponty truth is arrived at through engagement with the world, not through greater abstraction from it; the general is encountered through, rather than in spite of, the particular; and the infinite through, rather than in spite of, the finite. In relation to art, Merleau-Ponty's view, which accords with experience, was that the artist did not merely reflect what was there anyway, albeit in a novel way, but actually ‘brought into being a truth’ about the world that was not there before, perhaps the best example of the universal being manifest through the particular.41
It is the rootedness of our thought and language in the body that we share with others which means that despite the fact that all truth is relative, this in no way undermines the possibility of shared truth. It is the right hemisphere's ‘primary consciousness’, coupled to the body's preconscious awareness of the world, which relates our visceral and emotional experience to what we know about the world.42 This position has been corroborated more recently by Lakoff and Johnson, and once again the body is the crucial mediator:
The mind is not merely embodied, but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and of the environments we live in. The result is that much of a person's conceptual system is either universal or widespread across languages and cultures. Our conceptual systems are not totally relative and not merely a matter of historical contingency, even though a degree of conceptual relativity does exist and even though historical contingency does matter a great deal … truth is mediated by embodied understanding and imagination. That does not mean that truth is purely subjective or that there is no stable truth. Rather, our common embodiment allows for common, stable truths.43
The grounding role in experience played by empathy, the primacy for Merleau-Ponty of experience over conceptual thought (one of his essays is entitled ‘The primacy of perception, and its philosophical consequences’),44 his insistence on context and on the fundamental role played by the physically instantiated self in the ‘lived body’ as the prerequisite for being-in-the-world, the lived body as the medium of intersubjective experience, the consequent importance of depth, which is the necessary condition for embodied existence, his emphasis on the work of art as bringing into being something entirely new, not just a redeployment of what already exists, are all, in my view, expressions of the stance or disposition towards the world of the right hemisphere.
HEIDEGGER AND THE NATURE OF BEING
However, it was with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger that this world view reached its most comprehensive ever expression.45 Here we need to step back a few years. Born in 1889 in southern Germany, he was destined for the priesthood, and his early work was on Aristotle and Duns Scotus; but he began to realise that our treatment of being, as though it were just an attribute of things like other attributes, or, worse, a thing alongside other things, led to a misunderstanding of the world and our selves. His great work Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) was published in 1927, and its importance was immediately recognised.
Because our use of a term such as ‘being’ makes us feel that we understand what being is, it hides the sense of radical astonishment we would have if we could truly understand it, and subverts our attempts to do so. I am reminded of Cantor's perception that treating infinity as just another kind of number stopped us understanding its nature and hence the nature of the world. But just as that did not mean that we should abandon mathematics, Heidegger's insight does not mean that we should abandon language. It just means that we have to be constantly vigilant to undermine language's attempt to undermine our understanding.
While Heidegger has ardent admirers and equally ardent detractors, there is no doubting his importance, despite the difficulty of his writings, in every aspect of modern thought: his influence throughout the humanities has been profound indeed. Heidegger's entire thrust is away from the clear light of analysis, and this has led to misunderstandings. While he has been admired as a wise philosopher-teacher by some, he has been reviled as an obfuscator by others. Those with an interest in tearing down the boundaries of the world of ordinary sense have adopted him as a patron. I believe this attempt by what Julian Young calls ‘the “anarcho-existentialists” for whom every reality interpretation is an oppressive power-structure’ to annex Heidegger to their cause represents a travesty, an almost total inversion of what he stood for.46 For Heidegger, the fact that our apprehension of whatever is takes part in the process of that thing becoming what it is, and that therefore there is no single truth about anything that exists, does not mean that any version of a thing is valid or that all versions are equally valid. As Eric Matthews says, talking about Merleau-Ponty's reflections on the art work:
Because the medium of the resulting work is not conventionally-referring language, whatever meaning it has will not be expressible in any other terms than those of the work itself. It is not an arbitrary meaning: because we cannot give a ‘correct’ translation into some other medium, it does not follow that we can give the work any meaning we care to.47
And that does not go just for works of art. Things are not whatever we care to make them. There is a something that exists apart from our own minds, and our attempt to apprehend whatever it is needs to be true to, faithful to, that whatever-it-is-that-exists and at the same time true to ourselves in making that apprehension. No single truth does not mean no truth.
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’. If we had no concept of truth, we could not state anything at all, and it would even be pointless to act. There would be no purpose, for example, in seeking the advice of doctors, since there would be no point in having their opinion, and no basis for their view that one treatment was better than another. None of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.
The word ‘true’ suggests a relationship between things: being true to someone or something, truth as loyalty, or something that fits, as two surfaces may be said to be ‘true’. It is related to ‘trust’, and is fundamentally a matter of what one believes to be the case. The Latin word verum (true) is cognate with a Sanskrit word meaning to choose or believe: the option one chooses, the situation in which one places one's trust. Such a situation is not an absolute – it tells us not only about the chosen thing, but also about the chooser. It cannot be certain: it involves an act of faith, and it involves being faithful to one's intuitions.
For Heidegger, Being (Sein) is hidden, and things as they truly are (das Seiende) can be ‘unconcealed’ only by a certain disposition of patient attention towards the world – emphatically not by annexing it, exploiting it or ransacking it for congenial meanings, in a spirit of ‘anything goes’. Heidegger related truth to the Greek concept of aletheia, literally ‘unconcealing’. In this concept a number of facets of truth are themselves unconcealed. In the first place it suggests something that pre-exists our attempts to ‘dis-cover’ it.48 Then it is an entity defined by a negative – by what it is not; and in opposition to something else (unconcealing). It is come at by a process, a coming into being of something; and that process is also, importantly, part of the truth. It is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than by putting things together. This idea of truth-as-unconcealing contrasts with the idea of truth-as-correctness, which is static, unchanging. Truth as unconcealing is a progress towards something – the something is in sight, but never fully seen; whereas truth as correctness is given as a thing in itself, that can in principle be fully known.
For Heidegger, truth was such an unconcealing, but it was also a concealing, since opening one horizon inevitably involves the closing of others. There is no single privileged viewpoint from which every aspect can be seen.49 It may be true that, to quote Patricia Churchland, ‘it is reasonable to identify the blueness of an object with its disposition to scatter … electromagnetic waves preferentially at about 0.46µm’ [emphasis in the original].50 That is, I suppose, a sort of truth about the colour blue. That is one way in which blue discloses itself. Most of us would think it left rather a lot out. There are also other very important truths about the colour blue that we experience, for example, when we see a canvas by Ingres, or by Yves Klein, or view the sky, or sea, which are closed off by this. It is, in this sense, like the duck–rabbit: we can have only one ‘take’ on it at a time. We see things by seeing them as something. In this sense too we create the world by attending to it in a particular way.
But there is a more important reason why truth has to be concealment. Every thing that purports to be the truth is, according to Heidegger, inevitably an approximation and true things, things that really are, rather than as we may apprehend them, are in themselves ineffable, ungraspable. Thus to see them clearly is to see something at best indistinct to vision – except that to see them distinctly would not be truly to see them. To have the impression that one sees things as they truly are, is not to permit them to ‘presence’ to us, but to substitute something else for them, something comfortable, familiar and graspable – what I would call a left-hemisphere re-presentation. The inexperienced mariner sees the ice floe; the experienced mariner sees the berg and is awe-struck.
Heidegger's concept of hiddenness does not imply a sort of throwing up of one's hands in the air before the incomprehensible. Just the opposite, as his life's work implies. Hiddenness does not mean, in the arts, being beyond approach, nor does it invite a free-for-all; instead it suggests that what is understood by the right hemisphere is likely to be uncomprehended by the left. Heidegger's somewhat gnomic saying, in der Unverborgenheit waltet die Verbergung (‘in unconcealment dwells hiddenness and safekeeping’) appositely draws attention to the simultaneous hiddenness and radiance of truth in works of art. The meaning is present wholly in the work of art: it cannot be extracted from it or dragged into the daylight, but is perfectly projected there where it is. One might compare Wittgenstein: ‘The work of art does not aim to convey something else, just itself.’51
The stance, or disposition, that we need to adopt, according to Heidegger, is one of ‘waiting on’ (nachdenken) something, rather than just ‘waiting for’ it; a patient, respectful nurturing of something into disclosure, in which we need already to have some idea of what it is that will be. George Steiner compares it to ‘that “bending toward” of spirit and intellect and ear’ to be seen in Fra Angelico's Annunciation in San Marco.52 A highly active passivity, in other words. There is a process of responsiveness between man (Dasein, literally ‘being there’, or perhaps ‘the being that is in the world’) and Being, which is well described again by Steiner:
An Ent-sprechen is not ‘an answer to’ (une réponse à), but a ‘response to’, a ‘correspondence with’, a dynamic reciprocity and matching such as occur when gears, both in quick motion, mesh. Thus, our question as to the nature of philosophy calls not for an answer in the sense of a textbook definition or formulation, be it Platonic, Cartesian, or Lockeian, but for an Ent-sprechung, a response, a vital echo, a ‘re-sponsion’ in the liturgical sense of participatory engagement … For Descartes, truth is determined and validated by certainty. Certainty, in turn, is located in the ego. The self becomes the hub of reality and relates to the world outside itself in an exploratory, necessarily exploitative, way. As knower and user, the ego is predator. For Heidegger, on the contrary, the human person and self-consciousness are not the centre, the assessors of existence. Man is only a privileged listener and respondent to existence. The vital relation to otherness is not, as for Cartesian and positivist rationalism, one of ‘grasping’ and pragmatic use. It is a relation of audition. We are trying ‘to listen to the voice of Being’. It is, or ought to be, a relation of extreme responsibility, custodianship, answerability to and for.53
The contrast here being drawn between, on the one hand, the isolated ego, standing in a relation of alienated and predatory exploitation to the world around it, mysteriously leaping from subject to object and back again, retiring with its booty into the cabinet of its consciousness, where it demands certainty of knowledge; and, on the other, a self that is drawn into and inextricably bound up with the world in a relation, not just metaphysical in nature, but of ‘being-with’ and inside, a relation of care (Sorge) and concern, suggesting involvement of the whole experiential being, not just the processes of cognition – this contrast evokes in my view some of the essential differences between the worlds that are brought about for us by the two hemispheres. But that is by no means all.
Since Dasein is ‘to be there’ in the world – the literal, actual, concrete, daily world – to be human at all is to be immersed in the earth, and the quotidian matter-of-factness of the world. The right hemisphere is concerned with the familiar, not in the sense of the inauthentically routine, but in the sense of the things that form part of ‘my’ daily world or familia, the household, those I care for.54 It is not alien from material things, but, quite the opposite, attends to individual things in all their concrete particularity. This is exactly the ‘personal sensibility to the grain and substance of physical existence, to the “thingness” and obstinate quiddity of things, be they rock or tree or human presence’ that is found in Heidegger.55 Again this roots existence in the body and in the senses. We do not inhabit the body like some alien Cartesian piece of machine wizardry, but live it – a distinction between the left and right hemisphere understandings of the body. In trying to convey the ‘otherness’ of a particular building, its sheer existence or essent prior to any one act of cognition by which it is partially apprehended, Heidegger speaks of the primal fact of its existence being made present to us in the very smell of it, more immediately communicated in this way than by any description or inspection.56 The senses are crucial to the ‘presence’ of being, ‘to our apprehension of an is in things that no analytic dissection or verbal account can isolate’.57
Time is responsible for Dasein's individuality, and is the condition under which existing things are. In Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) Heidegger insists that we do not live in time, as if it were some independent, abstract flow, alien to our being, but live time – much as being-in-the-world is not the same as being in the world like a marble in a box. We live time rather than just conceive it, and similarly we live the body rather than simply derive sensory information through it.58 Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world. For Heidegger the ‘nadir of inauthentic temporality’ is time as a sequence of instants (the left-hemisphere mode), which is opposed to the lived time of Dasein, and whatever gives it meaning.59
Everydayness was an important concept for Heidegger: again it has two meanings, and Heidegger's distinctions once more illuminate hemisphere differences, as hemisphere differences illuminate Heidegger's meaning. To take a famous example of his, the hammer that I use finds its place naturally in a context of the action for which I use it, and becomes almost an extension of myself, so that there is no awareness or focal (left hemisphere) attention to it. It recedes into its context – the lived world of me, my arm, the action of hammering, and the world around in which this takes place (right hemisphere); in Heidegger's terms it is zuhanden (‘ready-to-hand’).60 By contrast, it stands out, becomes in Heidegger's terms vorhanden (‘present-at-hand’), only when something goes wrong and interrupts this flow, and draws my attention to it as an object for inspection (left hemisphere). Then it begins to become alien. But the situation is more complex and alive (right hemisphere) than this analytical schema (left hemisphere) makes it appear. Things do not end up ‘filed’ (left hemisphere) or for that matter ‘dwelling’ (right hemisphere) in one or other hemisphere, but are constantly moving back and forth, or, to put it more accurately, aspects of them belong to one hemisphere and aspects to the other, and these aspects are continually coming forward and retreating in a process that is dynamic. The business of living calls forth aspects of things in either hemisphere. The routine of daily life, in which things have their familiar place and order (right hemisphere), can dull things into what Heidegger called inauthenticity (left hemisphere), through the very weight of familiarity, and in my terms its left hemisphere re-presentation comes to take the place of the thing itself (broadly the idea of the hammer replaces the thing as it is experienced). However, the very alienation inherent in the experience of its sudden Vorhandenheit, when the hammer becomes the focus of my attention, allows the possibility of rediscovering the authenticity that had been lost, because the detachment enables us to see it anew as an existing thing, something remarkable, almost with a sense of wonder (in which, for Heidegger, as for many other philosophers, all philosophy begins).
As things become dulled and inauthentic, they become conceptualised rather than experienced; they are taken out of their living context, a bit like ripping the heart out of a living body. Heidegger called this process that of Gestell, or framing, a term which suggests the detachment of seeing things as if through a window (as in a famous image of Descartes's),61 or as re-presented in a picture, or, nowadays, framed by the TV or computer screen.62 Inherent in it is the notion of an arbitrarily abrupted set of potential relationships, with the context – which ultimately means the totality of Being, all that is – neatly severed at the edges of the frame. Because reality is infinitely ramified and interconnected, because its nature is to hide, and to recede from the approach of logical analysis, language is a constantly limiting, potentially misdirecting and distorting medium. Yet it is necessary to Heidegger as a philosopher. In its tendency to linearity it resists the reticulated web of Heidegger's thought, and his writing espouses images and metaphors of paths that are circuitous and indirect, the Holzwege, Feldweg, Wegmarken, and so on, suggesting threading one's way through woods and fields.63 It is interesting that Descartes's philosophy was half-baked while he slept in a Bavarian oven, the metaphor of stasis and self-enclosure revealing, philosophy and the body being one, the nature of the philosophy; whereas Heidegger was, according to Steiner, ‘an indefatigable walker in unlit places’: solvitur ambulando.64 Truth is process, not object.
From the analytic point of view, as Steiner says, one has constantly to attempt to ‘jump “outside” and beyond the speaker's own shadow’.65 One must never also lose sight of the interconnected nature of things, so that Heidegger's project is in this, too, opposed to Descartes, who limited himself to viewing objects singly: ‘if one tries to look at many objects at one glance, one sees none of them distinctly’.66 Heidegger reached naturally towards metaphor, in which more than one thing is kept implicitly (hiddenly) before the mind, since he valued, unusually for a philosopher, the ambiguity of poetic language. He lamented the awful Eindeutigkeit – literally the ‘one-meaningness’, or explicitness – to which in a computer age we tend: both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, according to Richard Rorty, ‘ended by trying to work out honourable terms on which philosophy might surrender to poetry’.67 Wittgenstein's work became increasingly apophthegmatic: he repeatedly struggled with the idea that philosophy was not possible outside of poetry.68 And Heidegger ultimately found himself, in his last works, resorting to poetry to convey the complexity and depth of his meaning. He saw language as integral to whatever it brings forward, just as the body is to Dasein, not as a mere container for thought: ‘Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak.’69
There is also inherent in Heidegger's talk of language an understanding that our relationship with language, like the relationship we have with the world which it images, is not a matter of will, bending words like things to our utility, not one of manipulation and direction (as the left hemisphere has it). It is language that speaks in us, he says, not we who speak it.70 The idea, at first sight paradoxical (once again Heidegger strains to the limit what language can say), incorporates the idea that language connects us to, and in some sense, instantiates, wisdom that we need through painful philosophical discourse, or, as he increasingly came to believe, through poetry, to permit to speak to us; that we need to listen to what emerges from our language, rather than speak through it – which is to impose ideas on it. We need to allow the ‘silent’ right hemisphere to speak, with its understanding that is hard to put into the ordinary language of every day, since everyday language already takes us straight back to the particular way of being in the world – that of the left hemisphere – that it is trying to circumvent. When we go towards something in an effort to apprehend it, Heidegger appears to be saying, we are not näively the prime movers. For us to be able to understand anything we have already to be in possession of enough understanding of it to be able to approach it, and indeed we have, yes, already to understand it in some sense before we can ‘understand’ it.71
We arrive at the position (which is so familiar from experience) that we cannot attain an understanding by grasping it for ourselves. It has already to be in us, and the task is to awaken it, or perhaps to unfold it – to bring it into being within us. Similarly we can never make others understand something unless they already, at some level, understand it.72 We cannot give them our understanding, only awaken their own, latent, understanding. This is also the meaning of the dark saying that ideas come to us, not we to them. Our role in understanding is that of an open, in one sense active, passivity: ‘in insight (Einblick), men are the ones that are caught sight of’.73 The idea is also familiar in Merleau-Ponty: ‘it is being that speaks within us, and not we who speak of being’; and again, ‘it is not we who perceive, it is the thing that perceives itself yonder’.74 The idea that the conscious mind is passive in relation to what comes to it through the right hemisphere, and from whatever-it-is-that-exists beyond, is also expressed by Jung: ‘Everyone knows nowadays that people “have complexes”. What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us.’75
Philosophy and philosophical discourse is only one way of understanding the world. Most people who instinctively see the world in Heideggerian terms don't become philosophers – philosophers are self-selected as those who feel they can account for, or at any rate sensibly question, reality in the very terms that would need to be transcended if we are to do justice to the right hemisphere's reality. There are notable exceptions, however, Schopenhauer being one of them. As Heidegger and Wittgenstein made terms with poetry, Schopenhauer believed that the mediations of art in general, but particularly music, were more directly able to reveal the nature of reality than was philosophy. He also believed in the importance of compassion and religious enlightenment in doing so. Interestingly, from our point of view, he said that ‘philosophical astonishment is therefore at bottom perplexed and melancholy; philosophy, like the overture to Don Juan [Mozart's Don Giovanni], begins with a minor chord’.76 In view of the associations of melancholy, music, empathy and religious feeling with the right hemisphere, the observation acquires a new significance, because I believe that, despite appearances, philosophy begins and ends in the right hemisphere, though it has to journey through the left hemisphere on its way (see below).
It is still true that Heidegger, while doing all he can to use language to undermine language, persists in according a primal role to language in Being. It is often asked, why not music? Perhaps the answer is personal: if he had not thought language of primal importance, and himself instinctively seized on language rather than music or the visual arts, as his medium, he would not have been a philosopher. All the same, starting from the modes of operation of the left hemisphere – language, abstraction, analysis – Heidegger remained true to what he perceived was constantly hidden by the left hemisphere's view; he did not, for once, let it be swept away, but with extraordinary patience, persistence and subtlety, allowed it to speak for itself, despite the commitment to language, abstraction and analysis, and thus succeeded in transcending them. It is this extraordinary achievement which makes him, in my view, a heroic figure as a philosopher, despite all that might be, and has been, said against the ambivalence of his public role in the Germany of the 1930s.77
Although starting from a very different philosophical tradition, and working by a different route, the later Wittgenstein reached many of the same conclusions as Heidegger. There can be no doubting the scrupulosity of Wittgenstein's grapplings with the nature of reality. Yet, like Heidegger, he found that the philosophical process needed to work against itself, and saw himself as bringing philosophy to a standstill. ‘If my name survives’, he wrote, ‘then only as the terminus ad quem of the great philosophy of the West. As the name of him who burnt the library of Alexandria.’78 Like Heidegger, Wittgenstein too emphasised the primacy of context over rules and system building, of practice over theory: ‘What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgments. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating rules.’79 He emphasised that it is not just minds that think and feel, but human beings. Like Heidegger, he grasped that truth can hide or deceive as well as reveal. Wittgenstein scholar Peter Hacker writes:
Every source of truth is also unavoidably a source of falsehood, from which its own canons of reasoning and confirmation attempt to protect it. But it can also become a source of conceptual confusion, and consequently of forms of intellectual myth-making, against which it is typically powerless. Scientism, the illicit extension of the methods and categories of science beyond their legitimate domain, is one such form, and the conception of the unity of the sciences and the methodological homogeneity of the natural sciences and of humanistic studies one such myth. It is the task of philosophy to defend us against such illusions of reason.80
Wittgenstein was sceptical of the scientific method for two main reasons: its tendency to ‘reduce’, and the deceptive clarity of its models. He referred to the ‘preoccupation with the method of science … reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws’.81 Though ‘irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does … it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything.’ (Cf. Joseph Needham: ‘nothing can ever be reduced to anything’.82 ) One of his favourite sayings was ‘Everything is what it is and not another thing,’83 an expression of the right hemisphere's passionate commitment to the sheer quiddity of each individual thing, through which alone we approach the universal, and its resistance to the reductionism inevitable in the system building of the left hemisphere.
Despite his respect for the honourable business of the search for clarity, Wittgenstein was wary of the false clarity that scientific thinking, and sometimes the mere business of formulation in language, brings. I referred earlier to the way in which language's particular contribution to thought is to give it clarity and solidity: as his disciple Friedrich Waismann saw, speaking of the mind's own processes, a psychological motive ‘thickens, hardens, and takes shape, as it were, only after we express it in words’.84 We need to struggle towards objectivity, and yet the reality we aim to reveal is itself not precise, so that the artificial precision of our language betrays us.85 Wittgenstein spoke disparagingly of the ‘irritation of intellect’, the ‘tickling of intellect’, which he opposed to the religious impulse (he said he could not help ‘seeing every problem from a religious point of view’).86 He saw the business of philosophy as opposing the anaesthetic of self-complacent reason: ‘Man has to awaken to wonder – and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.’87
Heidegger would have agreed. The importance of Heidegger for the theme of this book lies not only in his perception that ultimately the world is given by (what we can now see to be) the right hemisphere. He went even further, and appears intuitively to have understood the evolving relationship between the hemispheres, which forms the subject of the second part of this book: namely that, with at times tumultuous upheavals, retrenchments and lurches forward, there has been a nonetheless relentless move towards the erosion of the power of the right hemisphere over recent centuries in the West.
Freud himself, although he knew that the rational understanding, which he called ‘secondary process’, could never replace the ‘primary process’ of the unconscious, came to believe that over human history reason had encroached on instinct and intuition.88 Heidegger saw that there was a fatal continuity between the assertive, predicative, definitional, classificatory idiom of Western metaphysics and that will to rational–technological mastery over life which he calls nihilism. In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, he wrote that ‘the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture’.89 He saw scientific research as bringing a certain type of narrow and decontextualised methodology to bear on nature and on history, which isolated and objectified its subject and was essential to the character of the enterprise. Speaking of vision, and the evolution of the Greek concept of theoria, later the Latin contemplatio, he sees ‘the impulse, already prepared in Greek thinking, of a looking-at that sunders and compartmentalises’, and speaks of ‘an encroaching advance … toward that which is to be grasped by the eye’.90 It is all too reminiscent of Descartes ‘trying to be a spectator rather than an actor in all the comedies that are played out [in the world]’.91
Moving forward in time to consider the last two centuries, Heidegger saw the disasters of Western materialism as stemming from a ‘forgetting of Being’, and the apparently opposed forces of capitalism and communism as merely variants in a common technicity and exploitation of nature. Our attempts to force nature according to our will are futile, he thought, and show no understanding of Being. This might sound like a pious reflection, and one that does not tally with reason. But there is meaning here that even the left hemisphere can understand. The domination and massive despoliation of nature and natural resources, the reduction of the world to commodity, has not led to the happiness it was designed to yield. According to Heidegger, what is everywhere apparently now demanded is tough, instant and, where necessary, violent action; ‘the long patient waiting for the gift’ has come to look like mere weakness.92
SCHELER: THE IMPORTANCE OF VALUE IN CONSTITUTING REALITY
I need also to say something about Heidegger's lesser known contemporary, colleague and friend, Max Scheler, who died young, but was the only person Heidegger believed truly understood him. Heidegger went so far, in fact, as to call Scheler ‘the strongest philosophical force in Germany today, nay, in contemporary Europe, and even in contemporary philosophy as such’.93 Scheler progressed further than Heidegger in certain philosophical directions, particularly the exploration of value and feeling, not as epiphenomena, but as constitutive of the phenomenological world. According to Scheler, values are not themselves feelings,though they reach us through the realm of feeling, much as colours reach us through the realm of sight. Scheler, like other phenomenological philosophers, emphasised the interpersonal nature of experience, particularly the nature of emotion, which he thought transcended the individual, and belonged to a realm in which such boundaries no longer applied. According to Scheler's phenomenology in The Nature of Sympathy, which he supported by an examination of child development and linguistics, and which has been corroborated by research since his death in 1928,94 our early experience of the world is intersubjective and does not include an awareness of self as distinct from other.95 There is, instead, ‘an immediate flow of experiences, undifferentiated as between mine and thine, which actually contains both our own and others' experiences intermingled and without distinction from one another’.96
Scheler's view that emotion is irreducible, and plays a grounding role in experience, relates to what has been called the primacy of affect (I will deal with this in the next chapter). In this, as Scheler's translator Manfred Frings notes, he followed Pascal, who, mathematician that he was, famously asserted that the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.97 But, for Scheler, it was not just any affect, however, that was primary, but that of love itself. For him, man is essentially ens amans, a being that loves. In Scheler's paradigm, this attractive power (in the literal sense of the word) is as mysterious and fundamental as the attractive power of gravity in the physical universe.
Value, for Scheler, is a pre-cognitive aspect of the existing world, which is neither purely subjective (i.e. ‘whatever I take it to be’) nor purely consensual (i.e. ‘whatever we agree it to be’). It is not, he asserts, something which we derive, or put together from some other kind of information, any more than we derive a colour, or come to a conclusion about it, by making a calculation. It comes to us in its own right, prior to any such calculation being made. This position is importantly related to two right-hemisphere themes which we have encountered already: the importance of context and of the whole. For example, the same act carried out by two different people may carry an entirely different value, which is why morality can never be a matter of actions or consequences taken out of context, whether that be the broader context or that of the mental world of the individual involved (the weakness of a too rigidly codified judicial system). Hence we judge some things that would out of context be considered weaknesses to be part of what is valuable or attractive in the context of a particular person's character; we do not arrive at a judgment on a person by summing the totality of their characteristics or acts, but judge their characteristics or acts by the ‘whole’ that we know to be that person.98 (That is not to deny that there might build up so many incongruent ‘parts’ that one was no longer able to resist the judgment they invited, with a resulting revolution in the nature of the whole. It's like making mayonnaise: add too much oil too fast and the suspension breaks down.)
Value is not a flavour that is added for some socially useful purpose; it is not a function or consequence of something else, but a primary fact. Scheler referred to the capacity for appreciating value as Wertnehmung, a concept which has been translated into the rather less accommodating English language as ‘value-ception’. For him this value-ception governs the type of attention that we pay to anything, and by which we learn more about it. Our value-ceptive knowledge of the whole governs our understanding of the parts, rather than the reverse. It is, in fact, one way of breaking into Escher's circle of hands, with which this chapter began.
Scheler also held that values form a hierarchy.99 Of course one may or may not agree with him here – these are matters of judgment and intuition, rather than argument – but what seems to me significant is that, without knowing anything about hemisphere differences, he perfectly illustrates the polarity of value systems of the two hemispheres. The right hemisphere sees the lower values as deriving their power from the higher ones which they serve; the left hemisphere is reductionist, and accounts for higher values by reference to lower values, its governing values of use and pleasure. Scheler's hierarchy begins with the lowest level, of what he calls sinnliche Werte, or values of the senses – whether something is pleasant or unpleasant. Values of utility (or uselessness) are on the same level as those of the senses, since ‘nothing can meaningfully be called useful except as a means to pleasure; utility … in reality has no value except as a means to pleasure.’100 The next level is that of Lebenswerte, ‘values of life’, or vitality: what is noble or admirable, such as courage, bravery, readiness to sacrifice, daring, magnanimity, loyalty, humility, and so on; or, on the contrary, what is mean (gemein), such as cowardice, pusillanimity, self-seeking, small-mindedness, treachery and arrogance.101 Then comes the realm of the geistige Werte, values of the intellect or spirit – principally justice, beauty and truth, with their opposites. The final realm is that of das Heilige, the holy. See Figure 4.2.
Fig. 4.2 Pyramid of values according to Scheler
It is relevant to the thesis of this book that there are important qualities which happen to be instrumentally useful, and therefore should be pursued on utilitarian grounds, but that doing so makes no sense, since they cannot be grasped by an effort of will, and the attempt to do so merely drives them further away. This is a point made with great subtlety and elegance by the philosopher Jon Elster, in his brilliant book Sour Grapes: as typical of such values he mentions wisdom, humility, virtue, courage, love, sympathy, admiration, faith and understanding.102 It is yet another Gödelian point of weakness in rationalism (his book is subtitled Studies in the Subversion of Rationality). If pursued for their utility, they vanish into nothing. All such values belong to the higher levels of Scheler's hierarchy. The values of the useful and pleasurable, those of the lowest rank, are the only ones to which left-hemisphere modes of operation are applicable – and even these are often self-defeating to pursue (as the paradox of hedonism demonstrates).103 As things are re-presented in the left hemisphere, it is their use-value that is salient. In the world it brings into being, everything is either reduced to utility or rejected with considerable vehemence, a vehemence that appears to be born of frustration, and the affront to its ‘will to power’. The higher values in Scheler's hierarchy, all of which require affective or moral engagement with the world, depend on the right hemisphere.
It is said that the meaning of the Hebrew words translated as ‘good and evil’, in the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘mean precisely the useful and the useless, in other words, what is useful for survival and what is not’.104
If a left-hemisphere process consistently seems to run up against the limits of its own method and needs to transcend them, that is convincing evidence that the reality it is trying to describe is something Other. The fact that in the twentieth century philosophers, like physicists, increasingly arrived at conclusions that are at variance with their own left-hemisphere methodology, and suggest the primacy of the world as the right hemisphere would deliver it, tells us something important.
Returning from the realm of philosophy to the use of language in everyday experience, we may also be aware of another reality, that of the right hemisphere – yet feel that explicitness forces us towards acknowledging only the world of the left hemisphere. We live, in other words, in two different types of world. There should tend, therefore, to be two meanings to most words that we commonly use to describe our relationship with the world. They will not all be like ‘grasp’ – willed, self-serving, unidirectional.
Seeing the world
Probably the most important metaphor of our relationship to the world is that of sight. ‘Knowing as seeing’ is one of the most consistent of all metaphors, and exists in all Indo-European languages, suggesting that it developed early in the Indo-European Ursprache (or ‘primal’ language).105 It is deeply ingrained in the way we apprehend the world. ‘I see,’ we say, meaning ‘I understand.’
In the era of universal CCTV surveillance, mobile phones that ‘capture’ video, and so on, many people imagine their eyes to be something like the lens of a camera on a moving swivel, perhaps a bit like a film-maker's camera – just as our model of thinking and remembering is that of the computer, with its inert memory banks. The image suggests that we choose where we point our attention; in that respect we see ourselves as supremely active, and self-determining. As to the ‘impressions’ we receive, we are like a photographic plate, taking a faithful record of the world ‘out there’; and in that we pride ourselves on objectivity, being supremely passive. The process is linear, unidirectional, acquisitive, and is the left hemisphere's vision of vision.
But the camera model is just as misleading and restrictive as the computer model. We know that we are neither as active in choosing where we direct our attention, nor as passive in the process of seeing, as this account suggests. There is another story to be told about seeing, and it is one that is better supported by neuroscience. It is also more in keeping with the right hemisphere's view of the world. According to this view, we are already in a relationship with the world, which helps to direct our attention; and which also means that we bring something of ourselves to the process of creating a ‘vision’ of the world.
Are we active choosers?
Take first the idea that we are active choosers of where we look. On its own the left hemisphere is remarkably entrapped by its vision.106 Once it sees something, it locks onto it, in a way that has little to do with choice. The world that it would be choosing from is, in any case, provided by the broader attention of the right hemisphere, and often what engages the focus of our attention comes to us pre-consciously, and bypasses any willed action. For example, the eye is ‘caught’, as we say, by salient words or names that leap out of the page (words which are probably undiscoverable again once we try to find them, and the narrow attentional beam of the left hemisphere comes into play). In practice so-called ‘pre-attentional’ processing means that before we can have had a chance to read what is there, we notice pre-consciously whatever has a particular affective charge or demand on our attention.107 So it is clearly not true that we have to attend to something consciously before we can know it: we can only select what to attend to when we know what it is we are dealing with. We know it first, then are drawn to attend, so as to know more – Escher's hands again. The world comes to meet us and acts to attract our gaze. Vitality, life and movement themselves draw the eye. The figure of someone walking by distracts us; it is hard not to succumb even to the television if a set is switched on anywhere in the room, because it portrays life and movement. In a room with a fire, we are drawn to looking at it; in the pre-TV era it was the focus of attention for a social gathering (focus is simply the Latin word for ‘hearth’), and it functioned as the TV now does to allow closeness without having to ‘focus’ too explicitly on one another. In this it fulfilled another, social, end.
The difficult bit about the ‘stickiness’ of the left hemisphere is that once we have already decided what the world is going to reveal, we are unlikely to get beyond it. We are prisoners of expectation.
New experience, as it is first ‘present’ to the mind, engages the right hemisphere, and as the experience becomes familiar, it gets ‘re-presented’ by the left hemisphere. Not only does the left hemisphere seem to specialise, as Goldberg and Costa observed, in dealing with what is (already) familiar, but whatever it is the left hemisphere deals with is bound to become familiar all too quickly, because there is a tendency for it to keep recurring to what it already knows. This has implications for the kind of knowledge the left hemisphere can have. The essential problem is that the mind can only truly know, in the sense of bring into sharp focus, and ‘see clearly’, what it has itself made. It therefore knows – in the sense of certain knowledge (wissen), the sort of knowledge that enables a thing to be pinned down and used – only what has been re-presented (in the left hemisphere), not what is present as a whole (before the right hemisphere).
In a now famous experiment by Simons and Chabris, subjects were asked to watch a short video clip showing a basketball game in a relatively confined indoor setting.108 They were asked to count how many times one team took possession of the ball. When asked afterwards, most observers were completely oblivious of the fact that a figure in a grotesque gorilla suit walks into the middle of the mêlée, turns to face the camera, beats his chest with his fists, dances a jig, and strolls nonchalantly out the other side of the picture – something so comically blatant on second viewing, once one knows what to expect, that it is hard to believe one could really have missed it. As they and others have neatly and dramatically demonstrated, we see, at least consciously, only what we are attending to in a focussed way (with the conscious left hemisphere). Since what we select to attend to is guided by our expectations of what it is we are going to see, there is a circularity involved which means we experience more and more only what we already know. Our incapacity to see the most apparently obvious features of the world around us, if they do not fit the template we are currently working with (part of what Noë and O'Regan have dubbed ‘the grand illusion’),109 is so entrenched that it is hard to know how we can ever come to experience anything truly new.
Neurocognitivists say that we can re-cognise, and therefore know, something only if we have already got the model of it in our brain.110 That does perfectly describe left-hemisphere processes: but it would mean that we were forever trapped in the re-presented, no longer alive, world of the left hemisphere's knowledge, forever re-experiencing the familiar, the world forever going stale. We'd be back to the hall of mirrors. It doesn't explain, either, how we could get to know something in the first place – for the model to get into our brain at all. It's Escher's hands again.
The left hemisphere will never help us here. As one researcher has put it, the left hemisphere on its own, for example after a right-hemisphere stroke, just ‘sees what it expected to see’.111 We need, as Heraclitus pointed out, to expect the unexpected: ‘he who does not expect will not find out the unexpected, for it is trackless and unexplored’.112 In other words we must learn to use a different kind of seeing: to be vigilant, not to allow the right hemisphere's options to be too quickly foreclosed by the narrower focussing of the left hemisphere.
It is the task of the right hemisphere to carry the left beyond, to something new, something ‘Other’ than itself. The left hemisphere's grasp of the world is essentially theoretical, and is self-referring. In that respect it gives validity to the post-modern claim that language is a self-enclosed system of signs – but if, and only if, it is a product of the left hemisphere alone. By contrast, for the right hemisphere there is, as Johnson said of theories about literature, always an appeal open to nature: it is open to whatever is new that comes from experience, from the world at large.113
The corollary of this impact of expectation on attention is that the left hemisphere delivers what we know, rather than what we actually experience. This can be seen in its drawing skills. It will even draw the bones it knows to be within the human figure (so-called ‘X-ray’ drawings), and has a poor grasp of relative scale, spatial relationships and depth.
There is an inevitable relationship between certainty and ‘re-cognition’, the return to something already familiar. Conscious knowledge, the knowledge that characterises left-hemisphere understanding, depends on its object being fixed – otherwise it cannot be known. Thus it is only its re-presentation in consciousness, after it has already become present to the unconscious mind, that enables us to know something consciously. There is neurophysiological evidence that conscious awareness lags behind unconscious apprehension by nearly half a second.114 Chris Nunn, in a recent book on consciousness and the brain, writes that, as a consequence, ‘bizarre phenomena can occur like consciously perceiving an object to be of some illusory size, but nevertheless unconsciously adjusting one's grasp correctly in relation to its actual size’.115 To know something consciously, to be aware of it, requires memory. He writes:
At the most basic level, one cannot sustain attention to anything unless there is some form of memory of what one's attention was doing a moment ago and of what the ‘anything’ is. [Conscious] attention is thus entirely dependent for its very moment-to-moment existence on intrinsic memory … Then again, the objects on which attention focuses seem to be available because they have been remembered. They are, in a sense objects extracted from memory that happen to coincide with features of the world ‘out there’.
This is a neurocognitive expression of the phenomenological truth that what we know with our conscious left hemisphere is already in the past, no longer ‘alive’ but re-presented.116 And it takes us back to Jung: ‘all cognition is akin to recognition’.117
Amazingly enough, this understanding of the past condition of knowledge is embodied in the Greek word, eidenai, ‘to know’, arising at the very moment in cultural history where we were moving towards a more conscious awareness of mental processes.118 Eidenai is related to idein (‘to see’), and in fact originally meant ‘to have seen’.
Are we passive receivers?
The second part of the camera image is passive receptivity. But we never just ‘see’ something in the sense that a photographic plate receives rays of light.119 In the real world we bring a lot of our selves to the party. And that means gaze alters what it finds.
This used to be expressed in the idea, prevalent in the Ancient World, and again at the Renaissance, of the rays that come from the eye, from a deep source of life and energy within. Homer describes the beams, ‘penetrating as the sun’, which come from the eye of the eagle. Of the human eye Empedocles wrote that, when it had been created, ‘the primeval fire hid itself in the round pupil’, protected by delicate membranes from the waters flowing round it.120 And Plato, in the Timaeus, for once seems almost to anticipate the phenomenologists when he writes that a smooth, dense stream of gentle light from the purest fire within us merges with the light from what it sees, so that ‘one body’ is formed between ourselves and the object of our vision, conveying the ‘motions’ of what is seen into every part of our own body and soul.121
The phrase ‘gazing into someone's eyes’ goes further, and suggests that something actually emanates from our eyes and enters into the object of our attention, as in the Elizabethan conceit of the dart that comes from the lover's eye, or even more the lovers of Donne's Extasie for whom
Our eye-beames twisted, and did thred
Our eyes, upon one double string.
In those beams from the lover's eye, one can also sense the profound, reciprocating communication that the eye offers. In looking, in other words, we enter into a reciprocal relationship: the seeing and the seen take part in one another's being. The camera model is merely that of the left hemisphere, whose sequential analytic grasp of things does not reach to reverberative, reciprocal movement, the betweenness of sight. Some famous passages of Husserl were succinctly anticipated by Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell when he wrote ‘A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.’
Gaze is active all right. Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History of the basilisk, a sort of venomous reptile that could kill with its gaze, and the belief in such a creature was current until the Renaissance.122This embodies a truth about attention. The focussed but detached attention of the surgeon, with intent to care, may easily mimic the focussed but detached attention of the torturer, with intent to control; only the knowledge of the intention changes the way in which we understand the act. And, if I am its recipient, it changes my self-experience, too. It is in fact the detachment with which the detailed plans of the extermination camps were developed, often relying on the expertise of engineers, physicians and psychiatrists, that makes the Holocaust so particularly chilling. We say, and we feel, that the human being is reduced to the status of a machine, or of a part in a machine, and in doing so we acknowledge that the object is changed by the way in which it is attended to. Even with a corpse, the mode of attention alters what is found. In China the body, including the dead body, is viewed as an organism: once attacked with a scalpel, however, it reveals itself to be made of apparently divisible parts.123
Science must above all divest itself of what will distort. Of course, to abandon ourselves to every personal whim or passion could never lead to any kind of shared truth. But achieving such lack of distortion is a much more subtle process than it may appear. Objectivity requires interpretation of what one finds, depends on imagination for its achievement.124 Detachment has a deeply ambiguous nature. The cool, detached stance of the scientific or bureaucratic mind ultimately may lead where we do not wish to follow. And the relationship implied by the left-hemisphere attention brought to bear through the scientific method, with its implied materialism, is not no relationship – merely a disengaged relationship, implying, incorrectly, that the observer does not have an impact on the observed (and is not altered by what he or she observes). The betweenness is not absent, just denied, and therefore of a particular – particularly ‘cold’ – kind. We cannot know something without it being known to us – we cannot see what it would be like if it were not we that were knowing it. Thus every thing we apprehend is the way it is because we see it in that way rather than another way. When science adopts a view of its object from which everything ‘human’ has as far as possible been removed, bringing a focussed, but utterly detached attention to bear, it is merely exercising another human faculty, that of standing back from something and seeing it in this detached, in some important sense denatured, way. There is no reason to see that particular way as privileged, except that it enables us to do certain things more easily, to use things, to have power over things – the preoccupation of the left hemisphere.
The right hemisphere's gaze is intrinsically empathic, by contrast, and acknowledges the inevitability of ‘betweenness’: in fact it is the fact of gaze normally being an empathic process that makes the detached stare so destructive. Merleau-Ponty wrote:
My eye for me is a certain power of making contact with things, and not a screen on which they are projected … The other's gaze transforms me into an object, and mine him, only if both of us withdraw into the core of our thinking nature [left hemisphere], if we both make ourselves into an inhuman gaze, if each of us feels his actions to be not taken up as understood, but observed as if they were an insect's. This is what happens, for instance, when I fall under the eyes of a stranger. But even then the objectification of each by the other's gaze is felt as unbearable only because it takes the place of a possible communication.125
Elsewhere Merleau-Ponty refers to the moment of approach when ‘vision ceases to be solipsistic’ and ‘the other turns back upon me the luminous rays in which I had caught him’.126
Merleau-Ponty was aware not only of the importance of embodiment in forming the basis of the intersubjective world, but of the ambiguities of vision, with its potential either to alienate and objectify, or alternatively to form the medium of intersubjectivity. One of his best-known works is entitled The Visible and the Invisible. If the flesh is viewed as wholly opaque – in other words, if we take into account only the realm of the visible – it acts as an obstacle, something that alienates the viewer from what is seen. But if viewed another way, seen through as much as seen, the ‘thickness’ (l'épaisseur, implying something between transparency and opacity) of the flesh, far from being an obstacle, is what enables us to be aware of the other and of ourselves as embodied beings, and becomes the means of communication between the two.127 (In L'oeil et l'esprit, he uses the analogy of something seen through water at the bottom of a pool – and the word used here of the semi-translucent water is again l'épaisseur, where again the English translation has to make do with the rather too literal ‘thickness’).128 Note that it must retain its semi-transparent status, uniting the visible and the invisible: complete transparency would just render it invisible, and once again we become alienated, with no means to communicate.129
How we see the world alters not just others, but who we are. We need to be careful what we spend our time attending to, and in what way. Participants in a general knowledge quiz were primed in one of three ways, by engaging in activities that made them think about the stereotypes of professors, secretaries or hooligans. Those primed with the professor stereotype scored 60 per cent, those primed with the hooligan stereotype scored only 40 per cent, and those primed with the secretary stereotype scored somewhere in-between.130 In another test, those primed with ‘punk’ stereotypes were more rebellious and less conformist than those primed with ‘accountant’ stereotypes.131 Similarly, after playing a realistic and aggressive video game, participants, especially young men, became more likely to respond aggressively if provoked.132People primed with stereotypes of elderly people (such as ‘sentimental’, ‘grey-haired’, ‘playing bingo’) become more conservative in their opinions; those primed with politician stereotypes become more long-winded. If primed with positive associations of the ageing process (such as wise and experienced), elderly people perform better on memory tests than those primed with negative associations (such as ‘senile’ or demented).133 Nurses working with elderly people, who are, if you like, in a state of perpetual priming, performed worse on memory tasks than those who had infrequent contact with old people.134 Old people primed with negative stereotypes of ageing can even give up the will to live.135
What we attend to, and how we attend to it, changes it and changes us. Seeing is not just ‘the most efficient mechanism for acquiring knowledge’, as scientists tend to see it.136 It is that, of course, but it is also, and before anything else, the main medium by which we enact our relationship with the world. It is an essentially empathic business.
Mutual gaze, and particularly shared averted gaze towards another object, are highly evolved characteristics. Apart from humans, only some apes and monkeys, where they have had prolonged contact with humans, may be capable of undertaking shared gaze to another object.137 Dogs are exquisitely sensitive to human attention, especially direction of gaze and expressions of the eyes:138 they may be able to share attention, and some other mammals are certainly able to follow the direction of gaze, but it is harder to be sure what level of attention is exhibited.139 Most cats, despite prolonged contact with humans, are unable to understand that you are interested in something else, and do not engage with the direction of your gaze. It's no better if you point: pointing just results in the cat looking at your finger. A dog, however, will understand that you are engaged by an interest that lies in a certain direction and its own gaze is empathically entrained in the same direction. In both shared and mutual gaze, in which we feel a link with the mind of the other individual, the right hemisphere provides the neurological substrate. When we shift our gaze where we see another looking, we do so via the right hemisphere.140 In humans, mutual gaze, even when it is averted (i.e. when two people are mutually aware of their common attention to the same object), is accompanied by activation of a highly distributed network extending throughout the right hemisphere.141 The interpretation of faces is the prerogative of the right hemisphere; in looking at the face of one's partner (compared with an unknown face) the right insula increases in activity. Viewing one's own face (by contrast with an unknown face) induces activation in the left prefrontal and superior temporal cortex as well as a more extensive right limbic activation.142 So it seems that sharing attention, and looking into the eyes of another, as well as recognising the face of someone very close to one, all increase activity in the right hemisphere over and above what would be needed to process faces alone. In fact, shared mental states in general activate the right hemisphere.143 And all aspects of empathic attention are disrupted in autism: eye contact,144 the capacity to follow another's gaze,145 joint or shared attention,146 and understanding the mind behind the gaze.147 There may also be deficits of gaze attention in schizophrenia.148
It is therefore problematic for science and often philosophy that an abstruse and abstracted language, and an alienating vision, are seen as the proper and only approach to truth. Descartes, according to the philosopher David Levin, ‘prefers the distance of vision … even when it means dehumanisation’.149 But in this he was pursuing the belief that acknowledging our relationship with the world will make it obtrude. In reality it obtrudes more when not acknowledged. The baggage gets on board, as Dennett puts it, without being inspected. In a scientific paper, one may not say ‘I saw it happen’, but ‘the phenomenon was observed’. In Japan, however, science students, who ‘observe’ phenomena, do so with quite a different meaning, and in quite a different spirit, from their Western counterparts. The word kansatsu, which is translated as ‘observe’, is closer to the meaning of the word ‘gaze’, which we use only when we are in a state of rapt attention in which we lose ourselves, and feel connected to the other. The syllable kan in kansatsu contains the nuance that the one who gazes comes to feel a ‘one-body-ness’ with the object of gaze.150
So the eye has a potential to connect and to divide. And in fact even the hand does not have to be as I described it – willed, self-serving, unidirectional. The hand has other modes of being. An outstretched hand can mean other things – can comfort, cure, or quicken (note that the body of Adam, in Michelangelo's famous representation, is vivified by divine communication to his left hand, and thus to the right hemisphere; see Figure 4.3 below).
And since attention is modified by the intention that lies behind it, even grasp can bring to life, when the context changes, as in the image in the church of St Saviour in Khora (see Plate 4), in which the figure of Christ in triumph moves at the Last Day like a whirlwind over the tombs of the dead, grasping them by the arm and wresting them from the sleep of the grave.
The hand is the vehicle of touch, as well as grasp, and therefore the origin of the metaphor of ‘tact’. In fact to attend means, precisely, to reach out a hand towards: we reach out – ‘ad-tend’ – in order to give, as well as to take.
The different ontological status of the two hemispheres impinges on the meaning of all the philosophical terms that are used by us to understand the world, since both hemispheres think they understand them, but do so in different ways, each transforming the concept or experience by the context (that of the left- or right- hemisphere world) in which it finds itself. Like the left-hand and right-hand worlds seen by Alice on either side of the looking glass, each has its own version of reality, in which things superficially look the same but are different. I will conclude the chapter with brief discussions of a few of these faux amis, or ‘false friends’, that arise where the right and left hemispheres understand words differently.
Fig. 4.3 Creation of Man, by Michelangelo, fresco, 1511-12 (Vatican Museums and Galleries/Bridgeman Art Library)
‘Knowledge’ and ‘truth’ I have discussed – again there are two versions: one purporting to be impersonal, static, complete, a thing, and the other personal, provisional, a matter of degree, a journey. ‘Belief’ is closely related and has two meanings too.
Believing is not to be reduced to thinking that such-and-such might be the case. It is not a weaker form of thinking, laced with doubt. Sometimes we speak like this: ‘I believe that the train leaves at 6.13’, where ‘I believe that’ simply means that ‘I think (but am not certain) that’. Since the left hemisphere is concerned with what is certain, with knowledge of the facts, its version of belief is that it is just absence of certainty. If the facts were certain, according to its view, I should be able to say ‘I know that’ instead. This view of belief comes from the left hemisphere's disposition towards the world: interest in what is useful, therefore fixed and certain (the train timetable is no good if one can't rely on it). So belief is just a feeble form of knowing, as far as it is concerned.
But belief in terms of the right hemisphere is different, because its disposition towards the world is different. The right hemisphere does not ‘know’ anything, in the sense of certain knowledge. For it, belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of ‘responsibility’.151 Thus if I say that ‘I believe in you’, it does not mean that I think that such-and-such things are the case about you, but can't be certain that I am right. It means that I stand in a certain sort of relation of care towards you, that entails me in certain kinds of ways of behaving (acting and being) towards you, and entails on you the responsibility of certain ways of acting and being as well. It is an acting ‘as if’ certain things were true about you that in the nature of things cannot be certain. It has the characteristic right-hemisphere qualities of being a betweenness: a reverberative, ‘re-sonant’, ‘respons-ible’ relationship, in which each party is altered by the other and by the relationship between the two, whereas the relationship of the believer to the believed in the left-hemisphere sense is inert, unidirectional, and centres on control rather than care. I think this is what Wittgenstein was trying to express when he wrote that ‘my’ attitude towards the other is an ‘attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.’152 An ‘opinion’ would be a weak form of knowledge: that is not what is meant by a belief, a disposition or an ‘attitude’.
This helps illuminate belief in God. This is not reducible to a question of a factual answer to the question ‘does God exist?’, assuming for the moment that the expression ‘a factual answer’ has a meaning.153 It is having an attitude, holding a disposition towards the world, whereby that world, as it comes into being for me, is one in which God belongs. The belief alters the world, but also alters me. Is it true that God exists? Truth is a disposition, one of being true to someone or something. One cannot believe in nothing and thus avoid belief altogether, simply because one cannot have no disposition towards the world, that being in itself a disposition. Some people choose to believe in materialism; they act ‘as if’ such a philosophy were true. An answer to the question whether God exists could only come from my acting ‘as if’ God is, and in this way being true to God, and experiencing God (or not, as the case might be) as true to me. If I am a believer, I have to believe in God, and God, if he exists, has to believe in me.154 Rather like Escher's hands, the belief must arise reciprocally, not by a linear process of reasoning. This acting ‘as if’ is not a sort of cop-out, an admission that ‘really’ one does not believe what one pretends to believe. Quite the opposite: as Hans Vaihinger understood, all knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, is no more than an acting ‘as if’ certain models were, for the time being, true.155 Truth and belief, once more, as in their etymology, are profoundly connected.156 It is only the left hemisphere that thinks there is certainty to be found anywhere.
Our primary being lies in a disposition towards the world – certainly not in a thought, or a whole panoply of thoughts, about the world, not even in a feeling or feelings about the world as such. Willing, like believing, with which I think it shares some properties, is thus better thought of as a matter of a disposition towards the world. The left-hemisphere disposition towards the world is that of use. Philosophy being a hyperconscious cognitive process, it may be hard to get away from the left hemisphere's perspective that will is about control, and must lie in the conscious left hemisphere. But if our disposition towards the world, our relationship with it, alters, will has a different meaning. The disposition of the right hemisphere, the nature of its attention to the world, is one of care, rather than control. Its will relates to a desire or longing towards something, something that lies beyond itself, towards the Other.
Evidence from a number of different sources suggests, as discussed in the previous chapter, that the mind arranges experience, grouping things according to similarities, quite without the aid of language, and needs to do so in order to make any sense of it at all. This is clearly evident from the behaviour of birds and vertebrate animals, and must take place at a relatively low subcortical level, since some very rapid automatic reactions are based on a perception of what sort of a thing it is that is being reacted to. We also know that at higher levels both hemispheres take part in the process of identification. There are hints that the way in which they do this differs in some fundamental respects.157 For the concept of a ‘type’, too, can have two meanings – having only one ‘whatness’, it can nonetheless have two ‘hownesses’. In one sense, it refers to the category to which something can be reduced, because of a specific feature or features. But a child comes to understand the world, to learn about it, by seeing the shapes – both literally, the visuospatial shapes, and metaphorically, the structures – that stand forward in its experience, using a form of Gestalt perception, rather than by applying rules. This is the beginnings of the human faculty for seeing what Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations referred to as ‘family resemblances’, which associate individuals without there necessarily being any one defining feature that all members of the group have in common.158 It implies a sense of a something that has never yet been seen, and yet that something nonetheless has a meaning in relation to each of the exemplars that is experienced, and it becomes clearer only with more and more experience. So although we often think of a ‘type’ as a highly reduced phenomenon, ‘the lowest common denominator’ of a certain set of experiences, it can also be something much greater than any one experience, in fact lying beyond experience itself, and towards which our set of experiences may tend. If Bateson is right that all knowledge is knowledge of difference, this method is the only way to know anything: categorising something leads only to loss of the essential difference.
This is where we come back to the will. Some of the most powerful drivers of human behaviour are such ideal types – not ‘character types’, which are effectively stereotypes, but something akin to archetypes, that have living power in the imagination and can call us towards them. In his book De la Mettrie's Ghost Chris Nunn deals with some of these, using the examples of ‘the noble Roman’ or ‘the saint’, which he describes as narratives of a certain way of being that we tell ourselves to make sense of our experience, and which in turn help to shape our responses to experience.159 These are types, but they have certain qualities that suggest a right hemisphere origin. They are not reductions (downwards), but aspirations (upwards); they are derived from experience, but are not encompassed by it; they have affective meaning for us, and are not simply abstractions; their structure, as Nunn points out, has much in common with narrative; they cannot be derived from or converted into rules or procedures. In fact one of the things that would most surely invalidate them would be a tendency for them to become just that – a set of rules or procedures: ‘do this and this, and you will be a saint’.
To my way of thinking they have much in common with Jung's archetypes. He saw these as bridging the unconscious realm of instinct and the conscious realm of cognition, in which each helps to shape the other,160 experienced through images or metaphors that carry over to us affective or spiritual meaning from an unconscious realm.161 In their presence we experience a pull, a force of attraction, a longing, which leads us towards something beyond our own conscious experience, and which Jung saw as derived from the broader experience of humankind. An ideal sounds like something by definition disembodied, but these ideals are not bloodless abstractions, and derive from our affective embodied experience.
For even the body has its different ‘hownesses’: in the realm of utility, on the one hand, it becomes the means by which we act on and manipulate the world; but, on the other, it is also the ultimate metaphor of all experience, including our experience of the highest realms of value. This is recognised by Laban when he notes that bodily ‘movement has always been used for two distinct aims: the attainment of tangible values in all kinds of work, and the approach to intangible values in prayer and worship’.162 The body, thus, holds in itself the dispositions of both hemispheres towards the world.
Familiarity and newness
An archetype may be familiar to us without our ever having come across it in experience. Familiarity is another ambiguous concept. It is not that one or other hemisphere ‘specialises in’, or perhaps even ‘prefers’, whatever it may be, but that each hemisphere has its own disposition towards it, which makes one or another aspect of it come forward – and it is that aspect which is brought out in the world of that hemisphere. The particular table at which I work, in all its individual givenness, is familiar to me as part of ‘my’ world and everything that matters to me (right hemisphere); tables generically are familiar precisely because they are generic (left hemisphere) – in the sense that there is nothing new or strange to come to terms with. Equally the Eiffel Tower is familiar to the man who has spent his life underneath its shadow (right hemisphere); the Eiffel Tower is familiar as a clichéd icon for Paris (left hemisphere). A piece of music I have passively heard and overheard is familiar to the point of having no life; a piece of music practised and struggled with by a musician is familiar to the point of coming alive. One is emptied of meaning by being constantly re-presented; the other is enriched in meaning by being constantly present – lived with, and actively incorporated into ‘my’ life.
Newness, a related concept, is similarly distinct in its hemisphere-specific meanings. In one sense it is precisely the return from left-hemisphere familiarity to right-hemisphere familiarity, from inauthenticity to authenticity. It cannot be willed, though it might be much desired; it requires an (apparently passive) patient openness to whatever is, which allows us to see it as if for the very first time, and leads to what Heidegger called radical ‘astonishment’ before the world. That concept is also related to Jan Patoc?ka's shakenness: a sort of elemental driving out of the complacency of our customary modes of seeing the world.163 It is what Wordsworth in particular strove to achieve: in Coleridge's words,
to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.164
It involves reconnection with the world which familiarity had veiled. It is at the furthest remove from the need to shock: it requires looking more carefully at what seems only too familiar, and seeing it perhaps for the very first time.
But there is also a quite different type of novelty, which can be achieved at will, by actively recombining already known elements in bizarre ways, thus breaking the conventions of our shared reality and getting as far as possible from anything that could be described as familiar. This places the already presented ‘parts’ in disjunctive combinations, and fractures the familiar (in the right hemisphere sense). It aims to produce a reaction of shock through its unflinching acceptance of the bizarre or alien. This is the sense in which the modernists aimed, in Pound's phrase, to ‘make it new’, the sense of ‘The Shock of the New’.165This type of novelty emanates from the world of the left hemisphere.
Activity and passivity
I described as ‘apparently passive’ the openness of the right hemisphere to whatever is. That is because, in the absence of an act of will, this is how the left hemisphere sees it. But there is a wise passivity that enables things to come about less by what is done than by what is not done, that opens up possibility where activity closes it down.
The dichotomy between activity and passivity comes about from the standpoint of a need for control. Passivity, from this perspective, is loss of control, loss of self-determination, loss of the capacity for effective, that is to say, useful, interaction – a failure of instrumentality. However, this takes no note of all the important states of affairs, beginning with sleep and ending with wisdom, discussed earlier in this chapter that cannot be brought about by an effort of will – where, in fact, an open receptiveness, which permits things to grow, is actually more productive. It is something like what Keats described as ‘negative capability’, that characteristic of a ‘man of achievement’, namely, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.166 Here the link with the capacity not to force things into certainty, clarity, fixity is made explicit, and again links it to the right hemisphere's domain.
Ultimately we need to unite the ways of seeing that are yielded by both hemispheres. Above all the attention of the left hemisphere needs to be reintegrated with that of the right hemisphere if it is not to prove damaging.
I mentioned the importance of the intention behind attention. As may have become clear from the last chapter, the nature of language in the left hemisphere and its relationship with grasp imply the overriding value to it of use. The left hemisphere is always engaged in a purpose: it always has an end in view, and downgrades whatever has no instrumental purpose in sight. The right hemisphere, by contrast, has no designs on anything. It is vigilant for whatever is, without preconceptions, without a predefined purpose. The right hemisphere has a relationship of concern or care (what Heidegger calls Sorge) with whatever happens to be.
If one had to encapsulate the principal differences in the experience mediated by the two hemispheres, their two modes of being, one could put it like this. The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care. The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really ‘break out’ to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own re-presentations only. Where the thing itself is ‘present’ to the right hemisphere, it is only ‘re-presented’ by the left hemisphere, now become an idea of a thing. Where the right hemisphere is conscious of the Other, whatever it may be, the left hemisphere's consciousness is of itself.
And this brings us finally to the third question I asked at the outset in this chapter: can all this tell us something about the nature of the brain? I think so. That answer is implicit in all that has gone before. There is no such thing as the brain, only the brain according to the right hemisphere and the brain according to the left hemisphere: the two hemispheres that bring everything into being also, inevitably, bring themselves – like Escher's hands. So to some people the brain is a thing, and a particular type of thing, a machine; which is only to say that it is something we understand from the bottom up and which exists for a purpose we recognise. To others it is something the nature of which is unique, which we can understand, therefore, only by being content with a degree of not-knowing which opens the mind to whatever is, and whose purpose is not so easily determined. In other words, we should expect that some people will be confident that they know precisely what sort of thing the brain is, while others may know ‘precious little’ about that.167