Reflections on the Rebel Wisdom Summit

Brick Lane, in the east end of London, was the location of the Rebel Wisdom Summit which I attended last weekend; a full day event for 150 people. I had anticipated that the event would be dominated by white men, and it was. Women in the ladies toilets laughed and commented that it was very unusual to go to an event where there was no queue for the ‘ladies’, but there was for the men! Nevertheless, I didn’t get a sense that women didn’t have a voice, and there was a wide diversity in the age of participants, which was good to see. But perhaps Rebel Wisdom could do more to attract participants from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

The question of diversity is important because Rebel Wisdom viewed this event as an experiment in whether we can find new ways to understand each other.  The focus of the day was on exploring what it means to have difficult conversations, and how best to have these difficult conversations, so that we can avoid group think, polarization, and are able to ‘speak about the unspeakable’. The view expressed was that there has been a collapse of discourse, and the world has narrowed what we can talk about, such that conversation has now become too superficial.

A response to this at the event was to consider the meaning of ‘sovereignty’. We spent quite a bit of the day exploring this idea, which we were told means being responsible for your own responses and being able to listen to yourself and others. We were required to do deep breathing/meditation exercises to ‘centre’ ourselves in readiness for this.

The word ‘sovereignty’ in the Rebel Wisdom context is, I think, attributed to Jordan Hall, who has talked about the need for distinguishing between listening and hearing, and the need for greater wisdom and maturity in how we interact with each other and have difficult conversations. He defines his understanding of sovereignty in this video: https://youtu.be/Y8kYZUQ6xcw

For me it was a pity that we spent so much time discussing ‘sovereignty’ focussing on questions such as ‘What does it mean to be sovereign’ and ‘when do you lose your sovereignty’, because this necessarily meant that people were encouraged to focus on themselves rather than on entering into conversation with others. So for example, answers to the question about losing sovereignty included:

I lose my sovereignty when:

  • I say what is convenient rather than the truth
  • I feel attacked
  • I try too hard to belong
  • I feel inferior
  • I feel misrepresented
  • I don’t listen

Note that the responses all start with ‘I’. Whilst these responses might relate to the collapse of discourse, in our group participants stuck so closely to the exercise brief that we never got round to discussing possible causes of collapse of discourse.

Another exercise we were asked to participate in, in our groups, was to each state ‘what are the things we feel we can’t say’. Again, this didn’t lead to conversation (at least not in our group), but rather to a list of personal experiences that people had of either paying a price for disagreeing publicly, or of being silenced, or of feeling unable to voice opinions for fear of being silenced.

The paradox of this whole event was that although the aim was to explore ways of engaging in generative conversation, there appeared to be so much fear about the possibility of conversation degenerating into the kind of polarized positions that we see on social media, that we never, in our group discussions, got to the nitty gritty of what we mean by free speech, how we recognise different cognitive models of others, or how to engage others in a dialectic rather than a debate.

This fear was evident before the event, when at the time of buying our tickets we were asked to sign a behaviour agreement (see a previous post about this). Similarly a month before the event we were sent the ‘rules’ for discourse; we were asked not to tweet the event or report on what speakers said, and not to identify any group members if reporting on what was said during the group activities. So whilst wanting to explore how to generate conversation about difficult topics (in the event I was not aware of any contentious issues), there was also a measure of control and limitations on openness. I’m so confused about this, that I’m not even sure whether this blog post breaks that agreement.

For me, this just goes to show what a complex issue free speech is.  I would have liked more opportunity to discuss this. As one of the speakers said (no attribution allowed!):

‘There is nothing that doesn’t have a good side and a bad side’.

Shocks of familiarity with Michel de Montaigne

At the beginning of her book “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”, Sarah Bakewell writes (p.5)

‘to read Montaigne is to experience a series of shocks of familiarity’. I have found this to be true.

I have only recently begun to explore Montaigne’s life and writing. More’s the pity that it has taken me this long. Even though he lived more than 400 years ago (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592), there is still much we can learn from and relate to in Montaigne’s work. According to Sarah Bakewell, he devoted the last 20 years of his life to writing his essays, in which he wrote about himself and what he could learn about how to live by exploring and reflecting on the minutiae of his daily life. He wrote:

‘If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off – though I don’t know’.

Montaigne describes himself as being idle and slow-witted, with a tardy understanding and a weak imagination. He had a strong aversion to human pretension.

Sarah Bakewell points out that self-exploration and revelation, and discovering who each other is, as practiced by Montaigne, is one of the great adventures of modern times; this is easy to see in the success of social media. Whilst this kind of writing and communication seems very familiar in the 21st century, it was a completely new kind of writing in Montaigne’s time.

There is so much about even a brief encounter with Montaigne that I can relate to. Iain McGilchrist says that what you pay attention to determines what you see. The quotes below are what I paid attention to, but no doubt another reader of Montaigne would ‘see’ and select other quotes. My copy of his book of essays amounts to 1045 pages, so there is plenty to go at.

Here are some quotes from my brief acquaintance with Montaigne that have resonated with me.

Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide.

There is no man who has less business talking about memory. For I recognise almost no trace of it in me, and I do not think there is another one in the world so monstrously deficient.

If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention; so that I can promise no certainty, more than to make known to what point the knowledge I have has risen.

I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself, by an honest diversion; ….. I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading ; after a charge or two, I give them over.

The only hope of emerging from the fog of misinterpretation is to remain alert to its existence, that is, to become wise at one’s own expense.

When all is said and done, you never speak about yourself without loss. Your self-condemnation is always accredited, your self-praise discredited.

We are all patchwork and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment plays its own game.

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.

Sarah Bakewell quotes the journalist Bernard Levin as saying,

‘I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: “How did he know all that about me?’

That perfectly describes how I have felt in beginning to learn more about Montaigne, his life, times and essays.

Currently he is the person I name when asked who I would like to meet, or invite to dinner.

References

Bakewell, S. (2011) How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.  Vintage Books.

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters (2003) Translated by Donald, M. Frame. Everyman’s Library.

Bakewell, S. (2010) Montaigne, philosopher of life (parts 1-7). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/may/10/montaigne-philosophy

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Publishing in open access journals

Periodically I receive a message from Taylor and Francis about how often a paper I published with Mariana Funes has been read. This week they sent me the following message:

Of course Taylor and Francis can’t know whether or not the article has been read. They can only know how many time the article has been clicked on or downloaded. And, yes, sharing the article on social media (as we did when it was first published on Feb 28 2018) may well increase the article’s reach.

It is gratifying to see that the article has been accessed more than 500 times on the Taylor and Francis website, but of course Learning, Media and Technology is a closed journal so the reach of the article will necessarily be confined to those with access.

But the journal did allow for open publication of the pre-print of the article, which Mariana and I did on this blog, where we provide open access to the pre-publication (but virtually identical) article for free. This version of the article has had a much wider reach.

In 2018, this blog post was clicked on 4,070 times. This year to date it has been clicked on 231 times.

Again, it is not possible to say whether or not the article has been read, only that there is sufficient interest in it for people to click on the blog post.

As yet, there hasn’t been a mad rush to cite this paper. Google Scholar shows that it has been cited twice this year. Whilst it may be that this is not a paper that will be much cited, I do know from experience that it can take a year or two for papers to come to the attention of other researchers, so there is time yet for it to be more widely cited.

It is possible that open journals still don’t have the kudos of closed journals. Someone recently told me that it wouldn’t be worth my while applying for a job that required a PhD and 4 papers published in ranked journals, because most of my papers have been published in open journals, which, because many are fairly new journals, are still building their reputation. It has always been my preference to publish in open journals. I appreciate Taylor and Frances wanting their journal articles to reach a wider audience, but I suspect that their reasons for this are different to mine.

Kudos or not, the point is that it is not simply using social media to disseminate research that makes a difference to its reach. My experience suggests that extending a paper’s reach depends at least in part on whether or not the paper can be openly accessed.

But I am grateful to the Learning, Media and Technology journal for not only publishing our article, but also allowing us to openly publish the final pre-print version, and I will now follow their advice and tweet this blog post, so that, hopefully, the article will continue to reach a wider audience. The prize for every author is to be read.

Reference

Funes, M. & Mackness, J. (2018): When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638 When Inclusion Excludes MF:JM 280218

Truth in Education

To help us prepare for the Rebel Wisdom Summit on May 12th , in London, participants have been sent links to a number of videos which feature the keynote speakers, Iain McGilchrist, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying and Jordan Greenhall (see my last blog post for links to the videos). I have been particularly interested in the videos in which Heather Heying appears. Heying is an evolutionary biologist who, having been forced, in 2017, to leave her tenured position at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, together with her husband Bret Weinstein, now describes herself as a Professor in Exile.

Although I was not aware of Heather Heying’s story before watching the Rebel Wisdom videos, the idea that free speech is being curtailed in the name of political correctness and social justice, is not new to me. Mariana Funes and I discussed this in relation to the work of Jonathan Haidt in our 2018 paper When Inclusion Excludes: a counter narrative of open online education.  I have some personal experience of the negative consequences of ‘going against the grain’, so I was interested in what Heather Heying had to say in the video in which she and Bret Weinstein discuss ‘Having a Real Conversation” with David Fuller, a founder of Rebel Wisdom. According to some news reports, Bret Weinstein asked students for a ‘dialectic‘, a ‘real conversation’, rather than a ‘debate’ about the issues that led to his leaving Evergreen State College with his wife Heather Heying, but this did not transpire.

A lot of what Heying and Weinstein say in the ‘real conversation’ video is not new to me. My experience is that good teachers know that they have to ‘set the stage’ when starting a new course or a new term with school children, and that it is worth spending some time at the beginning of the course or term mutually agreeing how the class will work. Good teachers also respect their students and know that they must ensure that everyone has a voice and that alternative perspectives are respected. I am not an evolutionary biologist, so I cannot say whether the potential for conflict in evolutionary biology classes and similar subjects is greater than in, say, something like physics or mathematics, but I suspect that it may be, especially in America where there are schools teaching creationism.

At about six minutes into the video, Heather talks about freeing students from the yoke of authority and learning to think for themselves. At this point she also says, If we’re trying to figure out what is true, science is the best tool we have,  and If we find that we can’t do science on what you’ve said, what can we do to what you’ve said to make it falsifiable. The longer we can’t falsify it, the more likely it is that it is true. So she takes a scientific approach to truth.

I specifically noticed this because I have just finished reading Julian Baggini’s book, A short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. On the back cover of this book is written:

How did we find ourselves in a  “post-truth” world of “alternative facts”? And can we get out of it? A Short History of Truth sets out to answer these questions by looking at the complex history of truth. Renowned and respected philosopher Julian Baggini has identified ten types of supposed truth, and explains how easily each can become the midwife of falsehood’.

Baggini discusses empirical, authoritative and reasoned truths, the idea that truth should be grounded in evidence, that truths can be known and that reason can lead to truth. All these seem to be the kinds of truths that Heather Heying focuses on as the basis for real conversations with her students.

But there are also, according the Baggini, eternal truths, esoteric truths, creative truths, relative truths, powerful truths,  moral truths and holistic truth. These seem to emphasise different aspects to how we recognise truth than the empirical truth focussed on by Heying. This made me wonder whether the idea that there can be many types of truth was discussed by her students and how this idea might influence the outcome of a ‘real conversation’.

According to Iain McGilchrist we cannot go to science for truth. As I wrote in a previous blog post he believes that

Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Given that both Heather Heying and Iain McGilchrist will be speaking at the Rebel Wisdom Summit, I will be very interested to see whether the question of truth comes up, and if it does the extent to which they agree or differ on the meaning of truth.

And I wonder what they would both think of Baggini’s simple rubric to help us nurture truth. This is how Baggini ends his book in a discussion of future truths. (p.107)

  • Spiritual ‘truths’ should not compete with secular ones but should be seen as belonging to a different species.
  • We should think for ourselves, not by ourselves.
  • We should be sceptical not cynical.
  • Reason demands modesty not certainty.
  • To become smarter, we must understand the ways we are dumb.
  • Truths need to be created as well as found.
  • Alternative perspectives should be sought not as alternative truths but as enrichers of truth.
  • Power doesn’t speak the truth; truth must speak to power.
  • For a better morality we need better knowledge.
  • Truth needs to be understood holistically.

References

Baggini, J. (2017). A Short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. Quercus.

Funes, M. & Mackness, J. (2018): When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638 When Inclusion Excludes MF:JM 280218

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, “Having a Real Conversation”: https://youtu.be/ZBkF-xJh6tU

Rebel Wisdom Summit

Next month I will be attending the Rebel Wisdom Summit in Brick Lane, London, with two members of my family.

On the front page of the Rebel Wisdom website is the statement:

When our existing ways of thinking break down, it’s the rebels and the renegades, those who dare to think differently, who need to reboot the system.

I don’t consider myself to be a rebel or a renegade, but I am interested in people who think differently and the four speakers for the event all seem to fit this category.

I first came across Rebel Wisdom last November on Twitter, where I found that they were live streaming an interview with Iain McGilchrist, which I then attended. Aside from hearing McGilchrist speak, which is always enlightening, the main thing that struck me about that event was that it was male dominated, both in the chat that I participated in by posting a question, and also in the room where the live event was taking place. In addition, in the online chat, many of the men seemed to be fixated on Jordan Peterson, even though it was Iain McGilchrist who was being interviewed. Given that Rebel Wisdom puts a heavy focus on what they refer to as ‘New Masculinity’ perhaps it is not surprising that the event was male dominated, although Rebel Wisdom also seems about to offer a ‘New Woman’ retreat. This might redress the balance, but a course/retreat for just women wouldn’t appeal to me.

So it will be interesting to see whether there are more men than women at the Summit next month.

The build-up to this summit has been interesting. On buying the tickets we each had to sign an agreement. The organisers explained this with these words:In order to create a safe environment in which we can discuss challenging topics, we ask that all attendees read and ‘sign’ the agreement below by checking the box.”

I understand that the Rebel Wisdom Summit is designed to be a safe environment for discussing challenging topics, one in which all attendees commit to leaving preconceived ideas and ideologies at the door. 

I agree to take responsibility for my own responses and how I communicate. I am willing to have my ideas challenged. I understand that at times I may feel discomfort, and am willing to take responsibility for this as well. I am willing to practice self-inquiry and do my best to listen carefully to others. 

I agree to engage in discussions in good faith, without a specific agenda, and with respect. I recognise that others are entitled to their views, and agree to consider and critique their ideas, rather than them as an individual.

I am also willing to have fun, to be rebellious in my thinking, and to be a part of an exciting new form of cultural conversation.

This makes more sense to me now that I have watched the videos that have been sent to us this week to help us prepare for this event (see references below), a couple of which focus on what is described as “Having a Real Conversation”. I do wonder, though, whether they are expecting the discussions at the summit to be heated, and if so, what the topics for discussion will be. Interestingly we have been asked not to tweet or share content of what the speakers say, which is intended to ensure them a safe space in which to share their ‘Thinking in Public’. We can, though, share information from the group discussions, so long as contributing participants’ anonymity is maintained.

I already appreciate the advance organisers we have received from the Rebel Wisdom team, which from an educator’s perspective is a definite sign of good practice. I also appreciate the efforts being made to ensure that everyone can have their voice heard if they so wish. Asking participants to take responsibility for this is also a sign of good educational practice. I have not volunteered to moderate/chair group discussions, but it would be interesting to know what advice the moderators will be given on how to handle, for example, a dysfunctional group. Maybe I’ll find out on the day.

Having watched the videos and read the article (and there is still time to do more research before the event), and booked our train tickets and hotel, I am really looking forward to this event, which will even throw in a party in the evening, and I’m looking forward to meeting some of the other participants. The number for the event has been capped at 150 (Dunbar’s number!) and there is a long waiting list, so I feel we are lucky to have our places. I don’t see how it can fail to be interesting.

References from https://youtu.be/tyABweDYPe8

Rebel Wisdom films.

Embodied Learning: knowing with the whole body

 

Embodied learning is the final theme I want to explore in relation to Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. My interest is in how McGilchrist’s ideas might be significant for education.

The idea of embodied learning is not new. Philosophical discussion about the relationship between the mind and body has been ongoing from the time of The Buddha (480 – 400B.C.E.), and often centres around Descartes’ Cartesian dualism on the one hand, or the work of Merleau-Ponty on the problems of perception and embodiment on the other. In relation to philosophy all I want to say at this point is that, like many before me, I cannot align my educational philosophy with Descartes’ mind/body dualism. Merleau-Ponty’s (2004, p. 43) words (cited in Stolz, 2015), are nearer to my own thinking.

…rather than a mind and a body man is a mind with a body, a being who can only get to the truth of things because its body is, as it were, embedded in those things.

One of the earliest educators to recognise the importance of embodied learning was Maria Montessori, who wrote (as cited by Rathkunde, 2009b)

There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees . . . in a real forest. Something emanates from those trees which speaks to the soul, something no book, no museum is capable of giving (pp. 35-6).

Montessori encouraged a child-centred, holistic, place-based, experiential education, with a focus on hands-on activity. Teachers of infant children, children who cannot read or write, may never have thought of mind/body dualism, but they know intuitively that children learn with their whole bodies, They are daily surrounded, in their classrooms, by children playing in the sand tray, in the water, outdoors, dressing up, building with bricks and so on. In these activities, the children are learning without language. As we wrote in our paper ‘Synesthesia: From Cross-Modal to Modality-Free Learning and Knowledge (Williams et al., 2015)

What is most radical about the Montessori classroom is the lack of instruction or “linguistic scaffolding.” Instead the child is invited to explore the senses directly (p.50) (See also this previous post with comments on embodied learning).

Beyond the infant classroom, an understanding of the intimate connection between body and mind seems to get lost and education becomes increasingly disembodied.  Kevin Rathkunde (2009b) asks

‘How did we arrive at this alienating point of disembodiment in so many educational experiences?’

And further comments:

……. the disembodied view of the mind that is so ingrained in our technological society affects the daily practice of education. It lends itself to a fragmented view of learning where facts are taken out of context, and the personal experience and activity of the learner is seen as superfluous. It also lends itself to a production line view of schools that over-emphasize a business-like and efficient transfer of information and extrinsic rather than intrinsic student motivation. (Rathkunde, 2009a)

In a similar vein Stolz (2015, p.484) writes in the conclusion to his paper:

To some extent the former philosophical debates have either privileged the mind over the body (rationalism) or viewed the body as a type of sensorial instrument where knowledge is verified (empiricism). What is clear though is that neither viewpoint recognises the role of embodiment in how we come to understand and understand in a meaningful way.

The importance of the body in constituting reality is a theme that runs right through McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary. As Montessori knew, we see this clearly in how very young children acquire language in an embodied way, babbling and pointing at the same time, demonstrating the close connection between gesture and language. But embodied learning is not confined to young children. There is nothing that goes on in us that is not embodied. Most importantly, thinking and emotion are embodied. In 2015 on a course I attended I listened to McGilchrist discuss this:

“Our bodies are not assemblages of parts. There is a direct link between the heart and the brain via the vagal nerve. The heart feeds back to the brain, not just pain, as in the case of chest pain associated with heart conditions, but also in relation to other conditions such as epilepsy and depression. We talk about having a ‘heavy heart’. Depression is a condition of the heart as research has shown that after heart surgery there is an increase in the instance of depression. Thinking is thus embodied and so we should be mindful of our bodies and how we allow our thoughts to come to us. Thinking is distributed through the body, and there was reference here to the limbic system, which is primarily responsible for our emotional life; we know that emotion affects our immune system. This all relates to the embodied nature of thinking and emotion and the role of the right hemisphere, not only in emotion, but also in empathy and theory of mind” (quoted from a previous post, The Divided Brain. What does it mean to think?).

Embodied learning is more than ensuring that learning is not ‘overly focused on abstract cognition at the expense of emotion, movement and processes rooted in body-environment interactions’ (Rathkunde, 2009a). It is a recognition that the body is the necessary context for all human experience (McGilchrist, 2009, p.118) and cannot be separated from its relationship with the world. McGilchrist feels that the importance of this for our being in the world has been lost.

The left hemisphere’s assault on our embodied nature is not just an assault on our bodies, but on the embodied nature of the world around us. Matter is what is recalcitrant to the will. The idea that the ‘material’ world is not just a lump of resource, but reaches into every part of the realm of value, including the spiritual, that through our embodied nature we can commune with it, that there are responses and responsibilities that need to be respected, has largely been lost by the dominant culture (McGilchrist, 2009, p.440).

Returning to Rathkunde’s question, ‘How did we arrive at this alienating point of disembodiment in so many educational experiences?’, I think McGilchrist’s answer would be that we have allowed our education systems to be dominated by the left hemisphere’s approach to being, which has lost sight of the whole, and separated the mind from the experience of the body.

References

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2004). The world of perception. (O. Davis, Trans.). (T. Baldwin, Intro.). London and New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1948)

Montessori, M. (1973). From childhood to adolescence. Madras: Kalakshetra Publications.

Rathkunde, K. (2009a). Nature and Embodied Education, The Journal of Developmental Processes, 4(1), 70-80.

Rathkunde K. (2009b) Montessori and Embodied Education. In: Woods P.A., Woods G.J. (eds) Alternative Education for the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

Stolz, S. A. (2015). Embodied Learning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(5), 474–487.

Williams, R., Gumtau, S. & Mackness, J. (2015).  Synesthesia: from cross-modal to modality-free learning and knowledge Leonardo Journal 

Source of image: https://www.simplypsychology.org/mindbodydebate.html

Two kinds of knowing

This is the third theme I have selected from Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, to look at more closely in relation to education. So far I have explored what he has to say about breadth and depth, and about flow. But I have also in past posts explored other themes with reference to McGilchrist – themes such as truth, betweenness, the meaning of ‘Other’. (I have linked to just one post for each of these latter three themes, but there are others).

McGilchrist’s work is an in-depth study of the divided brain. He tells us that both the right and left hemispheres of the brain are involved in almost everything we do, but they are each involved differently. This means that they are both involved in ‘knowing’ but have different perspectives on knowing.  New experience engages the right hemisphere; familiar, routine experience engages the left hemisphere. Thus there are two kinds of knowing, which McGilchrist describes as the new and the familiar.

McGilchrist is not the only person to observe that there are two kinds of knowing. Just in the past week I have been reminded by Maria Popova in her Brain Pickings midweek pick-me-up of the work of Marion Milner (British psychoanalyst and writer 1900-1998). Writing under the pen name Joanna Field, Milner wrote a book, ‘A Life of One’s Own’, in which she analyses her own personal experience of the pursuit of happiness. On taking this book off my bookshelf, I am now reminded that I highlighted exactly the same passage that Maria Popova has selected:

As soon as I began to study my perception, to look at my own experience, I found that there were different ways of perceiving and that the different ways provided me with different facts. There was a narrow focus which meant seeing life as if from blinkers and with the centre of awareness in my head; and there was a wide focus which meant knowing with the whole of my body, a way of looking which quite altered my perception of whatever I saw. And I found that the narrow focus way was the way of reason. If one was in the habit of arguing about life it was very difficult not to approach sensation with the same concentrated attention and so shut out its width and depth and height. But it was the wide focus way that made me happy. (Milner, 1934. Preface xxxv)

Also this week, I have listened to a recorded lecture by Jan Derry, Professor of Education and Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy at the UCL Institute of Education. The title of her talk, which was delivered on May 22nd 2018, is Knowledge in Education: Why Philosophy Matters.

Jan Derry starts this talk by telling us that there’s intense disagreement in education circles between those who favour facts and disciplines on the one side, and those who favour meaning making and individual expression on the other. This debate has been ongoing for at least 50 years.

McGilchrist hasn’t opposed the two kinds of knowing. Rather, as we can see from his book, he makes the case that the favouring of facts and taking a narrow focus approach, is the kind of knowing favoured by the left hemisphere, whereas the favouring of meaning making and taking a wide focus approach, is the kind of knowing favoured by the right hemisphere.

McGilchrist writes of the nature of knowledge that it can be seen from both these perspectives (see p.94-97, The Master and His Emissary). Both kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear on the same object. (p.96)

The left hemisphere perspective is that knowledge is putting things together from bits, the knowledge of what we call facts.

  • This is knowledge in the public domain
  • It is fixed and certain. It doesn’t change from person to person, or moment to moment.
  • Context is irrelevant
  • It is only a partial reconstruction of aspects of the whole
  • It is concerned with repeatable findings
  • It is general, impersonal, disengaged

The right hemisphere perspective is that knowledge is an encounter with something ‘Other’.

  • It is uniquely ‘my’ knowledge. It is personal, but also expects a consensus to emerge
  • It permits a sense of uniqueness of the individual
  • It is not fixed or certain
  • The whole is not captured by trying to list the parts
  • It is not easily captured in words and resists general terms
  • It is embodied and has to be experienced
  • This knowledge depends on ‘betweenness’ (an encounter)

Interestingly, these two kinds of knowing are not recognised in the English language as they are in other languages. In Latin, French and German there are different words for the first kind of knowledge, where it is pinned down so that it is repeatable, and the second kind of knowledge, which is never to fully know.

Knowledge of facts; fixed, certain, repeatable Personal knowledge; new, uncertain, never fully known
Latin Sapere Cognoscere
French Savoir Connaitre
German Wissen Kennen

Jan Derry has suggested that in our current UK education system the focus is on knowledge of facts and memorising these facts for exams and tests. This system promotes a mechanical process of transmission and assimilation, and policy makers deprecate attention given to meaning making. But as Jan Derry points out, simply memorising facts stops well short of understanding them. To illustrate this, she uses a Richard Feynman video (2.05 minutes), who points out the limitations of rote learning of meaningless terms without understanding.

Jan Derry’s interest is in inferentialism. I cannot do justice to her lecture or her ideas here, but one of her main points is that meaning comes from understanding things in relation to each other, i.e. the meaning of one concept is dependent on its relation to others. This relates closely to McGilchrist’s thinking (p,97)

Knowledge and perception, and therefore experience, exist only in the relations between things. Perhaps indeed everything that exists does so only in relationships, like mathematics or music: there are aspects of quantum physics that would support such a view.

This fact, that knowledge comes from distinctions, implies that we can come to an understanding of the nature of any one thing, whatever it might be, only by comparison with something else we already know, and by observing the similarities and differences.

Derry also quotes Robert Brandom (2015) as saying, “one cannot have one concept without having many”, noting that this appears to present a learning paradox. How can you understand one concept unless you understand them all?

Our education policy makers’ answer to this problem, and a common response, is to break teaching down into many elements or ‘bits’ and then start from the simple and work up to the more complex, putting the ‘bits’ together, which McGilchrist would recognise as a left hemisphere approach.  This is the approach which Jan Derry says comes from a belief that inferences can only be made when initial awareness is restricted to a representation, and only after this representation has been grasped. But she believes, referencing Vygotsky, that meaning making takes an inferential rather than representational orientation to knowledge. Vygotsky suggested that rather than introducing the learner to an accumulation of simple elements, instead we should start by introducing them to a rich domain in which they can begin to make sense of ‘what follows from what’ (relations between ideas), in which their responsiveness to the relevant reasons and relations that constitute concepts, can develop.

For McGilchrist we should not only start in the rich domain (the domain of the right hemisphere), but also end in the rich domain. McGilchrist suggests that ‘knowing’ is first experienced in the right hemisphere, before being passed to the left hemisphere for analysis and ‘fixing’, and then should ultimately be returned to the right hemisphere for further appreciation of the whole.

For McGilchrist, there are not only two kinds of knowing, but also two different ways of attending to the world, which in turn brings two different worlds into being.

In the one, that of the right hemisphere, we experience the live, complex, embodied world of individual, unique, beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other, that of the left hemisphere, we “experience” our experience in a special way: a “re-presented” version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes on which predictions can be made. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But is also enables us for the first time to know and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power. (p.31)

McGilchrist makes the case that if we get  stuck in the left hemisphere’s world of the familiar, known, and explicit, where we focus on the parts rather than the whole, on abstraction and reification, we run the risk of missing a return to the right hemisphere’s way of knowing, which reflects Marion Milner’s wide focus, Jan Derry’s meaning making and individual experience, and Vygotsky’s rich domain.

Near the end of her lecture, Derry says:

Difficulties will almost certainly arise when knowledge is approached on the basis of the students’ construction of meaning, but equally these cannot be resolved by teaching facts unless the facts are situated in a network of inferential relation……Access to these inferential relations can be provided in numerous ways; it may involve how a task is designed or by the quality of questioning.

She ends her talk by saying:

Neither meaning making nor the presentation of facts should be dismissed but rather should be brought together through an inferential rather than a representational orientation to knowledge.

Likewise, as mentioned above, McGilchrist doesn’t oppose the two kinds of knowing that he writes about, saying we need them both. Currently the left hemisphere’s perspective on ‘knowing’ dominates. A more balanced approach between the two kinds of knowing requires having greater awareness of the right hemisphere’s perspective.

References 

Robert Brandom (2015) Interview by Richard Marshall, 3:AM Magazine

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Milner, M. (1934) A Life of One’s Own. Routledge

Vygotsky, L.S. (1998) The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky, volume 5, child psychology. In R.W. Reiber (Ed.), New York: Plenum Press