A Year with the Philosophy of Education Reading Network

It has actually been more than a year since I joined this reading network, so it’s maybe time to take stock and reflect on my experience. Here is a list of the books and authors that the group has read. Most (but not all) the links are to my blog posts about my reading. Further details can also be found on the Philosophy of Education Reading Network website.

August 2020Iris MurdochThe Sovereignty of GoodI found out about the group just before their first meeting, so didn’t have time to read the book, although I did find information about the work online.
September 2020Gert BiestaThe Beautiful Risk of EducationThis book was already on my bookshelf
October 2020Mary MidgleyWhat is Philosophy For?I knew of Mary Midgley as she wrote a review of Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary. I have been thinking about McGilchrist’s work for more than 10 years, but his books are too long to recommend to this group!
November 2020Paulo FreirePedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed

See also Paulo Freire’s questions for educators
This book was already on my bookshelf, as it surely is on many educators’ shelves.
December 2020Richard RortyPhilosophy and Social HopeI knew of Richard Rorty as a friend gave me his book ‘Philosophy as Poetry’
January 2021Hannah ArendtThe Gap Between Past and Future
Chapter 1. Tradition and the Modern Age
Chapter 2. The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern
Chapter 3. What is Authority?
Chapter 4. What is Freedom?
Chapter 5. The Crisis in Education
Chapter 6. The Crisis in Culture
Chapter 7. Truth and Politics
Chapter 8. The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man
I knew of Hannah Arendt, but had never read her work before. This book was a real eye-opener. It really captured my interest.
February 2021Amélie RortyPhilosophers on Education (Chapters 1-4 and 26-27)The Reading Network helped me access this very big and expensive book. Thank you.
March 2021bell hooksTeaching to TransgressThis book was already on my bookshelf. bell hooks was a legend in education.
April 2021Decolonising Education.
In April the theme of the Reading Network was Decolonising Education, with a particular focus on Higher Education. The group read a selection of papers from a special edition of Cultural Studies journal (2007 – Vol 21, Issue 2-3)
I did not read these papers and took a break in April.
May 2021Nel NoddingsA Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education
See also. Nel Noddings. A Feminine Approach to Moral Education
This book was already on my bookshelf. It was required reading for a Masters module in 1994/5. I enjoyed it and could relate to it more this second time of reading. Age does have some advantages!
June 2021Simone WeilAn Anthology complied by Siân MilesI didn’t have time to read this book properly but I enjoyed looking into Simone Weil’s background. Quite a tour de force!
July 2021Maxine GreeneReleasing the ImaginationThis book had been on my radar for years and I finally read it. An important text for educators.
August 2021Martin BuberI and ThouThis book had a profound effect on me. The best book of the year for me, together with Hannah Arendt’s book.
September 2021John DeweyExperience and Education
See also. John Dewey. Traditional and Progressive Education
Many teachers will be familiar with John Dewey’s work, but it was good be reminded of it
October 2021Paula AllmanRevolutionary Social Transformation. Democratic Hopes, Political Possibilities and Critical EducationI took a break this month and did not read this book
November 2021Josef PieperLeisure the Basis of CultureThis book and author were completely new to me
December 2021John Hattie and Steen LarsenThe Purposes of EducationThis is the only book in the list that has irritated me 🙂

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network meets once a month, on the third Tuesday of the month on Zoom. Details of the zoom call are posted on their website and also on Twitter @PhilofEd. It was set up by two philosophy PhD candidates, Elizabeth O’Brien and Victoria Jamieson. How they have time to organise this and do their PhDs and their jobs, and live their lives, I really don’t know. I couldn’t even have contemplated taking this on, on top of everything else, but as one of the group members (Winnie O’Connell-Wong) has said, engagement with this group means that you end up reading books you would never have come across or got round to reading otherwise.

Every book that I have read so far because of @PhilofEd is not what I would have chosen to read myself, but I have been repeatedly surprised by how good the selection has been so far.

I really appreciate the democratic approach to the organisation of the group. The group is open to anyone who wants to join. If you do join you are not required to be on video or to speak. There is no hierarchy of group members. Each month a speaker is invited (either a group member or someone with expertise related to the text) to introduce the book and raise questions for the group to consider. If you go to the PhilofEd website and click on the images of books read, most of the time this will bring up the list of questions raised for the book. The introduction to the book on Zoom usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes. The group can then discuss those questions or discuss anything else that is of interest. If you want to speak you simply unmute yourself and start to speak when there is a pause. The meeting lasts an hour and rarely runs over, and even then only runs over for administrative purposes. I like this tight time-keeping.

The selection of books to be read is also a very democratic process. Members of the group can suggest texts that they would like to read and discuss. These are then posted on the PhilofEd website. Every three months texts are randomly selected from members’ suggestions, which are numbered. A random number generator software is used to pick 4 trios of books. A poll is then set up on Twitter and members vote for which trio of books they would like to read over the coming three months.

It took me about 10 months to find my voice in this group. I have no background in philosophy, although since I retired I have attended a number of different adult education philosophy courses, but they have been taught courses, led by a tutor, who invites you to speak. Currently I am attending a face-to-face course on Fantastic Female Philosophers, which is being run over a number of months. The Philosophy of Education group is a reading network not a course.

I am also a member of my local U3A (University of the Third Age) philosophy group which meets monthly in Kendal to discuss a wide variety of topics dependent on members’ interests and who is willing to lead a session. The last one I went to in November was on the question ‘What can Covid teach us about Climate Change?’ with reference to the Stoics. Again, these are structured sessions.

The PhilofEd reading network sessions are only very loosely structured. There are some introductory questions, but I am always amazed that often few of them are addressed, if at all. The discussion goes in any direction that members want to take it. This lack of structure can be unnerving, particularly for newcomers who have to take the initiative and grasp the bull by the horns to speak.

Also unnerving can be the silences. Sometimes there are long pauses when no-one speaks. I was very amused in one meeting which was introduced by a Professor of Philosophy, who could not cope with the silence that followed the questions he raised, so he answered all the questions himself. This went down very well with the group because he was very knowledgeable and informative and as we know it is easier to sit back and be told than to have to think for yourself.

I definitely had to take the bull by the horns to speak the first time (and even to put my video on initially). I find it easier if I have seen the questions to be discussed before the meeting so that I have time to think about them. I have never been good at thinking on my feet. Ultimately I realised that particularly in the cases where I had done a very thorough reading of the book, then I could be confident that I might have something of value to contribute.

So gradually I have overcome the feeling of being a fish out of water and have found the group meetings more enjoyable. The group itself is not at all threatening. Everyone is very welcoming and over time faces and individual modes of expression become familiar. The books that have had the biggest impact on me this past year have been Hannah Arendt’s The Gap Between Past and Future, Nel Noddings’ A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, and Martin Buber’s I and Thou. And I have also noted, that on the whole, I find the female authors’ works resonated with me more. I think that is probably a discussion for another time.

January 2022 will start with an intriguing book which I have started to read – Lines by Tim Ingold. Sometimes it takes me a while to see the relevance of some of these texts for education and so far Tim Ingold’s book falls into that category, but I have only just started it, and maybe by the end it will have become clear.

I was asked today how long I have been participating in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network and when I said more than a year, I was then asked how long I was going to continue. It was these questions that prompted this post. I will continue to read the texts selected by the network for as long as I find them stimulating and thought-provoking, and for as long as my ageing brain can cope with them 🙂

The Purposes of Education. John Hattie and Steen Larsen

This book, published in 2020, will be discussed by the online Philosophy of Education Reading Network next week. The book records a series of conversations that took place between John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Steen Nepper Larsen, an Educational Philosopher from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University.

John Hattie is known for his evidence-based quantitative research on student achievement and his book Visible Learning, which has been described as the largest ever synthesis of meta-analyses of quantitative measures of the effect of different factors on educational outcomes.

In a review of The Purposes of Education Steve Turnbull writes:

Hattie needs little introduction. He’s the “meta-man”, or to be more accurate, the “meta-meta-man”. His magnum opus, Visible Learning, synthesised more than 800 meta-analyses and became a handbook for educators worldwide, drawn no doubt to its user-friendly ranking of teaching strategies by their impact on learning outcomes.

If you do happen to be new to Hattie’s work, then there are plenty of articles about his concept of visible learning on the web. In a nutshell Hattie’s Visible Learning research synthesises findings from 1,400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies involving 300 million students, into what works best in education, and comes up with 250+ influences on student achievement. (Hattie’s work has been ongoing over many years so the figures relating to number of analyses etc. change according to the date of reporting).

Source of images: https://visible-learning.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/VLPLUS-252-Influences-Hattie-ranking-DEC-2017.pdf (Click on the images to enlarge).

See also Hattie’s Visible Learning Metax website, where he shares his methodology and data

The significance of this book, The Purposes of Education, is that Steen Larsen is (or at least has been) a fierce critic of John Hattie’s work.  In the final paragraph of his 2015 paper ‘Know thy Impact. Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo’, Larsen makes the stinging comment:

One does not have to run (through) the big data of 240 million students to proclaim that well-prepared teachers are a sine qua non for teaching and learning. But this simple fact does not make deep and critical questions to John Hattie’s axioms, ways of investigating learning processes, use of meta-studies, and recommendations to educational stakeholders, superfluous. The concluding remark must be that the advantage of John Hattie’s evidence credo is that it is so banal, mundane and trivial that even educational planners and economists can understand it.

Steen Larsen questions whether learning is a visible phenomenon. Who should it be visible for? For him blindness is an inevitable part of educational seeing. He mentions that Hattie’s work is focussed on developing visible learning strategies for the teacher and that Hattie never actually talks to the learners. He argues that students, teachers and researchers are blind to each other’s rationales. ‘The teacher and the learner do not see the world in the same perspective’. (p.6)  He further argues that ‘learning can never be an instant, simple and visible phenomenon—neither for the teacher nor for the ‘key figure’, i.e., the learning subject.’ (Larsen , 2019, p.3). The effects of learning are sometimes not realised for years to come. Instead of focussing on quantitative analysis and a statistical approach to student achievement, Larsen suggests that we consider the notion of the German concept of Bildung, the idea that education might lead to ‘the edification and the eloquent formation of the individual’s character, wisdom, judgment, and fertile curiosity (Larsen, 2017, p.175).

It says something for John Hattie that he was willing to meet with his fiercest critic and have these intense conversations, in which they tried to answer the following questions:

  • What are the purposes of education?
  • Does educational data speak for itself?
  • What is the role of the teacher?
  • Is learning a visible phenomenon?
  • Is it important to teach and learn specific subjects?
  • What is the role of neuroscience research?
  • What is the relationship between educational research and educational politics?
  • What is the role of the state in education?

In this short video below (14 mins) Hattie and Larsen talk about the writing of The Purposes of Education in a very good natured way, but it becomes clear that, whilst (as seen in the book) there are things they agree on, fundamentally they have completely different philosophies of education.

Hattie claims that his research has been misinterpreted, but whether or not this is the case, his statistical, quantitative approach to student achievement has been very influential on government departments and policy makers for education around the world. Students/learners are now observed and tested more than ever before. Surely as Larsen says, ‘The purpose of education is much more demanding and challenging than enhancing visible learning processes and results.’ (Larsen, 2019, p.10)


David-Lang, J. (2013). Summary of Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie. The Main Idea, 1.

Steen Nepper Larsen. (2015). Know Thy Impact: Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo. Journal of Academic Perspectives Know, 1(1), 1–13.

Larsen, S. N. (2017). What is education? – A critical essay. In A. B. Jørgensen, J. J. Justesen, N. Bech, N. Nykrog, & R. B. Clemmensen (Eds.), What is education? An anthology on education (pp. 157-185). Próblēma.

Larsen, S. N. (2019). Blindness in seeing: A philosophical critique of the visible learning paradigm in education. Education Sciences, 9(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci9010047

Carsten Henriksen (2020). A New Perspective on John Hattie

Carly Boreland. (2021). The North Wind : A Critical Perspective on the Purposes of Education. Journal of Professional Learning, 1–4.

Will Fastiggi Summary of John Hattie’s Research

The Imperfect Stitch and the Beauty of Asymmetry

My friend (and past research colleague), Frances Bell, is attending an online free motion building quilting course run by The Crafty Nomad. I have been enjoying watching her progress as she posts images of her practise samples to her Flickr site, and rather envying her skills. Frances has already made some beautiful quilts so it was interesting to read her explanation of why she is doing this course:

What I am hoping to learn from this course is more about constructing a design – putting together different elements into an overall design. The project that I’ll do in a couple of weeks will have 12 coloured rectangles separated by white space so that’s plenty of opportunity for experimentation.

The image above was the first photo that I noticed. I really liked the trailing thread in the top left hand corner, which I saw as ‘breaking the boundary’, an idea that for some reason appealed to me. Frances explained the stitching that breaks the boundary was where I started’, which of course made sense (you have to start somewhere), but I still prefer to think of it as breaking the boundary! Frances went on to explain that ,

we are encouraged to have a high contrast between the thread and fabric colours. This is so that the “mistakes” stand out so we can work on avoiding them. Then in the projects we will choose a thread that blends with the fabric to make any mistakes recede. I think there’s a powerful message in there for learning/education in general. There’s a lot of controversy about “safe spaces” but I do like the idea of an educational space where learners are comfortable to acknowledge what they will do differently next time.

This idea of making mistakes stand out is further developed by Frances in another practise sample that I really like.

My reaction to this sample was: This is lovely. I like the different coloured stitching on the white background – very subtle and delicate, and once again Frances responded that this is a technique used to highlight errors:

I love variegated threads – they tend to distract from errors. I have chosen a different contrast thread for each module specifically to highlight errors while learning on practice pieces.

Quite by chance, at the same time as having this exchange with Frances I have come across the idea of ‘the imperfect stitch’, or ‘Persian flaw’, which is a deliberate error in an otherwise perfect work of art. The errors are not intended to detract from the beauty of the work of art (which could be a rug, a piece of embroidery, a quilt, or a piece of pottery), but rather to be subtly introduced (so subtly that the imperfection might be difficult to detect), to signify the inherent humanity and imperfection of the artist.

‘A Persian rug is perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise’.

In the eyes of the Persian rug makers and in other cultures of rug makers, such as the Navajo rug weavers, ‘Only God is perfect’. Flaws are an integral part of being human. Similarly, according to Iain McGilchrist, in Chinese architecture, the last three tiles are always left off the roof. The first great Chinese historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, records:

Even heaven is not complete; that is why when people are building a house they leave off the last three tiles, to correspond. And all things that are under the sky have degrees. It is precisely because creatures are incomplete that they are living .

(Ssu-ma Ch’ien’ quoted in The Matter With Things (TMWT) by Iain McGilchrist , p.840)

When I first came across the photos of Frances’ work which I like so much, I hadn’t read Iain McGilchrist’s chapter on The Coincidence of Opposites (Chapter 20) in his new book, The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. In this chapter Iain writes about the importance of asymmetry. Here are a few quotes from the chapter:

‘There is also a necessity for slight imperfections in DNA transcription for there to be change and creativity: evolution.’ (p. 840, TMWT)

‘Sameness is indeed sterile, and cannot give rise to anything.’ (p. 840, TMWT)

‘Balance needs to be constantly disturbed and restored. Symmetry breaking is everywhere in living organisms.’ (p.840, TMWT)

I realise now that this is why I was drawn to Frances’ practise samples with their errors, which I find so attractive. They include an asymmetry which is a beautiful expression of the combination of sameness and difference, order and disorder (TMWT, p.839). For me, the art of deliberate imperfection seems one worth pursuing, and one which helps to ensure the uniqueness of the art.  I wonder what Frances’ tutor would make of this idea, and indeed Frances herself?


Patowary, K. (2017). The Art of Deliberate Imperfection

Why Imperfect Quilts are Beautiful

Deliberate Mistakes in Handmade Persian Rugs and Carpets

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

Mackness, J. (2021). The Coincidence of Opposites. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

The Coincidence of Opposites. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

I have now heard Iain McGilchrist talk about the Coincidence of Opposites twice. Once at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, at the beginning of October 2021, and again at the end of October, in a talk given online to Ralston College, Savannah, GA, USA.

Also, I have now received my copy of Iain’s new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (abbreviated in this post as TMWT), which I have begun to read slowly, but as I explained in a previous post, not in the order written. The chapter on the coincidence of opposites, which bears the title ‘The coincidentia oppositorum’ is the first chapter in the second volume of the book, Chapter 20.

There is a reason that this chapter bears the title ‘The coincidentia oppositorum’ as opposed to ‘The coincidence of opposites’ and that is that the word ‘coincide’ in this chapter,

‘… means more than that opposites happen to look like one another, even to cohere, to concur, or to be in accord, though those meanings are present, too: it means that they ‘fall together’, like the superposition of the two images which, when projected on a screen, overlap precisely to form a new image.’ (p.821, TMWT)

Like all the other chapters in this book, Chapter 20, The coincidentia oppositorum’, starts with some quotes; for this chapter, with quotes from a philosopher, C.S. Peirce, a physicist, Niels Bohr and a poet, Friedrich Hölderlin. I think the quote from Peirce (1931-60) gets to the essence of what this chapter is about.

‘A thing without oppositions ipso facto does not exist … existence lies in opposition.’

In our increasingly divided world, where polarization is spreading across the globe, ‘The Coincidence of Opposites’ is an important idea for our times. Of the chapters that I have read so far in The Matter with Things, this is the one that seems to resonate strongly with current experience of the world we live in. But the coincidence of opposites is not a new idea. It is an ancient theme, which as Iain shows us in this chapter, has been recognised by many philosophers such as Empedocles, Heraclitus, Hegel, Goethe, Nietzsche, James, Schelling, and Whitehead amongst others, as well as across cultures.  In preparation for the Ralston College talk we were sent a copy of the opening pages of this chapter, in which Iain recounts an ancient Iroquois legend to illustrate that ‘All things arise from opposing, but in some form nonetheless related, drives or forces. Energy is always characterised by the coming together of apparent opposites …’ (p.816, TMWT)

So, Iain draws on a wide range of resources to substantiate his argument that things and their opposites are not as irreconcilable and far apart as they may seem. Opposites do not have a linear irreconcilable relationship; it is not the case that the further you go towards one end of the line the further away you are from the opposite end. Rather, opposites eventually tend to coincide. If we could grasp this we might live in a happier world. The example I can think of which might help to illustrate this and that I have heard Iain mention in other talks is that both extreme religious fundamentalists and extreme atheists ultimately have the same left hemisphere view of the world. They go full circle and eventually coincide.

‘A principle that is extended too far, without respect to the opposite that is always inherent in it, may turn into the very thing that is not only undesired, but is being denied.’ (p.829, TMWT). If you go far enough in any direction you reach not more of what you desired but its opposite.

Jacob’s Dream William Blake 1805

So instead of a linear model, Iain prefers one of circularity or better still a spiral, since a circle comes back to the same place and is static whereas a spiral is constantly moving and changing, and circles round to come back to a slightly elevated position.  Linearity and circularity co-exist in a spiral.

Whilst opposites genuinely coincide, they remain opposites and are mutually sustaining. They give rise to and fulfil one another and are conjoined; you can’t have one without the other, but they remain distinct as opposites, as in heat and cold, brightness and darkness, mountains and valleys. Everything that exists can be thought of as a form of energy which results from the coming together of apparent opposites. Iain provides us with many examples of this, e.g., the north and south poles of a magnet, the positive and negative poles of an electric circuit and the merging of male and female gametes in the origin of new life.

A thing and its opposite can both be true at the same time. The individual and the general, the temporal and the eternal, the embodied and the disembodied present simultaneously. They are inclusive. Jacob Needleman (2016) wrote: ‘Stay with the contradiction. If you stay you will see that there is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.’ East and West are simultaneously present on a compass and need to be so, not just to navigate the world, but to have a world to navigate.

The idea of complementarity is foundational in Nature, morality, and spirituality. The whole is never an annihilation but rather a subsumption of the parts. All is one, but also all is many. Both are true. As Goethe (1948) noted, we need the union of union and division.

‘Dividing the united, uniting the divided, is the very life of Nature; this is the eternal systole and diastole, the eternal coalescence and separation, the inhalation and exhalation of the world in which we live, and where our existence is woven.’ (p. 837, TMWT)

Resistance and pulling in opposite directions are essential for creation, as we see in friction and Heraclitus’ bow and lyre.

Source of image: https://www.azquotes.com/quote/536803

The two hemispheres of the brain work together by being apart (separated by the corpus callosum). They cooperate by opposing one another. They inhibit and inform one another, at times standing back and away from one another, and also at times working in unison. Their relationship is oppositional, but not contradictory. The drive of the cosmos is about distinction without separation. But whilst the two hemispheres are equally necessary and need to work together, they are unequal in status. The left hemisphere needs to act as servant to the right hemisphere, which is the master.

There is an asymmetry at the heart of the coincidentia oppositorum. Union and division are asymmetrical. The principle for division and the principle for union need to be brought together, not divided ( p.833, TMWT). We need the union of union and division, not the division of union and division.

We need not either both/and or either/or, but both both/and and either/or.

We need not non-duality only, but the non-duality of duality and non-duality. (p.833, TMWT)

We need universality and particularity, precision and flexibility, restriction and openness, freedom and constraint.

We need to accept that in our society we are beset by paradoxes; by pursuing happiness we become less happy, by pursuing leisure through technology the average working day is longer and we have less time than before, through our eagerness that scientific research should lead to positive findings, scientific research has become less adventurous and more predictable, by trying to improve education through a focus on exam results we have seen a loss of free thinking, and through protecting our children from risk, we have made them more vulnerable. Everything has its dark side. There is nothing so good that it cannot have negative consequences and nothing so bad that it cannot occasionally give rise to good. We should not be tempted to deny the coincidence of opposites. The coincidence of opposites is at the origin of everything and gives rise to everything we know. It transcends ordinary reasoning and we mustn’t be tempted to resolve this.

Things change depending on the context, as we see in the phenomenon of hormesis. A very small amount of something, such as arsenic, may have beneficial effects, but may kill you if taken in large amounts. From any one position we can only see part of the picture. We should always try to see as many points of view as possible. As A. N. Whitehead (1954) noted, ‘To have seen it from one side only is not to have seen it.’ (p. 823, TMWT)

And to finish with another quote from Whitehead also from p.823 of TMWT,

‘… there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.’


McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

This is the fourth post I have written which relate to chapters in Volume 2, Part 3, The Unforeseen Nature of Reality, of The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Here are the links to previous posts.

Chapter 28: The sense of the sacred  

Chapter 25: Matter and consciousness  

Chapter 26: Value

Publication of Iain McGilchrist’s new book. The Matter With Things

On Tuesday (Nov 9th) Iain McGilchrist’s new book The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, was published by Perspectiva Press. The launch was celebrated in a conversation between Iain and Philip Pullman, which was hosted by the How to Academy. This was a wonderful meeting of minds. There was also, of course, a launch party hosted by Jonathan Rowson, Director of Perspectiva, at which both Jonathan and Iain, as well as a few others spoke.

I now own copies of the two volumes and have started reading. The volumes are beautifully produced and I agree with Jonathan Rowson that the book is also beautifully written.

When I attended the Field&Field four day conference at the beginning of October 2021, where Iain gave 14 one hour talks, the opening talk outlined the process of writing this book, which took 10 years and was started soon after the publication of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World in 2009.

Iain spoke about a demon possessing him in the writing of The Matter with Things. It was originally intended to be a shorter and more accessible book than The Master and His Emissary but ended up twice as long. The book takes forward the ideas discussed in The Master and His Emissary and tries to answer Plotinus’ question ‘But we – who are we?’ Iain feels that this question is more pressing now than it has ever been because humanity has lost the plot, imperilling the existence of our species. The planet will survive, but will we? And even if we can stop destroying the world, we will have to reimagine who we are and how we relate to the cosmos. These are the issues that Iain tries to address in The Matter with Things.

The book is in two volumes and three parts. Volume 1 contains Parts 1 and 2; Volume 2 contains Part 3 and a bibliography which itself is over 200 pages long.

Part 1 focusses on neuropsychology (how our brains shape reality). The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth

(attention, perception, judgment, apprehension, emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence, creativity)

Part 2 focusses on epistemology (how we can come to know anything at all). The Hemispheres and the Paths to Truth

(science, reason, intuition, and imagination)

Part 3 focusses on metaphysics (the nature of what we find in the cosmos). The Unforeseen Nature of Reality

(the coincidentia oppositorum, the one and the many, time, flow and movement, space and matter, matter and consciousness, value, purpose, life and the nature of the cosmos, the sense of the sacred)

In total The Matter with Things is 1579 pages long. Iain has been asked whether anyone in this day and age has the time (or inclination?) to sit down and read a book of this length. In the book launch party Jonathan Rowson pointed out that to his knowledge, at this time, only about 10 people in the world have read the entire book.

A good reason for reading the book from beginning to end is that Iain develops his argument through the book culminating with the final chapter in which he tells us that one of the great losses from our modern world, perhaps the greatest loss, is a sense of the sacred. This, together with the loss of other values such as goodness, beauty, truth, and purpose, has led to the world’s current predicament. The book is so long because Iain doesn’t simply state his opinion. For each argument he makes he backs it up with extensive research into science, philosophy, ancient wisdom, and spiritual traditions from around the world. And through this research he has found that what he instinctively felt as a young man in his twenties, when writing ‘Against Criticism’, has been discussed in many traditions and cultures throughout history – that the whole is not the sum of the parts, the world is not inert and unresponsive, that opposites coincide as well as diverge, history is not linear but moves in spirals and everything flows. So, if you wanted to follow the development of his arguments it would probably be best to read The Matter with Things from beginning to end, particularly if you haven’t read The Master and His Emissary. The book ‘is intended as a single whole, each part illuminating, and in turn illuminated by, the others.’ (p. xvii)

But, Iain writes, the book ‘can be explored according to whim’ (p. xvii), which will be my approach. I have decided to dip into this long book and read chapters out of sequence, so I have read the last chapter (Chapter 28) The Sense of the Sacred first, because it seemed to me, having read The Master and His Emissary more than once, and being familiar with many of Iain’s core ideas, that this is the chapter that introduces ideas that I haven’t heard Iain pull together before. I next read the chapter on Values (Chapter 26) because I have been discussing values with a friend. I am now reading Chapter 20, The coincidentia oppositorum, because I have recently heard Iain speak of the coincidence of opposites twice and want to consolidate my understanding of the points he is making. So, for The Matter With Things, I will be dipping in and out and will not be in any rush to read the whole book.

Jonathan Rowson mentioned that Iain has a lot of speaking events lined up, so it will be helpful to follow those along with reading the book. Iain’s speaking events are usually advertised by Channel McGilchrist on their website, their Twitter stream (@dr_mcgilchrist) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/DrIainMcGilchrist). By joining Channel McGilchrist you can receive a regular newsletter of updates, if you are interested in following the developments surrounding this book.

The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, can be ordered on on the Channel McGilchrist website, and a Kindle edition can be purchased on Amazon.

Update 12-11-2021

See also this post by Charles Foster – http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2021/11/how-we-got-into-this-mess-and-the-way-out/

Josef Pieper. Leisure the Basis of Culture (Notes)

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670)

Josef Pieper’s book is the next one to be discussed by the Philosophy of Education online Reading Network on Tuesday 16th November. This is not a book I would have thought about reading if I had not been attending these reading group sessions, and to be honest, it is not a book that has captured my imagination as much as some of the other books have (see posts under the PhilofEd category). But clearly the group member who chose this book feels it is important enough to discuss, and I have heard it described by others as an important text for our times, particularly I would think, for workaholics. If you have ever considered the question of whether you should live to work, or work to live, then this book/essay might provide some answers.

My copy of the book includes two essays, which were originally written in the form of lectures, given in Bonn, Germany, in the summer of 1947. The first is Leisure. The Basis of Culture; the second is The Philosophical Act. In this post I am only going to briefly consider the first. I may come back to the second at another time.

Josef Pieper was writing in Germany after the end of World War II, a time when Germany needed to be rebuilt, a time when a lot of work needed to be done. He recognised that the issue of work is at the centre of the economy, but he disputed the meaning of work. Who is work for? His book is about the primacy of leisure. He believed, along with Aristotle, that the real purpose of work is leisure.

“We are unleisurely in order to have leisure” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics), where unleisurely refers to everyday work. A search online shows this often quoted as: ‘We work to earn our leisure’.

Whilst Pieper’s writing seemed out of place when first published, it now seems increasingly relevant, given that we live in a ‘total work’ culture where we always need to be doing something. Even when we are supposedly resting, we are ‘doing’. The reality is that we can’t escape work. It is always with us. We might expect that this would lead to vibrancy, but instead it often leads to boredom. If we don’t have something to do we are at a loss.  Boredom results from a problem with a person’s grasp of reality. As G.K. Chesterton said, “There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

In this very short essay (68 pages in my version of the text), Pieper discusses knowledge, leisure, and worship. The essay is concerned with sociological and cultural realities, but also with what it means to be human and to live an authentically human life.

Starting with a discussion of knowledge, Pieper points out the connection between knowledge and leisure.

‘… leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin scola, the English ‘school.’ The word used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means ‘leisure’. ‘School’ does not properly speaking, mean school, but leisure.’ (p.21)

Pieper discusses how the concept of knowledge has changed in the modern world. Modern philosophy views knowledge as active and outward, but in ancient times it was receptive and open. For the Ancients and in Medieval times there were two different kinds of knowledge, ratio (discursive reasoning, examining, analyzing, picking apart) and intellectus (a receiving of what is true; knowledge as purely receptive, gazing on reality, contemplation of your own existence). The Ancients prized intellectus. In modern times the only kind of knowledge that is valued is ratio, which depends on our activity. Ratio favours the hard sciences over literature, philosophy and theology, science over wisdom, and what we can determine for ourselves over what we can receive.

This kind of knowledge (ratio) is associated with labour, effort, and suffering. ‘Hard work … is what is good’(p.31). ‘Man mistrusts everything that is effortless’ (p.34). Knowledge is valued only for its utility, how it serves the concrete, material or economic. It used to be that education and knowledge were sought for their own sake, free of utility. This is where we get the term liberal arts, which had a value in themselves, independent of utility. The goal of the liberal arts was to grasp reality itself. Today the liberal arts are not given as much weight as the STEM subjects. We learn how things work but we don’t ask why they exist in the first place. The liberal arts have now become utilitarian and knowledge has become exclusively active. Today we know by our own acting not by receiving; we value knowledge according to the effort put into achieving it, and to the extent that it is useful for the here and now, for society.

Pieper goes on to further discuss our mistaken understanding of the meaning of leisure. We think it’s about escaping from work, but this is not authentic leisure. Leisure is not a time to ‘veg out’, but rather to engage in active contemplation of reality. Leisure, Pieper writes, means a certain stillness, an inner absence of preoccupation, an ability to be calm, to let things go, to be quiet. This is the opposite of the modern demand for activity. True leisure has the capacity to receive, to be still and allow the mystery of life to reveal itself. It is found in simple things such as listening and being aware of nature. It is not about entertainment, which is often designed to keep reality from intruding.

Leisure requires a celebratory spirit or attitude, which comes when we affirm that the world is good and we appreciate its goodness. Leisure is only possible when we are in harmony with ourselves. Leisure is not there for the sake of work. It is useless. The power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world. This takes some effort on our part to carve out those times and places where we are going to be at rest. We typically think that we rest in order to work, but that makes leisure dependent on work. It makes work the determining factor. Work is a good thing but can become a vice when it is removed from its proper place. Stillness, uselessness, and a celebratory spirit are characteristics of leisure.

Work should facilitate leisure. True leisure is a condition of the soul, not the absence of work. It’s not not doing something. It is doing something, but a specific type of activity, which allows things to happen and adopts an attitude of inward calm and silence. For Pieper the highest form of leisure is worship and the ultimate good in life is union with God.

Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10) could be rewritten by Pieper as ‘Be at rest, or be at leisure, and know that I am God.’ Pieper believed that we have to set aside time and space and be at rest, in order to realise who we are.

There are some key ideas in Pieper’s essay, such as Sloth (acedia) and the incapacity to leisure, Proletarianism, and Deproletarianization and the opening of the realm of leisure, which I have not covered here. I have just made notes on the ideas that stood out for me. I will be interested to hear what questions are raised by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in relation to Pieper’s writing, and how they relate it to education.


Pieper, J. (1965). Leisure the Basis of Culture. Fontana Library

Sensus Fidelium. 2016. Leisure: The Basis of Culture – Rev Scalia

The Burrowshire Podcast. 2020. The Art of Leisure

Maria Popova. Leisure, the Basis of Culture: An Obscure German Philosopher’s Timely 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Human Dignity in a Culture of Workaholism.

Michael Naughton. 2010. Teaching Note on Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture. An Integration of the Contemplative and Active Life. https://www.stthomas.edu/media/catholicstudies/center/ryan/curriculumdevelopment/theologicalethics/NaughtonTeachingNote.pdf

Andrew (2021) Rethinking Leisure in the Age of Total Work

Source of image: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/93731235981297063/

What are Values? A talk by Iain McGilchrist

This talk was given by Iain McGilchrist at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, October 2021. It relates to Chapter 26 of his new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World.

I have now received my copies of the two volumes of The Matter with Things (TMWT) and can see that there is very much more content included in Chapter 26, than was covered in the talk I listened to. I have included here elements of the talk that I found interesting, with reference, in some places, to the text of The Matter with Things for further clarity. Any errors in the content of this post are mine, and should not be attributed to Iain McGilchrist.

In this talk Iain discussed values as essential elements in the cosmos, in particular truth, goodness, and beauty, which, he said, are not simply painted onto the surface of life, but are ontological primitives. The cosmos is beautiful whether we are there or not to appreciate it. Life brings into being the capacity for value. As Thomas Nagel said, ‘Value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value.” (Nagel, 2012, 122-123). Values evoke a response in us and give meaning to life. Valuing depends on a relationship.


Science has one overarching value and that is truth, but science cannot help us understand the nature of values and may indeed help us misunderstand them. Science regards values as secondary phenomena, and when it does turn its gaze on values, regards them in a utilitarian way.

‘Truth carries within it the whole purpose of science, and gives meaning to its activities. However, science will not admit anything that is not empirically verifiable – yet the value of truth, like all value, is incapable of empirical proof.” (TMWT p.1123).

Truth is not the same as utility. “Values are not just validated by the outcomes they achieve; they are inseparable from our deepest emotional experience.” (TMAHE, p.1125). Useful assumptions are not always truthful and true assumptions are not always of practical use. Truth is not a function of another value. Truth is an act, a process; one of trust in or faithfulness towards, whatever is; an unrevealing of something. This process leads to a foundational web of interconnectedness. Not all values, e.g., utilitarian values, are fundamental in this way.

Since the whole of Part 2 of Volume 1 of The Matter with Things is devoted to the question of what is truth, and what are the paths to truth, Iain did not spend a lot of time on truth as a value in this talk. However, I have heard Iain give a complete talk on just truth in the past. Here is a link to the related blog post: Exploring the Divided Brain – Where can we go for truth?


Like truth, goodness is not an add-on to life, but part of the nature of consciousness. In our culture the dominant approach to ethics is utilitarianism. This is the governing value of the left hemisphere which is focussed on outcomes rather than the essential interiority of morality, but the evidence from brain studies shows that the right hemisphere is more important for morality. Utilitarianism is a characteristic of brain damage, as seen in psychopaths. Morality is intrinsic in our cosmos and it is our duty to respond to it. Moral values and judgements can’t be explained in a calculating way; they rely on intuition and everything we know from experience.

Thought experiments are often used to illustrate the moral dilemmas we face. Should a doctor sacrifice the life of one patient with healthy organs, so that five other patients can receive organ transplants and live? Thought experiments like these seem to presume that we are machines, but ‘Normal judgements of morality require full interhemispheric integration of information critically supported by the right temporal parietal junction and right frontal processes. In moral decision-making, then, the right hemisphere is more important: it takes into account intention and context.’ (TMWT, p.1133). Moral and immoral behaviour are deeply bound with the right and left hemispheres respectively.

Goodness and morality are irreducible to utility. ‘There comes a point where one has to say ‘certain things are wrong: if you can’t see it for yourself, I can’t help you.’ (TMWT, p.1137)

Morality is a nexus, not a chain; it is a disposition towards the world. Utilitarianism overvalues individualistic pleasure and determination, but “A pleasure-filled life is not the same as a happy life, and a happy life is not the same as a meaningful life.’ (TMWT, p.1139). We’re not just here to enjoy ourselves. We need to balance hedonic pleasure with eudaimonic pleasure, taking into account the happiness of others. We are not squalid, selfish apes. When we act intuitively, we are often gracious and generous. Prosocial behaviours tend to result from intuitive behaviour. Evolution involves both competition and cooperation; collaboration is the best survival tactic. The prevailing view of science is cynical, i.e., that we are blind, selfish mechanisms, that altruism must be covert selfishness, and that we maximise our self-interest. But cynicism has been shown to be related to lower intelligence. ‘Cynicism appears to be a coping strategy by the cognitively less gifted, to avoid being duped by others’. (TMWT, p.1143)

Neither a utilitarian, nor a deontological approach to ethics solves the problem of how to understand moral principles. Instead, Iain suggests virtue ethics as an approach that is not so much concerned with outcomes as with an attitude founded on the ontology of the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere acknowledges moral ambiguity and that goodness is in some form constitutive of the cosmos.


A utilitarian view of beauty is to see it as a means of ensuring sexual attraction, necessary for evolution, but when we start making things, we want them to be beautiful, not just utilitarian. Darwin recognised that how a sense of beauty is first acquired is not known, even if it is used afterwards for sexual attraction. Our sense of beauty, e.g., the beauty of nature or of the landscape serves no utility. Beauty is not a luxury or superfluity as many scientists think. People’s wellbeing depends on being surrounded by beauty. Schools should be beautiful. Hospitals too.

Like truth and goodness, beauty is foundational. It is one of the things life is for. It is not a human invention. It is not a luxury that we can afford only once our basic survival needs have been met. Appreciation of beauty is a primal instinct.

Beauty doesn’t have designs on us; Its purposiveness is without purpose. As Emily Dickinson wrote:

Beauty – be not cause – It is –

Chase it, and it ceases –

Chase it not, and it abides

Beauty is more universal than we have been taught to think. It is not purely culturally determined. There is enormous commonality across cultures in what people find beautiful. Watch, in this video (06.35), how an Amazonian tribe respond to the beauty of Maria Callas singing Bellini’s ‘Casta Diva’, despite knowing nothing about her, or her music.

The essence of beauty is harmony, the appreciation of the relations between things. This is a strength of the right hemisphere. A sense of beauty aligns with tolerance of ambiguity, appreciation of asymmetry, and understanding the implicit and embodiment in nature. These are all characteristics of the right hemisphere which appreciates beauty through a broad, open, receptive gaze. The left hemisphere’s gaze is sharply defined and grasping. This is similar to how the Navajos have two ways of looking at the landscape; with hard and soft eyes. Soft eyes are used for taking in beauty. The left hemisphere fails to make sense of beauty.

Iain ends Chapter 26 of The Matter with Things, with the following two sentences:

‘Beauty, morality and truth have been downgraded, dismissed or denied. If you want to see the consequences, you need do no more than look around you.’ (TMWT, p.1165)


Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Iain McGilchrist (2021). The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World. Perspectiva Press

Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford University Press.

Source of Image: Libquotes

The Relationship between Matter and Consciousness. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

This post reports on a talk given by Iain McGilchrist at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, in October 2021. Iain is author of ‘The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’ (2009) and ‘The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World’, his new book which will be published on November 9th 2021.

The talk relates to Chapter 25, Matter and Consciousness, in his new book. In this chapter, Iain discusses (so he told us. I haven’t yet received my pre-ordered copy of the book) the relationship between consciousness and matter; consciousness and life, and what we can learn from the hemisphere hypothesis. The hemisphere hypothesis was explored in his book ‘The Master and His Emissary’.

As in other posts on these difficult topics covered by Iain, I need to say at the start that any errors in this post are mine and should be attributed to my understanding, or lack of it, and my interpretation of what Iain said, rather than what he actually said. I have included full references to Iain’s two books at the end of this post, where some of my sources can be checked.

Iain started this talk by saying that there has been no progress on the hard problem of consciousness. “The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of how physical processes in the brain give rise to the subjective experiences of the mind and of the world.” (David Chalmers)

The relationship between matter and consciousness

Iain suggests that the brain and consciousness are intimately related and work in tandem, and that there are three possible relationships between the brain and consciousness.

  1. The brain emits consciousness
  2. The brain transmits consciousness
  3. The brain permits consciousness i.e., the brain shapes forms and brings into being the consciousness that we experience.

Iain believes that consciousness is neither emitted, nor passively transmitted, but permitted by the brain. Some things are allowed to be transmitted and others are not. The idea of emission gained traction amongst biologists because they think we understand matter, but matter is just as difficult to understand as consciousness. The relationship between matter and consciousness is baffling. Iain suggests five possible routes to resolving this:

  1. Deny the existence of consciousness
  2. Deny the existence of matter
  3. Believe that both exist but are totally distinct
  4. Believe that both exist and are the same
  5. Believe that consciousness and matter are distinct phenomena reflecting different aspects of an indivisible reality.

One of the problems is that we think in terms of things and thingness. We need to move away from things and whatness (the left hemisphere’s view of the world) to processes and howness (the right hemisphere’s view).

The word consciousness has many meanings as is explored in Adam Zeman’s book, Consciousness. A user’s guide, but Iain is not talking about losing consciousness when we sleep or die and similar meanings, but about the experiential; something that has inwardness. This covers all activities that go on unconsciously, pre-consciously and consciously. The conscious and the unconscious don’t inhabit separate chambers. Iain uses the image of a spotlight on a stage to explain this.

A spotlight illuminates just one part of the stage (consciousness) but the rest of the stage (the unconscious) is still present. We are just not focussed on it. The unconscious is very large, but not inferior. The right hemisphere is aware of this unconscious and what is being focussed on (the conscious), but the left hemisphere is only aware of what is under the spotlight. We’re only conscious of a small part of all that we know. The unconscious is the most important and extensive part of our experience. We do many things in our unconscious minds; discriminate, reason, find things beautiful, solve problems, imagine possibilities, fall in love and so on, without being wholly aware of this. For this we rely on our whole embodied being. We only bring consciousness into play when there is a problem, which needs our focussed attention.

Can we deny consciousness? Some senior academics do and think consciousness is an illusion, but where is it an illusion if not in consciousness itself? Galen Strawson has written:

[Some philosophers] are prepared to deny the existence of experience. At this we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy. It falls, unfortunately, to philosophy, not religion, to reveal the deepest woo-woo of the human mind. I find this grievous, but, next to this denial, every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that the grass is green. (Galen Strawson, 2008, Real Materialism and other essays. Oxford University Press).

Philosophers are now beginning to wake up to the idea that consciousness is foundational in the cosmos. There is nothing more certain than the existence of experience. It can’t be an illusion because an illusion requires consciousness.

Could consciousness be reduced to anything else at all? Many prize winning physicists state that it is impossible for consciousness to be reduced to anything else. We know about the experiential directly from experience; it’s the thing we know most about but we understand very little of it. We know that matter is disclosed to us by our minds, but we do not know that our minds are disclosed to us by matter. Denying consciousness doesn’t solve the hard problem.

Can consciousness emerge? This doesn’t explain anything. There is no such thing as consciousness being nascent. It doesn’t emerge. Once consciousness is born, there it is. It must have been present at the origin of things; it can’t simply emerge out of matter. If it did do this it would have to keep repeating this, not only in evolution, but every time a creature is born.

And what of matter? Can we deny matter? Matter is an adjective that describes an experience; it is not a thing. It is a mental abstraction, a convenient fiction, that no-one has seen. We’ve only seen elements of the world to which we attribute the quality within our consciousness of being material. Matter substitutes an idea for an experience and in doing so produces something static, no longer in process, no longer an experience, now a thing. Matter and mind remain mysterious. We shouldn’t deny matter, although it may not be what we think it is. Matter is that which persists and endures. It appears to be an element within consciousness that provides necessary resistance to creation, and for individuality to arise. Our bodies are ever flowing rivers. Matter causes change to slow down for a while. It gives shape and meaning.

Are matter and consciousness one and the same? Matter and consciousness interact. There is nothing merely physical about the physical. Consciousness and the observation of an event seem to alter the nature of that physical event. Thoughts and ideas can change matter. Simple belief can make something work, e.g., the placebo effect. Consciousness can interact with matter.

Iain is not convinced by the argument that matter and consciousness don’t look alike or behave similarly. They can be and are aspects of the same phenomenon or entity, just as water can be liquid, solid or gas, but nevertheless is always water. Schrödinger wrote:

It is the same elements that go to compose my mind and the world. This situation is the same for every mind and its world, in spite of the unfathomable abundance of ‘cross-references’ between them. The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist. (p. 127 Schrödinger, E. 1944, What is Life? Cambridge University Press)

Does this mean that we make reality up? This is not the case. It’s like the performance of piece of music. The music only exists when we perform it. When we perform it, it’s always slightly different, but always recognisably the same, and some performances may be truer to the reality of that piece of music. We do deal with reality and know it. We don’t see a projection of it on a screen in our heads, but my consciousness can never see the whole of reality, just as all 15 stones in the Zen Garden at the Ryoanju temple in Japan, can never be seen at once. From any angle in the garden only 14 are visible at one time.  We can never get the whole picture, so it’s wise to have as many takes/perspectives on reality as possible.

We neither make reality up, nor is it just out there. We midwife experience into existence. The attention we give to nature, the way we approach it, determines what we find. It is a reciprocal process. Through our experience we change what is there and vice versa. Everything is reverberative. Reality is constantly coming into being. Reciprocity is a profoundly important idea. Relations are prior to relata.

Is consciousness then not just in us but in everything that exists? This is pan experientialism, panpsychism and Ian believes that the answer to this question is ‘Yes’, and that the idea is gaining traction in the Western world, a world that would have dismissed it 20 years ago. This is a universal idea in the East. Reality conforms to what you have been taught to believe. But panpsychism has been recognised in the West by a number of different philosophers such as Heraclitus, Spinoza, Leibniz, Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Diderot.

All beings circulate through each other—thus all the species . . . everything is in a perpetual flux . . . Every animal is more or less a human being, every mineral is more or less a plant, and every plant is more or less an animal. There is nothing fixed in nature . (Diderot, D. 1769. D’Alembert’s Dream).

So, summing up this section, we can say:

  • Mind and matter have a close relationship
  • We cannot logically dismiss the existence of consciousness or matter
  • Matter and consciousness are not so distinct that they cannot interact
  • Matter and consciousness are not identical and may be aspects of one and the same reality
  • Matter and consciousness are not equal. Consciousness is prior ontologically to matter

Consciousness and life and their relationship, and whether brains play an important part in this

Here Iain adopts the position taken by Robert Rosen, that inanimacy is the limit case of animacy. The whole cosmos is animate and living; the bits that we call inanimate are those in which the characteristics of life are at a minimum. Inanimacy is the ultimate reduced case of animacy; there is not a hard and fast boundary between them. Animacy is the norm. Inanimacy has to be explained. Animacy enables processes to develop many orders of magnitude faster than they would without it and magnifies the elements of inter-responsiveness in the cosmos. There are sacrifices to being animate. Inanimate things decay a lot slower than living things; there are costs to becoming more highly evolved beings, e.g., they have relatively short lives. “Life requires cognition at all levels” (James Shapiro); cells are themselves capable of cognition; they act purposively and solve problems that they couldn’t be programmed to have a solution to.

So where do brains fit into this? Are brains necessary for awareness? The evidence suggests that neuronal complexity is not sufficient nor necessary for awareness (waking consciousness). We can lead a conscious life without a cerebellum. Slime moulds have no neurones and can solve mazes. Some people can function without brains, the space being filled instead with cerebro-spinal fluid (John Lorber). Plants can remember and make decisions (Monica Gaglioano et al. 2016) and have intentions and experientiality. Sparse neuronal connectivity is sometimes superior to dense connectivity. Complexity is not always advantageous.  By the time of birth a human brain has already lost 70% of its neuronal connections. It is becoming less credible/credited that only humans have consciousness. Consciousness is in all forms of life (Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2017, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness).

So why are there brains at all? Brains are the material counterpart of some aspect of consciousness, and they give relative permanence to it. Brains give a degree of persistence and endurance (Schopenhauer. Matter is that which persists and endures). Brains don’t have the capacity to predestine your thoughts, beliefs, or actions. They don’t know something before you do. The decision to act can be unconscious. (In relation to this see Iain’s argument reported on in this paper How a flawed experiment “proved” that free will doesn’t exist ).

How about permission and how can we relate this to the hemispheres?

Permission involves both inhibition and facilitation together. Some things are permitted, some things not. It is a sculpting process, like Michelangelo discarding stone to produce the image of David, which I have mentioned before on this blog. By discarding (by not permitting), the sculpture comes into being. Resistance as a creative act is essential. Consciousness has this role. Consciousness allows some things to come into being and filters others out, liked stained glass allows some things to come into being, because coloured glass blocks some frequencies of light. Another example is a cell membrane which is both a conductor and resistor – a semi-conductor.

Permission of consciousness is more likely than emission of consciousness from the brain. The brain becomes more powerful by shedding neurones and pruning connections. The primary function of the corpus callosum and frontal lobes is to inhibit. When people are approaching death, the filter appears to break down; a lot more might be permitted and we witness the experience of terminal lucidity. The same might occur when people take mind altering substances, which might filter the inhibitory effects of the frontal lobes of the brain. The idea of resistance is enormously important.

Reality is what it seems. We are not separated from reality; reality is not a projection on an internal screen. Our embodiment is what makes science possible, not our transcendence of it, and our imagination, not our avoidance of it. Imagination is necessary for every attempt to understand the world.

So, what is consciousness for? Consciousness is not to our purposes. We are to the purposes of consciousness. We speak the language of the cosmos and the cosmos speaks our language. The Universe is conscious. This is to make assumptions, but all models make assumptions.

How does our individual consciousness relate to this conscious universe? Iain’s preferred way is to think of waves in the sea or vortices in a stream; vortices are not separate from the stream, waves are not separate from the sea, they are there for a while, they have force, they are measurable and visible, they just are the nature of the sea or the stream for a while in that place.

What exists is locally differentiated, but ultimately a single field of potentiality which is constantly actualising itself. All is one and all is many. This is not simple unity. We need the non-duality of non-duality and duality. Each differentiation is a gestalt in itself, a new whole, not a fragment connected to the whole. This is the essence of creation, Differentiation is something not destroyed in its unity, but enriched as with the unfolding of something hitherto implicit into a new more explicit order which then re-enfolds it into an explicit whole (David Bohm writes similarly about consciousness).

Matter is a specific case of consciousness which is the primal stuff out of which the universe is made. The hemispheres attend to the world in different ways and their attention can alter the nature of reality. One is prior to the other, the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere, just as mind is prior to matter, and wave is prior to particle. Every point of view can be espoused in a left hemisphere or right hemisphere way.

This has been a difficult topic to understand and report on. It seems to me that what Iain is saying is that we need to move our attention from matter and particle (left hemisphere) to mind and wave (right hemisphere). If reality is mental and has a dual mode this is complementary to the two modes of attention of the brain hemispheres. Materialism is a product of the left hemisphere.


Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Iain McGilchrist (2021). The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World. Perspectiva Press

Source of image: The Matter with Things

Source of image: Spotlight on a stage

Source of image: The Vortex Effect

Art History 1250 – 1400

This is the first module of The National Gallery’s Stories of Art Online course. The course consists of seven modules, each lasting six weeks (and thus the course runs for a year from September to August), starting with the art of the 13th and 14th centuries, and ending with 20th and 21st century art.

I have already completed modules 2 to 7 (search under the category Art History, or the tag National Gallery on this blog for previous posts), but I missed this first module, not having been aware of it at the time, hence working on it now. It is quite a jump to go from 21st century art and, for example, the work of street artists such as Banksy, back to the 13th century and the work of Giotto.

Module 1 is being presented by Siân Walters, who is not a new face to me, since she helped out on many of the other modules by working in the background to answer participants’ questions.

Week 1: Overview

Week 1 of Module 1 started with an overview of the period. This was the introductory text provided by Siân Walters in the handout.

During the High Middle Ages, many cities in Italy began to assert their autonomy and new models of government evolved. Increased urbanisation led to a rise in art patronage: vast cathedrals were built to accommodate increasing populations and large numbers of works of art were commissioned for the decoration of churches, as well as for private devotion. In this session we will look at the context in which art patronage evolved with reference to the emergence of the mendicant orders, notably the Franciscans. We will also consider the predominant Byzantine style of the 1200s and early 1300s and the influence of non-Western culture on Marian iconography, such as the cult of the Black Madonna.

I am not going to write about this overview, but instead focus on what was most interesting for me in this week, which was the recognition that art history did not start with the Renaissance, but that the Renaissance was influenced by the art that preceded it. Particularly interesting for me was how influential was the work of Giotto, who changed the course of art history and has been called ‘The Father of Western painting’.

Giotto’s influence in this period cannot be overestimated. He was brought up under the influence of Byzantine art, but unlike the flat, iconic, stylized painting of that tradition, Giotto’s work was realistic and three dimensional. His incredibly expressive paintings were an absolute revelation in terms of his approach to narrative and execution. No-one had seen work that was so realistic and tangible in the early 1300s. Giotto was a wonderful storyteller and a great innovation was his emphasis on human emotion.

Giotto was the first artist since Roman times to employ perspective in the way he did, and he was the first artist to use a cropping device (see the cropped figure on the left in his painting of The Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate). Siân Walters also suggested that Giotto drew some inspiration from sculpture and the way folds in clothing was depicted in sculpture. This was a common way of working 100 years later in the 1400s, but not in the time of Giotto.

There was of course a lot, lot more in this first week of the course than I am covering here, and many, many more slides. We considered key forms of patronage in this period, looked at the historical, social, and political background in Italy at this time, considered how sacred and secular artworks functioned in different ways, and examined how painting developed stylistically from early works under Byzantine influence to later paintings by Giotto. I have focussed on Giotto, who was a revelation to the art world of the 13th century, but also a revelation to me in the 21st century.

Week 2: Artist in Focus: Duccio

The 1300s was the Golden Age of Sienese painting. Its leading artist Duccio di Buoninsegna was one of the most innovative and influential figures in Western art, introducing a new naturalism and interest in space, structure and emotion which would bridge the gap between the Byzantine idiom and a new, modern style. In 1311, he completed the city’s most famous altarpiece, the Maestà, for Siena Cathedral and a number of its panels can now be found in the National Gallery. (Text from the course handout)

The Maestà is a very large work, 7ft x 13ft, which Duccio, according to the terms of his contract was expected to work on alone, although Siân Walters thought this must have been impossible. It was a huge undertaking, not only in terms of its size (it consists of 59 panels), but also because it was painted on the front (for the congregation) and the back (for the clergy).

Duccio was working at the same time as Giotto, but Giotto became more famous, perhaps because Giotto worked in Florence and Duccio in Siena, and also perhaps because Giorgio Vasari, a 16th century art historian best known for his ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects’,  mistakenly attributed some of Duccio’s work to his teacher Cimabue. There is not a lot of documentary evidence of Duccio’s life, but from surviving documents we know that he was a headstrong individual, who at times was in trouble with the law.

Despite not being as famous as Giotto, Duccio was famous in Siena and was paid 3000 gold coins for Maestà, which was an astronomical sum at the time.

Both Duccio and Giotto brought a more human approach to painting. Their style was more realistic than other painters of their time, as can be seen from the comparison of their work with that of Cimabue in the image above.

The work of Duccio and Giotto, as can be seen from the images posted, made extensive use of gold leaf. In the second half of this week’s session we were taken on a private, virtual visit to the art studio of Marco Caratelli in Siena, who showed us how he replicates the work of the great Sienese masters, such as Duccio, and the techniques he uses including the application of gold leaf.

Marco’s ‘bible’ is Cennino Cennini’s ‘The Craftsman’s Handbook’, published over 600 years ago, which describes how artists of the time applied gold leaf. The book can still be bought online. This short video gives you a flavour of what we saw https://youtu.be/PTbBCjCv3vg which was fascinating. Such patience is needed!

Week 3: Symbols

The key question this week was ‘How can we decipher a painting through its symbols?’ The focus was on iconography and the language of symbols in the 13th and 14th centuries. Iconography is essential to the study of the history of art and the language of symbols changes over time, but in the 13th and 14th centuries, when illiteracy rates were high, paintings were made to speak to the people and the use of symbolism meant that they could be more easily understood. For example, a dove in a painting represents the Holy Spirit, a lily represents purity and chastity, and the halo is a symbol of holiness. Colours were also used as symbols; gold represents divinity and purple represents royalty. Figures in paintings can often be identified by the colour of their clothing; the Virgin Mary is often painted in blue and read, St. Peter in blue and gold. Siân Walters devised a number of polls for this session. Here are screenshots of two of them.

As well as being shown a number of slides of paintings which include symbols, quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at Margarito d’Arezzo’s painting, The Virgin and Child Enthroned, which is full of symbolism and narrative. Note the mandorla (the almond shape enclosing the Virgin Mary) which symbolises eternity. This is one of the very few signed paintings of the era. Margarito was a prolific and very important artist in the 13th century who drew on sculpture and byzantine painting for inspiration and was a wonderful storyteller. Painted around 1263, this is the oldest picture in the National Gallery’s collection.

In the second hour of Week 3, Peter Schade, Head of Framing at the National Gallery introduced us to the stylistic evolution and the development of the frames of the National Gallery’s paintings. He described how he sources, creates, and adapts examples which complement the paintings historically. Here is an example of a frame he is working on. Nardo di Cione, Three Saints – about 1363-65

And here is a short video which gives a taste of what Peter’s work involves: https://youtu.be/1sR2g9dN9dM

Week 4: Context

This week the question raised was ‘How do paintings function differently in museums from their original locations?’ ‘Most of the works commissioned during the Medieval and early Renaissance period were designed for worship and yet very few of them remain in their original location, calling into question how we can interpret and view these works in a museum context’ (text from Siân Walters’ handout). Many of the works of this period were designed to be seen in dark churches and lit by candlelight. They were also designed as altar pieces to be hung high up, so that the view of them could not be obscured. If the centre of the painting was going to be obscured by a large cross on the altar, then that section of the painting included very little detail and no content of importance. 

A lot of these paintings were very large, often with many panels. In the 1700s and 1800s, when the monasteries and convents were suppressed, many of these paintings were split up and the panels dispersed. There is evidence of this in Bernardo Daddi’s , The Coronation of the Virgin, c.1340-5. National Gallery. Room 60, where a digital reconstruction by Rachel Billinge, shows how the painting has lost some of its original content.

Some exhibitions try to bring the dispersed panels together again, as in the case of Jacopo di Cione’s The San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece and workshop,1370-1. National Gallery. Room 60

We also looked at Duccio’s, Maestà Predella Panels, c. 1307/8-11. National Gallery. Room 52, in relation to this week’s topic of context. This is what is written on the National Gallery’s website about this work:

There are different ideas as to the location of this high altar and why the altarpiece was double sided, but it is likely that the congregation had access to both sides. By 1506 the Maestà had been removed from the high altar and in the late eighteenth century it was sawn in half, causing damage to the Virgin’s face. Some fragments were sold and are now scattered across international collections; a few are now missing. The majority of it remains to be seen in the Museo dell’opera del Duomo in Siena.

Another work where knowledge of the original location helps in understanding its function is Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze’s, The Virgin and Child with Ten Saints, c.1365-70. National Gallery. Room 51

Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze The Virgin and Child with Ten Saints about 1365-70 Egg tempera on wood, 28 x 105.8 cm Presented by Mrs Richard F.P. Blennerhassett, 1940 NG5115 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG5115

And I wasn’t aware before this session of Bonaiuto da Firenze’s amazing frescoes in the Spanish Chapel, 1365-7, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. I hope I will be able to see these in situ one day.

From all this it is clear that museums and galleries, such as the National Gallery, have their work cut out for them in trying to display their paintings as authentically as possibly. It is limited in what you can do in a gallery environment, but digital visualization techniques are beginning to help address some of the problems. See for example the Hidden Florence website for a flavour of how the locations, in which some of these paintings originally hung, can be recreated.

Week 5: Technique

The first half of Week 5 was led by Siân Walters, and the second half by Rachel Billinge, Research Associate in the National Gallery’s Conservation Department.

Siân Walters explored the ways in which art was created during the Medieval and early Renaissance period, focussing on two main techniques, egg tempera and fresco, as well as the development of oil painting in Northern Europe. She referred again to Cennino Cennini’s book, The Craftsman’s Handbook, as the source of practical advice, and guide to techniques used in this period.

Egg tempera was a technique used in most early Italian panel paintings. Colours were mixed with water and then bound (tempered) with a glutinous water-soluble bind medium, usually egg yolk. There are five stages to the egg tempera technique.

1. The wood panel is prepared by a joiner; the type of wood depends on what is available

2. The wood is smoothed with Gesso

3. The preparatory drawing is made on the surface of the panel

4. The preparatory drawing is covered with Bole (a kind of red clay used as a preparatory layer prior to the application of gold leaf in panel paintings)

5. Pigment bound with egg is applied to the areas of the drawing not to be gilded. Very fine brushes were used to do this, often made of squirrel fur. Lapis Lazuli was a very expensive pigment at the time, more expensive than gold, and a common pigment was terre-verte, applied under skin tones. Paintings from the 1300s, in which skin tones now appear green, would have had pink skin tones at the time. The pink has now faded to reveal the green underneath.

Both Jacopo di Cione and workshop’s The San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece and Duccio’s The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea, were made using the egg tempera technique.

The term fresco [Italian: affresco] means fresh because the paint is applied on a fresh and wet layer of plaster, with the pigments dissolving into the lime water. As both the paint and plaster dry, they integrate completely. The pigment is absorbed and becomes part of the wall, rather than simply adhering to the surface as with other painting techniques. With the true fresco or buon fresco technique, the artist must apply his colours onto the wet plaster as soon as it has been prepared and laid on to the wall.  (Text from Siân Walters’ handout).

As for the egg tempera technique, we were taken through the steps of how to create a buon fresco, and there was also some discussion of fresco secco, how fresco artists used cartoons to transfer their drawings to the prepared plaster, and how sections of plaster were worked on within specific time durations before the plaster dried (usually a day, Giornata). This image below shows how if you look carefully at a fresco, you can see the different sections that were painted on different days after fresh plaster had been applied to the section.

Simone Martini, Guidoriccio da Fogliano 1328, Sala del Consiglio, Palazzo Pubblico Siena (showing the different giornata)

Also discussed were the different techniques used by conservators today to remove frescoes from their original locations. (Three techniques are used, stacco a massello, stacco and strappo).

I have discovered that there are many videos on YouTube which explain fresco techniques used in different eras. This one below is specific to the era that this module covers and covers what we were told about fresco creation in medieval times. It is 17 minutes long, in Italian with English and French subtitles.

Oil painting also existed before the 1400s, in Flanders and in England. Linseed oil was used in the 13th century painting of the Westminster Abbey altarpiece.

In the second half of this session, Rachel Billinge took us beneath the surface of The Wilton Diptych to explore what cannot be seen with the naked eye. This was magical to see.

The Khan Academy has produced an informative 6 minute video about this diptych, and we were given a lot of information about the diptych, how it was created (egg tempera on wood) and the symbolism within the diptych, which I do not have time or space to cover here.

But here are some of the wonderful images that Rachel Billinge has captured through her microscope.

As ever, there was far too much covered in this week to record here, but hopefully this gives a flavour of the wonderful content of this module.

Week 6: Women and society

Whilst this is Week 6 of Module 1 of the National Gallery’s Stories of Art Online course, as mentioned before I have already completed Modules 2 to 7. Through these 7 modules the National Gallery has noticeably tried to include reference to women artists and to artists of colour. This week was introduced by Siân Walters as follows:

Studying the art of the period 1250-1400, we could be forgiven for thinking that nearly all works produced were commissioned and paid for by men. Yet in recent years, historians have found more evidence of women acting independently. In this session, we consider their roles. What kinds of women were able to transgress gender boundaries and commission works of art? How were women depicted in paintings of the period and what does this tell us about their place in society? We also examine representations of female saints and the iconography of the Virgin Mary.” (Text from Siân Walters’ handout.)

It seems that this effort by the National Gallery to increase its representation of women’s work is much needed. Currently less than 0.5% of paintings in the National Gallery are by women and there are only 12 pieces of work by women in the permanent collection that are on view.

In addition, a number of the works of art were not acquired by the National Gallery but were bequests. In the same vein, in 2018 Sotheby sold 1000+ works of art by male artists, but fewer than 15 by women. This is beginning to change but more needs to be done and more research into why this is the case is also needed.

Despite the situation today, there is evidence that there were lots of women artists in medieval times. “In 1360, Boccaccio began work on De mulieribus claris, a book offering biographies of one hundred and six famous women, that he completed in 1374.” An example is seen in the painting below:

This work by Boccaccio and a closer look at medieval paintings shows that women at the time were a lot more independent than in later times and their roles were more varied. They were soldiers, builders, doctors, teachers, spinners, brewers, textile workers and guild members.

Women fighting to defend Castle, from Giovanni Boccaccio, Des cléres et noble femmes (Concerning Famous Women), Spencer Collection MS. 33, f.63v, French c. 1470, New York Public Library, New York

Women were also patrons. Can you see the patron depicted in the painting below, the small figure at the bottom right of the painting?

Anon Sienese artist, The Virgin and Child with donatrix Madonna Muccia, c.1320, Lucignano, Val di Chiana.

Despite all this, women still had to contend with criticism from men, and this criticism grew in Renaissance times which promoted a patriarchal society, pushing women out of the guilds and often depicting the Virgin Mary as a scarlet woman, and Eve as the source of all evil.

Once again, there was far more in this week’s content than I have space to report on here, particularly in relation to the iconography of the Virgin Mary and how she was represented during medieval times.

This is the final week in this module. It has been a surprise to me how much I enjoyed this module and how interesting I found it. I will now be much more likely to visit the sections of art galleries that have medieval work on display.

The Sense of the Sacred. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

[Indra’s Net]

The penultimate talk given by Iain McGilchrist at the 2021 Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, was ‘The Sense of the Sacred’. This is also the title of the final chapter (Chapter 28, which Ian has called his ‘God’ chapter) of his new book The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, due to be published on November 9th.

The purpose of the new book is to try and answer Plotinus’ question, ‘Who are We?’  What is the world and what are we to make of the cosmos and our place in it? The whole book and even, I would say, the Master and His Emissary describes a journey taken in quest of answering this question ‘Who are We?’ and ultimately ends up with the conviction (but not the only one) that we and our world lack a sense of the sacred.

A friend, who also attended the Field&Field conference, commented that he was impressed by how Iain developed his argument through the series of talks that we listened to, and Iain himself said that he had attempted to unfold the argument.  The titles of these talks, each lasting an hour, were:

  1. Introduction to the hemispheres/The Matter with Things
  2. Brain disorders of the hemispheres
  3. What is language for?
  4. The value and limits of science
  5. The value and limits of reason
  6. The value and limits of intuition
  7. The value and limits of imagination
  8. The coincidence of opposites
  9. The one and the many
  10. The nature of time
  11. Matter and consciousness
  12. What are values
  13. The sense of the sacred
  14. Closing thoughts

This would suggest that I should start with the first talk and work through them in making these posts, as I have done in the past (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/the-divided-brain/). But I also anticipate that one difference between this new book, The Matter with Things (TMWT), and the Master and His Emissary (TMAHE), is that it will be easier to dip into the new book, reading chapters independently of each other. So, I am starting with the final talk, which was completely new to me. I am already familiar with some of the content of most of the others, but I also hope to write about some of the other talks if time allows. Some (those that have links) I have already written about in the past, but I may expand on them.

At this point I should say that anything written here is my interpretation of what Iain said and should not be taken as evidence of what he actually said. We each hear things differently according to our own contexts, on top of which, as I get older my ability to make accurate notes at speed has significantly deteriorated!

In giving this talk Iain used no slides, making the point that the sacred cannot be represented. He acknowledged that it is paradoxical to write and talk about something that cannot be expressed in words, something that we do not know or understand. He explained that what he means by a sense of the sacred is the gravitational pull towards the ineffable, a wordless reaching out, the spiritual aspect of being human. To be human is to feel this deep gravitational pull to something ineffable. If we can just get beyond words and reasons, we can reach out wordlessly to something outside our conceptual grasp but nonetheless present to us, to a whole range of unfathomable experiences which we call spiritual.

The thrust of Iain’s argument is that in our modern world we are fast losing any sense of the sacred, and that this is detrimental to understanding who we are and our place in the cosmos. Iain’s understanding of this comes through his work on brain lateralisation, which has led him to suggest that we now live in a world dominated by the narrowly focussed, grabbing, and getting left hemisphere, which doesn’t understand the sacred. The left hemisphere analyses things, takes them apart and expresses everything reductively in language. It doesn’t see wholes. It sees things in categories wanting to compare one thing with another, but there is nothing with which the sacred, the divine, can be compared. The sense of the sacred cannot be expressed in language. We should not speak the name of God. God is not understandable, not a thing.  God can only be recognised by the right hemisphere, the hemisphere that sees the whole and tolerates ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox. The left hemisphere is a very good servant (Emissary), but it should never be the Master, which is the role of the right hemisphere. (For the scientific evidence that supports this argument, see the first part of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World).

What can we call this profound experience for which we have no words? Whatever we call it is going to be potentially misleading. Different cultures call it something different. We in the West call it God, the name for something that gives rise to everything in the Universe. But as soon as we have the name, we think we have understood it. We have to hang on to the realisation that we have not understood it. The name of God is the unnameable name, or as St. Augustine said, if you understand it, then it’s not God you have understood.

There are also problems with understanding what belief is. In the modern world after several years of analytical philosophy, belief has been taken to mean assent to various propositions, but belief is not propositional, it is dispositional. How we are disposed to the world determines what we find in the world. Attention is the way you dispose consciousness. Just because belief is dispositional it’s not baseless or irrational. It’s transitional. Belief relates to love as a disposition towards the world. Belief is a relationship, not a thing but a betweenness, but it is not in the space between, it’s in the whole. Religions speak in images, parables, and paradoxes because there is no other way of grasping the reality to which they refer, but it is still a genuine reality.

So, what does a belief in God entail? What disposition would we have to adopt? We cannot approach it with the left hemisphere. Instead, it requires

  • Being open to something Other, active receptivity and being the devil’s advocate
  • Listening and attending
  • Accepting uncertainty, the new and unexpected, and tolerating ambiguity
  • Seeing limits to knowledge
  • Knowing in terms of Kennen rather than Wissen
  • Recognising the power of unknowing and not doing
  • Being open and receptive to paradox
  • Being able to apprehend betweenness, not just an assemblage of entities but a web of relationships
  • Relying on indirect metaphorical expression
  • Accepting that both contradictory elements might be true
  • Seeing continuous processes rather than a succession of things or isolated events
  • Appreciating the gestalt, the cohesive whole
  • Entering into I-Thou relation, not just I-It
  • Valuing empathy and vulnerability
  • Sustaining attention and stilling the inner voice
  • Accepting that relations are prior to relata. As with Indra’s net, the net begins with connections and only becomes a net after lots of connections have been made. You can’t start with things and then say how they are related because the way things are related tells you what they are
  • Seeing that spirit and body are not distinct or opposed, but different aspects of the same being. This is necessary for sustaining emotional depth

The right hemisphere is much better at all these things, at mindfulness and stilling the monkey mind to appreciate the reality we experience. The left hemisphere’s understanding of God is that belief needs organisation, hierarchies, laws etc. as is seen in militant atheism and religious fundamentalism, which both these see black and white categories, and believe the ‘Word’ to be infallible, reflecting the left hemisphere’s approach to the world and its focus on analysis and argument. The left hemisphere wants everything to be cut and dried, to be certain, to be structured and expressed in written language. This leads to theological disputation. Militant atheism and religious fundamentalism are mirror images of one another. The great divide is not between believers and agnostics, but between militant atheists and militant believers. Both express the left hemisphere’s view of certainty. More and more we see their narcissistic self-righteousness, accompanied, as reformations always were, by destruction of paintings, images, art and beauty, and the banishment of humour. We saw this in the 17th century Puritans and we are seeing it again today in our own lifetime.

The power of unknowing and not doing is a very important idea in Chinese philosophy, but also in the neglected Western tradition of medieval mysticism. Meister Eckhart writes of this unknowing as the fruitful darkness in which we dwell. He called this darkness a loving and open receptiveness which however in no way lacks being. It is a receptive potential by means of which all is accomplished. It is in the darkness that one finds the light.

In ethical terms the right hemisphere places huge emphasis on empathy and vulnerability. The left hemisphere is not good at this. The right hemisphere recognises the dark side to human consciousness and doesn’t try to deny or repress it. It is capable of understanding that good may emerge from suffering which is not necessarily negative (as Viktor Frankl recognised), but obviously we try to avoid suffering.

Iain describes himself as a Panentheist, not a Pantheist who believes that all things are God and God is all things; a Panentheist believes that all things are in God, and everything is in God, which suggests a process. Panentheism is very much a processual vision of the world in which the world comes into being within the overarching veil of whatever it is we cannot name that is above it. Wordsworth talks about this in his poem Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth was a Panentheist.  Iain acknowledges that Rowan Williams and others are not enamoured of processual theology, but Iain himself sees it everywhere. In the Old Testament God appears to Moses in the burning bush and says, ‘I am that I am’, which in Hebrew translates as ‘I will be what I will be’. In the story of Creation, God looked and saw that it was good, i.e., not previously determined, not yet decided, but genuinely coming into being, genuinely being created.  Similar is the Christian idea that the Word was made flesh. In Greek this translates as the Word became flesh, rather than was made, which in turn is similar to the familiar Christian words, ‘Begotten not made’, i.e., not put together. Meister Eckhart writes of a constant emanating presence. The becoming is a constant longing and its fulfilment. David Bohm in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order writes about things unfolding their potential. This is how Iain sees the creation, as the world constantly unfolding into an infinite number of possible instantiations. David Bohm believes that it is then re-enfolded. There is a constant process of folding, unfolding and then re-enfolding. God and creation are enfolded together (implicatio), unfolded (explicatio) and then re-enfolded (complicatio). A.N Whitehead has written that the world and God bring each other into existence. The Jewish creation myth in the Kabbalah describes this process.

[Kintsugi: The Japanese art of repairing broken porcelain to make it something greater and more beautiful than before. In the Kabbalah myth humanity plays an important part, because little sparks of the divine are in all the broken pieces, and our role is to put these parts together, so we have a positive role to play in creation.]

The three phases of the Kabbalah creation myth relate to the way the world comes into being through the interaction of the hemispheres.

One of the reasons for having religions is constantly to remind us of a broader context of another order which is a moral order, not just a rational one; a network of obligations to other humans, to the earth and to the Other that lies beyond, extending beyond our lives in space and time, but rooted firmly in spaces, places, practices and the here and now. This is the sense of the sacred. Without it this sense of the sacred risks being dissipated. Trust depends on shared beliefs. Religion is the manifestation of that trust and the embedding of it into the fabric of daily life. It embodies an awareness of God in the world through myths, narratives, symbols, rituals, and holy places. The world cannot afford to lose this stream of wisdom. Both hemispheres are important for this but the left hemisphere must serve the right.

There are many myths and fables in many languages, like the story of the Master and his Emissary, about a force that gets above itself (in this case the left hemisphere). Recently, Iain has spoken a number of times of the 9th century Chinese text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, in this context. (I managed to find the whole text online – https://terebess.hu/keletkultinfo/Cleary-Thomas-Secret-of-the-Golden-Flower.pdf – and this short article helps to introduce the text – The ancient secret of the Golden Flower is a simple way to improve your whole life). Iain quotes from the text to illustrate another example of where a servant (in this case the general) usurps authority, not knowing what it is doing.

The conscious mind is like a violent general of a strong fiefdom controlling things from a distance, until the sword is turned around. (The Secret of the Golden Flower, Chapter 2, p.14)

The left hemisphere grabs but doesn’t understand. Understanding is from the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere has driven out a lot of what we need to understand the world. It’s view of the world is abstracted, disembodied, fixed, certain, general, represented, explicit and inanimate. For the left hemisphere the world is represented as a map. The left hemisphere is a bureaucrat’s dream. The right hemisphere sees the world being mapped as a whole, flowing, uncertain, implicit, unique, animate, and embodied. The right hemisphere is a bureaucrat’s nightmare.

But the world is paradoxical. The right hemisphere understands this and that opposites might both be true. Paradox is the conflict between what the right and left hemispheres see, but trust depends on shared beliefs, and religion is a manifestation of trust. Both hemispheres are important.

Interestingly I have heard Iain say a number of times that he does not follow a particular religion, although he draws a lot from Christianity and Daoism. So, I don’t think he is advocating a particular religion as a way of addressing the ills of the world. My understanding is that he has looked at a number of religions to find the common teachings that might help us understand who we are and our place in the cosmos and has concluded that a sense of the scared is essential to this.


Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Iain McGilchrist (2021). The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World. Perspectiva Press

Iain McGilchrist (2021). Hemispheric Asymmetry and the Approach to the Divine. Iain Ramsey Centre. https://youtu.be/qtArjSgM2I8

Source of image: Indra’s net –  https://focuspocusnow.com/2014/11/23/indras-net/

Source of Image: Kintsugi – https://asiatrend.org/arts/kintsugi-the-japanese-art-of-fixing-broken-pottery/