‘Betweenness’ : a way of being in the world

At the beginning of this year my colleague Mariana Funes and I published a paper in which we argued for ‘both/and’ thinking, as opposed to ‘either/or’. We did this in the context of open, online education environments, which we suggested can be both inclusive and exclusive. This was our abstract:

Open education aspires to democratize education, promote inclusion and effect change through social justice. These aspirations are difficult to realise in open, online environments, which enable multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives. This paper proposes a counter-narrative that surfaces certain operational norms of the internet and foregrounds their exclusionary nature. We offer an illustrative inventory of some social media interactional patterns to examine communication used in open online education communities. This examination leads us to conclude that language online is subject to a dialectical tension that both includes and excludes. We conclude that a different language is needed in open online educational environments; one that embraces exclusionary structures and strategic ambiguity, as well as the aspirations to further democratise education via digital means.

Mariana Funes & Jenny Mackness (2018) When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, 43:2, 119 138, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638

(See also https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/when-inclusion-excludes/)

In the paper, we examine online communication patterns in open education environments and find them to be subject to dialectical tensions. We quote Gibbs et al. (2013, 106) as saying that “dialectical tensions have been found to be productive in enabling the accomplishment of multiple goals since they enable organizational members to creatively attend to both poles of the opposition by transforming or transcending it and embracing both alternatives as ‘both-and’ options (Putnam & Boys 2006)”.

Whilst the idea of ‘both/and’ thinking is not new, it does seem particularly relevant in this post-truth age of intolerance for ambiguity and alternative perspectives, where ‘either/or’ thinking seems to dominate. Iain McGilchrist, author of ‘The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’, considers this to be one of the results of the increasing dominance of a left-hemisphere view of the world in our current civilisation. On p.137 of his book he writes:

‘If one had to characterise the left hemisphere by reference to one governing principle it would be that of division. Manipulation and use require clarity and fixity, and clarity and fixity require separation and division. What is moving and seamless, a process, becomes static and separate – things. It is the hemisphere of ‘either/or’: clarity yields sharp boundaries.’

By contrast a right-hemisphere view of the world is one which embraces, complexity, uncertainty, and  ambiguity.  (For an introduction, but necessarily over-simplistic description of the differences between right and left hemisphere views of the world, according to McGilchrist, see this blog post. Better still watch this video.)

‘Both/and’ thinking requires accepting that opposite poles might actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent as suggested by Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy, and embracing paradox as depicted by Escher in his Drawing Hands lithograph.

Escher’s lithograph is one that Iain McGilchrist often uses to discuss the paradox of linear analysis. He writes: (p.134, The Master and his Emissary). ‘The paradox applies to how we get to know anything, but is particularly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very process whereby knowledge itself comes into being.’

If it is difficult to determine how we know something, it’s interesting to consider how, when and why ‘either/or’ thinking would be appropriate.

Implicit in McGilchrist’s writing is the suggestion that ‘both/and’ thinking is characteristic of a view of the world in which opposite poles (where subjective and objective appear as fundamentally asymmetrical, separate ways of being), are held in suspension; a world where there is ‘betweenness’.

It is this idea of ‘betweenness’ that intrigues me. What does it mean? How can we recognise it? In talking about ‘betweenness’, McGilchrist seems to go beyond the complementarity of separate poles, to thinking about a world of ‘togetherness’ and intersubjectivity, rather than one of competition and bias; a world where we transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism (p.144, The Master and his Emissary). This is a world which focusses on the relations between things, reciprocity and empathy, where knowledge comes through a relationship. From this perspective ‘belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of ‘responsibility’ (p.170, The Master and his Emissary).

Betweenness does not deny our distinctness as individuals. ‘Betweenness is being able to share in the character of the Other and feel separateness from it’ (p.363, The Master and his Emissary). My interpretation is that a world view that acknowledges ‘betweenness’ enables a ‘both/and’ sort of arrangement. For me, McGilchrist best describes ‘betweenness’ when writing about music.

‘Music consists entirely of relations, ‘betweenness’. The notes mean nothing in themselves: the tensions between the notes, and between notes and the silence with which they live in reciprocal indebtedness, are everything. Melody, harmony and rhythm each lie in the gaps, and yet the betweenness is only what it is because of the notes themselves. Actually the music is not just in the gaps any more than it is just in the notes: it is in the whole that the notes and the silence make together. Each note becomes transformed by the context in which it lies. What we mean by music is not just any agglomeration of notes, but one in which the whole created is powerful enough to make each note live in a new way, a way that it had never done before.’ (p.72, The Master and his Emissary).

It’s important to stress that I am not suggesting that there is never any need for ‘either/or’ thinking, nor that a right hemisphere view of the world, which seems to embrace a ‘both/and’ approach, is the only view. As McGilchrist stresses ‘Both hemispheres clearly play crucial roles in the experience of each human individual, and … both have contributed importantly to our culture. Each needs the other.’ (p.6, The Master and his Emissary).

We need  ‘either/or’ and ‘both/and’ thinking, but these are currently out of balance. We seem to live in a world dominated by ‘either/or’ thinking. The question is how to promote more ‘both/and’ thinking and how to acknowledge ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world.

10 thoughts on “‘Betweenness’ : a way of being in the world

  1. ggoldbergmd October 2, 2018 / 11:33 pm

    This is an incredibly important entry, Jenny. The issue is very effectively addressed, I think, in the architectonic philosophical system of Charles Sanders Peirce. I cannot go into a lot of detail here, but the issue is a tolerance for ‘vagueness’ when one considers the universe as fundamentally relational and context-dependent. I am just reading a paper by Lee Smolin, theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo ON, called ‘Temporal Relationalism’ that addresses this question from the perspective of basic theoretical physics. If we view time as fundamental and, critically, real and continuous, with space being a derived component, then things tend to fall into place.

    Here is a link to this paper for those who may be interested… https://arxiv.org/abs/1805.12468
    The ideas are connected to a much larger and extensive proposal for a ‘temporal naturalism’ which is the concept of a foundation for science, for understanding the natural world, that is based on the recognition of time as real and continuous–an idea this is referenced in this paper and is developed by Lee Smolin and Roberto Unger in a co-authored book called ‘The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time’…


    What is deeply fascinating is that this extends back in philosophical history to a fundamental difference in approach between Isaac Newton and his German contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz…


    which hinges on the assumptions of relationalism (Leibniz) versus nominalism (Newton). And, in the context of Iain McGilchrist’s conceptual approach, one might say that, while Newton was ‘leaning toward the left hemisphere’ ( the so-called ‘dominant’ hemisphere that, in reality, is the ‘Emissary’ ) which sees the world as completely separated and distinct from the observer (and consciousness) and thus opens to the nominalistic and non-relational world-view of the left ‘dominant’ hemisphere, Leibniz (like Goethe, as well) was ‘leaning toward the right hemisphere’ ( the so-called ‘non-dominant’ hemisphere that, in reality, is the ‘Master’ ).

    Taken from this perspective, one can draw a direct line from Newton to Einstein in that Einstein was simply making modifications on the Newtonian ‘block universe’ conceptualization with his theories of special and general relativity, and one can draw a direct line from Leibniz to Bergson who rejected the ‘spatialization of time’ that the ‘block universe’ conceptualization required, in which time is conceived as a physical measurable quantity that is understood in terms of the spatial distance traveled by a point moving at a known constant velocity. So, for example, a point traveling at one meter per second will measure a second out each time it changes position by one meter. Equivalently, one can count the number of oscillations of a natural oscillating mechanism with a known period, like, for example, a Caesium-133 isotope atom–which is the foundation for the so-called ‘atomic clock’…


    But this approach to defining what time is IS AN ABSTRACTION that takes space as fundamental and derives time from it. The problem is that we then think that this abstraction is real–an example of what Alfred North Whitehead called the ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness’ when we reify an abstract idea. The problem also, from a basic physics perspective, is that it does not allow for a unified field theory that includes an explanation for the existence of ‘quantum gravity.’ Which was something that Einstein struggled with all of the remainder of his life. Why is gravitational force the elusive exception? I really don’t know the answer to that question. But I suspect that it relates to this distinction between the ‘timeless naturalism’ of the nominalistic left-hemispheric understanding and the ‘temporal naturalism’ of a relationalistic right-hemisipheric understanding. Gravity must somehow be related to the reality of a temporal continuum that is fundamental, with space as derivative–which is the perspective of the ‘Master’ right hemisphere, as distinct from vice versa, which is the dominant worldview of modernity–yeah, the one that is taking us down the veritable rabbit-hole to ‘wonderland’–a place dominated by the ‘Way of Separation’ of the ‘Emissary’ of McGilchrist that is on a path to annihilation.

    And this approach of the ‘Way of Separation’ effectively breaks up the temporal continuum into a sequence of separated snapshots each at a distinct separated point in time. Which then gives rise to the ‘either/or’ restriction of binary logic and it also gives rise to the ‘Law of Non-Contradiction’–which effectively negates the possibility of ‘betweenness’ or ‘vagueness’. And it gives rise to the ‘motion paradoxes’–for example, the famous Turtle versus Achilles Race paradox posed by Zeno of Elea…. See: https://www.iep.utm.edu/zeno-par/

    In this left-hemispheric view, the world is strictly split either into black or into white–there is NO grey zone. For me to be right, you MUST be wrong! Do you see how this might actually lead civilization down a veritable rabbit-hole? Into a world of conflict and separation where humans see themselves as purely observers of nature but NOT as an elemental and highly dependent and deeply interconnected part of the natural world. Charles Eisenstein calls this the ‘Way of Separation’ (referred to above) and, while it has provided the foundation for the advancement of logical positivism and scientism in terms of helping us to understand nature and the universe as a material-based mechanism, put together from elemental parts, and has allowed us to build very complex and elaborate tools and machines in the progressive march of technology, it has left us struggling with existential global difficulties that i do not need to enumerate. We need to come back into balance and understand that we are living organisms that are fundamentally relational and are deeply embedded into the natural world, as much as we would like to think that we are so smart that we can somehow exist isolated in our dwelling-places without needing to depend on the rest of nature. We really need a ‘new story’, as Charles Eisenstein maintains in his new book on Climate Change….


    We need to shift back toward the ‘Way of Inter-being’ and away from the ‘Way of Separation,’ bringing the two hemispheres back into a constructive alignment where the ‘Master’ is restored to her rightful place of preeminence, and her ‘Emissary’ returns to recognizing his role as servant to his Master.

    As Charles Eisenstein puts it, we really need to ‘flip the script’ from egoic nominalism, the ‘Way of Separation’, back to empathic relationalism, the ‘Way of Inter-being.’

  2. Anonymous October 3, 2018 / 10:41 am

    Dear Jenny

    It is amazing that just when I was re-reading Mariana’s and your article ‘When Inclusion Excludes’, I saw your tweet linking to your blog post above. You may be pleased to hear that I am quoting your article as a notable exception to dominant discourses about ‘open’ in teachers’ Twitter-based professional development in my thesis,

    I have discovered connections between the article and your blog post with my own research, and see my reply as an opening, an invitation for further discussion within this medium and across other media (possibly Skype again?).

    ‘Betweenness’ is related to the concepts of ‘rhizome’ and ‘becoming’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). ‘Betweenness’ is a counter-narrative to the idea of identity, a constant process of transitioning that pertains to humans and non-humans.

    Clarke and Parsons (2013) draw on Deleuzo-Guattarian thinking and discuss the negative effects of binary thinking in their article ‘Becoming Rhizome Researchers’ (Google provides a direct link to the pdf). The authors offer six principles that can help educational researchers breaking binary thinking to become rhizome researchers. In their sixth principle ‘Rhizome researchers desire a life of becoming rather than copying what is seen (haeccity and multiplicity)” Clarke and Parsons quote Deleuze, who stated that “In a multiplicity what counts are not…the elements, but what there is between, the between, a site of relations, which are not separable from each other.” (Deleuze, 2002, p, viii).

    It seems to me that the “Way of inter-being” you are arguing for in your blog post is a different way of describing a relational way of being. This connects well with (a) Deleuzo-Guattarian becoming(s), where human subjectivities are produced through and within workings of continuously changing and rhizomatically moving assemblages of humans and non-humans, which I offer as a counter-narrative to existing concepts that seek to explain teachers’ Twitter-based PD.

    I am looking forward to our next exchange(s) and will now provide my thoughts about your and Mariana’s article underneath the blog page where you posted the article, as promised about six months ago.;)

    Warm wishes

  3. Anonymous October 3, 2018 / 10:53 am

    Dear ggoldbergmd and Jenny,

    I have just realised that the idea of a “Way of Inter-being” was expressed by ggoldbergmd and not be you, Jenny. Sorry about the mistake!

    However, my misquoting could also be seen as yet another attempt at connecting and as an offer to continue this discussion. 😉


  4. jennymackness October 3, 2018 / 3:40 pm

    Hi Gary and Martina. Thank you both for your comments.

    What I am finding interesting from all this is the question of whether these ideas of ‘betweenness’ (McGilchrist), vagueness (Peirce), inter-being (Eisenstein) and becoming (Deleuze and Guattari) are different ways of saying the same thing, or are actually expressing different lines of thinking.

    I have noted that McGilchrist, whose writing on betweenness I have been exploring, doesn’t mention either Peirce or Deleuze and Guattari. He doesn’t mention Eisenstein either, but this might be because Eisenstein came on the scene too late for inclusion in McGilchrist’s book. I don’t believe that this would be an oversight by McGilchrist, but must have been a choice and it’s interesting to speculate on what might have informed that choice. I would need to read more about each author, before I could make further comment.

    Thanks for the reference to Clarke and Parson’s article Martina, which I have (all marked up) in my Mendeley library and which we referenced briefly in our paper – The rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. It was good to be reminded of it.

    And thanks Gary for giving me another nudge to look at the work of Eisenstein.

  5. John Mackness October 3, 2018 / 5:39 pm

    The notion of betweennness and things not being either-or but both-and reminded me of the systems thinking process of thinking in layers, the layers being the wider system (the general context), the system (the fuzzy situation being studied) and the subsystems (the parts that make up the whole). Soft Systems Methodology (see for example https://naturalsciences.ch/topics/co-producing_knowledge/methods/soft_systems_methodology for a short summary). SSM is a process to use this kind of approach.

    Situations are fuzzy because there is no single way of defining the situation. In the real world, many problem situations are not either-or. They do not have simple definitions or solutions. Outcomes have to be negotiated because situations are composed of many both-and considerations. The process to work out the trade-offs between the both-ands might be quite rational, even systematic.It involves choosing how to model the betweenness relationships and connections and presenting them in ways in which decision makers can make informed judgements.

  6. jennymackness October 4, 2018 / 9:31 am

    Thank you John for your comment. The idea that ‘betweenness’ can/could be modelled is an interesting one.

    Systems theory was mentioned in the course I went on in 2015. Looking back at my notes, I see that I wrote: “Systems theory thrives on obliqueness and may provide a language with which to explore otherness (See references to Peter Checkland and Donella Meadows)”, but I have not heard McGilchrist speak directly about systems theory.

    This reminds me that McGilchrist has written (p.97) that:

    “The model we to understand something determines what we find. If it is the case that our understanding is an effect of the metaphors we choose, it is also true that it is a cause: our understanding itself guides the choice of metaphor by which we understand it. The chosen metaphor is both cause and effect of the relationship.”

  7. John Mackness October 10, 2018 / 10:34 am

    The implication that the model determines or at least influences the outcome is an important consideration for sure. That’s why you should use a modelling process that uses and compares perceptions of ‘stakeholders’. Not to find ‘optimal solutions’ but to find accommodations that can be supported. Such a model’s outcomes recognises the inbetweenness between different perceptions and the inbetweenness of the accommodations that are made.

  8. francesbell October 10, 2018 / 11:59 am

    Thanks Jenny fand commenters for exploring betweenness. And Thanks John – it’s lovely to have a reminder of Soft Systems Theory that made such a difference to me in engaging with what Checkland called Human Activity Systems. A concept that made a difference to me and relates to what you say about the perceptions of stakeholders is that of systemicity. that Checkland says is transferred “from the world to the process of
    inquiry into the world.” And therein lies the problems in talking between the different stakeholders of systems theory itself. That I was working/educating/learning in what might be called “IT systems” where the majority view was that IT systems were “in the world” gave such value to me that a Soft Systems approach could help us looking anew at Human Activity Systems that increasingly involved IT, as not one thing, not either/or.
    Incidentally, I think that’s why it’s so difficult to talk about systems theory as it is very differently perceived by those who see systems as hard things in the world.
    When Peter Checkland came to work with us and our Masters students at Salford, the practical activities of modelling the multiple systems “in our heads” and comparing /discussing them was part of an educational process. In 1988, Atkinson and Checkland even described ‘system’ as a metaphor Atkinson, C. J., & Checkland, P. B. (1988). Extending the Metaphor “System.” Human Relations, 41(10), 709–724. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872678804101001
    It also occurs to me that Social Network Analytics bods will probably have quite specific idea of what betweenness means that could get in the way of dialogue 🙂

  9. francesbell October 10, 2018 / 12:00 pm

    *perceived by those who see systems as hard things in the world and those who don’t

  10. jennymackness October 11, 2018 / 3:11 pm

    Many thanks Frances for adding your comment and perspective.

    It’s been very interesting for me to see how ‘betweenness’ has been interpreted differently according to the models people are applying, including as you say, a social network analysis perspective.

    On p.97 of his book – McGilchrist writes:

    ‘The model we choose to use to understand something determines what we find. If it is the case that our understanding is an effect of the metaphors we choose, it is also true that it is a cause: our understanding itself guides the choice of metaphor by which we understand it.’

    McGilchrist’s metaphor is thinking of the divided brain as The Master and His Emissary, with the right brain being the Master, whose view of the world is one of relations and connections, and the left brain being the Emissary, whose view of the world is one of parts and abstractions.

    I don’t know very much about SSM, but, from the little I know, it would seem to lean more towards a right hemisphere view of the world than a left hemisphere view.

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