Two kinds of knowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Near the end of her lecture, Derry says:

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

She ends her talk by saying:

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

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

References 

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

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

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

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

6 thoughts on “Two kinds of knowing

  1. Benjamin David Steele March 17, 2019 / 7:52 pm

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

    In commenting at your other post, I was thinking about McGilchrist in terms of my learning disability. Ever since childhood, I favored the right hemisphere style, connections and context, especially the personal and relational. I had to find a way to bring that to bear to my left hemisphere deficiencies to create balance and more well functioning mind. But there was no one to teach me this and so it required trial and error, decades of experimentation and a somewhat obsessive-compulsive attitude. I can’t merely memorize facts; I have to understand the knowledge underlying the facts, to see why they matter and what they mean.

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

    That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. There are other languages that go the opposite way from English. The Piraha language only allows one to speak in the personal, what one has personally experienced or what someone personally knows has personally experienced, etc. The language is precise in that any statement made requires detailing the kind of source and its degree of connection to the speaker. This disallows any claims of objective or universal ‘truths’. Daniel Everett discusses this in his books.

    “Our education policy makers’ answer to this problem, and a common response, is to break teaching down into many elements or ‘bits’ and then start from the simple and work up to the more complex, putting the ‘bits’ together, which McGilchrist would recognise as a left hemisphere approach.”

    That is why formal education failed me.

    “For McGilchrist we should not only start in the rich domain (the domain of the right hemisphere), but also end in the rich domain.”

    It’s not a matter of should for me. That is the only way my brain operates.

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

    I associate that state of mind with depression. The first depressive funk that hit me the hardest was when I went off to college and felt isolated and alone. Depression had been around for years in my life at that point, but that was the first time being away from the sense of home that could ground me. I remember one time wandering in some nearby woods that was on college land. Nature was something I had always loved since childhood, but in that moment all sense of connection to the world and hence all sense of meaning was gone. It was an emptiness. I had lost something precious to me and didn’t know how to regain it. Everything in life was pushing me further into the left hemisphere. It created a point of crisis that I barely survived.

  2. Benjamin David Steele March 17, 2019 / 8:15 pm

    I mentioned another blog to you. It’s where someone linked to that other post of yours. And that is how I ended up here. In a recent post, the blogger wrote about McGilchrist in relation to the change in collective mentality, the icy grip of the left hemisphere thawing:

    “Such an Age of Wholeness (or “the Integral Era”) certainly places demands upon what we call “identity”, for it asks us to forego our narrow concepts of “identity” or “point-of-view” consciousness and to expand, even to the boundaries of Kosmos itself. “More! More! is the cry of the mistaken Soul. Less than All cannot satisfy Man” as Blake wrote in “There Is NO Natural Religion”. That is the meaning of it. And when someone like Jean Gebser asks us to move towards integrality, or someone like Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy asks us to accept all of human history, warts and all, as “Universal History” and as our own autobiography, that is the meaning of it. And when someone like Dr. McGilchrist asks us to reach an accomodation between the two modes of attention of the divided brain — the Master and the Emissary — that also is the meaning of it.”

    https://longsworde.wordpress.com/2019/03/16/identity-and-an-age-of-wholeness/

    Just thought that might interest you. That blogger tends to take a more philosophical view. But I find him refreshing.

  3. jennymackness March 18, 2019 / 11:28 am

    Thanks for these two comments. I have added The Chrysalis blog to my Feedly – and will try and keep up. You both are such prolific bloggers! I hope the icy grip of the left hemisphere is thawing. I think McGilchrist is hopeful about this. He has called himself a hopeful pessimist – or something like that.

    I have also heard McGilchrist speak about the Piraha. I always remember that because many moons ago I used to live in Brazil. On p.106 of his book he writes that the Piraha’s ‘language is effectively a kind of song, possessing such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum or whistle their conversations. He also talks about how In Turkey they still use whistling to communicate across valleys. I wrote about this at the time – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/exploring-the-divided-brain-a-4-day-course-with-iain-mcgilchrist-day-1-pm/

    I realise now that when I wrote “For McGilchrist we should not only start in the rich domain (the domain of the right hemisphere), but also end in the rich domain.” I should not have used the word ‘should’. At the time I was looking for links with Vygotsky’s work, as reference by Jan Derry. I am always conscious when reading McGilchrist that he chooses his words very carefully and that it is very easy to misinterpret unintentionally simply by choosing the wrong word. Anyhow, here are his exact words from (p.17 Ways of Attending).

    “In the first place, the nature of the right-hemisphere attention means that whatever we experience comes to us first – it “presences” to us in unpreconceived freshness – the the right hemisphere. New experience of all kinds – whether it be music, words, imaginary constructs, objects in the environment, even skills – comes to us first from the right hemisphere and is dealt with by the left hemisphere only later, once it becomes familiar’.”

    I am sorry to hear about your struggle with depression. Maybe you have heard McGilchrist talk about his episodes of depression? He talked about it once on a course I attended. I referenced this here – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/exploring-the-divided-brain-creativity-paradox-and-negation/

  4. Benjamin David Steele March 18, 2019 / 11:32 pm

    @ Jenny – I watched the video of McGilchrist on depression. It is rather short. I’d like to hear him go into more detail about it.

    The whole topic of whistling and musical languages is utterly fascinating. There is something quite powerful about music and it goes to the heart of our humanity.

    I was reading some history book (I forget what it was now) and it mentioned that early Germans would greet each other with poems. I suspect in the ancient world, as with those like the Piraha, there was less distinction between everyday language and these other vocal forms.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/spoken-language-formulaic-musical-bicameral/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/12/12/development-of-language-and-music/
    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/11/28/music-and-dance-on-the-mind/

  5. jennymackness March 20, 2019 / 3:31 pm

    You will no doubt know that McGilchrist has devoted an entire chapter (3) to Language, Truth and Music, where some of the ideas that you discuss in your posts are also discussed. I haven’t had a chance yet you follow through your links properly, but many thanks for them. You seem to have already thought about or written about many of the ideas that Iain McGilchrist covers in his book .

  6. Benjamin David Steele March 20, 2019 / 4:07 pm

    It’s been a long while since I read McGilchrist’s book. I probably read it when it first came out a decade ago. I need to refresh my memory by looking at it again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s