In my last post, I wrote that I have pre-ordered Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World, which will be published in two volumes. The writing of this book has been a 10 year long process, which means that no sooner had McGilchrist finished writing The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, which is also a long book (over 500 pages), he started on this new book. He says the new book took over him and his life and demanded to be written.
Each volume of the new book is 750 pages long. (I have wondered how much juggling about was needed to make each volume of equal length!) Maybe, and hopefully, the text in the new volumes will not be so dense. A very short video on Channel McGilchrist, which turns the pages of the new book for us, indicates that this is the case. Below is a screenshot from that video. As you can see, this time the notes are included in the margin of the page. In The Master and His Emissary, the notes were included at the end of the book – 250 pages of very small typeface. I think this new format will make it easier to follow the notes.
I have now heard Iain McGilchrist talk about The Matter with Things a few times and it is interesting to hear how the book has evolved. The first time I heard him talk about it was in 2018. At that stage, the working title of the book was There are No Things. In 2019, I heard him talk about it again, in a series of one hour lectures given at the Field and Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK. I made notes and shared them on this blog. See the posts under the heading ‘2019 The Matter with Things’, on The Divided Brain page on this blog.
More recently I heard Iain talk about his new book in this video (published in October 2020). But some things have changed since this video was recorded, not least the publisher. Originally the book was due to be published by Penguin Random House, but we now know that the book will be published by Perspectiva Press. In this 2020 video Iain talks about the book being in three parts, but we now know that it has been published in two volumes. I can’t imagine how much work it must have been to make that change.
However, all has been resolved as we now have a short video on Channel McGilchrist where Iain explains what the new book is all about. You need to be a member of Channel McGilchrist to see this video, filmed in Iain’s beautiful garden on the Isle of Skye, but I will share some details here.
Although the book is in two volumes there is one overarching argument and that is that the horrendous natural challenges that we now face are a result of our way of looking at or being in the world, which has become increasingly left hemisphere dominated. Our brain has evolved to manipulate the world rather than understand it, such that we are blinded to a profound and beautiful reality. We think of the world as inert and mechanical, just a collection of things for us to use. The aim of the book is to open our eyes to this and to consider the questions of how this philosophically affects how we live in the world and how it might delude us of the world’s true nature. If our civilisation is going to survive, we need a radically different view of the world.
In this new book Iain is trying to expose the weakness, the ignorance and the simplicity of the current reductionist view of the world, which seems more or less unchallenged in the public intellectual arena.
Volume 1of The Matter with Things bears the title ‘The Ways to Truth’, not that there is a single truth, but rather that some things are truer than others. In the first part of this volume, Iain explores how we get an idea of what reality is and says that there are six or seven faculties that we bring to bear on reality – attention, perception, judgements formed on the basis of attention and perception, judgements formed on the basis of emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence and the capacity for creativity. These are the ways in which we can encounter ‘the Other’.
In the second part of Volume 1, Iain consider the four paths to an understanding of the world, four paths by which we can arrive at the truth – science, reason, intuition, and imagination. He explores what these are good at and their limitations, saying that we need each and must honour all four of them. Now, at any one time we honour one, or possibly two. Our view of science and reason has become narrow, and imagination and intuition are not sufficiently valued. In all four the right hemisphere’s view is more important than the left. I first heard Iain talk about these four paths at the Field and Field conference in 2019 and shared my notes on this blog. See The Divided Brain page on this blog, for more details.
In Volume 2 of The Matter with Things, Iain considers what we can do once we know (and have seen through what is covered in Volume 1) how in touch, or out of touch, the left and right hemisphere’s ways of looking at the world are. We can now recognise that there are paradoxical findings and very often these paradoxical findings can be traced to the characteristic ways of thinking of the left and right hemispheres. These paradoxes relate to fundamentally important things like time, space, consciousness, matter, value, purpose and a sense of the sacred. All these are very important for understanding our relation to the cosmos at large. In this volume Iain looks at the structure of the cosmos and shows that opposites must and do co-exist. We need both like the two poles of a magnet and there is no barrier between them. This is an important insight. Another important insight is the relationship between the one and the many. How does the uniqueness of everything we experience relate to the capacity we have to see it as a certain kind of general thing? What are the values and problems that emerge if we don’t understand this?
So, the new book is an attempt to provide an overall philosophy of life and consider where we stand in the cosmos, and to bring us back to a vision of and chance of living a better life within it.