On Politics and Plagues. What can literature do for us?

Like many others during this time, I have turned to literature to try and gain deeper insights into the times we are living through and, in particular, the COVID-19 pandemic. I know I am not alone in reading Albert Camus’, The Plague. Early in the lockdown Stephen Downes linked to a post about it in his newsletter, OLDaily, which contained this video

The Plague was also the first fiction choice for the online platform Quillette’s Quarantine Book Club, where it generated a lot of interesting discussion.

Two other books that have informed my thinking at this time are Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (which I have slowly and carefully re-read, whilst making extensive notes), and William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail.

The question of what can literature (in the broader context of the humanities) do for us at times like this, was discussed by Professor Sarah Churchwell, Dr Kate Kirkpatrick and Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge in an excellent online conversation ‘On Politics and Plagues’ at the end of last month. This was organised by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, as a precursor to the Being Human Festival, due to take place on November 12-22nd November.

Lindsey Stonebridge is currently writing a book about the relevance of Hannah Arendt for today. Arendt is known for her book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’. What did she mean by the banality of evil and how does it relate to the idea of infection? Lindsey Stonebridge told us that Arendt did not refer to the banality of evil as a plague, but as a fungus. By banality she did not mean ordinary. She talked of banality as meaning thoughtless (not thinking) and what happens when we are in a bureaucratic, over-socialised system which allows thoughtlessness to happen. The banality of evil is fearsome and thought-defying. In this sense, evil is not demonic, but banal. The problem of modern evil is that it’s not radical, not deep, not profound; it’s like fungus. Fungus is really contagious; it grows rampant all over a surface. In this sense thoughtless, policy-driven bureaucratic evil is like fungus. It is not a plague; it is a moral rot, which grows and rots at the same time, like a fungus.

Kate Kirkpatrick has recently published a well-received biography of Simone de Beauvoir, who was an associate of Camus. She suggested that Camus and Arendt thought in similar terms about moral contagion and the trivial wrongs that result in really morally significant actions. In Camus’ novel, the plague has agency and humans are passively reactive. Simone de Beauvoir thought that in Camus’ writing, the plague gave people an alibi for not being politically engaged and for not being morally responsible; it enabled evasion of individual accountability. de Beauvoir thought that although humans cannot make evil disappear, they can mitigate it. Arendt, in her reference to the banality of evil, wanted to cut it down to size (no matter what the scale, as in the holocaust), to make it recognisable.

Lynsey Stonebridge thought that Arendt and de Beauvoir would have agreed that there is no master plan. When you have a plague (e.g. political evil as a contagion and when politics is out of control) you feel helpless and people rush for the demonic (the big man), but to deal with the morality we need to analyse it. She believes that generally people are trying but failing to do this, because they are not thinking; we can’t think in the policy and administrative systems spaces we have set up, she says. Camus wrote that the plague never dies, you can’t defeat it. Kate Kirkpatrick thought that this might encourage apathy, or it might spur people to different political thought, but what do we do about the habits of thoughtlessness that have led to increased inequalities and oppression? A response to the banality of evil, according to Lynsey Stonebridge is thought, language and writing.

At this point the conversation moved on to a discussion about the relationship between fascism and patriarchy. Kate Kirkpatrick pointed out that this discussion depends on which fascism you are talking about, and that situations and freedoms are different and context dependent. For further information about this discussion see the video of the recording which I have linked to below.

Finally Sarah Churchwell (who hosted this conversation) asked Lindsey to discuss the political and moral question of the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to her recently published article in the New Stateman, What Hannah Arendt can teach us about Work in the Time of Covid-19. In this she argues that the metaphors we choose matter; they do political work. She writes:

The government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, published on 11 May, states that people will be “eased back into work” as into a dentist chair: carefully, and with face masks.

The reason they need to be coaxed is, of course, the economy. At one point in the document, it reads as though it is the economy, not people, that has been sick: “The longer the virus affects the economy, the greater the risks of longterm scarring.” The economy needs ventilating, and people are its oxygen.

Lindsey Stonebridge’s argument is that the metaphors being used explicitly prevent us from being agents of the economy; we are not working for the economy, we are labouring for the economy, but according to Arendt action requires both labour and work, and it’s action that makes us human. Labouring is simply what we do to survive. Work, on the other hand, gives collective meaning to what we do. We labour by necessity; we work to create a human reality.

This is why debates and policies about how we get back to work matter so much: we are also talking about what kind of human society we are – or want to be.

If taking the human value of work more seriously is key to a better politics, we should also grasp this opportunity to think about what counts as valuable work.

This fascinating conversation ended by returning to the question, What can literature do for us?

As this conversation shows, it gives us ways to think about the world. It also gives us the opportunity to participate in human memory and consider what it means to be human, by listening to a plurality of voices, and aesthetically, it gives us pleasure.

For a recording of this event, where you can get the full details and not just the bits that interested me, here is the video.

Man’s Search for Meaning

At the end of this month I am supposed to be going on a four-day course on The Mystique of Existentialism. I say ‘supposed’, because given the current fears around COVID-19, either the course will be cancelled, or I will opt out.

The course outline says that the intention is to discuss the human condition that thinkers the likes of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre dwelt upon.

Suggested reading for the course is At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I was pleased about this because I have already read and blogged about the book which I thoroughly enjoyed. See Human Existence is Difficult. Existentialism and Phenomenology.

Serendipitously I also recently came across an article about an interview between Nigel Warburton and  Sarah Bakewell, in which he asked her to recommend five books on existentialism.

Of the five books that she recommends, I have only previously read Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre, again for a course, about five years ago – an introduction to philosophical literature. Sarah Bakewell starts her discussion with David Cooper’s book, but I jumped straight to Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.  Frankl wrote the book in 1945 in nine successive days.  I am late in discovering this book, but it still seems very pertinent for our times.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was a Holocaust survivor. In the book he describes his experience of the concentration camps, and questions whether a life of suffering can also have meaning. At one point he writes about how the memory of his wife, and conjuring up her image, sustained him and kept him going. He came to understand that ‘The salvation of man is through love and in love’. He also quotes Nietzsche’s words ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.

One of the strongest messages to come out of the book is that man has a choice of action, a choice of how to respond to the circumstances he finds himself in.

‘…. everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

‘…. Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.’

As Sarah Bakewell says; ‘…we always have the freedom to make of it [a given situation] what we will, according to our own choices, to impose our own meaning on it.’

This seems like a strong message for our times.

Philosophical Musings on Time

This U3A (University of the Third Age) philosophy group meeting, which about 40 people attended, was presented by one of the members, Terry, who gave an interesting talk on the nature of time (as opposed to the measurement of time), in which he raised eight questions for us to discuss. On the table at which I was seated, we didn’t get very far with any of the questions and were all, I think it would be fair to say,  completely out of our depth when it came to knowledge of Stephen Hawking’s work and Einstein’s theory of relativity. We therefore tried to confine our discussion to those questions where we could draw on some personal experience to contribute to the discussion.

I share these questions and some of our discussion with the health warning that I cannot guarantee the accuracy of any of the facts, but hopefully the questions will stimulate further curiosity and thought, as they did for us.

Q1. To what extent does time rule our lives and were we happier before we had clocks?

This was discussed in terms of always having had clocks if we consider the sun to be a clock, day and night, the seasons and so on. The general opinion was that over time we have become more and more obsessed with time, such that we now seek antidotes to the pressure of time, such as mindfulness and meditation, and we have to ‘dare ourselves to be still’. It was suggested that small children are not aware of time (I’m not sure about that), and the relationship between time and longitude was briefly mentioned.

Q2. In your opinion – is time real?

Here reference was made to Kant’s questions about time and space, Julian Barbour’s controversial view that time is an illusion, and McTaggart’s work on the unreality of time. Some philosophers think that time is no more than change. Raymond Tallis discusses the relationship between Time and Change in Philosophy Now magazine. The group acknowledged that our limited lives make time seem real, and we think of it as a commodity which we save, spend, waste etc. On our table we got into deep water discussing what ‘real’ means and whether time exists independently of our perceptions of it. Needless to say, we didn’t come to any conclusions.

Q3. Have you experienced Time seeming to speed up or slow down? How do you account for this?

Given that the U3A is for people who have retired, most people shared the experience of time seeming to speed up with age. There is a psychological element. As Einstein said:

Time seems to move forward. Here reference was made to the physicist Arthur Eddington, with some pride, since he was born in Kendal, Cumbria, where our meeting was taking place. Eddington developed the concept of Time’s Arrow (The Arrow of Time) – the one-way direction of time, which gives us the impression of time passing. Stephen Hawking posited 3 arrows of time; psychological time (human perception of time, the past and the future); entropic time (the universe moves from a state of order to disorder but not the reverse); cosmological time (the arrow moves forward and backward when the universe is in an inflationary and deflationary state respectively). I have no idea what that means! These arrows prove (according to Hawking) the existence of a one-way flow of time in the universe.

 

There was also reference to Father Time and Shakespeare’s sonnets (see, for example, Sonnet 123 – No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change, and Sonnet 60), in which time is a major theme.

 

Q4. Do you think of time as linear or cyclical?

The cyclical nature of time is mentioned in Shakespeare’s work and the wheel of time is a concept found in some religions; Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism. Many patterns and rhythms in nature suggest that time is cyclical – the seasons, day and night, elliptical patterns.

But we tend to think of time as linear. Some philosophers believe that past and future don’t exist, only the present. Einstein believed that the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, and that the present is unique to the individual; it depends on the reference frame of the observer. Einstein worried that science can’t explain ‘the now’.

Q5. How much is memory and anticipation involved in the appreciation of music? Is there a way this is similar to our experience of Time?

It was suggested that Time must include a little memory. Think of this in terms of music. We hear a succession of sounds as a flowing melody, but to do this we must be hearing a little bit before and a little bit after the given sound/note. It was suggested that Time flows in a similar way. Edmund Husserl was mentioned in relation to how time can flow, but we didn’t discuss Husserl further. I have yet to find out what Husserl contributed to this topic. Newton also thought that time flows and wrote: “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external” (see Absolute Time). Einstein turned the idea of Absolute Time on its head. Time, he said is relative and flexible (see Relativistic Time).

Q6. The Block Universe Theory sounds bizarre, and also rather undermines the idea of Free Will. What’s your opinion?

At this point everyone I was speaking to was beginning to get a bit lost, even those who had read Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. Presentism, Eternalism and Block Theory of Time were all mentioned. Presentism is the view that neither the future nor the past exists, only the present exists, but Eternalists believe that past, present and future are all equally real. In this latter view, which is supported by relativity theory, there is no flow of time. According to Block Theory, the past and present exist, but the future does not. This undermines the theory of free will.

Q7. If Time travel was available to you where would you go and why?

We didn’t answer this question, discussing instead some of the implications of light speed for what we see and understand of the universe – time dilation and the idea that astronauts age more slowly than people on earth – and whether time travel will ever be a possibility. Stephen Hawking considered this .

Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein’s general theory of relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out. (Stephen Hawking)

If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future? (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)

Q8. How do you spend your leisure time?

This final question was raised because it was assumed that given that this discussion group consists of people who have retired, they have more leisure time. Evidently the Greeks craved leisure to live a life of the mind.

This U3A philosophy group consists of as many men as women, but this didn’t stop one woman quipping: ‘Leisure is a male concept’.

A comment of our time!

You are Jürgen Habermas!

Jürgen Habermas in 2014 at the age of 84

I have spent the start of the new year, trying to bring some order to the hundreds of documents on my laptop and was surprised to find a document in my 2014 folder with the title – ‘You are Jürgen Habermas’, which included the following text:

Author of The Logic of the Social Sciences, you recognize that the primary activity of human beings is to interpret the meaning of things in the world around them. As human beings themselves, researchers also interpret meanings and cannot therefore keep their own perspective separate from their research. Since there is no absolute truth, research must instead use reason and argument to arrive at the best interpretation. Go use your hermeneutics to conquer the world!

It turns out that this was the result of an online quiz – ‘What’s your epistemology?’

I don’t take these quizzes seriously. They are just a bit of light-hearted fun to occupy a spare moment, or when procrastinating, but I was interested that six years later I get the same result, and given that I haven’t written a blog post for a couple of months, sharing this seemed like a gentle restart.

I don’t know a huge amount about Habermas, but I do like his advocacy of communicative action and Ideal Speech Situation.

Keith Morrison (2008) makes these ideas accessible in his paper ‘Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity’ where he writes:

A complexity informed pedagogy requires communication that includes:

  • Freedom to enter a discourse, check questionable claims, evaluate explanations and justifications;
  • Freedom to modify a given conceptual framework and alter norms;
  • Mutual understanding between participants;
  • Equal opportunity for dialogue that abides by the validity claims of truth, legitimacy, sincerity and comprehensibility, and recognises the legitimacy of each subject to participate in the dialogue as an autonomous and equal partner;
  • Equal opportunity for discussion, and the achieved—negotiated—consensus resulting from discussion deriving from the force of the better argument alone, and not from the positional power of the participants;
  • Exclusion of all motives except for the cooperative search for truth.

All this feels very relevant at the beginning of 2020.

And, as an aside, the quiz included this lovely image:

A painting by a Swedish artist new to me – Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939)

Happy New Year to anyone reading this post.

Reference
Morrison, K. (2008). Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity Theory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00394.x

Shocks of familiarity with Michel de Montaigne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Bakewell quotes the journalist Bernard Levin as saying,

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Embodied Learning: knowing with the whole body

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And further comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two kinds of knowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Near the end of her lecture, Derry says:

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

She ends her talk by saying:

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

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

References 

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

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

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

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

The Meaning of Depth and Breadth in Education

Sea port with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, by Claude Lorrain (1648)

This image is used by Iain McGilchrist in his discussion of depth. On Plate 7 in his book, The Master and His Emissary, he writes: Here light, colour and texture of the stone surfaces all emphasise the depth of perspective in both time and space, drawing us into felt relationship with the world.

Depth is another theme from Iain McGilchrist’s book that I am currently exploring. McGilchrist doesn’t write about this in relation to education. Rather, in his book, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, he examines the ways in which the two hemispheres of the brain attend to the world, both attending to everything, but each attending differently. Through extensive research and presentation of evidence he makes the case that we live in a world increasingly dominated by a left hemisphere perspective. In relation to the topic of ‘depth’, this is the hemisphere that views the world as a two-dimensional representation from the perspective of a spectator, whereas it is the right hemisphere that has a three-dimensional perspective and appreciates depth. For McGilchrist depth is related to perception and a world that has depth involves seeing beyond the plane of vision (p.300).

McGilchrist also believes that it is the right hemisphere that underwrites ‘breadth and flexibility, whereas ‘the left hemisphere brings to bear focussed attention’ (p.27). Here, McGilchrist is referring to the breadth and flexibility of attention, rather than of the curriculum.

What does this mean and why might it be significant for education?

Breadth

McGilchrist relates breadth to types of attention; the neuropsychological literature has distinguished five types of attention: vigilance, sustained attention, alertness, focussed attention and divided attention. McGilchrist writes: ‘The right hemisphere is responsible for every type of attention except focussed attention’ (p.39) i.e. a broad, flexible and global attention.  What might it mean to think of breadth in education, not in terms of curriculum coverage, but in terms of flexibly using different types of attention to open ourselves up to understanding the world? McGilchrist has said that how we choose to attend to the world determines what we see. From this it follows that a broad, flexible and global attention is required for a broad perspective.

Depth

McGilchrist, like Merleau-Ponty, believes that ‘Depth is the necessary condition for embodied existence’ (p.149). For McGilchrist depth is related to the importance of context, and an understanding of spatial depth is essential to knowing how we stand in relation to others. He writes:

Depth is the sense of a something lying beyond. Another way of thinking of this would be more generally in terms of the ultimate importance of context. Context is that ‘something’ (in reality nothing less than a world) in which whatever is seen inheres, and in which its being lies, and in references to which alone it can be understood, lying both beyond and around it. (p.181).

For McGilchrist (p.183):

Depth, as opposed to distance from a surface, never implies detachment. Depth brings us into a relationship, whatever the distance involved, with the other, and allows us to ‘feel across’ the intervening space.

Breadth and depth in education

Whilst educators may be familiar with the idea that depth refers deeper thinking and to digging deeper into a subject with the aim of gaining deeper knowledge, we may not be so familiar with the idea that ‘A sense of depth is intrinsic to seeing things in context’ (p.300).

More commonly, in education, depth in learning is often counterpoised with breadth. How to balance depth and breadth of learning and the curriculum has long been a concern of teachers and curriculum designers. To what extent should students cover a broad range of subjects as opposed to covering fewer subjects in depth, and which subjects merit being studied in depth? At what point in a student’s education should specialisation be introduced? As one blogger has put it, ‘The exact mix between coverage and depth is elusive…’ and these questions continue to be difficult to answer, particularly in the current age when specialisation may be regarded as counter-productive given the changing job market and uncertainty about the future of work. In Times Higher Education (March 7, 2019) Anna McKie asks: In a rapidly changing world, is a broader approach to the university curriculum needed to develop the critical thinking and creativity increasingly sought after by employers. It is not hard to find similar reports pushing for more diversity in the curriculum. For example a recent article questions whether the Bachelor’s degree is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century and concludes that there is a need for universities to ‘shift their models to accommodate the lifelong learning needs of students for whom breadth of knowledge, rather than just depth, is key to a successful future.’

McGilchrist has been quoted by Richard Lagemaat on Twitter as saying:

“Our educational system …. has become specialised in such a way that it is now quite possible to become a scientist with only the most rudimentary acquaintance with the history of cultures and ideas. This is regrettable, but it is a fact.”

But when McGilchrist writes about depth he is not thinking of depth solely in relation to specialisation or how this should be balanced with breadth, and he is not thinking about breadth solely in terms of curriculum diversity and coverage.  Rather, he is thinking about how we attend to the world and he is concerned that in a world that is increasingly viewed from a left-hemisphere perspective, we fail to see things in context.

McGilchrist’s belief is that everything is interconnected; everything is in relation to everything else. ‘One must never lose sight of the interconnected nature of things’ (p.154), i.e. we must not lose sight of the whole. But the thrust of McGilchrist’s book is that, if the left-hemisphere’s view is now the dominant view of the world (and there is plenty of evidence in his book to support this claim), this is exactly what we are losing sight of. We are losing the ability to see beyond and around the object of our attention, to see it in its full context. We are increasingly seeing it in two dimensions or even in one plane as a schematic, abstract, geometric representation of the visual world, with a lack of realistic detail. This loss of a sense of depth alienates us from the world.

We need to see through the eye, through the image, past the surface: there is a fatal tendency for the eye to replace the depth of reality – a depth which implies the vitality, the corporeality and the empathic resonance of the world – with a planar re-presentation, that is a picture. In doing so, the sublime becomes merely the picturesque. (p.373)

Depth is related to the profound.

Do McGilchrist’s ideas about breadth and depth have implications for education? They seem to offer the possibility of a different perspective on the meaning of breadth and depth. There will always need to be choices made about which subjects should be included in the curriculum, and whether and when students need to specialise in specific subjects. But perhaps thinking about breadth in terms of flexibility (i.e. flexibility of attention) instead of coverage, and thinking about depth in relation to the need for an appreciation of context offers an alternative perspective. Breadth and depth do not need to be opposed or even thought of in terms of balance. They are both integral to counteracting a view of the world which is dominated by the left-hemisphere’s perspective, a world which we see from the perspective of a spectator as a two-dimensional representation.  Instead more focus on breadth and depth, as understood in McGilchrist’s terms, would encourage a view of the world as a connected whole, where everything is seen in context and there would be increased insight into the nature of complexity.

We now live in an age where we are told that 4-year old children need to learn about relationships so that they can grow up healthier and happier; that screen addicted children spend just 16 minutes a day playing outside; and that 75% of UK kids spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. Whether or not these reports are accurate, they do reflect, to some degree, McGilchrist’s concerns that we need more experience of the lived world, viewing it from a broad, global perspective and experiencing it in context in three dimensions through first-hand experience, rather than through a two-dimensional screen. McGilchrist’s explanation of the meaning of breadth and depth offers an alternative perspective which could bring new insight into these issues.

Reference

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

What is the point of it all?

I subscribe to Aeon digital magazine – an online magazine of ideas, philosophy and culture. A recent video bearing the title ‘An ageing philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?’ caught my attention. The ageing philosopher in question is Herbert Fingarette, who died at the end of last year, at the age of 97.

This is the link to the video: https://aeon.co/videos/an-ageing-philosopher-returns-to-the-essential-question-what-is-the-point-of-it-all  (18 mins)

In this film, recorded in the last months of his life, Herbert Fingarette reflects on his life and what it means to be 97, to outlive a deeply loved wife by seven years, to know that what you can now do (after a long and successful career as a professor of philosophy and author) is increasingly limited, and to accept that death is near.

For me this is a moving film, sad and concerning, but also uplifting.

It was sad to see how very much he still missed his wife, being moved to tears on listening to music that they had both enjoyed together. I was struck by his description of her as ‘absent present’. ‘Her absence has been a presence’.

It was also sad to hear him talk about being afraid of death. In 1999 he published a book, Death. Philosophical Soundings, in which he wrote that it is not rational to be afraid of death and that there is no good reason to fear death. But now he doesn’t believe this. He is now (at the time of filming) afraid of death and doesn’t know why.

For me it was concerning to see what I perceived to be the utilitarian nature of care in old age, and I realised that I hope that when my turn comes I will be cared for by someone who loves me, rather than by someone for whom care is a job, however good they are at that job.

But it was uplifting to see a 97 year old still interested in life, reading with the support of his computer, listening to music, drawing in pencil and pastels, and still moving about his house unaided and surrounded by his own possessions. And most importantly, still learning. All his life until now, at the age of 97, he has not appreciated the beauty of the trees in his back garden. Now he says, ‘Seeing the trees is a transcendent experience’. At the age of 97 this is a new experience, which connects him to life.

It’s not surprising that so near the end of his life he is still asking ‘What is the point of it all?’ This is the preoccupation of many philosophers. His conclusion was that there is no point. It’s a foolish question. But by his own acknowledgement he had a happy life and more importantly he had experienced what it means to love and be loved. Perhaps that is the point.

What did Socrates ever do for us?

‘What did the Greeks ever do for us?’ was the question discussed in a U3A philosophy group I joined last week, which turned out to be a very enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half – not really long enough to get to grips with the question, or even to get to the question at all, but certainly long enough to provoke some thinking, particularly about Socrates.

In preparation for this we were asked to read ‘Apology’ by Plato and translated by Benjamin Jowett . Apology is Plato’s account of Socrates’ self-defence against the charges of not recognizing the gods of the state and corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato of course was one of Socrates’ greatest admirers – a student of Socrates. And Aristotle was a ‘student’ of Plato. There was so much discussion around the Apology that there was little time to discuss Plato and Aristotle, apart from a brief discussion about Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, which can be seen in the Vatican museums. We were asked to consider what the fresco tells us about Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies.

There is so much information ‘out there’ about these three giants of philosophy, so many websites, so many articles, so many books, all of which are easy to find, that there is no need to repeat it all here and we only needed brief reference to it in our session.  Instead we focussed on these questions related to our reading of The Apology.

  1. What are the charges brought against Socrates?
  2. Why does Socrates think that the Athenians would be harming themselves rather than harming Socrates if they put him to death? What service has he provided the city of Athens by philosophizing there?
  3. Do you think Socrates is wise to disregard the possibility that he may die if he does not please the court?
  4. Why does Socrates think that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’?

For me the most interesting question was Q3, because when reading The Apology I found myself increasingly irritated by what I perceived to be Socrates’ arrogance. On the one hand he claims ‘the truth is that I have no knowledge’ and ‘I have no wisdom, small or great’, but that doesn’t stop him from claiming that the oracle at Delphi told him that there is no wiser man than he. Then he decided to test the oracle’s words by trying to find a man wiser than himself, but in discussion with various citizens considered to be the wisest in Athens, he decided they were not wiser than him and told them so, and then was surprised that they hated him. This he justified with the following words (according to Plato’s record):

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.

In this vein Socrates went to politicians, poets and artisans and found himself to be superior to them all for the same reason. At this point I found myself questioning his wisdom. And at this point too I began to wonder at his complete lack of self-doubt and his unshakeable belief in his own virtue and worth. ‘I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times’. So convinced was he of his own worth that he told his accusers that if they killed him they would injure themselves more than they would injure him.

For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life.

Of course we have to remember that we only have Plato’s word that these statements actually came from Socrates. Socrates himself never wrote anything down. And we also have to try and think about the events in the context and culture of the time, for example the significance of the oracle’s statements.

Nevertheless, Socrates’ self-defence does raise the question of whether or not it is ‘wise’ to choose to die for your beliefs. For Socrates the difficulty was not in avoiding death but avoiding unrighteousness. He simply could not have lived with himself, had he not stuck to his principles. As such he could be said to have written his own death sentence.

Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you ashamed of this?

But maybe by signing his own death sentence Socrates scored the most important goal of his career and ensured that he would go down in history as the founder of moral philosophy, who established the method of trying to get at truth through persistent open questioning.

(With thanks to Lisa Lane for sending me this video, which made me laugh)

As Bryan Magee writes in his book (p.23): The Story of Philosophy. A Concise Introduction to the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Their Ideas,

It is doubtful whether any philosopher has had more influence than Socrates. He was the first to teach the priority of personal integrity in terms of a person’s duty to himself, and not to the gods, or the law, or any other authorities. This has had incalculable influence down the ages. Not only was he willing to die at the hands of the law rather than give up saying what he believed to be right, he actually chose to do so, when he could have escaped had he wished. It is a priority that has been reasserted by some of the greatest minds since – minds not necessarily under his influence. Jesus said: “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?” And Shakespeare said: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

It’s interesting to consider whether Socrates needed to die to be remembered for his philosophy and method. The consensus at the U3A group seemed to be that he did.