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.


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