The Matter With Things. Chapter 13. Institutional science and truth.

McGilchrist opens this chapter with these two aptly chosen quotes which pinpoint the key arguments he is making in this chapter.

‘Most human institutions, by the purely technical and professional manner in which they come to be administered, end by becoming obstacles to the very purposes which their founders had in view.’ (William James, 1909, A Pluralistic Universe)

‘Specialization is for insects.’ (Robert Heinlein, 1973, Time Enough for Love)

This chapter is a bit different to others In The Matter With Things as it focusses less on hemisphere correlates and is not heavily reliant on the hemisphere hypothesis. Instead McGilchrist explores the question of whether we can trust science’s claims on truth and examines the limitations of the institution of science.

I recognised most of the key points McGilchrist makes in this chapter as I think would anyone who has a background in research and publication, especially but not solely if these are related to science. Many of the same issues arise in humanities disciplines. McGilchrist discusses the limitations of the institutions of science under four headings; Specialisation and its impact on original thinking; How reliable is scientific evidence? The problems of publication; and Peer review.

Specialisation and its impact on original thinking.

‘Science is a victim of its own extraordinary success’. (p.502) The explosion of scientific knowledge has led to increasing specialisation, such that scientists can only be an expert in a small area. When even a very good scientist talks about science, unless he is talking about his own area, he is taking it on trust/authority. We need to think about the worthiness of this trust/authority.

Specialisation drives scientific disciplines apart, leads to ‘narrowness, technicalisation and fragmentation, at the expense of breadth, humanity, and synthesis’ (p.508). McGilchrist argues that whilst of course we need specialists, we also need generalists. We need both the flies eye view and the birds eye view. He describes this as follows:

‘If perceiving shapes is how maths and science progress, as I believe it is, you will see those shapes only by rising above the hole where you are digging. The view in the valley floor is good, but if you never climb, you will not know that there are many other valleys, and mountain ranges nearby, which are not only beautiful in themselves, but help you see why good work needs to be done down in the valley floor at all.’ (p.504)

Specialisation also leads to specialised jargon.

‘Increasingly, the heavily acronymic jargon of research papers seems to me to present an almost impenetrable barrier to anyone other than the most highly specialised reader, and even then, if they are to get anything out of the exercise, they must have a huge capacity to tolerate boredom’. (p.507)

(McGilchrist’s writing often makes me smile 😊)

How reliable is scientific evidence?

In this section McGilchrist discusses the problems involved in interpreting data, taking mirror imaging (a way of knowing what is going on in the minds and brains of people) as an example. Brain activity scans are difficult to read accurately. The data require interpretation and therefore cannot be assumed to be objective or truthful. Every way of looking at the brain has its limitations. Whenever you are looking at a complex system, you can’t assume that the bit you are looking at is the crucial one. We should use as many ways as possible to look at the brain, and not rely solely on scanning.

In scientific research, for a result to count as important it must be replicable, reliable, and reproducible, but ‘A survey of 1,576 researchers across scientific disciplines published in Nature revealed that more than 70% of researchers had tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half had failed to reproduce their own experiment.’ (513)

A widely cited paper by John Ioannidis (2005) – ‘Why most published research findings are false’, concludes that most research is not adequately designed to prove what it claims to show, that ‘The hotter the scientific claim, the less likely the research findings are to be true’, and that ‘the greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field the less likely the research findings are to be true’.

There are now huge temptations (in terms of financial and reputational rewards) to commit anything from a minor misdemeanour to recognisable fraud (fabrication of results), and McGilchrist provides examples of these in this chapter.

McGilchrist also includes an Appendix (3) on the reliability of public health policy which makes for interesting reading. If you have cut salt out of your diet, you might want to think again, or read the Appendix!

The problems of publication

Most academics will recognise the exhortation to Publish or Perish!

Institutions put enormous pressure on their staff to publish, whether or not they have anything to say; quantity is more important than quality, as is publishing in high impact journals. This leads to corner cutting and inflation of claims. It also leads to a focus on writing short papers rather than books, which take a long time to write and require fallow periods. McGilchrist’s view is that this is ‘inimical to free thinking.

‘Scientific thinking gets crystallised too early, before it has had a chance to broaden and deepen; there is no longer a chance for ideas to evolve, to enter the necessary fallow period of unconscious gestation, without being prematurely forced into explicit form, and worse still in sliced form, so that what might have come to be a dawning new Gestalt is forever lost. And in the end, science is not about producing data so much as thinking, to which the acquisition of data can be only a prelude or addendum.’ (p. 516/517)

This pressure to publish can also lead to deliberate gaming of the system, where authors chase citations by working in ‘highly populated’ areas of science (even though ‘it is estimated that only 20% of cited papers have actually been read’, p.158), or even pay to have their work published in predatory open journals (See Beall’s list ) As soon as there is payment for publication, the whole system is corrupted.

And then, there are the fake papers. McGilchrist devotes Appendix 2 to some of these – papers such as those that are created by computer programs but nevertheless succeed in getting published, despite being, literally, gibberish.

So, we may ask, what happened to peer review?

Peer review

How effective is peer review? Richard Smith (Editor of the BMJ) wrote that far from being an objective, reliable and consistent process, peer review is ‘a subjective and, therefore, inconsistent process ….. something of a lottery’. (Smith, 2006, ‘Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals). As McGilchrist states:

‘Bias is intrinsic to human life. We just waste a lot of time and money pretending we’re avoiding it, and then kid ourselves that the outcome was ‘objective’ – a more dangerous position, because it introduces complacency and is a much more difficult thing to fight, precisely because of its appearance of objectivity’. (p.529)

Peer review is a laborious progress which takes up researchers’ time, which is given for free, and so takes them away from their own work. Interestingly, McGilchrist tells us that until the 1930s/40s peer review was never part of the publication process. Papers were reviewed by the editorial committee. Einstein, for example, refused to subject his work to peer review – only one of his 310 publications underwent peer review. Presumably once was enough to convince him of the flaws in the process.

There is also evidence that peer review can be prone to bias against innovation and radical new ideas, such that no-one wants to publish a paper that will rock the boat. Those who step out of line pay a huge price. In addition, reviewers have been shown to regularly fail to spot major errors in research, such that the process is obviously open to fraud.

The bottom line is that science is not exempt from human fallibility.

McGilchrist ends this chapter by discussing the need for a new paradigm, one that recognises that the essence of good science is originality and original thinking takes time. Science cannot avoid operating under the existing paradigm, ‘because, without such a paradigm, its findings could not cohere’ (p.536) but working within the prevailing paradigm also ‘militates against those great insights that change the direction of scientific history, despite this being widely believed to be precisely what science is about.’ (p.536)

McGilchrist believes that contemporary science is not scientific enough in that it is not willing to be aware of its limitations. On the concluding page of this chapter, McGilchrist defends science in the following terms:

Science is, or should be, a source of wonder that opens out our understanding of the world and gives us one of the touchstones on the path towards truth. Just because science cannot answer all our questions does not mean that it is not the very best way to answer some of them, and a helpful contributor to answering many more. And that there is corrupt practice in science does not make it different from any other human enterprise.’ (p.544)

For discussion of this chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin, see


McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

A HYMN OF LOVE TO THE WORLD – Braiding Sweetgrass

We are almost at the end of 2022, and I do not want to let the year end without mention of this book – Braiding Sweetgrass – by Robin Wall Kimmerer. For me this has been the best book I have read this year. I had better qualify what I mean by ‘best’. It is a beautifully written book – beautiful prose with the feel of poetry. It is easy to read, but by no means superficial; in fact, it is the exact opposite – a deeply meaningful book. It is the book that has had the most impact on me this year. I will never think about Nature, and plants, in the same way again. It is a book full of wisdom and love. It is indeed ‘A hymn of love to the world’ as is quoted by Elizabeth Gilbert on the front cover. Sweetgrass symbolises healing, peace, and spirituality. The three cords of the sweetgrass represent mind, body, and spirit.

Source of Image:

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a decorated botany professor, a scientist with a non-orthodox approach to science. She currently works as a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology in New York, but most significantly she is the Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She comes from a Native American background, Potawatomi heritage, and this informs her life and work as a botanist and her approach to science and to our planet.

In her book Kimmerer takes a story telling approach, and through these stories we learn to think of plants not as separate from ourselves, not as ‘things’ we dominate or a resource that we plunder, but as living beings like ourselves with whom we should live in harmony, in the spirit of love, gratitude and reciprocity. Most plants already live with each other in this way, and they can be our teachers. Most importantly, she passes on the teachings of her forefathers in the idea of ‘The Honourable Harvest’; that is, we only take from the ‘Earth’ what we need and use natural resources responsibly. And not only do we not ‘take more than we need’, but we give back, and exist with plants in a relation of reciprocity and gratitude. Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts many stories in the book to illustrate this point.

Source of image:

The book is so rich with wonderful ‘teachings’ that I could not possibly do justice to it here. If you are a scientist, there are lessons for how to include ideas of beauty and reciprocity into the analytical world of science. If you are a botany teacher there are lessons for how to step back and allow plants to teach your students. If you are a mother, there are lessons you can draw on from how Nature acts as a mother. If you are a gardener, there are lessons you can learn about which plants thrive when planted next to each other and why. If you are a conservationist, there are lessons you can learn about collaboration, cooperation and listening. If you are a medic, there are lessons you can learn about the gift of plants. If you are an artist, there are lessons to be learned from the beauty of Nature.  If you are spiritual, there are lessons you can learn from the legend of Skywoman Falling.

Source of image:

I would not have come across this book had it not been for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network – the last book of the year to be read and discussed by the group. In our online meeting (zoom) at the beginning of this month, the book was introduced by Louise Hawxwell, who posed these thought-provoking questions for us to discuss, beautifully presented in a lovely set of slides:

You can see from these slides and the questions that Louise asked, that there is far more in this book than I have discussed here. I have barely scratched the surface. Braiding Sweetgrass is a book that deserves to be read many times and it is certainly a book that I will be thinking about when working in my garden next year or caring for my house plants, not to mention reflecting on my personal relationships with humans and non-humans in my life.


Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass. Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. Penguin Random House, UK.


The first book to be read by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in 2023 (Tuesday 17th January, 7.00 pm, zoom details posted on Twitter, @PhilofEd) will be Miseducation. Inequality, Education and the Working Classes (21st Century Standpoints) by Diane Reay

The Matter With Things. Chapter 12. The Science of Life: a study in left hemisphere capture

This chapter is about the problem (as McGilchrist sees it) with biology, biologists, and the life sciences – namely that they view the world as inanimate and mechanistic, and until very recently have ‘been stuck in a mid-Victorian mechanistic vision that physics abandoned over a hundred years ago’ (p.431).

At the beginning of this chapter McGilchrist is at pains not to comes across as attacking life scientists, writing:

‘Please don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the ingenuity and hard work of my colleagues in the life sciences, and am exhilarated by the ever-growing body of knowledge about the natural world. It manifestly proves itself to be useful in myriad ways and, fairly obviously my thinking too depends heavily on the broad reliability of recent scientific evidence about the brain and mind. Nevertheless there is a problem’. (p.432)

And nevertheless for me the chapter comes across as ‘having a go’ at life scientists, principally for their view of the organism as a machine. This is not a surprise. I have often heard McGilchrist criticise the life sciences. He feels there is a mental apartheid between what they see and describe, and officially what they are allowed to describe and imagine. Scientists should be describing what they see rather than what they think they ought to see. This mismatch in language arises, McGilchrist says, because life scientists persist in describing organisms using the language of machines, the language of programmes and codes. ‘… if you ask biologists explicitly, they will, with a few exceptions, cleave to the machine model; but when you listen to what they are saying, implicitly they abjure it.’ (p.436). Normative terms full of value laden ideas pervade the whole of the discussion about life. The life sciences have been captured by the left hemisphere, which views the world as a machine.

The main bulk of this chapter is devoted to exploring and explaining why organisms (that includes us!) are not machines. I first heard McGilchrist discuss this in 2018. In this chapter he greatly expands on what he said then, citing many biologists, positively and negatively, but the list of main points remains almost the same, if slightly re-ordered and re-organised.

Why organisms are not machines

  1. On-off

An obvious point but so little talked about is that an organism cannot be turned off. If an organism is ‘switched off/stopped’, it dies. It is more like a flame than a machine said J.B.S. Haldane. It is more like a process than a thing.

Organisms are not made. They become. You can take them apart, but you cannot put parts together to make an organism. All machines must have instructions that pre-exist their making.  A machine does not generate instructions to make itself in the process of becoming itself.

McGilchrist spends some time debunking the idea of genetic programming and that heredity is defined by genetics, saying that DNA is one of the most inactive of all proteins. It is a storehouse on which the cell can draw. The cell is not a blind robot doing the bidding of the DNA. It draws on DNA to make intelligent decisions. We know that genes are not always main players by observing that fruit flies in which the genes for development of eyes have been removed, will after a few generations of interbreeding develop eyes once more, despite not having the gene. (p. 466)

McGilchrist does not support Dawkins’ idea of the ‘blind watchmaker’. ‘… organisms are not at all like a watch; and evolution ‘simply does not proceed like a watchmaker, blind or otherwise’ (Nicholson, 2014). (p.485).

  • Motion vs stasis

To remain the same, an organism must change all the time. Organisms are stable metabolic flows of energy and matter. The metabolism of a cell is the way in which it remains the same. A machine is static until it is switched on, but an organism is in a state of constant flux. Process and flow are at its core. ‘Life is not a rearrangement of already known nuts and bolts, but the constant creation of something radically new.’ (p.447)

  • Non-linearity

Machines follow instructions in a sequential way, but living things are complex non-linear systems, that are constantly correcting themselves. An organism is not pushed from behind following a sequence of pre-determined steps but is constantly unfolding itself and constantly correcting itself.

‘In a classical mechanism, causation is linear and can be clearly outlined. However, in biological systems, causation tends to follow not straight lines, but spirals, involving recursive loops, and multiple causes leading to multiple effects across a network, with sometimes competing factors cross-regulating one another, reciprocally interacting, and in ways we do not understand taking information from the whole. …. Context is everything.’ (p.447/8)

‘A machine is a chain and is dead’. ‘An organism is a flow, and is alive’. (p.449)

  • Not one-way action – maybe not even interaction?

Cause and effect in organisms are not one-way, but reciprocal. The process is reverberative, back and forth. In the video where Alex Gomez-Marin and Iain McGilchrist discuss this chapter (see below), Iain refers to the microbiologist Kriti Sharma, describing her book, Interdependence, as fascinating, and quoting her as writing that ‘the cell is not exactly reacting to an environment, but is reacting with an environment, as oxygen reacts with iron and where both are transformed.’ (p.453) Sharma describes this process as mutual constitution – each becomes what it is in the act of creation, each is causative of the other, causality is reciprocal.

  • The ‘parts’ are themselves changing

In a machine the parts do not change with their context. The machine changes when switched on, but the parts do not. In an organism the parts (if you can call them that) are constantly changing according to the context. They respond to different environments to produce different effects. Organisms are ‘antifragile’ systems functions just the right side of chaos. ‘… antifragility, which thrives on flexibility, makes small adjustments and thereby not only survives but evolves.’ (p.457). Living beings perhaps should be called living becomings, always in process, always in flow.

  • The influence of the whole

An organism is a process, which unlike a machine, has no clearly defined parts. An organism in reality is an indivisible unity. The influence of the whole on the parts can be seen in the case of injured organisms that can heal and regenerate their injured parts. One of the most extreme examples of this is in the case of flatworms, which have a centralised brain with true synaptic transmission. If these worms are decapitated, then not only can they grow a new head and brain, but the new brain preserves the memories of the decapitated brain.

 Another striking example of the influence of the whole given by McGilchrist is in relation to the structure of the heart and the development of the septum in the foetus. McGilchrist quotes biologist Craig Holdrege (p.445)

‘Before the heart has developed walls (septa) separating the four chambers from each other, the blood already flows in two distinct ‘currents’ through the heart. The blood flowing through the right and left sides of the heart do not mix, but stream and loop by each other, just as two currents in a body of water. In the ‘still water zone’ between the two currents, the septum dividing the two chambers forms. Thus the movement of the blood gives parameters for the inner differentiation of the heart, just as the looping heart redirects the flow.’

The structure of the heart is as much a result of flow as the cause of it.

  • Imprecise boundaries

A machine has clear boundaries and distinctive parts, but processes do not have boundaries; they overlap. Symbiotic life forms are the rule rather than the exception and this require collaboration and cooperation, two of the main characteristics of life and its evolution. Organisms are complex systems involved in a combination of competition and cooperation. ‘Such a relationship in which division and union are fruitfully balanced, is what we mean by collaboration.’ (p.471)

  • Boot-strapping

This point repeats what was briefly mentioned above. Machines do not and cannot make themselves. ‘… the instructions for making the machine cannot themselves be the product of the very machine they are designed to make.’ (p.471), but as Griffiths and Stotz (2018) paraphrasing Oyama (2002) write (quoted by McGilchrist on p.472)

‘… the developmental information expressed in the organism is not present in the starting point of development, but is itself created by the process of development, through feedback from the current state of the organism to the states of the resources that will influence future development.’

McGilchrist goes on to complete this chapter (another 30 pages) with a discussion of why the machine model has proved so attractive, the dreadful question of purpose, attempts to save the machine model in biology, and the question of whether the stream of life is a better model.

Very briefly the machine model is attractive because of its simplicity, familiarity, ease of use and past success in delivering the goods. It ‘encourages the sense that we can easily understand what life is and learn to control it.’ (p.474).

The dreadful question of purpose (teleology) is a problem for the life sciences. Haldane is quoted as saying ‘teleology is like a mistress to a biologist; he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.’ (p.477). The purpose that McGilchrist is talking about ‘is nothing extrinsic, but rather intrinsic potential that is fulfilled within a process as the process unfolds.’ (p.479). This idea of teleology requires biologists to focus not on things but on processes, in which there are no plans or predetermined steps. ‘A purpose here is not a plan. It is a tendency inseparable from – woven into, as it were, the fabric of – a life, which leaves all the detail, and even the final outcome, undetermined’ (p.478) just as a woman can purpose to be a mother but cannot determine or predict the path that will be taken. In attempting to save the machine model, orthodox biologists attempt to brush the issue of purpose under the carpet.

Finally, McGilchrist returns to his argument that the trouble with biology is that it focusses on things rather than on processes and flow, quoting von Bertalanffy writing as long ago as 1952, ‘…. In biology there is no rigid organic form as a bearer of the processes of life; rather there is a flow of processes, manifesting itself in apparently persistent forms.’ (p.490)

This is a long chapter, about 70 pages, in which McGilchrist provides a lot of evidence and notes to support his arguments, more than I personally needed, but perhaps enough to convince biologists that there are problems with the machine model for the study of life. There is a suggestion towards the end of the chapter that ‘we should banish from our speech and writing any use of the word “machine” as an explanation or definition of anything that is not a machine.’ (p.496).

I have barely skimmed the surface of the content of this chapter in these notes, and any errors in this post are mine. The videos in which Alex Gomez-Marin and McGilchrist discuss each chapter of this book, The Matter With Things, provide helpful in summaries of the key points. I find it useful to watch them alongside reading the chapters.


McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

Mackness, J. (2018) E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine (Blog post)

Flourishing as the aim of education – Kristján Kristjánsson

Flourishing would seem an obvious aim of education. To me it’s an indictment of our times that Kristján Kristjánsson felt he needed to write a lengthy book to justify this and that there needs to be a special department at the University of Birmingham, UK, to study and research this. I would hope that it would be obvious that flourishing should be the aim of education, but clearly not.  

Kristján Kristjánsson is Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. He is not alone in thinking that flourishing should be the overall aim of education, but his perspective is unique. He attempts to bring a Neo-Aristotelian view to flourishing as the aim of education. In other words, he wants to bring Aristotle’s account of flourishing up to date.

For Aristotle flourishing is more than well-being. Kristjánsson agrees with this and spends some time explaining why flourishing cannot be equated with happiness, writing that it is possible for a person to be happy but not flourish, or a person to be unhappy and yet flourish.

For Aristotle certain external conditions need to be in place for flourishing. Some of these are:

  • Close parental attachment and good upbringing/education
  • Good government, ruling in the interests of the people, and a just constitution
  • Enough wealth to make sure we do not come a cropper
  • A complete life: namely a life in which we do not die prematurely
  • Health, strength, and even minimal physical beauty
  • Friends and family

I would question some of these, for example, a complete life, but we must remember that when Aristotle was writing people did not live to the age of 100 or beyond. For Kristjánsson, Aristotle’s account is not enough; for him we have to go beyond Aristotle’s attempts to describe what flourishing means, but he is concerned that the idea of flourishing can become ‘bland’ in educational accounts and has written (2021) ‘A threat of bland truisms hovers constantly over educational accounts of flourishing ….. The concept of flourishing becomes like a shopping trolley that everybody can fill with his or her random choice of goods.’ As such Kristjánsson attempts specificity in a long definition, which I have heard/seen described (I can’t remember where now) as reading like an insurance policy.  This is Kristjánsson’s definition:

Human flourishing is the (relatively) unencumbered, freely chosen and developmentally progressive activity of a meaningful (subjectively purposeful and objectively valuable) life that actualises satisfactorily an individual human being’s natural capacities in areas of species-specific existential tasks at which human beings (as rational, social, moral, and emotional agents) can most successfully excel. (Kristjánsson, 2020, p.1)

Kristjánsson (2020, p.35) goes beyond Aristotle in suggesting that a flourishing education must involve

  • Engagement with self-transcendent ideals and experiences of awe-filled enchantment
  • Moral elevation
  • A clear personal sense of meaning …

… but as mentioned above it does not have to be accompanied by subjective well-being and a person does not have to be fully virtuous to flourish.

This suggests to me that students need spiritual experiences in education in order to flourish. This seems to be supported by William Damon’s research (2008, cited by Kristjánsson on p.43) in which he found from surveying 1200 young people between the ages of 12 and 26, and interviewing a quarter of them in depth, that only 20% of them were fully purposeful. Approximately 25% were ‘dreamers’, about 30% were ‘dabblers’ and 25% were disengaged.

What can teachers do to support flourishing in education? Opinion on this is divided, with some thinking that teachers should become agents of social change, and others that this is not the job of teachers, and that instead they should be good role models. Can teachers do this without flourishing themselves? Do teachers have the necessary moral language and moral identity? Do teachers have meaning in their lives? Do they have a sense of purpose? Have they been adequately trained for this?

And what about a curriculum for flourishing? John White, 2011 (cited in Kristjánsson, p.32) thinks that we should tear up the curriculum and start again; we should not carve the curriculum up into discrete subjects but teach all subjects through themes, such as climate change. Kristjánsson’s view is not as radical as this, but he does think that flourishing should permeate the whole curriculum and influence every salient educational decision taken within the school. He also thinks that teachers should provide students with the space to have ‘peak experiences’ and expose them to the ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness. Students should be encouraged to keep an open mind and explore new ways of seeing (Kristjánsson, 2021).

This book was discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network earlier this month. I don’t think I would have read it had it not been on their list, even though I fully agree that flourishing should be the overall aim of education. The book is very long and academic, and I wonder how many full-time working teachers would have the time to read it. Kristjánsson wants teachers to read it, as at the end of every chapter he has included a list of questions under the title ‘Food for thought for practitioners’. These questions are worth considering and discussing.

Our PhilofEd zoom meeting to discuss this book was introduced by Kenny Primrose who has recently completed his Masters in Character Education at the University of Birmingham with Kristján Kristjánsson as his tutor. Kenny posed three questions for the group:

  • To what extent does Kristjánsson’s theory/view of flourishing provide a helpful and normative ideal for educators, when compared to other governing aims of education?
  • How would an education system with flourishing as its core aim look different? (Chapter 2 includes radical proposals like White’s; does flourishing require a radically different approach politically, institutionally and pedagogically?)
  • A significant difference in K’s theory from other Aristotelian ideas is the addition of experiences of awe/transcendence, which seek to enchant a fairly flat idea of flourishing. To what extent is this a realistic and fair aim for educators, and what would this entail?

I liked Kenny’s questions. For me they focussed on the main concerns for teachers whilst at the same time being broad enough for those who had not had the time or inclination to read the book to be able to join in the discussion. And given that it transpired that not one member of our small group (about six of us if I remember correctly) had enjoyed the book, there was still plenty of discussion. I am glad I engaged with the book. I think the work that Kristjánsson is doing has to be important. He has appealed to colleagues and readers (2021) to help move flourishing discourse forward in order to make it enrich educational policy and practice. I would appeal to him to make his work more accessible to every day full-time teachers.


Kristjánsson, K. (2020). Flourishing as the Aim of Education: A Neo-Aristotelian View. London: Routledge

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson: Four Accounts of Flourishing as the Aim of Education (2021)

Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose: How young people find their calling in life. New York: Free Press.

White, J. (2011). Exploring well-being in schools: A guide to making children’s lives more fulfilling. London: Routledge.

Achille Mbembe. Out of the Dark Night

This month’s book for discussion by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network was Achille Mbembe’s ‘Out of the Dark Night. Essays on decolonization’ – a striking title and an equally striking book cover.

In preparation for this discussion, I listened to Mbembe talk about his book to Theory from the Margins, on You Tube. The text under the video on the You Tube site, provides a brief outline of Mbembe’s work and ideas, which I won’t repeat here.

Out of the Dark Night was first published in French in 2010, the year when most African countries celebrated 50 years of independence. It is a set of reflections on what happened to aspiration for self-determination in countries in Africa. Decolonization is the central theme. Mbembe says this is more profound than coming into independence as it has implications for our ways of viewing the world.

Mbembe goes on to say that we cannot talk about decolonization without saying something about the concept of colonization. Historically the expansion of colonialization had to do with the broader question of who does the earth belong to? This question is still with us. European powers decided that Earth belonged to them and carved out spheres of domination and influence, but Earth doesn’t belong to Europe. It belongs to all who inhabit it.

Colonial expansion was a planetary project, not only earthly, driven in large part by national states, private companies, and monopolies. It had to do with re-allocation of resources by those who had the largest technological advantage. Therefore, decolonization must be a planetary project; it cannot be focussed on just one region. Decolonization is a radical openness of and to the world. It has nothing to do with partitioning of the world but is a radical embrace of the world and all who inhabit it. We deny the fact that we humans all evolve with the biosphere, we depend on it and are defined by it; therefore, we owe each other a debt of responsibility and care. Colonialism is a disavowal of that care and responsibility.

Technological escalation has led to the emergence of a form of capitalism that today is computational.  We are now in the age of the algorithm, and the escalation of this is threatening to turn us all into artefacts. It is important to keep in mind that colonialism relied on racial subsidies. Technologies of racialization are ever more insidious, ever more encompassing, as world becomes a huge data emporium. Tomorrow racialization will be generated through data.

Decolonization and de-racialization are not the concern of Africa only. They are also valid for Europe, the USA, Brazil, and other parts of the world. They are of concern because of the aggressive resurgence of white supremacy, the emergence of populism and nationalism, the weaponization of difference and identity, and symptoms of deep distrust of the world fostered by transnational forces which are capable of making the whole world inhospitable for many.

A key element in the ongoing history of colonialism is techno-molecular colonialism. The world is a vast field of data awaiting extraction. We have a different kind of colonialism ahead of us, one which is about the extraction and capture of data.

Decolonization is more than a slogan. It needs to attend to these shifts, particularly in relation to the Anthropocene and computational technologies. Decolonization has to be a real movement.

There was more in this talk than I have written about here and the questions asked at the end were also interesting.

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network discussion, focussed on more academic aspects of the book and its implications for education. The discussion was led by Rowena Azada- Palacios who asked us to consider the following questions:

Source of Image: Rowena Azada-Palacios powerpoint presentation

These were not easy questions to answers and the discussion itself was hesitant. I think this may have been for fear of offending or ‘treading on toes’. Within the group we had participants who had been subject to colonialism in their own life history, participants who had been subject to oppression in other forms and in countries other than Africa, and yet other participants who were raised by parents and grandparents who were colonizers. I, for example, come from a background closely associated with the British Raj.

In relation to the implications for education, one of the participants mentioned that she finds it very difficult to get her students to engage with the topics of colonialism and racism. It seems to me that this is a topic that requires well-established mutual trust for fruitful discussion, but Mbembe’s ideas and thinking offer an open approach which may be helpful.


Mbembe, A. (2021).  Out of the Dark Night. Essays on Decolonization. Columbia University Press.

Bulelani, J. (2021). Review: Achille Mbembe, ‘Out of the Dark Night’. Theory, Culture and Society

The Matter With Things. Chapter 11. Science’s Claims on Truth

Another interesting and enjoyable chapter in this very long book, which I am not even halfway through, despite having bought it very shortly after publication in November 2021. At this rate it will be 2024 before I finish it!

As mentioned before, the book is in three parts. The first part is made up of nine chapters and a coda, in which McGilchrist writes about The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth. I have yet to finish reading the last two chapters of Part 1, but for notes on Chapters 2 to 7, see

In Part 2 McGilchrist writes about The Hemispheres and the Paths to Truth. In the first chapter, Chapter 10, he explores the question What is Truth? . Chapter 11, Science’s Claims on Truth is the second chapter. So far, I am enjoying Part 2 more that Part 1.

The main thrust of this chapter is that in the West, recent history has seen a move away from religion to science, and more particularly, to scientism (the belief that science will one day answer all our questions), in our search for truth. But, says McGilchrist, there are intrinsic limits to science, which tends to make exaggerated claims, use models that distort, and succumb to institutional pressures. Science has come to be thought of as the only path to truth and a discussion of its limits is often not welcome. Whilst McGilchrist is emphatic about the value of science, his concern is that it can’t answer the big questions; it can’t, for example, tell us what it means to be in love. Science finds it hard to deal with all that is experiential, but most of what we value in life is experiential, not observable, or measurable. The bigger the human meaning, the less science can offer. What we are asking science to do is to give us information/data but can that be converted into an understanding and what part does science play in the achievement of an understanding? Science can answer questions where explicit, mechanistic explanations are required, but not where understanding is required.

Explanation, metaphor, and models

Science cannot escape using models and metaphors because they are the basis of all understanding, so science depends on metaphors derived from concrete experience. All understanding depends on metaphor. Science uses models. Models are simply extended metaphors. The choice of the model is critical because:

‘We never just see something without seeing it as a something. We may think that our theories are shaped by observations, but it is as true that our observations are shaped by theories. This means that we can be blind to some very obvious things in our immediate environment. We don’t look where we don’t expect to see, so that our expectations come to govern what we can see.’ p.410

In the past the dominant model was a tree, a river, a family – something in the natural world. These days the dominant model is the machine (as favoured by the left hemisphere). The machine model is science’s defining paradigm, but it is a form of metaphor, and not all metaphors are good metaphors. All models are only a partial fit. A model determines not only what we do see but also what we don’t see, and we affect the model. No one model will ever be the perfect fit. We need to try and test different models, even though we may ultimately need to jettison them. Ideas of 100% truth cannot be sustained. In science certain things will be neglected. We may think that only things that are quantifiable are real (a left hemisphere perspective), but we have to rethink objectivity.


We cannot do without objectivity, but it is easily misinterpreted. To quote McGilchrist:

‘Science provides us with that objective knowledge by taking ‘us’ out of the picture, so removing subjective distortion from its objective presentation of how, in itself, the world actually is.’ p.413

We have already seen, however, that this aspiration to take ‘us’ out of the picture is compromised by the fact that science can’t get going without metaphor and metaphor is something from which ‘we’ cannot possibly be divorced.’ p.413

‘Objectivity is always someone’s position, situated somewhere and making some assumptions.’ p.414

Objectivity should be able to inhabit a lot of different perspectives – we ought to try to see from different perspectives.

Between us and the world there is always the barrier of our brains, and since we have two hemispheres in our brains each with their own view of the world, there are at least two views that science must take into account.

All methods rely on our judgements and values, even though these can’t be measured. Science frequently passes over what can’t be measured. It can’t cope with things that are imprecise or can’t be generalised. When considering objectivity, we need a more nuanced interpretation which recognises that existing answers are inadequate and provisional; there are always alternative answers. There are no whole truths, only half-truths, and context is of critical importance. Science tends to take things out of context. In trying to make science robust, we veer unstably between black and white positions, but we shouldn’t make statements that are too great or absolute. Instead of trying to make science robust, we should make it anti-fragile.

Hidden Assumptions

There are many assumptions in science. Science assumes that everything is understandable in physical terms, but science’s explanations both reveal and conceal. Sometimes assumptions are justified, but we must acknowledge them. Science can do very, very much, but not everything. As mentioned above, it cannot answer the very big questions, about values, meaning and purpose in life. Science is far from having all the answers – it is alive, provisional, and uncertain.

On p.420 McGilchrist quotes Max Planck as saying – ‘we have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.’

The scientific method

The scientific method is a myth. A belief in the notion of scientific objectivity, has led to a loss of imagination in science, but science requires imagination to come up with fruitful hypotheses. Chance and serendipity, intuition and inspiration play important roles in science.

Great discoveries are often made through images and metaphors rather than through chains of logic. Big insights are not made by following a logical linear sequence of steps, but by things like pattern recognition. Results can come in a flash of intuition and often precede arguments. Good hypotheses always ‘go beyond’ the immediate facts.

‘….. this does not discredit science in any way: it shows, instead, what an exciting and humbling business science is. We collaborate with nature, and with fortune, pay attention and learn from her. We neither withdraw the human element, as the myth of the scientific method implies, nor force nature to our preconceived ends.’ p.425

‘…. Just because what we rightly take to be scientific truths are not ‘objective’ in the sense that nothing human, contingent, and fallible enters into them, this does not mean they have no legitimate claim to be called true. … truth is never objective ….. All knowledge whatsoever is contextual and contingent. p. 429

Scientists must have faith, and science must be aware of its own limits.

For a discussion about this chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin, see:


McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

Søren Kierkegaard –‘The Father of Existentialism’

Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard by his cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840 (

I have recently had the opportunity to spend three days away from home with a small group of people discussing the life and work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855). Before going, I didn’t have much interest in Kierkegaard. I just hoped for a few days respite, in a beautiful location, where my meals would be provided, and the conversation would be stimulating.  The topic could have been anything, but at the time when I could go away without causing too much disruption at home, the course happened to be on Kierkegaard.

This is where I stayed (Higham Hall in the Lake District in Cumbria UK):

And this is an image of the course description and our wonderfully tolerant tutor, Darren Harper

There were only seven of us on the course, six women and one man (two, if you include Darren too, so eight of us in total in the group), but goodness what a diverse group. Most importantly there was only one person who professed to have ‘faith’ in God. There was a Quaker who said she did not believe in God (a Nontheist Quaker), one strong atheist and a couple of others who appeared to be atheists, one agnostic and two undeclared. This information about the group turned out to be important in relation to discussion about Kierkegaard.

The reason I have started this post with a bit of background information is that, for me, one of the things that seemed to be a stumbling block for some in being openly receptive to Kierkegaard’s work, was an understanding that he was a man of his time, i.e., the context in which he lived and worked was necessarily influential, just as the context in we were meeting as a group and the make-up of that group were influential in how discussion proceeded and the success of the course.

In preparation for this course, we were asked to read Clare Carlisle’s biography – ‘Philosopher of the Heart. The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard’. I still haven’t read the whole book. I managed to get about halfway through before the course started and looked at some secondary sources, for example this short School of Life video (6.46 mins)

Somewhere in her writing Clare Carlisle says that she both ‘loves’ Kierkegaard but also finds him irritating, or words to this effect. I can’t find the exact quote now, but I know what she means. Had I met Kierkegaard in person, I think I would have found him irritating in the sense that he was intensely self-absorbed, but also, I found myself warming to him as I found out more about him, and I admire his courage. He was a lone voice in his time.

At that time Denmark was in a period of change. This was the Romantic era, following the Enlightenment, a time when the Lutheran Church in Denmark distrusted philosophy and was dominant, and when Hegel’s philosophy was all the rage. But Kierkegaard thought Hegel’s work too theoretical. Kierkegaard’s main questions were around what it means to be human in the world. In this sense he was the ‘father of existentialism’ although Kierkegaard himself wouldn’t have known the word ‘existentialism’ or where his ideas might lead, or that he would be a recognised and respected philosopher in the 20th and 21st centuries. He was not a popular figure in his time.

Kierkegaard observed society in Copenhagen and in his travels to Berlin and posited that many people lived the ‘aesthetic life’. For him this meant a pleasure-seeking life ruled by passion, not necessarily a bad life, but simply not enough. An alternative was to live an ‘ethical life’, which meant serving the community and following society’s and the Lutheran Church’s rules and conventions. For Kierkegaard, neither of these were enough. For him, Christianity requires more than living the good life, or following the Church’s conventions. It requires an authentic relationship with God, which can only be achieved through a leap of faith.  This means living a life of uncertainty because God is beyond logic, proof, and reason. Faith and the religious life cannot be taught, explained, or required, but are reached individually through life experience and self-exploration.

I am aware that what I have written is a massive over-simplification of Kierkegaard’s ideas, but it was this idea of a leap of faith, advocated by Kierkegaard, which seemed to annoy and get under the skin of some members of the group on my course. This and the fact that Kierkegaard uses the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac to exemplify this leap of faith, which was regarded by one member of the group as an abhorrent story, and which has for years, in her view, terrified young children. This led to a fascinating discussion on the benefits or otherwise of religious education in schools.

In fact, the whole course was full of fascinating discussion and highly stimulating. What I really appreciated about it was that although there was a programme for the course – on Day 1, to be introduced to Kierkegaard’s book ‘Fear and Trembling’, on Day 2 to be introduced to his book ‘Either/Or’, and on Day 3 to discuss his legacy – the tutor only loosely stuck to this programme and allowed discussion to roam. Other fascinating discussions were about the place of love in marriage (Kierkegaard broke off his engagement to Regine Olsen because he felt that marriage would become boring after the first flush of romantic love and sexual desire and prevent him from engaging in his main passion, writing); about decision making, about boredom, about belief and doubt, music and language – and more.

So having gone on the course with little more than the desire to have a bit of a rest, I came away with a much greater appreciation of the contribution that Kierkegaard has made to the history of philosophy and existentialism. I know I have not said much about this in this post, but the School of Life video gives a good overview and I have included a few references below.


Carlisle, C. (2019) Philosopher of the Heart. The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard. Penguin.

Wikipedia has entries on both of Kierkegaard’s books, Fear and Trembling and Either/Or

Fear and Trembling Spark Notes Study Guide

Either/Or Spark Notes Study Guide

Ethics Explainer: Existentialism

Martin Buber. The Knowledge of Man

I was moved by Martin Buber’s book ‘I and Thou’, which was read and discussed by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in August 2021, so I was looking forward to reading more by Buber. The Knowledge of Man was the choice of the reading network for discussion in June this year (2022) and I managed to secure a second-hand copy of the book, in very good condition, from Abe Books, my go to site for books to be read with this group. I prefer to have a hard copy than read these books online or on Kindle. So, I was prepared and enthused at the thought of discussing this book, but life and personal circumstances got in the way. Not only was I not able to read much of the book, but, due to many distractions, what little time I did have to devote to the book ended up as largely fruitless. Ultimately, I was only able to skim read a couple of chapters, in this distracted state, and I was not able to attend the zoom meeting when the book was discussed. The time was just not right for me to engage with this book.

But maybe it wasn’t only my personal circumstances that led to my failure to get to grips with this book. Whenever I find a book difficult, I hunt around for secondary sources, to learn from people who have appeared to understand the work, before launching into it myself. This time this did not yield much fruit. Unlike Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ which has been written about and discussed by many, many others (there are countless secondary sources on the web), I could find scarcely any secondary sources for The Knowledge of Man. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place, or perhaps others, like me, have also found the book challenging.

The Knowledge of Man consists of six essays, plus an introductory essay by Maurice Friedman, and an Appendix – Dialogue between Martin Buber and Carl R. Rogers.

The six essays are:

  1. Distance and Relation
  2. Elements of the Interhuman
  3. What Is Common to All
  4. The Word That is Spoken
  5. Guilt and Guilt Feelings
  6. Man and His Image-Work

Each essay is quite short; between 20 and 30 pages long, so this is not a long book. I was able to spend a bit of time on the first two chapters and hope to return to the rest of the book at another time.

Distance and Relation

In this essay Buber considers the tension between distance and relation. On page 60, he writes:

‘.. the principle of human life is not simple but twofold, being built up in a twofold movement which is of such kind that the one movement is the presupposition of the other. I propose to call the first movement ‘the primal setting at a distance’ and the second ‘entering into relation’. That the first movement is the presupposition of the other is plain from the fact that one can enter into relation only with being which has been set at a distance, more precisely, has become an independent opposite. And it is only for man that an independent opposite exists.’

It makes sense to me that relation depends on and is compatible with distance. Relation and distance are necessary for one another. People in successful marriages know this, as do parents of growing children. As is written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘… without the form of otherness there can be no confirmation of self insofar as the confirmation of the I is always mediated by the other who confirms me, both at a distance and in relation, or rather in the distance that is relation and the relation that is difference.’

My understanding from this chapter is that I-Thou relation is only possible if we recognise distance as integral to relation.

‘Man, as man, sets man at a distance and makes him independent; he lets the life of men like himself go on round about him, and so he, and he alone, is able to enter into relation, in his own individual status, with those like himself. The basis of man’s life with man is twofold, and it is one – the wish of every man to be confirmed as what he is, even as what he can become, by men; and the innate capacity in man to confirm his fellow men in this way.’ (p.67, 68)

‘Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfilment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness. When two men inform one another of their basically different views about an object, each aiming to convince the other of the rightness of his own way of looking at the matter, everything depends so far as human life is concerned on whether each thinks of the other as the one he is, whether each, that is, with all his desire to influence the other, nevertheless unreservedly accepts and confirms him in his being this man and in his being made in this particular way. The strictness and depth of human individuation, the elemental otherness of the other, is then not merely noted as the necessary starting point, but is affirmed from the one being to the other. The desire to influence the other then does not mean the effort to change the other, to inject one’s own ‘rightness’ into him; but it means the effort to let that which is recognized as right, as just, as true (and for that very reason must also be established there, in the substance of the other) through one’s influence take seed and grow in the form suited to individuation. Opposed to this effort is the lust to make use of men by which the manipulator of ‘propaganda’ and ‘suggestion’ is possessed, in his relation to men remaining as in a relation to things, to things, moreover, with which he will never enter into relation, which he is indeed eager to rob of their distance and independence.’ (p.69)

Elements of the Interhuman

In this essay, Buber continues to develop his ideas about how we communicate and develop I-Thou relationships, where we perceive the ‘other’ in his wholeness and are fully aware of him.

‘But what does it mean to be ‘aware’ of a man in the exact sense in which I use the word? To be aware of a thing or a being means, in quite general terms, to experience it as a whole and yet at the same time without reduction or abstraction, in all its concreteness…Such an awareness is impossible, however, if and so long as the other is the separated object of my contemplation or even observation…. [Such an awareness] is only possible when I step into an elemental relation with the other, that is, when he becomes present to me….An effort is being made today radically to destroy the mystery between man and man. The personal life, the ever near mystery, once the source of the stillest enthusiasm, is leveled down.’ (p. 80-81)

Buber distinguishes this interhuman communication between men from social communication within a group. Communication within groups does not necessarily involve existential relation between one man and another. Interhuman relations go well beyond casual encounters.

Buber writes that two things can prevent men from communicating on this level; ‘the invasion of seeming and the inadequacy of perception.’ (p.82) Genuine dialogue cannot be arranged beforehand; it cannot be achieved when thinking about the impression made on the other. Genuine dialogue is constituted by the authenticity of being. In the interhuman realm, men communicate with one another as they are, and accept one another as they are.

Not only ‘seeming’ and the ‘inadequacy of perception’ prevent genuine dialogue. It is also impeded by trying to impose opinions on another. This is the role of propaganda, but education seeks to affect another’s views and release potential through ‘existential communication between someone that is in actual being and someone that is in a process of becoming’. (p.82) Unlike the propagandist, the educator is interested in individuals. The educator doesn’t impose but unfolds. These two approaches to communication, that of the propagandist and that of the educator are present in all of us to a greater or lesser degree.

‘Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity. For the proper existence of the interhuman it is necessary …. that the semblance not intervene to spoil the relation of personal being to personal being. It is further necessary …. that each one means and makes present the other in his personal being. That neither should wish to impose himself on the other is the third basic presupposition of the interhuman. These presuppositions do not include the demand that one should influence the other in his unfolding; this is, however, an element that is suited to lead to a higher stage of the interhuman.’ (p.84)

I have included a number of long quotes from The Knowledge of Man in this post. Buber is a beautiful writer. His writing speaks for itself.

As I mentioned above, I was not able to attend the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s zoom meeting, but the session was introduced by Dr Sam Rocha, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, who posed the following ideas and questions for the group to think about.

A concern for the ideas at stake in the following questions indicate we can read Buber’s The Knowledge of Man as an explicit philosophy of education. In other words, insofar as (1) appearance, mind, and life, (2) knowledge, and (3) philosophical anthropology are at stake, we do not need to translate the text indirectly into philosophy of education so much as to understand it as directly as possible.

  1. What are the phenomenological, psychological (psychoanalysis included), and pastoral dimensions of this text?
  2. What kind of knowledge is Buber proposing and seeking?
  3. What kind of anthropology does Buber present, i.e., what does he mean by ‘man’ or what is his notion of the human person?


Martin Buber (1965) The Knowledge of Man. Selected Essays. Harper Torchbooks. Harper & Row.

The Matter With Things. Chapter 6. Emotional and Social Intelligence

It is unsurprising that emotional and social intelligence is regarded by Iain McGilchrist as one of the ‘means to truth’. Both forms of intelligence are thought to be important aspects of education and learning, at least in the West, and many educators will know of Daniel Goleman’s work on this, not that McGilchrist mentions education. McGilchrist’s focus is on the role of the hemispheres in understanding the human world.

McGilchrist starts this chapter (p.193) with a nice quote (see below) from Johann Gottfried Herder, 1828, so clearly the role of emotional and social intelligence in our understanding of the world is not a new idea.

‘Anyone who wants to be all head is as much a monster as one who wants to be all heart’.

McGilchrist tells us that emotional and social understanding are central to understanding all human situations. Social and emotional intelligence are required for being able to judge what is real and what is not. Experience of the world is an encounter, a relationship, a process; it is not a static thing. Relations are of key importance in social and emotional intelligence. Everything exists as a relationship. How to understand people and see another person’s point of view involves emotional and social intelligence and our grasp of reality.

It is the right hemisphere that has a grip on reality. It’s ‘mode of attention, capacity for pragmatic understanding and communication, superior perceptual integration, and ability to shift belief appropriately in the light of new evidence’ (p.193) all make this possible. It understands how context changes meaning. Damage to the right hemisphere leads to a diminished sense of reality and emotional disconnectedness, whereas damage to the left hemisphere can lead to an increased intensity of experience. This was experienced by Jill Bolte Taylor following her left hemisphere stroke. The undamaged left hemisphere is less in touch with the body and the implicit than the right hemisphere, jumps to conclusion, is unable to shift mindset and does not ‘get’ the emotional import of human behaviour.

But all this does not mean that the right hemisphere is ‘emotional’ and the left hemisphere is ‘cool’ and rational. Both hemispheres can underwrite emotions. Anger, irritability, and disgust are all lateralised to the left hemisphere. Sadness, melancholy, and depression are more associated with the right hemisphere. So, there are differences in the emotional capacities of the two hemispheres.

Theory of mind – the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s position, see what they see, and feel some of what they feel (empathy) – is highly dependent on the right hemisphere. Right hemisphere damaged people (as in schizophrenia and autism) lose the ability to read faces, understand metaphor, sarcasm, and tone of voice. They become literalistic in the ways they interpret things, and ‘may show a ‘blanket disregard’ for the feelings, needs and expectations of others’. (p. 201) Following left hemisphere damage patients become better at understanding implicit metaphorical meanings.

Metaphor is not an addition or ornament at the top level; it is the bedrock of language, making connection between symbol and experience. Metaphor means to carry over. Whenever we use language, we are using metaphor, but we have become so familiar with many of them that they no longer act as metaphors. We have to distinguish between dead clichéd and live metaphors. The left hemisphere deals with cliches. Live metaphor is dependent on the right hemisphere.

The word ‘intelligence’ is derived from two words in Latin, inter (meaning between) and legere (meaning choose) (see  And the original meaning of the word ‘understand’ was to stand in the midst of, since ‘under’ did not mean ‘beneath’, but rather ‘among’ or ‘between’. So social and emotional intelligence through which we understand people, their motivations (‘why’ they behave in the way they do) and our world, depend on relations. The right hemisphere is dominant and superior for all forms of emotional receptivity and expressivity (p.204)

‘… emotion is a critical part of capacity to comprehend the world at all, the ability to understand and interact with other living things. Without it we are foolish, however much we may know, and we are only alive in a diminished sense of the word.’ (p.224) The right hemisphere is critical for this understanding.

There is far more in this chapter than I have written about here. For a discussion about the chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin watch this video


McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

The Matter With Things. Chapter 5. Apprehension

This fifth chapter of Iain McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things, is short; only 10 pages long, compared to some chapters which are almost book length; for example, Chapter 28 is more than 100 pages long.

In Chapter 5 McGilchrist takes a different approach to that taken in preceding chapters in that instead of examining what happens after right hemisphere damage, here he focusses on what happens after left hemisphere damage. This is in relation to the left hemisphere’s propensity to manipulate the world by grasping or holding on to it, i.e., to apprehend it, as opposed to the right hemisphere’s propensity to encounter the world, explore it and hold things together, i.e., to comprehend it.

McGilchrist doesn’t explain why he took this different approach. Perhaps there is more evidence of what happens after left hemisphere damage, but I found myself wondering how the chapter might have been different had it been titled Comprehension instead of Apprehension.

As ever, McGilchrist shares his understanding of the etymology of the two words.

Ap-prehending, from Latin ad + prehendere, to hold onto – manipulating

Com-prehending, from Latin cum + prehendere, to hold together – understanding

I always find McGilchrist’s explanations of the origins of words helpful in understanding how he interprets and represents them. So, from this, the left hemisphere apprehends and the right hemisphere comprehends. When there is damage to the left hemisphere the world is still there and comprehensible, but it can no longer easily utilise the world or represent it. The simple act of utilisation is lost. We see this in left hemisphere stroke patients whose right arm and right hand function is impaired. McGilchrist uses further patient vignettes to illustrate this point that left hemisphere damage leaves the patient unable to use simple tools such as a key or a toothbrush.

The right hemisphere explores with the left hand. This behaviour can be seen in the great apes that use the right hand to grasp something, but the left hand for making contact with others. Right hemisphere damage rarely results in an inability to use tools, but instead affects the patient’s ability to perform a sequence of tasks to achieve an end, for example, make a cup of coffee.

When the left hemisphere is damaged, as in a stroke, not only is the patient’s right arm and hand function impaired, but also their use of language. McGilchrist suggests that the left hemisphere uses language to map the world, i.e., it uses language to manipulate the world and maps the territory through the use of a system of symbols. But a map leaves most of the world out. ‘In the left hemisphere’s world words are seen as arbitrary signs: in the right hemisphere’s world they are seen as to some extent fused with the aspect of reality they represent.’ (p.185).  The right hemisphere sees the reality of the terrain it maps. In the left hemisphere signs are substituted for experience, but the aspects of language that tether it to the lived world, and the body, metaphor, prosody (the inflection of the voice, the sound of the word and the meaning conveyed), and pragmatics (understanding utterances in context) are right hemisphere dependent.

Left hemisphere damage doesn’t alter reality; the world is still there but a left hemisphere damaged patient can’t use it. Damage to the right hemisphere causes alterations in reality.

The purpose of the left hemisphere is to become powerful, not to understand reality. Damage to the left hemisphere results in loss of this power to utilise and manipulate the world through the right hand and language, but reality remains largely unaltered.

For a discussion about this chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin watch this video


McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.