Avoiding the void!

“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier, simpler.” Friedrich Nietzsche.

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

Paradoxically, the title of this blog may be misleading. It gives the impression that all that matters in life are…ideas. But is this true? The quote by Nietzsche above suggests otherwise. And, as David Hume wrote: “Reason is, and ought, only to be the slave of the passions, and so never can pretend to any office other than to serve and obey them.” OK, so Hume probably meant our senses rather than emotions, but you get the drift. Ever since the Enlightenment a battle has raged between Reason and Emotion, even though the Enlightenment has often been mischaracterised as privileging Reason over Emotion. In fact, it could be argued that many thinkers of the time acknowledged our dependence on Emotion but simply thought it might be a good idea to introduce a bit more Reason into the proceedings, thus freeing us from the most egregious slavery to Authority and Superstition.

In some ways this bifurcation of Reason and Emotion is mirrored in Cartesian duality of Mind and Body and in the political world of Community versus Individuality. Unless you are a follower of the idiocy of Neoliberalism in which the only interaction between individuals is transactional, many people feel a real tension between their individuality and their community. Are we forever condemned to two seemingly irreconcilable spheres or can they, indeed should they, be reconciled? In his remarkable book The Master and his Emissary, Iain Gilchrist argues that this division can be traced back to the Left and Right hemispheres of the brain. According to him the Right hemisphere is, or should be, the Master because it sees the world as an interconnected whole, while the Left sees it in discreet unconnected parcels, which it dissects, unpacks and logically analyses. Put simply, the Right unites and the Left divides. These two should, according to Gilchrist, work together with the Right (Master) passing its broad impressions to the Left (Servant) which, after its analysis, passes back to the Right in a classic one-two. The problem is, says Gilchrist, that the Left believes that it is in control and has increasingly become the Master with disastrous results.

An example of the problem might be the way that the Left recognises and conceptualises ethics that emerge from our interconnected Right. For example, many evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists think that altruism is a natural part of our genetic make-up. And since our genes can’t pretend to do anything for gain, this cannot be the oxymoron which is often referred to as reciprocal altruism, but genuine altruism. The Right hemisphere might intuitively acknowledge this, but think of altruism as part of the whole rather messy world of morality and human behaviour which, of course, includes selfishness and egoism. The Left hemisphere, however, may take altruism and turn it into a defined concept. That can be useful if it is then passed back to the Right hemisphere in order to transcend both to create an Hegelian synthesis. But what happens if it stays in the Left hemisphere? Well, according to Gilchrist, it can destroy ‘not just spontaneity, but the quality that makes things live; the performance of music or dance, of courtship, love and sexual behaviour, humour, artistic creation and religious devotion’ which ‘become mechanical, lifeless, and may grind to a halt’. Even if you understand the mechanics of interconnectedness and intersubjectivity, it can whither on the branch if it remains simply an idea or concept in the Left hemisphere and not lived, dynamically, in the Right. But if this happens, if indeed one grinds to a halt when, say, the dry altruism of the Left hemisphere judders to a halt in the face of mind-numbing indifference, how does one reconnect with the holism of the Right, which should be able to fill the inky black void?

Dickie Bellringer.

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2 Comments

  1. Reconciled? I prefer balanced. Both are necessary survival tools. Planning , and adaptability/problem solving..
    Healthy life /sleep/diet balance allows both to have their time, one reflecting and processing the “actions ” of the other.
    The above is necessary like internal governance as sometimes one has the ascendancy over the other! This works well if the relationship between the two is keenly regulated by reflective ,sleep/stress-free /exercise time.
    /Once secured by the above ,no crisis or stress can destroy the inculcated reflected upon values.
    Emotion will be channelled,but creativity set free.

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    1. Hi Kathie, thanks for responding. According to Gilchrist there is a kind of inbuilt imbalance between the more holistic, organic, reasonable Right side of the brain and the more calculating, rationalist Left side which is ideal for logic chopping and analytic philosophy so beloved of Anglo Saxon philosophers. In a sense they are incompatible but can work together by creating a new synthesis. He argues that the Renaissance was a perfect example of this but that the Enlightenment saw a shift towards a dominance of the Left to the detriment of humanity. It may be that his argument is weakest when he tries to scale up individual traits to match huge social movements – and he is certainly guilty of a degree of cherry picking evidence when it comes to the Enlightenment in order to support his case.
      Cheers,
      Dickie.

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