Our divided brain

WHY is it that so much of our thinking is driven by dualisms? We have, for example, the division between mind and body; spiritualism and materialism; absolutism and relativism; rationalism and sensationalism; idealism and realism; subjectivism and objectivism.

In some cases we can lay the reason at the door of a particular philosopher. Rene Descartes, for example, although he didn’t invent the mind-body problem, certainly cemented it into our (divided?) consciousness. Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind lays the blame fairly and squarely on him, arguing that Descartes could not envisage the mental as ‘just a variety of the mechanical’. The fact-value dichotomy has its origins in David Hume’s idea that one can never infer an ‘ought’ statement from an ‘is’ statement. The conflict between realists and idealists has a long history. Three ways of tackling these divisions involve either choosing one side and going for broke; attempting a synthesis; or trying to collapse the problem. For example, one might insist on the reality of the world as perceived by us or drift towards the idealism of Bishop Berkeley. Schopenhauer attempts a synthesis of the split between the phenomenal and noumenal with his double aspect theory of perception while Hilary Putnam attempts to collapse the fact-value dichotomy in his appropriately entitled book The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy.

But there is another dualism involving views about the stability or otherwise of the world. Famously, Plato attempted to ‘fix’ the flux of the phenomenal world with his notion of Ideas or Forms. Thinkers like Henri Bergson, on the other hand, embrace the flux of multiplicity and motion while his fellow French philosopher Michel Serres takes the valorisation of flux to extremes. In his extraordinary book Genesis he writes: “The differential of the flux is fluxion. So the flux is a sum, and classical rationality is safe, I am going from the local, fluxion, to the global, flux, and conversely.” This is amazing stuff; it’s not just that the content expresses the philosophy of flux, the whole form of the book itself is in flux, although this is undermined, of course, by the fact that it is contained within the traditional format of the book.

In his book Experience and Nature, however, John Dewey tries to collapse the problem by arguing that the entanglement of stability and uncertainty drives us towards philosophy – it is the very stuff of philosophy. “Our magical safeguard against the uncertain character of the world is to deny the existence of chance, to mumble universal and necessary law, the ubiquity of cause and effect, the uniformity of nature, universal progress, and the inherent rationality of the universe.” And again: “But when all is said and done, the fundamentally hazardous character of the world is not seriously modified, much less eliminated.” Indeed Dewey goes much further to argue that ‘just this predicament of the inextricable mixture of stability and uncertainty gives rise to philosophy, and that it is reflected in all its recurrent problems and issues’.

What if, though, these ‘radical oppositions’ have an even deeper foundation in the very structure of our mind? certainly Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary claims that the division between the left and right hemispheres has a profound affect on the way we think. In very broad terms we could see one side of the brain favouring stability, realism and fact while the other privileges flux, idealism and imagination. Of course, one has to be careful not to simply pick those examples that tend to support this view and ignore those that don’t – cherry picking in other words. Nevertheless, there is sufficient plausibility in the argument to stake the claim that at least some of our penchant for philosophical divides resides in the structure of the brain itself. Indeed McGilchrist writes that our dualistic way of thinking points to the ‘fundamentally divided nature of mental experience’. He believes that our dualisms might consist of metaphors that ‘have some literal truth’. It may be that we still need to choose, synthesise or collapse these dualisms but we can, at the very least, finally accept that mental division is a natural phenomenon that may be overcome once we know its physical foundations.

Who knows, these considerations may also have relevance to our tendency towards social and political polarisation and our apparent need to label ourselves as ‘leaver’ or remainer’. If we stop labelling ourselves and start acknowledging that this practice is deeply embedded in our psyche and instead, for example, explain why we voted one way or another, then perhaps we can begin to bring the two hemispheres to work in greater harmony – and our divided polity along with it. The alternative prospect, however, that we are for ever condemned to divisions that cannot be overcome.

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  1. Then of course there is Hegel, who used this duality to create a hierarchy of synthesised principles, of which philosophy was the highest form. Art and religion were lower forms. These principles emanated from the tension between two dualities, eg mind and body. Viewed this way the Leave/Remain dichotomy leads to a synthesised third way, perhaps Leave whilst retaining key features of EU membership or Remain with some reform of our relationship with the EU.

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  2. Hi Mark, thanks for your comment. With regard to Hegel it rather depends on what is meant by synthesis. Traditionally, he is associated with idealist dialectics of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. However, there is no evidence that he deployed dialectics in this way and the fact that he is associated with it, probably incorrectly, is largely due to Marx and his followers who claimed to have set Hegel back on his feet with dialectical materialism. Although he did believe that he had created a synthesis, it was in the form of a synthesis of all European thought up to that time rather than a dialectic process of opposites as such. Hegel may still be useful in countering theoretical divisions but probably not through formal dialectics. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Hegel has since been seen through the prism of Marxism (not that I’m anti-Marxist, of course), which means that he is seen either as a hero or villain depending on your view of Marx, rather than as an important thinker in his own right. That said, of course, Marx has himself been horribly traduced as have so many other great thinkers, including Adam Smith.
    Hegel’s villain status was cemented by Bertrand Russell’s criticism in his History of Western Philosophy and still further by Karl Popper in his hugely influential book The Open Society and its Enemies, in which much of the catastrophe that struck Germany in the 20th century was laid on the baleful influence of Hegel’s thought.
    Perhaps it’s time for a reappraisal of Hegel, but in the meantime the baleful spectre of nihilism beckons!



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