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Philosophy And The Two-Sided Brain

Carol Nicholson considers a possible source of two major differences in approach.

In two New York Times columns, ‘Does Philosophy Matter?’ (1 August 2011) and a week later ‘Does Philosophy Matter? (Part Two)’, Stanley Fish argued that philosophy does not matter to people’s everyday lives. He claimed that most people don’t have philosophical convictions, and for those who do have them, it is what he calls ‘the theory mistake’ to think that their philosophical views have any effect on the way they act outside of the classroom. He writes, “Philosophy is fun; it can be a good mental workout; its formulations sometimes display an aesthetically pleasing elegance. I’m just denying… that its conclusions dictate or generate non-philosophical behavior.” Hundreds of readers posted comments in disagreement with Fish, pointing out examples of ways in which philosophy has influenced the course of history and continues to make a difference to people’s ways of life.

It seems to me that there is truth on both sides of the argument. This is possible because Fish and his critics are operating with different definitions of philosophy. Fish is using a very narrow definition, according to which the function of philosophy is exclusively the analysis of abstract issues, such as whether there are absolute moral truths. In this thinking, the discipline of philosophy is not related to religion, ethics, politics, science, history, literature, art, or any other aspect of human experience. This severely limited view of the role of philosophy was dominant in English-speaking countries during the latter half of the twentieth century, but few philosophers today hold such an extreme position. The medieval view that philosophy is ‘the Queen of the Sciences’ is no longer widely held, but most philosophers think that studying their discipline can make a difference to one’s life outside the seminar room, although they may disagree about exactly what kind of difference. Many would argue against Fish that even if philosophy cannot give access to truths that are somehow more ultimate than scientific or historical facts, it can offer self-knowledge about the most basic assumptions and values that govern our thinking and action, and a clearer understanding of what we are doing that can help us to do it better. This links with a tradition going back to the ancient Greeks and which gives philosophy its name, meaning ‘the love of wisdom’. It’s Plato’s phrase, and he meant by it curiosity about all aspects of knowledge and experience. According to this more expansive definition, philosophy aims to understand ultimate truths about the universe and human nature (metaphysics), the extent and limits of knowledge (epistemology), and the principles that can give guidance in how to live a good life (ethics).

Why does philosophy lend itself to two different and incompatible definitions, one quite narrow, and the other quite broad? The hypothesis I want to consider is that it is down to the double-sidedness of the human brain. I suggest that there is a direct relationship between dominance of the left brain hemisphere and a narrow definition of philosophy, and between dominance of the right brain hemisphere and a broad definition of philosophy. The extreme manifestation of left-brain-dominated philosophy is maximum logical precision with minimum relevance to everyday life. The extreme manifestation of right-brain-dominated philosophy is minimum logical precision with maximum relevance to everyday life. At worst, pure left-brain-dominated philosophy tends towards over-specialization and sterile logic-chopping, while pure right-brain-dominated philosophy tends towards fuzzy and irrational speculation. This suggests that, ideally, philosophy should aim to achieve a delicate balance between the two extremes, with enough left-brain philosophy to clarify the issues under consideration, and enough right-brain philosophy to keep sight of what the important issues are.

The Pendulum of Ideals

The usefulness of this hypothesis in shedding light on the perennial controversy about what philosophy is can be illustrated by looking at its history. One way of looking at the history of Western philosophy is to see it as an ongoing quarrel between the lovers of clarity and certainty and the lovers of ambiguity and doubt. The pendulum-swing between the two poles might appear to be a fact about the history of philosophy that must be accepted like a law of nature, but if we raise the question of why this swing happens, it begins to look like an extremely odd phenomenon that demands an explanation. Pick any major on-going philosophical controversy: mind/body, idealism/materialism, free will/determinism, objectivism/relativism, and at the bottom of it, it seems to me, you’ll find a fundamental disagreement about what a solution would look like. Should we be seeking a set of ideas that can be expressed in unambiguous language which will resolve the problem? Or, on the other hand, is the whole idea of finding a solution itself wrong-headed: in exploring philosophical issues, shouldn’t we expect to find deeper mysteries and further questions, rather than definite answers?

The lovers of clarity and certainty can trace their lineage back to the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides (fl. 5th C. BCE), who pointed out the principle that everything that can be truly known must be reliable and ongoing, and therefore ultimate reality must be permanent and unchanging. By contrast, Heraclitus (c.535 –c.475 BCE) made the point that nothing in our experience is unchanging, illustrating it with his famous claim that you can’t step into the same river twice. Similarly, Plato argued that the justice, stability and well-being of society depends upon leaders with knowledge of eternal truths, while his teacher Socrates claimed to know nothing and delighted in stimulating people to doubt traditional ideas.

René Descartes (1596-1650) is said to have begun modern philosophy by doubting everything in order to find an absolute foundation for knowledge in clear and distinct ideas as certain as mathematical truths. Vico offered the counter-argument that we can really know only what we ourselves have made, so myth, poetry, and history are the origins of knowledge: approaches to truth so uncertain that Descartes rejected them altogether. In the twentieth century, the logical positivists followed Parmenides and Plato in seeking certainty by accepting no proposition as meaningful unless it could be scientifically verified, while phenomenologists and existentialists revived the spirit of Heraclitus and Socrates by stimulating thinking about our ever-changing experience in new, creative and comprehensive ways. The two stages of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical development illustrate a jump over the great divide. In his earlier Tractatus (1922), his focus was on clarity and certainty, but he adopted an approach more open to ambiguity in his later Philosophical Investigations (1953).

William James noted in 1907 that the main argument in philosophy at that time was between ‘tough-minded’ materialistic atheists and ‘tender-minded’ believers in God and free will. He attributed the conflict to differences in temperament, and argued that his philosophy of Pragmatism could mediate between the intellectual demands of the two types of personality. Brilliant as James was, few philosophers have been satisfied with his explanation of philosophical differences in terms of personality traits, and even sympathetic followers have not succeeded in explaining why philosophers tend to emphasize one of these two basic types of philosophical temperament over the other.

The fault line that I’ve identified between those who seek the clear light of certainty and those who seek wisdom within murky ambiguity, seems to be even deeper and more perennial than James’ tough/tender dichotomy. Plato and Descartes were both tender-minded in James’ sense, in that they believed in a spiritual dimension of reality; but they were more like the tough-minded logical positivists or even the New Atheists in their certainty that they found the truth. Nietzsche was more tough-minded than James on the God question, but both belong to the tradition of Heraclitus rather than that of Parmenides in their suspicion of certainties and their emphasis on the conflict-ridden nature of reality.

Divided Opinions

I had no idea how to answer the question why philosophy has always been divided between the lovers of clarity and certainty and the lovers of ambiguity and generality, until I read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World (2009). McGilchrist reminds us that we have evolved asymmetrical brains, the right and the left hemispheres, separated (as well as connected) by the corpus callosum, such that these two parts of our brains experience the world in very different yet equally necessary ways. Evolution has kept the two apart because they have a tendency to interfere with one another in their operations. Yet this theory offers such an elegant and persuasive answer to my question that it struck me with the force of a revelation: philosophy is two-sided because the brain is two-sided.

McGilchrist cites an enormous body of research showing that in birds and animals the left hemisphere provides focused attention, while the right hemisphere provides a broader perspective. For instance, birds use the right eye (left hemisphere) to pick out seed, and the left eye (right hemisphere) to watch out for predators. He argues that although human brains are vastly more complicated than bird brains, the separation of our brain hemispheres for different purposes is analogous: the left hemisphere demands precision and certainty, using literal language to represent, categorize, and manipulate the world; while the right hemisphere is attuned to a broader context which enables it to empathize, to appreciate the uniqueness of individuals, and to understand ambiguity, metaphor, and humor.

Comparable in its scope to Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary comes to almost exactly the opposite conclusion. Instead of Jaynes’ hypothesis of a breakdown of the division in the mind in ancient Greece, McGilchrist thinks what actually happened in ancient history was a relative separation of the two brain hemispheres, which caused the voices of the gods to seem alien and uncanny instead of part of a unified consciousness.

Contemporary higher education tends to produce specialists rather than generalists, but McGilchrist is an exception to the rule. His wide-ranging synthesis of ideas from neuroscience, psychiatry, history, literature, and art, could only have been written by a kind of ‘Renaissance man’. A former English don at Oxford, he wrote Against Criticism (1982), which tackled the mind/body problem in the context of literature. Dissatisfied with contemporary philosophy’s disembodied approach to the issue, he went on to study medicine, neurology, and psychiatry – which he regards as neither a science nor an art, but a branch of philosophy.

The Two Minds of Friedrich Nietzsche

The title The Master and his Emissary comes from a story of Nietzsche’s about a wise ruler whose domain grows so large that he relies on emissaries to help him govern it. One of the emissaries becomes so arrogant that he thinks he is wiser than his master, and he overthrows the master, causing the country to fall into ruin. In McGilchrist’s interpretation, the emissary represents the tendency for the left brain (analytical) to usurp the authority of the right (comprehensive). The influence of Nietzsche’s contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian temperaments is also evident throughout the work.

Nietzsche anticipated recent discoveries in neuroscience about the two-sided brain with astonishing prescience. In Human, All Too Human, an early work written in 1878, Nietzsche wrote, “A higher culture must give man a double brain, two brain chambers, as it were, one to experience science, and one to experience non-science. Lying next to one another, without confusion, separable, self-contained: our health demands this. In the one domain lies the source of strength, in the other the regulator. Illusions, biases, passions must give heat; with the help of scientific knowledge, the pernicious and dangerous consequences of overheating must be prevented.”

In calling for a balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the reason and passion elements in the two-sided brain, Nietzsche recognized the need for narrow focus and logical rigor as well as breadth of vision and depth of insight. In order for individuals and societies to flourish it is necessary to cultivate both ways of thinking, which I have called left-brain-dominated philosophy and right-brain-dominated philosophy; and both modes of thought are deserving of recognition, respect, and a certain degree of autonomy. It is a logical as well as a moral error to judge one by the standards of the other, or to think that one way is right and the other wrong. Thus Nietzsche saw threats to society from two directions. When Apollonian/-left-brain-dominated philosophy’s demand for logical precision tyrannizes over the right hemisphere’s wider vision, we get Fish’s emaciated kind of philosophy, defined so narrowly that it amounts to a mere game of logic-chopping, irrelevant to everyday life. On the other hand, when Dionysian/right-brain-dominated philosophy spins out of control, we get pseudo-philosophies, such as religious fundamentalism, or belief in aliens and conspiracy theories, in which illusions, biases and passions dominate thinking without adequate logical regulation by the left hemisphere. McGilchrist writes, “Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong.”

Philosophy Needs The Whole Brain

If we abandon the illusion of absolute authority to which both extremes of thinking are prone, what is the definition and role of philosophy?

Fish is right that philosophy does not matter to everyday life, if it is extreme left-brain-dominated philosophy he’s talking about. Its narrow focus (analogous to the bird’s left brain zeroing in on a tiny seed) enables philosophy to achieve precision, but at a high price. Without the wider attention to context that’s seen in right-brain-dominated philosophy (analogous to the bird’s right brain looking out for danger), philosophy loses the ability to judge what is most important and becomes useless as a guide for life. However, if the topic is right-brain-dominated philosophy, Fish’s critics are right, and philosophy does have value and use in everyday life, since right-brain-dominated philosophy widens the focus of attention to include the wider, vague and ambiguous dimensions of experience. While this widening of focus means losing the precision of left-brain-dominated philosophy, the sacrifice may be thought worthwhile when weighed against the enormous gain in relevance in the quest for self-knowledge and practical wisdom.

McGilchrist’s masterpiece has convinced me that, without knowing that I was trying to do so, I have devoted my entire career as a teacher of philosophy to encouraging my students to strengthen both the left and the right hemispheres of their brains. If my hypothesis is correct, then philosophy can make the most useful difference in the enrichment of life if there is a balance between left-brain-dominated philosophy, which teaches focused critical thinking, and right-brain-dominated philosophy, which can view a wider context to determine which issues are most worthy of consideration. And it is only with the harmonious functioning of both hemispheres of the brain that we have the flexibility of mind to choose whether a greater emphasis on left-brain-dominated philosophy or right-brain-dominated philosophy is most needed under any given circumstance, and are able to shift gears when necessary.

The proper role of philosophy, then, is to be neither the queen of the sciences nor their slave, but to be an equal partner with the sciences, the humanities, and the arts, in standing firmly against the two-pronged dangers of complacent extremism about which Nietzsche warned us over a hundred years ago, and for which Iain McGilchrist offers us an important and timely reminder.

© Prof. Carol Nicholson, 2012

Carol Nicholson teaches philosophy at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Her articles ‘Rorty’s Pragmatic Patriotism’ and ‘Why I am not a Patriot’ appeared in Philosophy Now Issues 43 and 47.


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