The master and his emissary

The master and his emissary

Philip Conford

20 September 2013

In this piece – an extended review of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary – the underlying philosophy of the organic movement takes a front seat. As Philip Conford examines, the latest neurological research and understanding lends credence to the organic movement’s philosophy – which is not only heartening in and of itself, but adds some intellectual respectability in the face of attacks from opponents of organic agriculture. 

To review in Mother Earth a book which touches on neither organic farming nor environmentalism, and makes but few references to nature, may seem somewhat inappropriate. Nevertheless, The Master and His Emissary is directly relevant to the organic movement. The implications of its argument support the organic philosophy of interconnectedness, and its analysis of the road taken by Western culture is likely to resonate with this journal’s readers.
Philosophical issues can understandably be dismissed as luxurious abstractions by those concerned with practicalities: in the case of the organic movement, producers struggling in adverse economic and climatic conditions. But the practice of organic methods is based on what is essentially a philosophical view of the world: a belief that the world should be treated in a particular way because it is of a particular nature.

The term ‘organic’ implies that the natural world should be interpreted biologically rather than mechanistically: as an organism rather than as a machine. Indeed, George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse of the Pioneer Health Centre thought that society as a whole should be conceived of as an organism, with families as its cells, and that such a view had important consequences for the encouragement of healthy living. The organic movement’s philosophy can be traced back to the biological thought of figures like Patrick Geddes, J C Smuts and Dimitri Mitrinovic, remote from our present practical concerns though such names may seem. Philosophy, explicit or implicit, shapes practice. Whether they are fully aware of it or not, organic cultivators subscribe to a view of the world which favours a holistic perspective over reductionism and recognises the interconnectedness of natural phenomena. The practical success of organic methods is important not only for farmers, growers and consumers, but as evidence in favour of the organicist philosophy, which must be defended against those who interpret the world in mechanistic or industrial terms.

It is not enough, therefore, to measure the organic movement’s success purely by the amount of produce and consumer goods which it has managed to sell. Nor is it enough to appeal to the ideas of thinkers from the early twentieth century, valuable though they still are. The question is whether there is any contemporary thought which lends credence to the organic movement’s philosophy and gives it some intellectual respectability in the face of attacks from groups such as Sense About Science. The Master and His Emissary seems to me to be an example of just such thought.

A wide focus

For information about Iain McGilchrist I refer readers to his Wikipedia entry and his official website ( A rarity in intellectual life, he has achieved high academic distinction in both the arts and the sciences. Originally a literary scholar, with a fellowship at All Souls’ College, Oxford, he re-trained as a doctor and psychiatrist and has researched in neuroimaging in the US. This background gives his thought a breadth which, allied to his remarkable erudition and grasp of cultural history, enables the reader to trace the stages by which Western society has reached its contemporary predicament. The Master and His Emissary is the product of twenty years’ research.

The book’s title refers to a parable by Nietzsche, in which a wise and spiritual ruler has increasingly to rely on his emissaries to ensure the safety of his expanding realm. In time, his most trusted emissary – also the cleverest and most ambitious – uses his position to advance his own influence. He sees his master’s forbearance as weakness, grows contemptuous and finally usurps him. The domain becomes a tyranny and is ruined. In McGilchrist’s interpretation, the Master is the brain’s right hemisphere and the Emissary is the left.

Part One of the book deals with the difference between the two hemispheres. This is not easy reading, but it is the conclusions which matter. Basing his argument on the latest evidence from neuropsychology, McGilchrist suggests that the two hemispheres deal with the world in distinct ways. Both are necessary, complementing each other, but the right hemisphere is the primary mediator of experience, “from which the conceptualised, re-presented world of the left hemisphere derives, and on which it depends. . . [T]he left hemisphere does not itself have life, such life as it appears to have coming from reconnecting with the body, emotion and experience through the right hemisphere” (p.227).

The left hemisphere is concerned with using things – exercising power over them – and lacks the capacity for empathy. It tends to the abstract and schematic; it divides and categorises; its focus is narrow. “Manipulation and use require clarity and fixity, and clarity and fixity require separation and division. What is moving and seamless, a process, becomes static and separate – things” (p.137). It is important to note that McGilchrist is not condemning these capacities; on the contrary, we need them in order to “unpack” our experience, lending it distance and structure and thereby enabling us to assimilate it. They are essential for survival and without them any form of civilised life is impossible. But the left hemisphere cannot of itself recreate the lost wholeness of experience with which the right hemisphere is concerned; nor does it have any interest in doing so. Supporters of the environmental and organic movements will recognise left-hemisphere characteristics as typifying an attitude to nature which they oppose, and will start to suspect that they themselves favour right-hemisphere values.

What, then, are the features of the right hemisphere’s disposition towards the world? McGilchrist says that it sees things whole and in their context, enabling us to form bonds with other people and to pay broad, flexible attention to our environment. This gives it an integrative power and inclines it to search for patterns. It is, one might say, ecological in its awareness, seeing “each thing in its context, as standing in a qualifying relationship with all that surrounds it” (p.49). Whereas the left hemisphere favours categorisation and abstraction, the right hemisphere’s concern is rather with relationships between things and with the distinguishing marks of specific instances of a type. The right hemisphere is rooted in our physical nature and has a “preference for things as they actually exist (which are never entirely static or congruent)” (p.52). Most importantly for McGilchrist, the right hemisphere is the source of our capacity for metaphor, which he considers to underlie all forms of understanding, including science and philosophy.

On page 93, McGilchrist summarises the essential difference between the right and left hemispheres as follows: “[T]he right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation. It is deeply attracted to, and given life by, the relationship, the betweenness, that exists with this Other. By contrast, the left hemisphere pays attention to the virtual world that it has created, which is self-consistent, but self-contained, ultimately disconnected from the Other, making it powerful, but ultimately only able to operate on, and to know, itself ”. On its own, unconstrained by the right hemisphere’s qualities, the left hemisphere is destructive and may even undermine the very civilisation it has helped create.

In McGilchrist’s view, the unconstrained left hemisphere is dangerous for various reasons. We have already referred to its narrow focus, its tendency to abstraction, its skill at manipulation and its lack of empathy. It is poor at drawing inferences, which can lead to an arrogantly optimistic perspective and over-estimation of what can be achieved by force of will. Such an attitude will see nature merely as a resource to be exploited, and McGilchrist argues that, since the Industrial Revolution, technology has sought not merely to dominate the natural world, but to create a world which is in the likeness of the left hemisphere. Consequently, we have less and less direct experience of the full physical and emotional world from which right-hemisphere awareness is derived. Instead, we know it only as it is mediated by the left hemisphere. Nature is despoiled, polluted or over-managed, and becomes ever more remote from the abstract patterns of urban life; work and leisure increasingly involve immersion in a “virtual” world which creates an insubstantial, de-physicalised replica of life.

McGilchrist also notes the left hemisphere’s aggression towards those aspects of life – particularly nature, the body, art and religion – which are the main channels of access to something beyond its power. Those of us who studied philosophy at university in the 1960s, for instance, were required to read A J Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, a manifesto for “Logical Positivism” in which all ethical, aesthetic and religious statements were dismissed in cavalier fashion as “meaningless”. Richard Dawkins’s more recent crusade against the metaphorical and symbolic language of fairy tales is out of the same stable, reminiscent of Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times. McGilchrist believes that this mistrust of metaphor and symbolism is inherent in the Enlightenment project, which has always aimed to banish wonder, along with everything ambiguous or uncertain. Whereas the right hemisphere can hold opposites in balance, the left looks “to exclude, even annihilate, the other. The impulse towards harmony was replaced with the impulse towards singleness and purity” (p.337). Or, to express it agriculturally, towards monoculture.

Other features of the left-hemisphere approach to the world which we can also note, albeit only in passing, include a rejection of the past (a prominent feature of modern capitalism); of the sacred (hence the current prominence of militant secularism); and of communion (in favour of an individualism which can verge on solipsism). Although often described as “materialist”, our contemporary culture in fact under-values matter, says McGilchrist. The left hemisphere favours reductionism over holism, and in its determination to establish its power exhibits what amounts to a death-wish by ignoring its dependency on the right hemisphere. McGilchrist sees the onward march of its values as potentially catastrophic.

A disposition towards the world

It should by now be clear why The Master and His Emissary is of direct importance to the organic and environmental movements. In the 1940s, a perceptive critic of the organic movement pointed out that organic methods of cultivation tended to appeal to those of an aesthetic disposition, and McGilchrist tells us that the right hemisphere is the source of the human mind’s integrative power and its ability to make patterns. Compare agribusiness monoculture with the variety of mixed farming or of Permaculture systems. E F Schumacher contrasted the “forward stampeders” of technological optimism with “homecomers” looking to reintegrate themselves with the natural world. McGilchrist similarly distinguishes between left-hemisphere determination to press on with policies despite their evident problems, and the right hemisphere’s longing for recreation of lost harmony. He refers to Peter Berger’s book The Homeless Mind, with its criticism of the rationalist, bureaucratic outlook which has destroyed traditional collective meanings.

Despite the “self-sufficiency” strain in the organic movement, there has always been present a strong concern for community life. McGilchrist points out that happiness is best predicted by “the breadth and depth of one’s social connections” (p.435); a belief that was shared by the founders of the Pioneer Health Centre, the experiment in social health which was central to the Soil Association’s early development.

Like many supporters of the organic movement, McGilchrist notes that people of Eastern cultures tend to have a more right-brain mind-set than Westerners do. But he is also clear that the decline of Christian culture in Western society is regrettable, since Christianity offers “an exceptionally rich mythos . . . for understanding the world and our relationship with it” (p.441). The doctrine of the Incarnation reminds us of the fact that our existence is lived out in the physical world; whereas the left hemisphere favours cerebration, denying the spiritual and regarding the physical world with suspicious distaste. (The solitary philosopher Descartes identified existence with the ability to think.) But in organic thought, it is precisely those physical elements widely regarded as “waste” which are potentially the source of continued life and health.

McGilchrist rejects the view that to criticise the left-hemisphere mode of relating – or failing to relate – to the world is to indulge in “romanticism”. It will not do, he says, “to bundle up half of human experience as ‘Romantic’ with an intention to dismiss it” (p.310). Much of his book is a historical account of the way in which right- and left-hemisphere outlooks have related to each other in the past. He examines the Classical world; the Renaissance and Reformation; the Enlightenment; the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic reaction against it; and twentieth-century modernism. In each case, his analysis offers numerous perceptive insights into the art, philosophy and socio-cultural changes of the period in question. There are fifty pages of footnotes, many of them as fascinating as the main text.

Attempts to articulate a philosophy justifying the organic movement’s view of humanity’s relationship to the natural world, and of the sort of society most likely to embody it, have been regrettably rare. Scarcely known today even within the movement, writers such as Philip Mairet (1886-1975) and Robert Waller (1913-2005) criticised technology from the point of view of theology or the humanities. Iain McGilchrist’s critique, though, is made from a scientific perspective. Given the current state of knowledge of how the two hemispheres of the brain work, it seems vital to human survival that the right hemisphere’s disposition towards the world – which the organic movement has always represented – should take precedence over, while co-operating with, the left hemisphere’s narrowly instrumentalist approach. It is heartening to know that the organic philosophy has on its side, by implication, a thinker of such range, subtlety and brilliance.

Iain McGilchrist
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
Yale University Press, 2010 Paperback, pp.534 ISBN 978-0-300-16892-1

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