I came to realize an important error in my writing, that of the sloppy way I have been using the important word, “Meaning.” I have generally used it to apply to the whole of situations that are being attended to primarily by the left brain hemisphere. Meaning can also be applied to individual words in the sense that we know the meaning of an isolated word, such as desk, or run, or over, or fast, or slowly. The conventional use of semantics refers to the essential meaning of individual or groups of words. Merriam Webster dictionary defines semantics as: “the historical and psychological study and the classification of changes in the signification of words or forms viewed as factors in linguistic development.” Such meanings are “essential” in that they refer to characteristics categorically attached to the word itself, in isolation.

This definition does not refer in any way to the manner in which we acquire such meaning, for example, explicitly didactic in a classroom or implicitly through experience in Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology. In any case, the left brain abstracts and accumulates the categorical meaning of a word through some sort of involvement with “object” associated with that word. One would not really know what a “car” is if they were given a list of all its parts and also told that it is a machine that can take people from place to place, etc. Even if this were so, this statement presupposes that the person already knows the meaning of machine, place, drive, to, and so on.

The right brain hemisphere works very differently in ascertaining the meaning of the contextually rich world being attended to. It augments the categorical semantic content of the words that refer to parts of the situation with a sense of the whole that constructs meaning for the interconnected whole. Such meaning relates only to the present situation, but provides an actor with an opportunity to act in a way that captures the unique, temporal sense of that situation. The actor can “read the mind” of others or pay heed to their verbal and non-verbal actions in constructing acts tailored specifically to attend to whatever these cues mean to the actor. Empathetic acts always involve such processes.

The left-brain is “consulted” during this kind of process to provide meaningful fragments based on abstractions the left “believes” fit the immediate situation. Such generalized fragments may or may not be appropriate because the left-brain cannot apprehend the contextual whole. If, however, the left does provide the right with something that it “believes” fits, the right may act in a way more or less based on already present abstractions taken from the past. In such cases, the actor is probably said to be acting rationally. I am associating a distinct actor with each hemisphere.

If the right-brain rejects whatever the left has handed to it, the right must either give up and move on, or create an action from whole cloth — one that cannot be said to have followed rationally. The actor cannot offer a logic-based argument as ground for the action. Spinoza et al. (1997) call such actions history-making; these acts, including speech acts, add something new to the ways that actors can attend to the world. They literally change the future worlds of the actors. Future actions may spring from grounds that had not existed previously, but do not necessarily show up. To make history in this sense, the right’s novel way of acting must then be taken in by the left and reduced to a categorical abstraction so it can be used in future cases.

Such history-making can be paradigmatic in the very big way of Thomas Kuhn who distinguished between normal (left-brain) science and revolutions (right-brain). In other institutions, say companies, it can show up in novel ways to do business. One might say, “The bigger the breakdown caused by the right’s rejection of the left’s rationally based plan, the more history is made.” At one end, the breakdown occurs, implicitly, within the actor’s cognitive system as in the way artists are said to make art. In this sense, Kuhn’s paradigm-changing scientists are also acting like artists.

For some problematic situations, novel actions, historically separated from what already exists, are created through group processes where the novel thoughts of its members are combined to produce immediate or long-range “solutions.” The well known Toyota Production System works in just that way, convening groups to move beyond current problems, assisted by processes to get beyond the limitations of the left-brain.

Pragmatism is also associated with right-brain process, contrasted to left-brain-based positivism that relies on presupposed notions and on rational ways to concatenate such notions. Pragmatism focuses on the here and now, that is, the present whole is being attended to principally by the right-brain, such that it is able to create new facts or truths that provide new understandings or new actions that effectively cope with or describe the formerly problematic situation. The practical efficacy of such facts or truths was called ‘warranted assertibility’ by John Dewey, warranted because the results of applying them to situations matched i the intentions of the actors.

Much of Spinoza et al. is devoted to finding new language to distinguish actions primarily arising from one brain hemisphere or the other. Their work echoes that of Heidegger, who found it necessary to coin new words to describe the kind of being he was writing about, words that the left-brain could not appropriate and reduce to already held meanings. McGilchrist’s divided brain model obviates such arcane tactics because the way the two sides attend to the world is cleanly dichotomous.

History-making is, however, a useful distinction because the ever-changing complexity of the world in which we humans exist will always stymie, at some point, the left-brain of individual human beings or that of the metaphorical collective left-brain of institutions such as business, families, or societies. There can be no end-of-history because those left-brain notions upon which we act remain fixed while the world changes in ways that cannot be reduced to those notions. The challenge of modernity, particularly in the West, as Spinoza et al. argue, rests in our blindness to this dichotomy and insistence on living and acting in a left-brain-based world.

Reference: Spinoza, C., F. Flores and H. L. Dreyfus (1997). Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

One Reply to “McGilchrist, Meaning, the Divided Brain, and History-making”

  1. John,
    On first glance, I wondered at the title of your new book. The use of “the right way” seemed to be a heavy-handed, positivistic/deterministic approach to the issue of flourishing. But then, after reading the opening chapters, I recognized the apt double entendre you have employed, and that set things right.

    Thank you for writing this important extension of your former books, which have been influential in my thinking. I am looking forward to continued reading.

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