The idea of a Gestalt is central to this book: by which I mean the form of a whole that cannot be reduced to parts without the loss of something essential to its nature. The experience of understanding involves a shift from what seems initially chaotic or formless, to a coherent stable form or picture, a Gestalt – or from an existing Gestalt to a new and better one, that seems richer than the one it replaces. (Iain McGilchrist: The Matter with Things)
One of the key differences between the two brain hemispheres, according to Iain McGilchrist is the right hemisphere’s ability to see the world as a whole, as a Gestalt. The meaning of whatever is apprehended is implicit in the whole of whatever is showing up. The right-brain uses its powers of intuition and imagination to extract meaning. Conversely, the left hemisphere chops up the whole into recognizable pieces, pieces that have been abstracted from its past experience and stored for future use. It takes what is implicit in the Gestalt and explicates it by reducing it to its parts, thereby losing the meaning in the process. A serious loss.
The meaning of a poem cannot be obtained by lining up the words as a sequence of semantic entities. A concerto cannot be appreciated a series of unrelated notes. Its meaning comes implicitly in the way the notes follow one another, even in the emptiness of the spaces between them. The beauty of a painting emerges from the whole object as held int he right hemisphere. The short video, below, illustrates the difference between viewing a gorgeous Vermeer and a paint-by-numbers kit based on it.
Professional critics do explicate the art they write about because that is something that can be taught and can form the basis for comparison and “rational” discussion. We learn all about the Art of the Fugue as an intriguing exercise in how notes can be configured to produce a beautiful piece of music. But you still have to hear the piece being played to actually discover its beauty, something only the right hemisphere can do.
One of the most basic dichotomies in language is that of quality versus quantity. It. too, is a manifestation of the way we explicate what is implicit in the world. Qualities have to be experienced in the flesh to come to appreciate and get to know them. They can be explicated, just as a poem can be parsed, but the result does not and cannot produce the same experience. We can talk about the underlying physics that makes something hard, but we cannot understand what hardness is all about until we see it at play in the world.
I suspect that many of those who might read this blog may already know or quickly will get what I am writing all about. But I also suspect that these same readers are unaware of the way they explicate the world around them all the time and, thereby, lose its implicit meaning. They forget or never have known that, perhaps, the most important aspects of existence are implicit in the cosmic system, and get lost as we go about explicating them in order to manipulate or dominate them. And, as these aspects of existence are lost, so is our uniqueness among living organisms.
We humans are parts of a complex, evolving, changing cosmic system. For millennia, we have been trying to figure out how it works; it being all the parts, animate and inanimate. How it works is just another way of saying explicating the implicit. Doing that has been a long process of finding methods that could provide us with “truths” about it—verbal expressions that represented properties and processes that are going on out there. Methods improved over time from seers and prophets to alchemists and, finally, to the sophisticated scientists of today.
The explicit scientific knowledge extant today can tell us how almost everything in the cosmos works. With it engineers, planners, really anyone who wants to can and have designed the tools, technology, and social institutions that structure our lives. We know how to manipulate and control both the natural and social worlds. But, all that knowledge together with its technological and technocratic applications can’t deal with the implicitness of the world, for exactly the same reasons a critic may discuss a painting, but cannot convey its beauty. Something always gets lost when the left-brain tries to explain what the right-brain implicitly gets. That is true whether it is an individual brain at work or what I like to call the metaphorical brain of an institution. Science, as an institution, is doing what an individual brain does, that is, explicating the implicit.
So what. Well, for one thing, modern societies are, to a large extent, characterized by the extent they have rationalized (explicated) the life world, that is, the context in which they exist. The important qualities of the world lately have gotten lost. The natural beauty and the sacred aspects of the world familiar to our earlier forebears are largely absent. Even our sense of what makes human beings unique, what I call flourishing, lurks only in the shadows if it is present at all. Existential philosophers, like Martin Heidegger, believe that being itself is a unique quality of human life and has become lost. He wrote: “Modern humans have forgotten being and have become rich in things and poor in soul.” All of these qualities I have just mentioned, beauty, sacred, flourishing are implicitly embodied in the system and emerge; they cannot be explicitly produced, as in a machine. The whole system must be working properly for them to come forth and be picked up by the right hemisphere. They cannot be produced by a metaphorical paint-by-the-numbers kit.
As serious a loss as that of these qualities is its opposite: the appearance of unwanted unintentional or unanticipated consequences. Things like climate change or the increase in mental pathologies or the rise of alternate facts are such phenomena. They simply show up as we go about our normal ways of life. They arise or emerge from the socio-economic-natural system as a whole. We can, perhaps, explicate a proximate cause or two, but given the complexity of the highly interconnected system from which they come, what emerges is a manifestation of the implicit whole. They are the result of whatever has become the normal way of life in the society as a whole and in its major institutions.
We cannot fix the system by applying bandages to any of its parts. Fixes are always the result of explication that applies to just a part of the system. But that is the way of modern societies. We have cut up the implicit understanding of the cosmos into a myriad of explicated chunks, called disciplines and sub-disciplines. Disciplines are like blind men trying to describe an elephant. Each one can talk about only what is immediately within their grasp.
In my book, I have outlined some ways to get around the limitations of left-brain explication and of relying on its consequent solutions. All involve ways to capture the implicitness of the world, that is, get the right-hemisphere back in control. I will mention only one here, that of pragmatic thinking and action. The essence of pragmatism is avoidance of the explication of “science” and positivistic methodologies. Pragmatic inquiry attempts to capture the implicitness of a system by observing it as a whole in its place, and using the imaginative and intuitive power of the participants to craft solutions to whatever had been problematic. Pragmatic inquiry is antithetical to disciplinary methodologies as it eschews or at least isolates those a priori assumptions (explications) which constitute the discipline, but have faded from view.