Lakoff

This post is a version of a message I posted on the SCORAI list serve recently, but also make good sense as a standalone message. SCORAI is a global coalition of academics and others drawn together by the idea of “sustainable consumption” and related subjects. I was responding to a post focused on World Transformation Movements that began with this sentence: “The Transnational Institute, Oscar Reyes’ Change Finance Not the Climate, suggests that in order to get the needed change we need to change what Lakoff calls, the frame.” My response follows.

The first sentence in Tom’s message is absolutely critical to making any headway towards any kind of transition to a world that works for everything on the planet. But the proper frame is much deeper than any alternative aimed just at climate change. The key frame that needs to be changed if any lasting change can be designed into the global system is the very way we think we know what what we do and what kind of humans we are. In a note to SCORAI some months ago, using a simple “5 whys” routine to try and unearth the root causes of our current messes, I argued that, ultimately, that both the causes and the failures to cope effectively with them is due to a outdated model of how the brain works, particularly in how it shapes our apprehension of the world and leads to the ways we build our institutional structures and personal habits.

For as long as over 2000 years ago and even more intensely since the work of Descartes and the enlightenment thinkers, we have fundamentally thought that the brain provides a singular picture of the world. Most, if not all, the arguments about that, say the Cartesian mind against pure solipsism, all treat the brain through the notion of mind as some sort of mystical body that takes in the world, acts on what it, then, knows, shapes the actions we then take that eventually concatenated over time create that world we actually live within. Our individual and institutionally collectively brains/minds, according this way of framing everything we know, can be said to be ultimately responsible for how we have lived in and shaped the world since the arrival of Homo sapiens. Responsible in a causal, not ethical sense. If we are stuck with this frame, it is hard to see the way out of the messes we have created at the bottom because it is the frame out of which they have arisen. Knowing that is helpful, but not sufficient, because, as any designer or therapist knows, the past will continue to shape the future unless the frame is changed, especially one that is hidden as deep as this one is.

Fortunately, a new way of framing has come to light in the work of Iain McGilchrist, a British thinker, which offers an alternate frame that has the potential to put us on a new and promising trajectory toward a world that may work. Always only may because this model shies away from making promises about the future of any act. McGilchrist posits, based on a mountain of clinical evidence, that the two brain hemispheres attend to the world differently and, in essence, provide us with two distinctive ways to act. His work is contained in Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary. My last book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World is based on it. My book presents the picture of a flourishing world I have written about for quite some time, and how, using his divided-brain model as a basic framing of how we take in and act on the world out there, we can find our way to get there.

The primary feature of his model is that the right brain is the side that connected us to the world and works with what it apprehends about the immediate present. The left, conversely, is disconnected from the work and only knows what it has abstracted and stored from past experience. Although the two are always working together in some way, the nature of the actors we are and of the world we produce reflect the dominant half. I cannot begin to explore this work in depth here, but will add a couple of salient points.

The left brain, the one that come to dominate modern cultures, wants to control the action according to its internalized world. It is the rational side, the world of decontextualized “facts” and theories. It “claims” always to have the best answer. But that knowledge is always incomplete and out of the context of the present moment. As a result, the resultant actions can and do produce unintended consequences. Most are small and can be easily handled, but other grow and grow until they become threats, like climate change and other persistent failures of societies.

The right-brain is aware of the immediate world , including the context that surrounds whatever rests in its focus and penumbra. Its actions are primarily designed to take care of that world, using knowledge provided by the left, if appropriate, but, always cognizant of the present circumstances. It acts pragmatically, knowing that its actions may not work, and is ready to shift gears. While the notion of empathy is usually limited to person-to person interactions, the right brain, metaphorically, acts out of empathy, a sense of what is over or out there right now, no matter what it is exercising care about. McGilchrist (and I) argue that, if we are to avoid losing all the wonders that have been brought to us by the dominant left brain, we must bring back more balance with the right brain in command.

We have known for a long time, but denied (a left-brain feature), that our attempts to control the world are failing, but are locked into that denial as long as the left-brain is in control. Neither our individual or the metaphorical societal left brain cares about anything other than manipulating its constructed world to get whatever it wants. If we do care about the real world we live in beyond material values of any kind, then it is essential to turn to the divided-brain model and begin to let the right-brain call the shots. It will be very hard to do this because we are so used to believing that we know how our actions will turn out (another left-brain feature). The right-brain understands the context and complexity of whatever it is connected to, and can only afford possibilities, not probabilities or certainly, that things will turn out well.

I will not elaborate further here, but hope I have given you something to think about. Ironically, the thinking needed to be done has to take place in the left hemisphere out of the immediate context of the moment. All new paradigms are new frames for thinking about some world and can arise only after someone’s left brain admits defeat and turns to the right to create something new that enables it (the left) to get back to its business. Only the right brain can be truly creative.

The last thought is that all this possibility will go for naught unless we have a different model of we humans are here for. I believe that flourishing, an existential concept, provides such a vision that avoids the traps that all sorts of material or psychological metrics hand us.

ps. Subsequent interchange has helped me to understand why pragmatism is essential in the process of changing the frame. Only the right brain can discover new facts about the world. It can do that because it is not constrained by what it already knows as is the left. The right is able to apply metaphor to make sense of what it discovers and eventually pass that new knowledge back to the left where it adds to what is already known. McGilchrist describes this metaphorical process in great detail. Here are a couple of quotes from The Master and His Emissary: (Thanks to Ed Byrnes)

Metaphor (subserved by the right hemisphere) comes before denotation (subserved by the left). This is a historical truth, in the sense that denotative language, even philosophical and scientific language, are derived from metaphors founded on immediate experience of the tangible world.

The point of metaphor is to bring together the whole of one thing with the whole of another, so that each is looked at in different light. And it works both ways, as the coming together of one thing with another always must. You can’t pin one down so that it doesn’t move, while the other is drawn towards it: they must draw towards each other. As Max Black says: ‘If to call a man a wolf is to put him in a special light, we must not forget that the metaphor makes the wolf seem more human than he otherwise would’.

The founders of pragmatism, C. S. Peirce and William James understood the metaphorical processes involved in pragmatic inquiry, but lacked the vocabulary McGilchrist provides.  I’ll close with a few of quotes from them. More examples of the uncanny way the divided-brain model clarifies what has already been established long ago.

Peirce

“Every piece of knowing depends, not simply causally, but logically, on what one has previously learnt, since all knowledge rests on the assumption that certain methods of classification and systemization, which have been learnt in connection with other earlier situations, can be applied, in a particular way, to a particular situation. Once admitted, the grave error of Descartes and of all later Cartesians becomes plain: it is the assumption that we cannot learn until we know…Rather, we must always build on what we already know. It is impossible in principle to pinpoint the moment when the learning process begins, but so what.”

James

“It [pragmatic truth] converts the absolutely empty notion of a static relation of ‘correspondence…between our minds and reality, into that of a rich and active commerce …between particular thoughts of ours, and the great universe of other experiences in which they play their parts and have their uses.”

“When old truth grows, then, by new truth’s addition, it is for subjective reasons. We are in the process and obey the reasons. That new idea is truest which performs most felicitously its function of satisfying our double urgency. It makes itself true, gets itself classed as true, by the way it works; grafting itself then upon the ancient body of truth, which thus grows much as a tree grows by the activity of a new layer of cambium.”

(Image: George Lakoff)

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