Sunday, November 13, 2011

McGilchrist on the Enlightenment

I'm continuing to read Ian McGilchrist's wonderful The Master and his Emissary with great profit. He is masterly in skewering  "the hubristic movement which came to be known as the Enlightenment". In contrast to "Bacon's careful recognition that, while observing Nature attentively is essential, she is many times subtler than our senses or understanding" Descartes "made the fatal mistake of believing 'that I could take it as a general rule that the things we conceive very distinctly and clearly are all true'. That was the fallacy that was to derail the next three centuries of Western thought"
He notes that "the pursuit of happiness has not generally led to happiness.  Such valuable things can come only as a side-effect of something else.  The left hemisphere misunderstands the importance of implicitness... The French Revolution famously championed liberty, equality and fraternity ...[but] going for them explicitly, left-hemisphere fashion, rather than allowing them to emerge as the necessary accompaniment to a certain tolerant disposition about the world, right-hemisphere fashion, is that they can only become negative concepts once they become the province of the left hemisphere...the ideals... led to the illiberal, unjust and far from fraternal guillotine"

He rightly praises Pascal for recognising that "the ultimate achievement of reason...is to recognise that there are an infinity of things which surpass it" and draws attention to the vital role of "the rediscovery of Shakespeare... not just ...in England, but in Germany and France. It yielded evidence of something so powerful that is simply swept away Enlightenment principles before it, as inauthentic, untenable in the face of experience."

He also skewers Descartes description of laughter: "as that which 'results when the blood coming from the right-hand cavity of the heart...causes the lungs to swell up...forcing the air they contain to rush out through the windpipe...[and] causing movement in the facial muscles... And it is just this facial expression, together with the...sound, that we call laughter'"  Pointing out that Descartes "had no idea what he was talking about. His anatomy is a complete work of fantasy.  But laughter was to be put in its place because it was spontaneous, intuitive and un-willed, and represented the triumph of the body."

On the subject of Shakespeare, this wonderful Hamlet cartoon makes me chuckle repeatedly.  (For those who don't know, Hamlet and his friends are all actors - in the shape of animals - and usually meet in a bar. Hamlet is, of course, the pig.):

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