A Review of The Matter With Things

A couple years ago I posted in the Pithy Quotes thread an excerpt from Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary on the nature of belief which many of us found interesting. Now I’m reading his new book The Matter With Things and he has refined what hr has to say about belief, truth and the sacred. I’m reading that now and am about as far as the author of this review, Rod Dreher, had been when he wrote this review which appeared in The American Conservative about a year ago.

In what follows the passages which he quotes from book being reviewed are in the block quotes provided by this site’s formatting capabilities. The part that he writes is everything else that follows:

“The most exciting thing I’ve learned so far from the new book is how Orthodox Christianity works. I have lacked the conceptual vocabulary to explain it, even to myself. Well, now I get it. McGilchrist’s thesis is that we in the West have allowed our collective mind to be unhealthily dominated by the left brain, which prioritizes propositional thinking, and mistrusts intuition and other noetic ways of knowledge. He writes in this rich passage

We now tend to think of truth as a matter of propositions. The word ‘truth’ in its origin indicates not a proposition, but a disposition. ‘True’ (cf German treu, faithful) is related to ‘trust,’ and is fundamentally a matter of what one believes to be the case. Truth and trust (belief) go together. One cannot have trust in a society where there is no truth; and one cannot be true to a society in which there is no trust. That is of fundamental importance, since, as Confucius told his disciple Tzu-kung, for a stable society a ruler needs three things: weapons, food and trust. If he cannot hold all three, he should forgo weapons first, and food next; for ‘without trust we cannot stand’.

Belief too is about fidelity (Latin fides, faith). The word ‘belief’ has nowhere buried in it the idea of signing up to a proposition, certain or uncertain. It is not a matter of cognition, but of recognition. The word belief comes from the same root as the word ‘love’, a sense preserved in the now archaic word ‘lief’, familiar to us from Shakespeare, with which one once described one’s friend, sweetheart, or lord–someone in whom one believed.

Belief is about relationship, in which by definition, more than one party is involved. The believer needs to be disposed to love, but the believed-in needs to inspire another’s belief or trust. Whether this amounts to being worthy of that belief cannot be fully determined in advance. It emerges only through commitment and experience.

Be that as it may, I think it possible that some of the disagreements in the debate about truth start with these broad differences in whether we see ‘truth-as-correctness’, a thing that can be determined, and into which nothing of us enters; or ‘truth-as-unconcealing’, a process of something revealing itself to us only through our experience. (Heidegger often used the Greek word for truth, aletheia, which literally means ‘un-forgetting’, allowing something to emerge from oblivion.)

How do we decide which way of conceiving truth is truer? First, notice that a process, unlike a thing, suggests the importance of not just the whatness, but the howness. There are no deep truths that are separate from the manner in which they are expressed. As the philosopher Friedrich Waismann puts it:

If you ever try to put some rare and subtle experience, or a half forgotten impression, into words, you’ll find that truth is intrinsically tied up with the style of your expression: it needs no less than a poet to render fully and faithfully such fragile states of mind.

Which is why we honour poetry as a path to truth. As I will argue, the most fundamental truths, of both a physical and psychical nature, can ultimately be expressed only in terms of poetry. And Waismann points out that the meaning of the word truth differs with context, so that it has ‘a systematic ambiguity’, as have deceptively simple sounding words such as fact, statement, knowledge, law and many others.


Very little that we take for granted as most essential to life–love, energy, matter, consciousness–can be convincingly argued about, or even described, without becoming ultimately self-referential. You have to experience it to know it: all we can do is point.

This is why you hear Orthodox Christians telling those interested in Orthodoxy to “come and see”. This sounds dubious from the outside, but once you’ve been in Orthodoxy, you understand it. McGilchrist explains this pretty clearly. Orthodoxy has propositional truths within it, of course, but the emphasis is on truth-as-process. That is to say, all Truth is in Jesus Christ; the Orthodox way of life is a constant, lifelong process of surrender to that Truth, and becoming divinized through it. Orthodox Christianity is knowing-as-poetry, not as syllogism. This is why people who grew up in a left-brained culture view this with suspicion. My experience as an Orthodox Christian is why this line from McGilchrist rings in me like a struck bell: “Whether this amounts to being worthy of that belief cannot be fully determined in advance. It emerges only through commitment and experience.”


My current understanding is that the left vs. right brain interpretation is not correct. Brains are flexible, not rigidly left vs. right things. Otherwise, much of what you cited sounds true.

There is a difference in the cultural history and way of approaching the truth between the west and east. Logical chains of thinking and splitting of issues to clearly defined compartments is the western way to approach questions related to God and truth. The eastern way is to respect the mysterious nature of God which we can only partly understand and that little understanding only in connection with the revering and praying community of believers. Well, that was just my interpretation, those knowing more can correct my limited understanding.

The difference is not just geography today. One expert (theologian) claimed that pentecostals follow the eastern Orthodox tradition and understanding more than the western tradition. They just do not know it. Maybe there are also other ‘western’ groups or denominations that are more Orthodox than they know.


Left-right distinctions aren’t cast in concrete either. There are multiple accounts of alternate side compensation, but I found this in short order:

1 Like

Mark, thanks for sharing this review. It’s good in its own right!

I think his discussion of truth and belief in conjunction with relationship is valuable.

And of course his mention of whatness in contrast to howness here

brings me back to The End of Apologetics and the discussion of the Ethics of Belief.

If our approach to Christian belief is not to re­main lost in
epistemological abstraction and objectivity, and if we are to find a prophetic model of witness that will be able to come forth as edification – as a spiritual activity that is itself an expression of faith – then our account of Christian belief will need to be couched
in terms of an ethics of belief and not just an epistemology.
Myron Bradley Penner, The End of Apologetics, p. 84.

(Still processing. Still reviewing parts now and then.)

In Penner’s (and my) view, relationships are a requirement for any useful, or rather ethical and edifying, communication of and practice of faith.

And a poetics of faith is part of the lived practice:

If Christianity is a way of life, of being in the truth in this world­ with practices that give shape to its beliefs and beliefs that give ex­pression to its practices, it should come as no surprise that we cannot begin abstractly and objectively and still hope to capture the essence of Christianity … A rational and objective apologetic cannot show or dem­onstrate these subjective realities of Christian faith. What is needed in our witness, if those we engage are to be edified, is a poetics that performs the essentially Christian, in which there is no gap between the form of witness and its content. We do not need a philosophical argument that rationally justifies the objective content of Christian belief to show us it is edifying.
(Ibid., pg. 90)

In light of these things, I thought the comments about Orthodox Christianity, about which I know almost nothing, were interesting and maybe helpful – truth-as-process is not the way I am used to considering Christianity at all, but it fits, I think, with Penner’s idea od our Christian witness as a poetics, as something performed or lived out.

1 Like

It can make a big difference whether a stroke is on the left side of the brain or the right side. Believe me.

1 Like

This topic was automatically closed 6 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.