Discussion of Iain McGilchrist’s "The Master and His Emissary"

Anyone who is interested in reading or reviewing The Master and His Emissary is welcome to participate in this discussion. I’m really just getting started. @MarkD has a long history with it.

You can learn about the book here:

I’m still quite near the beginning of The Master and His Emissary, in part, because my reader app on my phone keeps losing its place, and also because I keep losing my attention and have to listen again. Repetition helps, when I can’t actually grasp the text between my hands to help what’s between my ears.

The tiny section on The Nature of Attention is worth rerereading many times. A few sentences from it:

The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to, the very nature of the world in which those ‘functions’ would be carried out, and in which those ‘things’ would exist. Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I am investigating, my lover, my aunt, a body waiting to be dissected. In all these circumstances, except the last, you will also have a quite different experience not just of me, but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed the type of my attention. And yet nothing objectively has changed.

And this:

[B]y thinking about certain sorts of people at all – we become objectively, measurably, more like them, in how we behave, think and feel. Through the direction and nature of our attention, we prove ourselves to be partners in creation, both of the world and of ourselves. In keeping with this, attention is inescapably bound up with value… Values enter through the way in which those functions are exercised: they can be used in different ways for different purposes to different ends. Attention, however, intrinsically is a way in which , not a thing: it is intrinsically a relationship, not a brute fact. It is a ‘howness’, a something between, an aspect of consciousness itself, not a ‘whatness’, a thing in itself, an object of consciousness. It brings into being a world and, with it, depending on its nature, a set of values.

Ties directly with Rezeptionsforschung for sure. A fascinating and serious area we can’t ignore in reading/attending to anything, much less things we consider sacred.

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Tell me about it. I’ve been reading and rereading it for years. Not with urgency though. I’m still reading good novels regularly and haven’t picked it up in probably a couple of months recently. But I find myself thinking about it or seeing how it applies in novels and discussions on many topics here. If you’d like I’d be happy to shadow you by rereading sections as you share so we can discuss. I wouldn’t dream of trying to explain it because his is better. But we could share our takes on it if you like; I’ve never had anyone to talk to about it who had also read it so you’d be doing me a huge favor*. The summary of philosophy was fascinating and the neuroscience around the case he makes for the two perspectives provided by the the brain’s two sides is also interesting (though much drier).

That’s a new word for me. German? Something like “Reception- for- ___”?

Let alone sacred. :wink:

You know it was reading this book that made reconsider my casual dismissal of the sacred as a real and necessary category of our humanity.

*I’ll be a little distracted at times as my Warriors are still alive in the NBA playoffs and I’m organizing garden events again. (I know, such 1st world issues.)

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The book seems to be a good introduction to some of the overlap between philosophy and psychology. I am more familiar with psych, and a lot of that coursework was focused on brain structure and the functioning of the structures, also some brain anomalies, particularly as relates to learning. All very old from undergrad.

Rezeptionsforschung = Reception theory. The theory deals with our interaction with texts, among other things, and how we influence the meaning of the text. Something most people around here are at least aware of.

Mc Gilchrist is a really fine writer. The book is beautifully written so far. I enjoy his subtle humor as well.

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If we do this we might want to start a new thread as we are likely to start and stop as life and the need for good lit intrude. If so I’d suggest we ask a kindly mod to peel off this last post of yours with the quotes and these couple of following posts and put it in a new thread. Shall we call it “Discussion of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary”? I have made other posts from this book in the Pithy thread but I like the idea of starting from the beginning.

Definitely not a book to gulp down quickly. I found it necessary to chew well a bit at a time.

Those are great ideas.
I was thinking earlier, it might be good to make it clear that anyone else interested in the book is welcome to discuss it, too. Making it a separate post would do that, I think. I will follow up later this morning.


Working on Chapter 2, and focussing a lot on the Attention (particularly “Breadth and Flexibility Versus Focus and Grasp”).
Structural references are strange to hear again in this context, which feels more like that of academic text book. As a family we’ve become accustomed to them being associated with one very specific brain in one very awful context. Brain-injury/-impairment and recovery-related discussions still are fairly common at our supper table. It’s a bit odd to have it back in someone else’s hands.

McGilchrist says in “Breadth and Flexibility”: “If what it is that exists comes into being for each one of us through its interactions with our brains and minds, the idea that we could have a knowledge of it that was not also an expression of ourselves, and dependent on what we brought to the relationsip, is untenable…to say this is ‘such-and-such”, that is, it has certain qualities that enable me to place it in a category of things that I have experienced before and about which I have certain beliefs and feelings….The world is no longer ‘present’ to us, but ‘re-presented’, a virtual world, a copy that exits in conceptual form in the mind.”

While so far, I think the work he is doing around these ideas are probably going to be the key to this section (probably whole book), reading it and in the context of brain research and the related vocabulary, is far more personal than I expected it to be, precisely an example of what he is explaining. For a while terms like “CSF” “Intercranial Pressure” “Ventricle” “Cerebellum” (along with “Cerebellar Mutism”), “Posterior Fossa” and the like were a daily part of living for my family. These words now have all sorts of things attached to them that illustrate exactly McGilchrist’s point. How utterly ironic.

@MarkD how is your reading going?

I’ve only reread the section titled The Nature of Attention so far. I did lock onto a different quote there which I’ll share now. I think it is probably more important for his new book, The Matter With Things, and caught my eye since I’ve been watching or listening to interviews about it lately. ( I won’t buy that one until I pick out an e reader. )

First he talks about how what we attend to shapes what we find, first in regard to other people in the part you quoted. Then he points out how a mountain can be “a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to a prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods”; concluding that apart from these “there is no one way of thinking which reveals the true mountain”. Then he says this which reflects on how we think about what science is and can do:

“Science, however, purports to be uncovering such a reality. It’s apparently value-free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this ‘view from nowhere’ to use Nagel’s phrase, is itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But it’s use in such causes does not make it truer or more real, closer to the nature of things.”

I don’t take this as any slap at science but rather just recognizing it is but one among many ways we can attend to things albeit a particularly useful one. But should all our attention be spent to maximize just that sort of utility? Not if we find value in the humanities and theology.

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Mark, I will gladly stick with “The Nature of Attention” for some time. I really enjoyed that section. It will be wonderful not to have to swallow dense books whole as we had to do in classes. Some things are really worth taking more time.
I also need to focus on preparing many things for a gathering tomorrow. So, I appreciate a more humane pace. I will engage more with attention related to science later, when there is more time.

Me too. Another garden visit of a historic nature this Sunday. The garden had been started by one of our organization’s founders who is deceased but there are some who remember him from the group or from his nursery business. Not me but the history interests me and I’m friends with the son and his wife who are about my age and live there now. Used to be it was hard to find anything about the father online but then recently this article surfaced:

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Finally a longer discussion by Iain McGilchrist on God and the Christian mythos. Here in discussion with the neuroscientist who authored the book Am I My Brain?, Sharon Dirckx. @jstump, you might find it interesting.

There was a transcript available whose link I would have included but can’t now locate. If anyone gives this a look of course I’d be interested in getting reactions. But if you spot and can link to that transcript I’d be doubly grateful.

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Found it! (The transcript, that is. Sorry, not the meaning of life or undeniable proof of God’s existance, or any other god.) This page has the video embedded, and down a bit on the left half of the page is a + sign with something about “transcript”. Click the +, and the transcript opens.

The link unlinked to text:


Thank you so much. Good luck with the meaning of life and that elusive proof!

Here is an idea for the latter. If anyone ever figures out how to make a camera to catch the supernatural in the act then of these days we could we could catch Him in the act doling out a miracle which would usually be a private matter. I’m thinking like those camera that catch animals moving around at night. :upside_down_face:

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