Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Connotation and causation

I've been reading Ian McGilchrist's book "the master and his emissary". I found it fascinating, but it left me wondering "where's the politics? Why isn't it there?" Yes, I'm sure the 'hemisphere thing' is really important, but to me the question is not about the evolutionary/environmental causes of different mental balances (although fascinating), but simply about asking people: "what sort of a world do you want to live in?"

McGilchrist doesn't really talk about causation and Hume. Descartes gets the usual drubbing (poor Descartes - I want to rehabilitate him) but Hume's view on causation receives little attention. McGilchrist's argument is that the relationship between emotion and reason is poorly understood. He re-echoes Heideggarian themes of the need for 'dwelling' thinking - poetic thinking, and argues against Damasio that emotion is not a servant of reason, but reason is a servant of emotion.

It's very scholarly and I learnt a lot. However, for me it doesn't deliver the 'killer blow' that would make me really sit up and think. It probably falls into the trap it describes so well. If metaphor (for which I think McGilchrist means 'connotation') is the thing, and metaphor is a right-brain thing, how is the balance between connotation and denotation causal in the things which happen to us - in wars, famine, divorce, and schizophrenia? Basically he seems to lay the blame for the ills of the world on poor connections between 'left brain' - the logical rational bit and right brain. But his model of causation is Humean.

To my mind, the real argument is that the brain (whichever hemisphere) doesn't cause anything on its own: it is part of a mechanism which is biological, psychological and social all at once. Reducing it to hemispheres doesn't reveal the full picture for me. And for me, Humean causation can't account for this because the mechanism is ecological. To understand the causation of connotation, you need a connotative metaphor of causation, and essentially that is what Aristotelian causality is.

Dealing with the ills of the world requires rethinking our metaphors and dealing with the balance between our sensual experience and our rationality. It means changing peoples' minds. But changing someone's mind isn't easy, as any teacher will tell you. I think it requires skilful positioning. And that requires an understanding of how connotation (perhaps the poetry of teaching) causal.... And that requires an understanding of how cognition works.... And that requires an understanding of causal relationships between brain and environment.

In that sense it's more than some balance between left and right hemispheres. It is what the two hemispheres do to our bodies and to the world, and what the world in turn does to us.

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