The Master & His Emissary

The Master & His Emissary

Full Summary – The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist

General idea: The brain is divided into two hemispheres. This division is significant, as it helps explain fundamental aspects of human experience and Western thought. The two hemispheres provide two radically opposed realities, and their co-operation can be conflictual. Iain McGilchrist’s thesis is that throughout history, the left-hemisphere view has progressively overtaken the right-hemisphere view (the Master has been overthrown by the Emissary).

Part 1 – The Divided Brain – The Master and His Emissary

1. Asymmetry and the brain

The separation of the brain into two hemispheres is not accidental. These hemispheres don’t merely provide different ways of thinking about the world, but create actual worlds of experience, and provide different ways of being in the world.

Hemispheric lateralization allows animals to specialize for different tasks. The left hemisphere (LH) is roughly specialized in attending towards our needs with narrow attention, while the right hemisphere (RH) deals with novelty and what’s going on apart from ourselves. Attention changes the phenomenological nature of what it attends to, and every world view is value-laden. The scientific “objective” detached worldview is not “value-less” or “more true”, it simply values detachment above all else.

2. What do the two hemispheres do?

The brain functions as a complex integrated whole and not as a sum of discrete modules. The hemispheric division is not about “what is perceived” but “in what way is reality perceived”.

The left hemisphere pays attention to the virtual world it has created. This world is ultimately disconnected from the Other, yet it is deeply useful for manipulation. The right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, to whatever exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation.

Table of Hemispheric Differences.

3. Truth, language and music

Ways of knowing

The left hemisphere’s way of knowing is like “savoir”. It is an accumulation of information about something. The right hemisphere’s way of knowing is like “connaître”. It is experiential and provides deep understanding.

Music as the first “language”

There is phylogenetic (across evolution) and ontogenetic (across the development of the individual) evidence that music, or some music-like faculty, preceded language. Music arose largely in the right hemisphere as a means of communication with others, promoting social cohesion. RH music (words sung) then became RH language (metaphorical language of poetry), which became LH language (prose).

Language and thought

Meaning and thought do not depend on language. Language contributes to firm up particular ways of seeing the world; it shapes, rather than ground, our thinking. Language is a means of mapping and manipulating the world, it is closely linked with hand grasping and serves the same purpose. Language and grasp could be seen as manifestations of a deeper driver to manipulate the world, arising from the left hemisphere. Language has obscured its parentage by abstracting itself away from the body and the experiential world. It allows us to “re-present” what is not “present”. Metaphor is language’s remedy for bridging the gap it creates between the world and itself.

4. The nature of the two worlds

Philosophy, despite being a LH discipline (using language to analytically and sequentially examine the world) has still on occasion attempted to reach into the RH way of seeing the world. Here are philosophers with a predisposition or intuition towards the RH world:


The pragmatists (James and Dewey) stressed that context was paramount to understanding and that we could only “tend towards” objective truth but not grasp it.


Husserl, the first phenomenologist, concluded that there is an objective reality, but that it is intersubjective and comes about through shared experience. He emphasized the role of the body, of empathy and of context.


Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the role that empathy and the body play in the construction of reality. He saw the body not as something we “lived inside of” or as an extension of ourselves, but as an aspect of our existence which is fundamental to our being. For him, the “object” of perception cannot be viewed in isolation. Knowledge is arrived at through engagement with the world, no through abstraction from it. Our common embodiment allows for common, stable truths.


According to Heidegger, our apprehension of whatever is participates in the process of that thing becoming what it is. There is therefore no single truth about anything, but this does not mean that all versions are equally valid. For Heidegger, the ontology of things can only be “unconcealed” by a certain disposition towards the world, in a spirit of “anything goes”. This process is also part of the truth. Heidegger sees truth as un-concealing and not as correctness. The process of un-concealing is done by waiting “on” something rather than “waiting for” it. As things get conceptualized, they become dulled and inauthentic; representation is concealment. Heidegger used language to transcend language. He sees the will to “rational-technological” mastery over life as nihilistic.


Wittgenstein was also skeptical of the scientific method for its tendency to “reduce” and the deceptive clarity of its models. “Everything is what it is and cannot be another thing.” “Man has to awaken to wonder. Science [self-complacent reason] is a way of sending him to sleep.” He saw greater wisdom in mythic than in scientific accounts of the world.

Max Scheler

Max Scheler’s view is that emotion is irreducible and plays a grounding role in experience. Love has primacy. Value is a primary fact that governs the type of attention that we pay to anything. He also formulated a hierarchy of values that positioned RH values higher.

Some of the most powerful drivers of behavior is something akin to archetypes. They are narratives pointing to a certain way of being, aiming to make sense of our own experience, and help shape our response to experience. They bridge the gap between unconscious instincts and conscious cognition.

The LH world, dependant on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless.

The RH world yield a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world. But this world is never fully graspable, always imperfectly known.

5. The Primacy of the Right Hemisphere

Evidence points to the fact that the relationship between the two hemispheres is not equal. Only the right hemisphere is able to synthesise what both hemispheres know into a usable whole, and therefore it has precedence.

The primacy of the implicit

Metaphorical meaning is in every sense prior to abstraction and explicitness. The problem of explicitness is that it returns us to what we already know. Also, forcing the world into explicitness changes its nature completely; it destroys not just spontaneity, but the quality that makes things live. Implicitness conveys much more by including context and conveying what couldn’t be conveyed explicitly. It has a “semi-translucent” quality.

The Primacy of Affect

Affective judgment is not dependant on the outcome of a cognitive process. Affect comes first, the thinking later. Affect is more than emotion; it is a disposition towards the world. Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings! Feeling and the body are at the core of our being, and reason emanates from that core.

The Primacy of the Unconscious Will

The brain “registers” the decision to make movement before a person consciously decides to move (as shown by Libet’s experiment, although the interpretation and results are controversial). Unconscious wishes, intentions, perceptions and choices play a huge part in our lives and are primarily associated with the RH.

The richness of thought comes from the RH and is then transferred to the LH for translation into language. Thought, meaning and the urge to communicate come first from the relatively unconscious realm of the RH. The LH believes itself to be in control, but in fact all it focused on, selects and represents is first brought into being by the RH, and often its choices have already been made for it. Re-presentation is contingent on presentation.

Hegel foresaw the internal dialectic of the mind. He gives a perfect description of the weaknesses of the LH approach as long as it remains unresolved by the RH, and describes how true knowledge redeems itself by returning back into itself (into the RH) in the Phenomenology of Mind. “True scientific knowledge demands abandonment to the very life of the object”, which only he RH can achieve.

The practices aiming to annihilate the self in fact aim to sacrifice the boundaries which once defined the self. The self is emptied out into a whole which is larger than itself.

6. The Triumph of the Left Hemisphere

The left hemisphere’s prime motivation is power. If the LH were to have primacy, the world would seem mechanical, abstract, utilitarian, lifeless, over-confident of its own take and lacking insight into its own problems.

Interactions Between LH and RH

On a moment-to-moment level, both hemispheres, like two bureaucratic departments, seem to compete with one another to “get the job done” or address a situation, regardless of their ability.

The LH is better able to suppress the RH than the reverse (via the corpus callosum), and therefore takes advantage during interactions. While there is an ontological and functional asymmetry in favor of the RH, the LH governs logic, language and linearity. The LH constructs over time an elaborate and systematic world of permanence and solidity, giving it a massive advantage, especially since it is in this fashion that we communicate knowledge.

The structure of the LH is also self-enclosed, shutting off any possible escape mechanism. The equilibrium that once was between the two hemispheres has given way to an unbalance in favor of the LH, who’s caught itself in a positive feedback loop. For the LH, evidence of failure does not mean that we are going in the wrong direction; only that we have not gone far enough in the direction we are already headed.

Part 2. How the Brain Has Shaped our World – The Master and His Emissary

7. Imitation and the Evolution of Culture.

Throughout history, the pendulum has swung back and forth between the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere worldview (or, between the Apollonian and the Dionysian). But now, it has swung too far towards the LH, perhaps to the point of no return.

How has this shift occurred? Not by significant structural changes in the brain, since the timeframe of change is too short. However, this does not mean that nothing is going on at the brain level, since our experience of the world mould our brain and vice-versa. The shifts may have been functional shifts, initiated by imitation of beliefs, practices, worldviews and ways being in the world, which favor one hemisphere or the other. These shifts might then become permanent through epigenetic mechanisms (characteristics passed down that are not determined by DNA sequence).

8. The Ancient World

In ancient Greece, there was a sudden expansion of the capacity for abstraction (LH) from the world, and simultaneously towards greater empathic engagement with the world (RH). This may point to a relative disconnection of the hemisphere and the origins of hemisphere specialization.

Homer (archaic Greece)

The Homeric man does not “have” a body or a mind. Rather, thought and consciousness are as inseparable a part of his bodily life as are movement and metabolism. This body is indistinguishable from the whole person. Thinking, awareness and emotion all happen in the breast, not the head. The words used to describe sensory experiences are rich and varied and convey the quality of what is seen, as well as the relationship between the eye and what it beholds; much unlike cold words like “see” or “smell”. In fact, there was no word to describe “sight” by itself. It had not yet been abstracted from its context.

Classical Greece

The most common similarity between the pre-Socratics is an attempt to reconcile a sense of the apparent unity of the phenomenal world with its diversity. Heraclitus (RH) spoke that the nature of things was not contradictory, but that the attempt to turn them in language leads to paradox. “Hidden structure [RH] is superior to manifest structure [LH]”. On the other hand, Parmenides (LH) thought that the phenomenal world was a deception. Aeschylus (RH) was a playwright that embodied Nietzsche’s Dionysian way of being: “He does what is right without knowing it”. Greek tragedy is based on the ever recurrent theme of downfall through pride, illustrating the paradox of self-consciousness.


The development of the hemispheres and writing are linked and revelatory. In each step of development of writing, the balance of power shifts further to the left.

  • Pictograms -> Phonograms. Visual representation (3300 B.C.) have way to ideograms, which are more schematic. A great shift towards abstraction then happened when ideograms were replaced by phonograms, arbitrary signs that are no longer schematically related to the perceptual properties of the thing, only to the sounds we use to refer to it.
  • Phonograms -> Phonetic alphabet and inclusion of vowels. Phonograms usually represent syllables, while in alphabetic languages, they represent single phonetic components. In syllabic languages, the same syllable may be pronounced with different tones, which alter meaning. Syllabic languages therefore rely on context for differentiation between characters (RH) and can’t be read as a unidirectional linear sequence of instructions. The addition of vowels further consolidated a shift in the balance of hemispheric power, removing the last unconscious strategies.
  • Direction of writing. The LH prefers horizontal lines, while the RH prefers vertical lines. Almost all pictographic writing systems favour a vertical layout. With the advent of phonographic features, writing became horizontal, although right-to-left (RH’s horizontal preference). Then, it became written both ways (turning round and coming back). Then, the left-to-right direction became the norm (driven by the LH). While virtually all syllabic languages are written right-to-left, phonetic languages are written left to right. The author’s view is that these shifts are more likely to have been an effect than a cause, consolidating a shift that must have begun somewhere else.


Money arose in Greece and replaced things with symbols. It is another epiphenomenon of the LH preponderance. Before the development of currency, there was an emphasis on reciprocity and on the value of creating or maintaining a relationship. After money, the essence of relations became competitive, the emphasis being on utility or profit. Money, being homogeneous, homogenizes its objects and users, eroding uniqueness.

Later Greek period

Plato’s beliefs are left-hemisphere congruent; truth is in principle knowable – that is knowable through reason alone – and all truths are consistent with one another. The ideas of things are prioritized over things themselves. Things themselves are even seen as a “representation” of their ideal, abstract forms. This view had a profound influence on the history of Western philosophy. Nietzsche’s view was that Socrates, far from being the hero of our culture, was its first degenerate, suffering from has an inability to trust what is implicit or intuitive. In the later Greek period, truth becomes somethings proved by argument. Metaphors are mere “pretty lies”, statements of truths contained in myths become “fiction”, artist are “far removed from reality” and poets are to be banned from the Republic. Despite this, Plato can’t help but use metaphor and intuition (e.g. allegory of the cave, Ideas that transcend mere logical thought).


While the earlier Roman period indicate a balance between the hemispheres, the LH Apollonian view began to grow with military and administrative successes. Rome’s greatness depended more on codification, rigidity and solidity than flexibility, originality and imagination. While the structures in place initially provided peace and allowed intellectual and spiritual freedom, they later ossified (the LH going at it “alone”) with increased bureaucracy, totalitarianism and an emphasis on the mechanistic. Multiplicity and variation of everyday life was replaced by homogeneity and conformity. In art, the depiction of faces changed from lifelike individuality to abstract, stiff expressions with distant gazes.

This change towards the LH view was to see no reversal until the Renaissance. Individualistic portraits become alike, like Saints. Martyrs and ascetics, with their revulsion for the body, replaced the classical heroes.

9. The Renaissance and the Reformation

There are two ways in which the inauthenticity of representation of the LH stimulates a response. First, by the tendency to redress the loss through an urgent longing for the vibrancy and freshness of the RH world. Second, by a rejection of the RH world, seeing it as intrinsically inauthentic and invalid. This second alternative produces a positive feedback that further entrenches the LH worldview. The Renaissance is an example of the first response, while the Reformation is an example of the second.


A characteristic of the Renaissance is a sudden coming into awareness of aspects of experience that had unaccountably been neglected. Perspective is a key element of the Renaissance worldview, marking a shift from a “God’s eye view from nowhere” to an individual and temporal perspective. The return to the past and rediscovery of the Classical world in the Renaissance was not a fact-finding mission driven by utility. Rather, it was a search for wisdom, virtue and a recognition of the importance of individual lives. The grandeur of nature, the divinity of inspiration and wisdom of the body were cherished.


The Reformation is the first great expression of the search for certainty in modern times. While motivated by a “search for authenticity”, it began reclaiming all that had “captured authenticity” during the Renaissance by destroying it. The inability to accept ambiguity and the fear of imagination yielded terror for images, especially implicit ones. The statements of images came to be seen as inferior than what those of words. In the Reformation, the written word triumphed and acquired the status of a “thing”. Churches became neatly arranged into symmetrical rows, whereas before people were standing in the crowd.

10. The Enlightenment

Tenets of Enlightenment thinking

  • All genuine questions can be answered.
  • All answers are knowable and transmissible.
  • All answers must be compatible with one another.

These tenets are untrue, and cause problems, for example in the arts, where creative genius is not “transmissible”. There is therefore a devaluing of imagination and mistrust of metaphor. Like in the Reformation, explicitness triumphs.

Descartes and schizophrenia

The Cartesian idea that “things we can conceive of very clearly and distinctly are all true” derailed the three next centuries of Western thought. Ironically, while Descartes sought to mistrust the senses and withdraw from them to avoid “madness”, schizophrenia is not characterized at all by a trust of the senses, but rather by the opposite. In his Meditations, Descartes looks out the window and people seem to him like mere machines. As an exemplar of the LH worldview, he had problems with the very idea of temporal continuity. All-seeing but no longer engaged, he experiences the world as a representation.

While the Enlightenment was a period of progress in human understanding and in society at large, it also brought, with its appeal to reason, the dark and rigid side of the controlling LH.

11. Romanticism and the industrial revolution


Romanticism was a response to the mechanical, cold ways of the LH that characterized the Enlightenment. In the Romantic period, not only was the living not reducible to the mechanical, the inanimate world even came to be seen as alive, reintegrating the LH realm into the RH’s. This period is characterized by a re-union of opposites and contradictions.

Knowledge and the Self in Romanticism

One of the perceptions of Romanticism is that we take part in a changing world, and that there is a reciprocal “coming into being” of aspects of ourselves and the world through their interaction. We need to see through the clarity of representation, as some things can only be cognized when cast in a dim light. The Romantics strive to break free of the dullness of familiarity brought by re-presentation by becoming present to the world – whereas the LH would familiarity as indicative of something “being too often presented”, or as a “worn-out resource”. We don’t need to produce “novelty” but rather make the everyday appear to us new, to see it again as it is in itself.

As an exemplar of Romantic thought, Goethe wrote that: “My thinking is not separate from objects. The elements of the object, the perception of the object, flow into my thinking and are permeated by it. My perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking is a perception.” Objective attention can’t be applied to oneself, for it does not result in self-knowledge, because the heightened self-consciousness involved cuts one off from large parts of experience.

Scientific Materialism

There was, after the Romantic period (middle of 19th Century), a return to LH literalism with the birth of “positivism”, or scientific materialism. In this period, every major tradition of natural sciences strove to extend its ideas and practices to social and political issues (the LH does not care for context). Reality became restricted to what science could deal with, matter was elevated and the divine denied. Groundless authority was opposed, and reason and science became the figures of authority. Religion was swapped for science.

Industrial Revolution

The LH biggest assault yet came with the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution created a world to the LH’s image, with straight lines, mass-produced identical goods and massive exploitation of the natural world. This disconnect from the natural world with urban environments, excessive management and increased isolation trapped us in the LH world. The RH thus lost its ontological status, nature became less “real” than the city. The innate structures of the LH were incarnated in the world through technology.

12. The Modern and the Post-Modern worlds


Modernism features could be reduced to: an excess of consciousness and over-explicitness in relation to what needs to remain intuitive and implicit, a depersonalisation and alienation from the body and empathic feeling, a disruption of context, a fragmentation of experience and A loss of betweenness. The LH is isolated and becomes bored in its own hall of mirrors; the map has replaced the territory.

Modern society

Modernity was marked by a process of social disintegration, derived from the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Relationships became conceived as based on utility and competition. Pervasive rationalistic, technical and bureaucratic ways of thinking emptied life of meaning, leading to existential angst, aggravated by the intrusion of distant information into everyday consciousness by medias. In the Modern world, the sense of “belonging” is taken away from the individual by mobility, the extreme pace of change of physical environments and the fragmentation of social bonds within communities.

Modern politics

Capitalism and socialism are both essentially materialistic. They merely offer different ways of approaching the lifeless world of matter and deciding “how to share the spoils”. The Nazis and the Soviets both discouraged imagination, seeing it as decadent and useless. Lenin said of art that it was a mere “intellectual appendix” that should be used as propaganda or else, destroyed.

Modernism and schizophrenia

There are strong parallels between Modernism and schizophrenia. Both exhibit an increased activity of the LH. Madness is the end-point of the trajectory that consciousness follows when it separates from the body and the passions and turns in upon itself. Modernism, by mimicking some aspects of the RH deficits, exacerbates the underlying propensity of some individuals to over-rely on the LH. Prevalence of schizophrenia indeed increases in proportion to the degree that a country is “Westernised”. The prevalence of autism, borderline personality disorders and multiple personality disorders (characterized by over activity of LH and underactivity of RH) has also increased.

Language and post-modernism

Interestingly, while music and visual arts were “assimilated” by the LH during this period, poetry prospered. The very meaning and intuitive power of words had not yet been lost. However, post-modernism drained away meaning completely by separating words from their referents in the real world.

Conclusion. The Master Betrayed

Our current culture and society fits what would be expected from a dominant LH. Yet there are three ways out of the LH’s reflexive labyrinth: the body, the soul and art. More specifically, the “lived” body, the spiritual sense and the experience of emotional resonance and aesthetic appreciation. These all have an immediacy that bypasses the rational and the explicitness of the left hemisphere.

The body

While we might seem to overvalue the body, our preoccupations are merely a symptom of seeing the body as a thing. We see the body as a machine, and diseases as a series of discrete issues without reference to the whole. Our embodied multi-sensorial existence, with which we commune with the world, clashes with the LH world.

The spirit

The LH has also assaulted religion, divinity and the transcendental. The religious has lost its metaphorical meaning and shifted to providing materialistic answers to spiritual problems. Religious practices became reframed with utility, with 10-minute meditation practices that improve productivity. We’ve discarded all myths with which we could understand the world, but since these are fundamental, we’re now left with the metaphor of the machine as a “myth”.


Beauty and the transcendental quality of art have been discarded, art being referred to by critics as “challenging” or “strong” (utilitarian-like qualities). Art has become purely intellectualized; it does not require talent, experience, intuition or tedious skill development; all of these qualities are profoundly undemocratic and unpredictable (they are partly gifts, and can’t fully be taught).


Change would require a willingness to accept being seen as naïve for not getting caught in “clever ironies” (of post-modernism) or of scientific materialism. We must make ourselves open, even to ridicule, rather than shelter behind a self-protective carapace of ironic knowingness and cynicism. In the East, self-improvement has far less to do with getting what one wants, and far more to do with overcoming one’s own shortcomings in the interests of harmony, at home, at work and with friends. We must re-ground both art and science in the lived world.