As a student of philosophy I have always been particularly interested in the contrasting attitudes of Romanticism and Rationalism, and it was an absolute revelation to me to read in this book that almost all the perceptions of Romanticism originate in the right hemisphere of the brain while the methods of Rationalism are processed by the left hemisphere. In the first half of his book, McGilchrist shows us in great detail the several ways in which neurological science can demonstrate this, for instance by describing the thought processes when one or the other side of the brain is physically damaged.
The most fundamental difference between the two hemispheres is that the origin of all experience is in the right half. That experience sees everything in its environment, is holistic, intuitive and profound, but it is unfocussed and indistinct. To focus on the details of the experience, to analyze it, is the task of the left. Ideally the detailed picture then returns to the right half, so that the details become integrated with and enrich the wider picture. The traffic between the two hemispheres is principally via the corpus callosum, the tissues which join them at their base.
The left half uses language precisely; the right can see can see layers of meaning, understands metaphors and jokes. The right is responsible for our personal and social relationship with others, for empathy and empathetic imitation, for picking up the meaning of facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, for most of our emotional life and for our response to music, poetry, the spiritual dimension of life. It is the locus of moral judgment. It experiences the past, the present and the future as a continuum. The left is instrumental; it organizes, manipulates and controls details for a purpose. It measures, classifies and creates abstractions. It aims for internal consistency. Awareness of new things in the world belong to the right; the left processes and explicates what it receives from the right, and in that sense does not create anything new itself: it only works on what is already known to it.
Without the work of the left, civilization would be impossible; but when the right is neglected, the left becomes detached from everything that is holistic and profound. The left and the right, different and even conflicting though they are, should always complement each other in a creative tension, should have a dialectical relationship with each other like that of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. They achieve this when there is "negative feedback" between them, when they check each other. But the left hemisphere is particularly prone to "positive feedback", is a "hall of mirrors" where its contents reinforce each other and produce a "virtual reality".
Philosophy itself, which is essentially concerned with analysis and close examination, has a strong predisposition to privilege the left, which it takes a stupendous effort by some philosophers like Spinoza, Nietzsche or Heidegger to overcome. Scientists run a similar danger, and even neurologists have until recently described the right hemisphere as "minor", "silent", or "coarse" and the left as "dominant" or "smart". McGilchrist is in no doubt that the right hemisphere should be the Master, the left merely its Emissary, albeit as such a valued one.
In the second half of the book McGilchrist analyzes the phases of Western civilization in terms of whether they are right- or left-hemisphere dominated. (He allows for more exceptions than my summary suggests.) He agrees with Nietzsche that left domination began with Socrates and Plato. It was intensified in the Roman Empire. Christendom began with the spiritual insights we associate with the right, but degenerated into abstract theological formulations which imposed uniformity wherever it could. The Renaissance was overwhelmingly right-hemisphere dominated; but then the Reformation reverted to left-hemisphere thought. (McGilchrist's unduly negative attitude to the Reformation strikes me as the weakest part of the book.) The Enlightenment and the French Revolution of course are massively left-oriented; and on several occasions he mentions that Descartes, the founder of the Age of Reason (or rather of the Age of Rationality) exhibited thought processes which have much in common with schizophrenics. In Romanticism we then have a brief period of right-hemisphere dominance. McGilchrist taught English Literature at Oxford before he re-trained as a neurologist; and his analysis (NB) of Romantic Literature is superb and much the best part of this second part. Then, alas, comes the Industrial Revolution with its one-sided materialism and scientism, manipulating life in a way which is the fulfilment of the left-hemisphere's ambitions. And even that was not the end: Modernism comes along, whose characteristics are fragmentation of reality (see Cubism, Surrealism, abstract art etc; dissonance without resolution into harmony in much of modern music, deconstruction in literature) in much the way in which schizophrenics experience fragmented reality, and this bring all sorts of other consequences: a loss of meaning and significance, resulting sometimes in Angst, sometimes in boredom, which in turn requires more and more strident or shocking expression. For the sanity of western civilization, we badly need to restore the primacy of the right-hemisphere, not least by looking at the more holistic attitudes McGilchrist sees in Eastern civilization.
There are suggestive sentences or brilliant formulations on almost every page, although there is also a good deal of repetition in this very long book. Despite McGilchrist's comments that, in its proper role, the left hemisphere does indispensable and valuable work, the tone is constantly negative about it. There is, for example, nothing about the left hemisphere checking rather than supplementing what the right hemisphere may be doing in the way of blind emotion. Dare I say that there is even a left-hemisphere tinge to the overall pattern of McGilchrist's analysis? I was, however, left with my view of the world having been greatly enriched by this learned and immensely stimulating book.