Henri Bergson – Note to Self

Added Bergson’s Creative Evolution to my reading list after finding so many references in McGilchrist’s latest. And had also noticed lots of cross-links between Bergson and Whitehead / James through an active “fan” of Bergson on my timeline in the last couple of years (Emily Herring).

Keep coming across references to him having been the most famous philosopher, most famous and decorated public intellectual in fact, in his early 20th C time – Brooklyn’s first traffic jam, etc. This, despite also being evidently influential on so many other important thinkers, leaving you wondering why he had dropped out of the headlines in the same way that (say) Einstein is constantly recalled to public consciousness.

However, as I added Bergson to my list I had that feeling I had acquired Creative Evolution before, a title that so obviously fitted my agenda. Sure enough I mentioned starting (trying) to read it back here in 2007 (9/11 2007 as it happens) having bought it in Barnes & Noble when we were living in the US. So I scanned my library, thoroughly randomised by a recent down-sizing house-move, and found it. (A 2005 edition of the 1907 Harvard translation by Arthur Mitchell, assisted by Wm James.)

A short but familiar reading list in there too, several of which also in the bibliography of McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things. Small world. Add The Creative Mind and Time and Free Will to the reading list.

And that pic reminds me – Mark Solms Hidden Spring sits there unfinished too. A victim of priorities over the course of this year. And I never did finish Zeman’s latest either.

Heritability of Psychological Traits

Always contentious that atypical variations around the typical “human condition” are (a) real in any objective sense and (b) heritable as much as they are plastic in mental development. Always PC to avoid medicalising conditions away from such norms, and variety has its own value anyway, but the woke extreme of PC often denies the basic facts.

Kevin Mitchell re-tweeted this from an older thread

Earlier in the thread (that I hadn’t actually been following at the time) he had said:

“All species accumulate genetic variation that leads to heritable differences between individuals in all kinds of traits (that have a genetically specified species ‘norm’) Human psychology is no exception. It is the product of an incredibly complex program in the canonical human genome that specifies a canonical human brain. Except no individual has the ‘canonical’ human genome or brain – we all have inevitable variations in our genomes and *consequent variations* in our brains and our psychological traits.”

NOT part of the thread, but an aside that hit me relating this to the McGilchrist work, is taking the same logic to the idea that there are canonical male and female human brains, even if no individual can be that canonical exemplar and the individual variation is enormous.

Like so much of any field that his been tainted by pop-psychology it is normal (ie PC, woke) to deny very real biologically heritable, brain/mind and psychological sex/gender differences.

“[That] genetic differences affect our individual natures – is completely expected. It couldn’t be otherwise.”

In McGilchrist terms the sex/gender differences are an aside to his main agenda, but no less real. Something I picked-up on in his original Master and Emissary and supported by even more evidence in his latest. In fact it is a reminder of the scientific thoroughness needed in recording all case sample features in order not to be fooled by randomness – a false randomness imposed by prior political conditioning.

(To be clear women being different to men is something to value for them and for humanity and says nothing against anyone’s human rights or opportunities. In fact it’s positively a reminder that despite any and all heritable differences we share common human rights. Vive la difference! as I may have mentioned once or twice before.)

And I am not alone in warning about being fooled by the statistical randomness of aggregation across the sexes. Here Kathleen Stock picked-up on Jonathan Haidt’s latest:

Meta Communication of Things

[Latest updates re The Matter With Things:

I’m in a bit of a quandary. I have now, actually since the middle of last week, finished Part2 of McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things – paused intending to write another partial review – with copious notes – but have now started on Part3. That third part is already “Wow!”-level thought-provoking in terms of depth and breadth and it’s not that Part2 was any less so. The problem is, and looks like it will continue to be, what on earth to write?

Without a little “why?”, of the two extremes, a simple “everyone must read” recommendation is patently inadequate for a costly two-volume work. If you’ve not already acquired and read his previous Master and Emissary, on which this book builds, you could I guess, skip the time and expense of that first step. Although the content is additive in terms of specific sources and detail, the hemispheric arguments are rehearsed, recapped and summarised many times as well as being monumentally extended in this magnum opus.

You could argue with the editorial decision – beautifully executed by Perspectiva, taking over from McGilchrist’s less adventurous existing publisher- to publish the minimally edited 1577 pages into a single two-volume work. This as opposed to, say,  a more ruthless marketing edit or maybe recast as three separate new instalments in a trilogy of four? In fact, reading on, you see why theirs has been the enlightened decision.

On the other hand if I was to summarise all the highlights I considered novel or important, I would be re-writing a good deal of my past 20 years of blogging, of which the last decade has already been getting highly repetitive as it is. This is not to say that it is one of those books I might wishfully think “I could have written that”. There’s a whole ‘nother level of detail beyond all the original resources I’ve already plundered into a level I’ve barely even acknowledged second-hand or even been aware. Apart from name-dropping, how can that be summarised without further repetition? (eg Why stop at neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, when rabbi Jonathan Sacks can also support your case? We’ve all been there.) Maybe a huge classified matrix of who has said what would be my engineering presentation of preference.

A lot of quotes and references, from all over the academic map and timescales, can give any book a “learned” air, and it’s something I’ve already mentioned in previous reviews of Part 1 and of Master & Emissary before it. I’m sure some less scrupulous authors and publishers have used that as a tactic before. But it’s the strategic synthesis that is so important and largely original. As well as the references and quotes themselves, large parts of McGilchrist’s own text is paraphrasing and linking his sources. It’s a lot of the same or words just not necessarily in the same order. In fact the common etymologies of similar but divergent words and languages is another important thread. (As an aside, it demands the imagining of what McGilchrist might create with a purely artistic literary brief. Next time maybe?)

That may not sound like a hard sell or a strong recommendation for the current work, but it is the point. So much of this is ancient wisdom discarded by the received wisdom of the modern rational collective mind and painstaking stitched back together – made evident – by the polymath author. The important thing is that as well as the ancient sources, the major part of the evidence really is there in a mass of modern scientific output. A modern critical-thinking mind will undoubtedly analyse details of arguments they could pick to death, with the repeated application of but how? and why? There’s no shortage of target material if so motivated by their own rational standards, until we “starve upon the residue”. But again, this is the point. We’ve allowed our minds individually and collectively to adopt a narrow and ultimately destructive outlook on our world. Not for the first time I say that’s the Catch-22 lesson of this work.

So writing another review simply adds more similar words unlikely to provide any more effective impact on the world at large. But this is a very important book; one that everyone should not simply read or read about, but enact and embody. Best use of resources, mine or anyone else’s, is to surely to get the content into active groups of people interacting in as many walks of life as possible. Judged against the dry orthodoxy of the scientific community this approach might look a lot like a religious, even cultish, lifestyle movement. Of course the point is that dry “left-brain” orthodoxy is the cult humanity should be afraid of. He’s not the first to say it of course, but few if any have said it so thoroughly.

Meaningless Broad Definitions

I had this list in a recent post, reacting to Steven Pinker’s definition of rationality being so broad it was indistinguishable from any number of “good things”

He says:
“Rationality is using knowledge to attain [human] goals.”

I said:
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Rationality?
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Politics
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Cybernetics
Using knowledge to attain (human) goals is Game Theory
Etc, etc.

And now I add from this morning’s Reith Lecture by Stuart Russell on AI

Using information to attain goals is Artificial Intelligence?
Using information to attain (human) goals is Intelligence

One land-grab after another. Unashamed political interest.
Definitions so broad they are meaningless and useless.

Neurath and Bohr

I have Otto Neurath as the larger-than-life overly positive member of the logically positivist Vienna Circle – a great communicator on its behalf but probably unaware of its limitations. Someone who didn’t understood Wittgenstein’s objections.

The “International Encyclopedia of Unified Science”
(here Vol 1 Part 1 Entries 1 to 5 of the unfinished project) came to my notice when @iramey posted the inside cover to Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. That indicated that Kuhn’s work was part of that project where Neurath was editor in chief along with an impressive board of editors and advisors.

The first entry in the encyclopaedia itself is Neurath’s introduction:

A project to document the “unity of the empiricalization and logicalization synthesis” that has happened- a continuation of the logical positivist “Vienna Circle” project to make all of philosophy “scientific” aka logical empiricism or empirical rationalism.

Although he acknowledges not only that “other thinkers may call it rationalistic fantasy” but also that even those that consider themselves part of the unification project might find a very small overlap of agreement in what that actually means.

The second contribution, by Nils Bohr, is one page in its entirety:

“[We are reminded of] not only the unity of all sciences aiming at a description of the external world but, above all, of the inseperability of epistemological and psychological analysis … It is to be hoped that the forthcoming Encyclopedia will have a deep influence on the whole attitude of our generation which, in spite of the increasing specialization in science and technology, has the growing feeling of the mutual dependency of all human activities”

Not sure Bohr’s hopes aligned with Neurath’s expectations?

Aside –  very strong “Chicago Uni” emphasis too, which might also explain the Pirsig connection. Fascinating.

And, aside – this must have been happening in parallel with the much more enlightened “Macy” initiatives which are behind Psybertron’s “cybernetics” angle.

And, another aside – Comment from Mark reminds me I never read Kuhn first hand. Kuhn, Kondratiev and Schumpeter were key sources for Freeman and Perez “Techno-Economic Paradigms” – one of my Masters sources way back. Kept up with Carlota Perez and Kontratiev cycles generally in cultural (ie “memetic”) evolution ever since, where paradigm is analogous to species. (PS for consistency, I’m continuing to spell “Kondratiev” even though the world, including Paul (Bognadov) Mason, seems to have switched to Kondratieff.)

Is McGilchrist Getting Ahead of Himself?

I’ve now read the whole of Part 1 of “The Matter With Things”, including but not just the summaries. As advertised it is a thorough collection and organisation of scientific and empirical evidence and argument for left and right hemisphere dysfunctions and their interconnections, genetic and physical, indicating their quite distinct “normal” roles, hemispherically deficient in “atypical” psychological and behavioural outcomes in individuals.

In the last Chapter 9 of Part 1 he focusses in particular on autism and schizophrenia (and associated neuroses and psychoses) following the same hemispheric patterns of physiology and psychology. A lot of this is not new even if the thorough marshalling of all the resources is, and this seems almost entirely non-contentious. The evidence is there.

Essentially his “Hemispheric Hypothesis” – that deficient right-hemisphere and exaggerated left-hemisphere participation in human life is a problem, and that there is a lot more of this imbalance evident in the modern world.

In terms of his arguments, he may be getting ahead of himself – making his own statements and quoting those of others – of the opinion that this mass of individual evidence is behind “the plight of modern humanity” more generally. Now I’m firmly of the same opinion, just not sure that this step in the argument has really been made yet.

In the late 20th C and now in the 21st many have expressed the same views. I’ve myself been using the short-hand that rationality in all socio-political domains has become “autistic” since I started this project. That we murder to dissect is as old as the romantic poets, captured then as careful with that (analytic) knife, Aristotle. Analysis paralysis has been common management parlance. Philosopher of science Nick Maxwell has used the idea that science as curated by our universities and academic institutions is “neurotic” and failing to address the big issues facing humanity. Economists have even coined the idea of “autistic economics“. I don’t believe there is much doubt as to the diagnosis.

The question is whether the mass of evidence and argument presented around the behaviour of individuals has been shown to causally translate to wider social activities, collective decision-making and governance of these. I’m trying to imagine what an evidence gathering exercise would look like at a collective social level. The perennial Catch-22 in this space is having to make arguments about the inadequacies of current rationality in the way we participate in the world to an audience whose measure of arguments is the received wisdom of current rationality.

[Plenty of Whitehead, Bergson, James and Wittgenstein at the philosophical level. And very much written as McGilchrist speaks, with “and here’s the thing”, “you would think” and “it makes you wonder” links between some of the highly technical content and language. Very readable.]


[Post note: Just noticed this engagement with McGilchrist back at HTLGI in 2014 – last para before post-notes – is also explicit about the autistic characterisation.]

[Lots of good linguistic stuff. Problems of “Know” in English vs Savoir/Connaitre and Kennen/Wissen in French and German. Also I/thou and I/it 1st & 2nd vs 1st & 3rd persons – personal vs impersonal interactions. Like Dunbar-number about size of communities below / above 150-ish affecting patterns of communication and organisation.]

Sleeping With Yourself

A saying used by Alice Dreger is that:

“At the end of the day,
the only person you have to sleep with
is yourself.”

When asked where that came from, she replied:

A day or two ago someone posted this too:


I felt seen too. I’m over-committed on too many fronts, only one of which is a day-job. I used to quip that the main source of stress was the guilt that whichever task I was doing, there were a dozen I wasn’t – with importance and urgency tangled-up in interdependencies. Sleepless nights were always associated with an imminent deadline. Invariably self-inflicted.

I remember in the days touring the conferences this became a common practice of completing (ie actually doing) preparation of presentations in the small hours of the morning before. The adrenaline seemed to help. In these cases there is an obvious marketing or ego element, individually or collectively on behalf of an organisation or team.

Even without this ego element, the good advice from Alice concerning the integrity of a good day’s work can be complex without clear distinctions between different tasks. Still good advice to aim for.

Peterson in Cambridge

Jordan Peterson has been in the UK since early / mid last week, visiting Cambridge and, over the weekend, London, with assorted media engagements along the way.

Pretty sure it’s not his first visit to Cambridge, one of his earlier “controversial” talks was there as I recall. Anyway, this time he’s been taking advantage of playing tourist with his life-partner and being hosted inside St John’s, Christ’s, Kings and Trinity historical collections, and the general history-laden built-environment of Cambridge itself. Like a child in a sweetie shop he’s been moved by the abundance of books, artefacts and locations imbued by association with the greats, Darwin, Newton, etc. I know the feeling having spent 4 years working in Cambridge – just before smart-phones and social-media. It was instrumental in this blog becoming the project that is Psybertron.

He’s posted eight or ten pics or selfies alongside various significant places and objects. At Trinity he visited the Wren Library, which included some of the books and notebooks he snapped, but erroneously posted a shot of Trinity Chapel with a Wren Library caption. His denigrators latched onto that with a sad meanness – memeing his error with a thread of assorted piss-takes. You really think the man cannot tell a library from a chapel, and didn’t just have many dozens of snaps on his phone?

Here an example piss-take from a bear with very little brain? Three days late to the party by a public intellectual who should know better, yet illustrates how low intellectual discourse has sunk. (A screenshot ‘cos he’s someone who blocked me some years ago when I once pointed out to him the irony in his reaction to having the piss taken out of himself, turning his own joke back on him. Ho Hum.)

Anyway in London over the weekend he got his revenge when he posted a selfie in The National Gallery alongside Willem Kalf’s classic still-life with a large red lobster (and drinking horn, in the title). Like the Quakers, turning a jibe into a trademark.

Rock on Lobster Peterson 🙂


[Ha. And this week (25th/26th Nov) he’s in Oxford, the Union, Oriel college etc. Perhaps over-sharing the people and places. Definitely the kid in the candy store.]