• Ego(s)?

    Posted by Whit Blauvelt on March 7, 2024 at 8:53 pm

    Much of McGilchrist’s writing frames the issues as if there are two egos in each of us, LH and RH. He never goes explicit with such a claim, yet he typically personifies the story saying things like “the LH does this thing, this way, while the RH does this other thing, the other way” — as if each were a separate character, or person, or ego. Of course, much human conversation attributes egos similarly yet not literally. We might tell the mechanic our car “wants to pull to the right,” and not mean the car literally wants anything. But it’s difficult — at least for me — to tease out whether Iain is simply taking a rhetorical shortcut, as in describing a car wanting to pull, or describing two separable conscious centers, such as occurs (at least to some large extent) when the hemispheres were surgically separated by Sperry.

    In some places in the books there seems to be a sense that we can shift our centers from one side to the other, as in the left-right-left maneuver proposed — taking in through the right, parsing in the left, passing back to the right for recontextualization. It seems the model is of an ego-like super-self which can float back and forth between two other ego-like selves.

    This all seems plausible enough as rough metaphor — thus his books make sense to us. But in terms of logical rigor might this benefit from more coherent (LH-style) definition? Are there literally to be two hemispheric selves, and a third self which floats between — or perhaps gets stuck on one side (as his central claim might be regarding where we are in a LH-dominant culture)? If this is to be taken so, is this third self to, as it were, wake up unsure what room it’s in, look around, and discover that it’s at the moment either in the LH or RH compartment, in company of the resident ego there, and with the freedom to go over to the other room when it desires?

    I suspect Iain does not quite subscribe to this picture. Yet — as someone who largely comprehends complex things through picturing them — I can’t but see his claims as leading by implication to something like this one. Getting clearer on what picture he really intends might lead to testable hypotheses, thus better science on the issue.

    How do you see it?

    Whit Blauvelt replied 1 month, 1 week ago 2 Members · 4 Replies
  • 4 Replies
  • Gary

    March 7, 2024 at 9:39 pm

    This is a great question. I approach this from the Jungian perspective of differentiating the egoic ‘self’–with a little ‘s’–from the holistic ‘Self’ which I view from the semiotic perspective as the person as a ‘sign’–in its broadest sense–as used in the triadic semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce, which can be traced back, as a concept, to the Greeks–for example, its use in the ‘medical semiotics’ of Hippocrates. The egoic ‘self’ is language-dependent and, as such, is a left-hemispheric phenomenon. It is the ‘I’ in the famous Cartesian quotation, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It is the ‘I’ that sees itself as a thinking being exclusively. Of course, it is pretty clear that a person is far more than an ‘ego’, so defined. And this is the argument that the late John Deely makes when arguing for the ‘recovery of person’ through understanding a person as the totality of a sign–ie. as a source of signification, not as a Cartesian ‘thinker’. Signification is more than what language can convey. It is experiential including both action and perception, in addition to ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’ in the context of the dialogical. In fact, one of the ways to recognize this is through the commonly recognized disjunction between what a person says and what they do, and the idea that ‘actions’ speak louder than ‘words’. The right hemisphere does not have the capacity to speak or to think in words, but does this imply that it cannot ‘think’? We know from split-brain patient behavior that the right brain and the left brain can manifest ‘disagreement’ through the phenomenon of ‘intermanual conflict’ after the corpus callosum has been cut. I have seen this in patients and it is striking! In one particular instance, a patient I was caring for pulled out a cigarette with their right hand and was about to light it using a lighter with their right hand, when their left hand reached up, grabbed the cigarette and tossed it, much to their chagrin. So, using overt action, one can infer a conflict in motivation between what the left hemisphere wanted to do–‘smoke’ and what the right hemisphere wanted to do–‘not smoke’. Does that represent an ‘egoic conflict’? Well, if you actually asked the patient what they wanted to do, they would SAY that they wanted to smoke. Which would demonstrate that their egoic ‘self’ which is associated with the language basis in the left hemisphere (in most but not all people!), is TELLING you want they are intending to do. The thing is that their right hemisphere won’t tell you, but sure will be able to show you. I would want to suggest reserving the term ‘ego’ for what one SAYS, not necessarily what one DOES. The ego is basically who we explicitly THINK we are–ie. who we tell ourselves we are. How we would describe ourselves using language. But that is not who we are as a totality, as an embodied being. I think this is something that is easiest to understand when you look at the research that has been done with patients who have undergone a ‘callosotomy’–cutting of the corpus callosum. The ego can ‘tell’ you something that the right hemisphere ‘knows’ but cannot speak. So, if I put a key in the left hand of a blindfolded right-handed person who is intact, they can immediately tell me what it is. But if I put the key in left hand of a right-handed person with a callosotomy, they cannot tell me what it is until they put it into their right hand. The person ‘knows’ what it is–but their ego cannot convey evidence that they know using language until the left hemisphere has access to the information. The ego is a construction of language-based thought. Because language is so important to us, the ego and its base in the left hemisphere (in most people) has important but limited significance. A pre-lingual baby does not have an ‘ego’–they cannot tell you anything about themselves. They are obviously a behaving and communicating person. They clearly have a communicative Self despite not having languaged communication. They will develop an ego as they begin to acquire language and a languaged sense of self. I hope that makes some sense…

    • Whit Blauvelt

      March 7, 2024 at 10:02 pm


      A quick, thorough answer. Thanks! Yes to all that, in terms of Jung — and even Freud, who in The Ego and the Id is explicit about identifying ego with what can be brought into linguistic representation. So it could be that to be Jungian (and, as he did, skip the term “ego”) about McGilchrist we can have the RH be the “self” and the LH be, perhaps, the “persona” (although complicated by the whole “shadow” discussion). But this opens to further questions.

      Where Freud had a view that consciousness just is controlled by what can cross the threshold from the unconscious into linguistic representation, Jung certainly did not. There’s a lot of current research showing that most people — especially those outside of academic professions — typically and frequently experience awareness and ideas which, while very much conscious, are not in words.

      This does not mean such folks are especially saner than those of us who are quite constantly verbal among our thoughts, but it also means Freud was, in the larger picture, wrong. So what I mean here is the feeling of having a center, a self, consciously aware, planning, acting. The Sperry examples show we can have two, after surgery. But that by no means shows we have two, when the brain is whole. So it’s in this context that I pose my questions above.



    • Whit Blauvelt

      March 8, 2024 at 3:44 pm

      Hi Gary,

      One more clarification: I’m no Descartes scholar, but Galen Strawson, who is, makes a strong argument that by “cognito” Descartes meant all of our sentience, not just the narrow use of the word “think” to mean “inner speech” — which is how I’d interpreted it (well, interpreted the English translation of Descartes) before reading Strawson, who quite convinced me otherwise with a number of examples from Descartes’ usage of the Latin “cognito.”

      McGilchrist, provocatively, directly attacks Descartes for questioning whether other minds are also sentient, saying that’s an attitude also of some schizophrenics. I’ve always taken the other minds problem to be silly too, so welcomed that take down. But it makes a difference if we’re question whether there are other sentient beings, or whether instead there are just others with linguistic routines — as the latter leads to the absurd claim that AI can be (maybe already is) conscious, whereas the former strongly suggests that, if language is not the key to being a conscious, sentient being, but merely one tool we, as such beings, use, that AI is no more likely to become conscious than our hammers and saws.


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