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The Matter with Things

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The Matter with Things
Front covers of The Matter with Things
AuthorIain McGilchrist
GenrePsychology, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, philosophy, sociocultural evolution
PublisherPerspectiva Press
Publication date
9 November 2021
Publication placeUnited States and United Kingdom
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback, 2 volumes) and Digital (Ebook)
ISBN978-1914568060 (Hardcover edition)
Preceded byThe Master and His Emissary 

The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World is a 2021 book of neuroscience, epistemology and metaphysics written by psychiatrist, thinker and former literary scholar[1] Iain McGilchrist.

Following on from McGilchrist's 2009 work, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, The Matter with Things explores the radically different worldviews presented by the two hemispheres of the brain, and the many cognitive and worldly implications of this.

The book "is an attempt to convey a way of looking at the world quite different from the one that has largely dominated the West for at least three hundred and fifty years [i.e. since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment][2] – some would say as long as two thousand years."[3][4]


The work is 1,500 pages long and divided into two volumes – "The Ways to Truth" and "What Then is True?" – with many scientific, philosophical and literary quotations, citations and footnotes, and several appendices.[5] The bibliography alone is 180 pages long.[6]

Basic premise: The divided brain[edit]

Cerebral hemispheres.
Cerebral hemispheres.

McGilchrist distances himself from the discourse about the left brain–right brain divide in pop psychology, writing that "just about everything that is said about the hemispheres in pop psychology is wrong because it rests on beliefs about what the hemispheres do, not about how they approach it."[7]

One of the fundamental differences between the hemispheres of the human brain (and that of other species, such as birds), according to McGilchrist is that the left hemisphere has evolved to sharply focus its attention on detail; it breaks things apart and tends to deal in abstractions, the explicit, and "either/or" (differentiation). The right hemisphere, on the other hand, has a broad and flexible attention that is open to whatever possibilities come along, and it sees things in their wider context, appreciates the implicit, and favours "both/and" (integration, holism). The right hemisphere has a better appreciation of itself and the left, than the left has of the right.[7][8][9] Both approaches are necessary and complementary, but the left hemisphere's operation should not dominate the right.[7] It makes "a good servant, but a very poor master."[7][9][10]

McGilchrist writes:

"[Y]ou could say, to sum up a vastly complex matter in a phrase, that the brain's left hemisphere is designed to help us ap-prehend – and thus manipulate – the world; the right hemisphere to com-prehend it – see it all for what it is."[11]

He believes that "nowadays we live no longer in the presence of the world, but rather in a re-presentation of it. The significance of that is that the left hemisphere’s task is to 're-present' what first 'presences' to the right hemisphere."[12]

McGilchrist argues that the Western world has "oscillated" between predominantly left-brain and predominantly right-brain function through history, with some periods of relative balance.[7] During certain periods such as the Renaissance, there was a movement toward the right,[13] whereas since the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment – with exceptions such as the Romantic movement[14] – it has become increasingly left-brain dominant,[7] and in light of this, McGilchrist is concerned about the many cultural and global crises that we now face.[6]

Volume 1: "The Ways to Truth"[edit]

In Part I of "The Ways to Truth", McGilchrist looks at the neuroscience and different worldviews of the two hemispheres of the brain, and the means to truth: attention, perception, judgement, apprehension, emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence, and creativity. He also explores the mental disorders schizophrenia, and autism.[5]

In Part II, the author looks at the brain hemispheres and the paths to truth, which he sees as being science, reason, intuition, and imagination. He shows the advantages and limitations of each approach, the desirability of using these in combination, and argues that in each of these approaches, the right hemisphere of the brain plays a more important and more veridical role than the left.[5]

Volume 2: "What Then is True?"[edit]

In Part III, "What Then is True?", McGilchrist asks and attempts to answer the question "what is truth?", before turning to a wide-ranging exploration of the nature of reality: the coincidence of opposites (the idea that at a deeper, higher or transcendent level, apparent opposites may be reconciled or find union); the one and the many; time; flow and movement; space and matter; matter and consciousness; value; purpose, life and the nature of the cosmos; and the sense of the sacred. McGilchrist further argues that consciousness, rather than matter, is ontologically fundamental.[5]


In September 2021, The Matter with Things was included in a feature article titled "Top 10 books about human consciousness", which was written by author and philosopher, Charles Foster and published in The Guardian. Foster is of the opinion that the "massive book" is a "massive achievement", and presents a "devastating assault" on the predominant materialist worldview.[15]

Writer Philip Pullman selected The Matter with Things as his favourite book of the year 2021 for the New Statesman.[16] He describes McGilchrist's earlier work, The Master and His Emissary as a "densely researched" and "entirely thrilling" examination of the hemispheric functioning of the brain.[16]

He states that The Matter with Things takes these basic ideas much further, praising its "immense range of learning and beautiful prose",[16] and reflecting that having spent a decade digesting the first work, he looks forward to a life-time's learning with The Matter with Things.[16]

Professor of philosophy Ronan Sharkey, writing in The Tablet in December 2021, describes The Matter with Things as a "book of remarkable inspiration and erudition".[17] He is of the opinion that McGilchrist is "leading a quiet but far-reaching revolution in the understanding of who we are as human beings, one with potentially momentous consequences for many of the preoccupations – from ecology and health care to economics and artificial intelligence – that weigh on our present and darken our future."[17] He writes that McGilchrist provides us with the resources and encouragement to "'reconceive our world, our reality'", to 'learn again to see'".[17] Though McGilchrist's approach is detailed and rigorous, says the reviewer, it is less of an argument "than a plea for openness to what reality ... can teach us."[17]

In December 2021, Rod Dreher writes in The American Conservative that though Part I of The Matter with Things is a "fairly technical discussion of neuroscience",[18] the book is "more focused on the philosophical and metaphysical implications" of the hemispheric functioning of the brain proposed in his earlier book, The Master and His Emissary.[18]

Dreher tells us that McGilchrist asks and addresses fundamental questions such as: "Who are we? What is the world? How can we understand consciousness, matter, space and time? Is the cosmos without purpose or value? Can we really neglect the sacred and divine?"[18] and that "In doing so, he argues that we have become enslaved to an account of things dominated by the brain’s left hemisphere, one that blinds us to an awe-inspiring reality that is all around us, had we but eyes to see it."[18]

The reviewer is of the opinion that "Following the paths of cutting-edge neurology, philosophy and physics",[18] McGilchrist offers "a vision that returns the world to life, and us to a better way of living in it: one we must embrace if we are to survive."[18]

Writing in the New Statesman in January 2022, Ed Smith tells us that "while anchored in neuroscience, [the work] expands quickly into a treatise on philosophy, the scientific method, intuition, creativity, truth, reason and the rise and fall of civilisation itself."[19]

Smith describes the book as an "immensely broad and ambitious work".[19] He does note that "there is certainly great audacity in McGilchrist's prose style ... But it's hard to see how huge generalisations [such as 'The West is wrong to...'] could have been avoided, partly because the kind of ideas – or supra-rational insights – under review are more often addressed by poets and composers than writers of closely argued non-fiction."[19]

Jonathan Gaisman, writing in The Spectator in February 2022, states that "Western civilisation is in a predicament exemplified by alienation, environmental despoliation, the atrophy of value, the sterility of contemporary art, the increasing prevalence of rectilinear, bureaucratised thinking and the triumph of procedure over substance."[6] Gaisman sees the lesser aim of the book being to identify and understand the common basis of these conditions, and hopefully improve them, whereas he sees the greater aim as being "to enable us to know the world we inhabit."[6]

The reviewer states that "McGilchrist seeks to give an account 'at last, true to experience, to science and to philosophy'."[6] He is of the opinion that "[t]he range and erudition are astounding",[6] and that as a "polymath", McGilchrist "stands upon the shoulders of the giants whose words he amply cites. His forebears include Heraclitus (not Plato), Pascal (definitely not Descartes), Goethe, Wordsworth, Schelling, Hegel, Heidegger, William James, Whitehead and Bergson."[6]

The reviewer concludes that "there is nothing wacky or tendentious about this book. McGilchrist writes readably and with poetic sensibility. The tone is courteous ... modest and above all wise".[6] He advises that "after reading it you will never see the world in the same way again."[6]

In March 2022, Nick Spencer writes in Prospect magazine that though left brain–right brain discourse in popular psychology has had a "bad press" and been debunked, McGilchrist's work is "altogether more sophisticated."[7] The reviewer notes that McGilchrist has himself pointed out that "just about everything that is said about the hemispheres in pop psychology is wrong because it rests on beliefs about what the hemispheres do, not about how they approach it."[7]

Framing his review around Charles Darwin's work on evolution, Nick Spencer concludes that in his opinion, "[McGilchrist's] claims may turn modern ultra-Darwinists purple, but they cannot easily be dismissed."[7] Noting as McGilchrist did that in his elder years Darwin lamented the way in which his prior, wide-ranging interests had narrowed and his mind had atrophied, due to the rigorous nature of his work, Spencer speculates that had he been alive today, Darwin himself may have been sympathetic to McGilchrist's work.[7]

In a lengthy and detailed review for Beshara Magazine in June 2022, Richard Gault describes McGilchrist as a gifted "renaissance man" – a polymath with an "exceptional range" of knowledge and interests.[20] He is of the opinion that The Matter with Things "adds greatly to our understanding of the world and provides a formidable contemporary argument for a unified vision"[20] that "may help break down resistance to the change that is needed [in the world] while also opening up ways to go forward."[20]

Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books on 8 January 2023, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams describes McGilchrist's work as "two overwhelmingly detailed and sophisticated volumes".[21]

Generally appreciative of the "magisterial argument" that the author presents,[21] he writes that "it is precisely the fatal skewing of perception which misreads the environment we inhabit that sets us out on our self-destructive path."[21] He is, however, more critical of McGilchrist's dealing with the "metaphysical questions", which "are tantalizing just because of the force and coherence of the rest of the work."[21] Williams writes that "It is no disrespect, I hope, to McGilchrist’s genius to say that these sections sometimes feel more careless or scattergun in their effect than the body of the argument,"[21] Nevertheless, he concludes that "these are very minor matters indeed. There can be no denying that this, like McGilchrist’s earlier work, is a genuinely groundbreaking and exceptionally important challenge to what Mary Midgley, in a book very much in tune with this, called 'the myths we live by' in North Atlantic modernity/late modernity/postmodernity. This is the era of 'infotainment,' egregious public lies, corrosive cynicism, scientific fundamentalism, the barbaric functionalizing of education, and the Balkanization of public argument."[21]

At the end of this detailed review, Williams concludes that "in the long run, I imagine, McGilchrist would say that this is an unforgivingly big book because his subject matter is unforgivingly urgent and complex. And he addresses this with an extraordinary blend of detailed clinical evidence, a keen eye for the illusions of popular culture, a style of exemplary simplicity and energy, and a consistent moral passion."[21]


Writing in the Literary Review in April 2022, philosopher and cultural critic, Raymond Tallis states that the author "offers wide-ranging, indeed world-ranging, investigations ultimately anchored to the arguments he advanced in his earlier book."[4] However, Tallis is not convinced by the author's thesis, and raises several objections. He is of the opinion that the "digression-rich explorations are welcome oases after the densely referenced neuroscience. They would be more refreshing if they did not always lead back to his twin obsessions with the naughty left hemisphere – that arrogant know-nothing know-all – and the saintly right hemisphere."[4] The reviewer is "sympathetic" to some of the author's views. However, he is not convinced that "if the hegemony of the left hemisphere remains unchallenged, Western civilisation will collapse,"[4] and he concludes that "[w]hile The Matter with Things offers some interesting insights into our nature and the world in which we find ourselves, they are devalued by being subordinated to what ironically seems a rather reductionist critique of reductionism."[4]

Theologian Andrew Louth also reviewed The Matter with Things for the Los Angeles Review of Books on 8 January 2023.[22] Louth writes that "McGilchrist's chief argument is that, over the last three and a half centuries, we have developed a worldview that draws almost entirely on the propensities of the LH side of the brain, ignoring for the most part the contribution of the RH side. This means that our apprehension of the world focuses largely on the particular, with a view to controlling and manipulating it. It is driven by a search for certainty, which is achieved by a kind of 'divide and rule' strategy, favoring the fragmentary and all that can be measured and analyzed, while ignoring or deeming 'subjective' all that which cannot be subjected to this regime."[22]

Louth is concerned about the manner of McGilchrist's presentation, writing that "Besides his strictly scientific learning, he is a man of wide and deep reading who supports his case by appeal to philosophers and poets, as well as scientists, especially physicists, reflecting on the implications of their discoveries. I felt, however, that his appeal for their support amounted too often to quotations and too little to real engagement with their thought."[22] He notes, for example in the treatment of Plato, that "the trouble with such overarching accounts is that they cut too many corners and run the risk of misrepresentation,"[22] and he also has concerns about McGilchrist's treatment of the section on paradox.[22] Louth concludes that "the case [McGilchrist] is making ... is not unheard of: it coincides with all-too-common laments about modernity, pointing to the reign of quantity, the rise of individualism, the abandonment of tradition — opinions easily dismissed by those who pride themselves on the achievements of modernity. Perhaps it is to these 'cultured despisers' that McGilchrist's case is directed — a [right hemisphere (RH)] case against the hegemony of the [left hemisphere (LH)]."[22] He states that "this book is almost unique in combining extensive scientific expertise with learning characteristic of the humanities, a sensitivity to language, and an appeal to poetry as the ultimate language of truth. McGilchrist sounds like someone who knows of what he speaks. [The] RH, he tells us, is disposed to pessimism, but this book gives grounds for at least a cautious optimism, amounting to 'good thoughts in bad times.'"[22]

Robert M. Ellis reviewed The Matter with Things in great detail for the Middle Way Society in June 2023.[23] Though he had found McGilchrist's earlier The Master and His Emissary a "brilliant multi-disciplinary historical survey of the effects of brain lateralization", which "had a huge and positive effect on [the reviewer's] thinking, introducing a whole neurological dimension to [his] understanding of the Middle Way", he feels that The Matter with Things is "a huge disappointment overall."[23] He finds the further information on the hemispheric operation of the brain "helpful", but is of the opinion that "the book is dominated by its uncritically presented, impractical metaphysical philosophy."[23]

Ellis is worried that this work may actually "reinforce the left hemisphere dogmatism" of which McGilchrist is critical and, furthermore, he is "also concerned about its likely role in the current political culture, where it may be an easy tool for exploitation by unscrupulous operators on the [political] right" (for example, his traditional dogma and anti-wokism).[23] Reading the book, he finds McGilchrist's "lack of practicality" a "huge blind spot",[23] and this together with McGilchrist's metaphysics and "confusion of meaning with belief" which ignores a Middle Way, deeply problematic. Ellis defines this middle way as "a practical path followed whilst avoiding opposed metaphysical claims on both sides: an experiential, provisional and integrative path."[23] He is further critical of McGilchrist's ignoring Western empiricist tradition (for example, the work of David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Popper); his perhaps Burkean metaphysical conservatism; and his "one-sided attack on modernity".[23]

Ellis concludes that he writes this review "not with relish at wielding the axe, but with a sense of painful duty. The duty involved is to warn other people of just how bad and dangerous this book is."[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (July 2011). "The Master and His Emissary: Iain McGilchrist" (PDF). Holistic Science Journal (pdf). 1 (3): 18–23. ISSN 2044-4370. Archived (PDF) from the original on 15 May 2022. Retrieved 15 May 2022. From an introductory lecture at Schumacher College in May 2011.
  2. ^ Dreher, Rod (27 January 2018). "Left Brain/Right Brain". The American Conservative. Jon Basil Utley. Archived from the original on 16 May 2022. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  3. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2021). The Matter with Things [Kindle edition]. Perspectiva Press. Location 333. ASIN B09KY5B3QL.
  4. ^ a b c d e Tallis, Raymond (April 2022). "Left-Thinking People: The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World". Literary Review. Archived from the original on 13 May 2022. Retrieved 13 May 2022.
  5. ^ a b c d McGilchrist, Iain (2021). The Matter with Things [Kindle edition]. Perspectiva Press. Location 28. ASIN B09KY5B3QL.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Gaisman, Jonathan (12 February 2022). "Know your left from your right: the brain's divided hemispheres". The Spectator. Press Holdings. Archived from the original on 19 April 2022. Retrieved 13 May 2022.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Spencer, Nick (3 March 2022). "Iain McGilchrist and the battle over the left-brain, right-brain theory". Prospect. Archived from the original on 16 May 2022. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  8. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His Emissary [Kindle edition]. Yale University Press. Location 1130. ASIN B07NS35S76.
  9. ^ a b McGilchrist, Iain (24 October 2011). "RSA Animate: The Divided Brain" (Video). The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA). Retrieved 25 October 2011.
  10. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2021). The Matter with Things [Kindle edition]. Perspectiva Press. Location 1271. ASIN B09KY5B3QL.
  11. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2021). The Matter with Things [Kindle edition]. Perspectiva Press. Location 339. ASIN B09KY5B3QL.
  12. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2021). The Matter with Things [Kindle edition]. Perspectiva Press. Location 423. ASIN B09KY5B3QL.
  13. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His Emissary [Kindle edition]. Yale University Press. Location 6993. ASIN B07NS35S76.
  14. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His Emissary [Kindle edition]. Yale University Press. Location 9381. ASIN B07NS35S76.
  15. ^ Foster, Charles (29 September 2021). "Top 10 books about human consciousness". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 11 February 2022. Retrieved 13 May 2022.
  16. ^ a b c d Staff (17 November 2021). "Books of the year: New Statesman writers and guests choose their favourite reading of 2021". New Statesman. Archived from the original on 27 January 2022. Retrieved 17 May 2022. Behind paywall, see archived version.
  17. ^ a b c d Sharkey, Ronan (1 December 2021). "How our brains blind us to the light". The Tablet. Tablet Publishing Company. Archived from the original on 2 December 2021. Retrieved 18 May 2022.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Dreher, Rod (21 December 2021). "Iain McGilchrist's Great New Book". The American Conservative. Jon Basil Utley. Archived from the original on 13 May 2022. Retrieved 13 May 2022.
  19. ^ a b c Smith, Ed (19 January 2022). "The brain delusion: Why order does not lead to excellence". New Statesman. Archived from the original on 13 May 2022. Retrieved 13 May 2022.
  20. ^ a b c Gault, Richard (3 June 2022). "Book Review: The Matter with Things by Iain McGilchrist". Beshara Magazine. The Beshara Trust. Archived from the original on 6 June 2022. Retrieved 6 June 2022.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Williams, Rowan (8 January 2023). "A Brain of Two Minds: On Iain McGilchrist's 'The Matter with Things'". Los Angeles Review of Books. Archived from the original on 8 January 2023. Retrieved 8 January 2023.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g Louth, Andrew (8 January 2023). "Beyond Our Delusions: On Iain McGilchrist's 'The Matter with Things'". Los Angeles Review of Books. Archived from the original on 12 January 2023. Retrieved 12 January 2023.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h Ellis, Robert M. (18 June 2023). "The Matter with 'The Matter with Things'". Middle Way Society. Archived from the original on 19 June 2023. Retrieved 17 September 2023.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]