Right Side of History (Pt. 1)

Michael Metzger

C. S. Lewis would likely have appreciated Iain McGilchrist. A psychiatrist with extensive research in neuroimaging, McGilchrist believes metaphor is how we make sense of life. Lewis would have agreed. In fact, there at least four ways they are on the right side of history.

Metaphor is primacy
Lewis’ legacy is as an enduring apologist. He drew a distinction between imagination (metaphor) and reason. Imagination forms the frames in which we reason to make sense of truth. Lewis saw imagination as preceding reason, framing facts.

It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.1

This is why Lewis concluded, “All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor.”2 In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist makes the same point. “Metaphor underlies all forms of understanding whatsoever.” McGilchrist surveys the distinct functions of the brain’s right and left hemisphere. The right “understands metaphor while the left does not.” It is only in the right that we “see things in context. It understands implicit meaning, metaphor.” The left uses “that part of language to grasp things, or, as we say to ‘pin’ things down.” The left lobe plays an important role, but only after learning from the right hemisphere what is important. Metaphor is primary.

Primacy is important, as McGilchrist claims the two hemispheres compete with each another in a winner-take-all contest. If the right gets in first, it includes the left. If however the left gets in first, we’re left with “a large bias overall” for words over images. This is what has happened in the West over the last several centuries.

The Enlightenment overthrew metaphor
McGilchrist draws his title from a tale told by Friedrich Nietzsche of a benevolent master who entrusted his kingdom to his emissaries. Over time, his most ambitious vizier began to see himself as master. This emissary overthrew the master. The kingdom fell into ruin. In McGilchrist’s book, the master is metaphor, how the ancients thought. The Enlightenment is the emissary. McGilchrist believes the Middle Ages represents the last era to view “world-picture” as primary. “One of the principal shifts in Western culture was in turning away from metaphorical thinking.”

In The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis notes how the Middle Ages represents the last era when metaphor was primary. The Enlightenment disdains metaphor, assuming facts speak for themselves.3

I’ve never read that Iain McGilchrist is familiar with C. S. Lewis, but both would agree that when the Enlightenment usurped the role of metaphor with words, the Western world became imprisoned. That’s the third way these two writers agree. Tune in next week for the third and fourth ways these two overlap.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 C. S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 265.
2 C. S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” The Importance of Language. ed. Max Black (Eaglewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 50.
3 C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1964)


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  1. Interesting concept. At the college level (where I teach, anyway) I can see the truth of this in one aspect: a focus on “facts” rather than on thoughts, ideas, meaning or application. An assignment I like to give which requires the student to make up an imaginary world inevitably causes much consternation!

    On another level, however, I do not know that our culture sees “words” as primary any longer. Instead, we’re looking at “image”. My students watch videos instead of reading instructions or articles. They use words like incantations, not knowing the meaning, cut and pasted from Wikipedia. . . . As for truth? They’re like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass (chapter 6): “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Truth is relative, they think, and meaning is subjective – if anything.

    We may have turned away from metaphor, but I suspect we’ve also largely turned away from the Enlightenment project of facts and reason. We’re through the looking glass. . . .

  2. Mike, Interesting. I’ve been listening to McAlistar’s book on C.S.Lewis the last four days. It’s a big book. Was beginning to understand what you are talking about here. Learning much in my aging years!!

    I really like your new photo too.

    All well here. April

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