Skip to content

Clearing Ground

Adam Smith at Front Porch Republic

Photo by Ray Shrewsberry / Unsplash
A Lot of Thinkers Have Intuited that We Have Two Minds
McGilchrist deserves the credit for connecting neuroscience to the intuition

In “Two Minds,” Wendell Berry distinguishes the “Rational” mind from the “Sympathetic.” These terms describe the activity of each mind: the former takes things apart, while the latter puts things together. The Rational Mind severs connections that the Sympathetic Mind makes. The two minds serve different aims:

The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot be empirically or experientially proven to be a fact. The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out.

J.S. Mill wrote in his Autobiography about these same two minds. His Rational Mind performed “analysis,” while his Sympathetic Mind formed “associations.” Mill’s peculiar education made him a powerful analyst—and those powers nearly cost him his soul:

The very excellence of analysis (I argued) is that it tends to weaken and undermine whatever is the result of prejudice; that it enables us mentally to separate ideas which have only casually clung together . . . . [It is] therefore (I thought) favourable to prudence and clear-sightedness, but a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues; and, above all, fearfully undermine[s] all desires, and all pleasures, which are the effects of association, that is, according to the theory I held, all except the purely physical and organic; of the entire insufficiency of which to make life desirable, no one had a stronger conviction than I had.

Liberalism (or what I’ll call by that name) bets on the excellence of analysis. Liberal habits of thought pry apart those stubborn associations between, say, skin color and moral worth, which analysis shows “have only casually clung together.” The liberal mind is a Rational one, and much of its persuasive force comes from the many liberations it has achieved by dissolving prejudice, and from the promise that more freedom is to come.

In that passage, Mill uses “prejudice” in its negative sense, which is now the only sense that most people give it. Its older meaning was more neutral: a prejudice was just an attachment to something and could be good or bad depending on what the something was. Here, Mill calls those good prejudices his “passions and virtues,” his “desires” and “pleasures.” These are Berry’s “fundamental likes and dislikes.”

What no less a liberal than Mill discovered, during a long dark night of the soul, is that the liberating effects of analysis are less liberating than they seem because they are not the only effects: the solvent is universal. Analysis dissolves racial prejudice because it dissolves all prejudices, including Berry’s sympathies, which are reduced by analysis to morally interchangeable “preferences.”

The Sympathetic Mind hates what Mill had to suffer in order to achieve his liberation, which was (as Berry puts it) “estrangement, dismemberment, and disfigurement.” But this is just what all of us moderns suffer, as a result of our peculiar educations in the reductive ways of the Rational Mind, a mind that “tolerates all these things ‘in pursuit of truth’ or in pursuit of money—which, in modern practice, have become nearly the same pursuit.” Thus liberalism becomes neoliberalism, and we are all as depressed as Mill ever was.

These are familiar lines of thought. Critiques of modernity are as old as modernity. Still, the force of the criticism waxes and wanes over time. It seems clear that we’ve recently left behind an era of good feeling, a few decades when it seemed possible to proclaim the end of history and the permanence of the liberal order, and that we’ve entered a new disorder. Associations both mental and social, connections that seemed permanent and natural, are coming apart, undermined by events if not by analysis. (No doubt this virus, or rather the reactions to it, will accelerate the trend.) Disorder is catnip for critical minds, for those who are “always searching for new combinations, new associations and adaptations, new shades of meaning proper to the time.”

That last line is from Thomas Mann’s The Magic MountainIt describes the character of Leo Naphta, a dead-serious romantic who longs for medieval worlds, when people knew and loved their place. I could almost use Berry’s words to describe Naphta’s mind, which seems quite Sympathetic: “Its impulse is toward wholeness.” Modernity for Naphta is fragmentation, alienation, and exploitation, all disguised by liberalism as liberty. But I hope I don’t have to put him into Berry’s camp, because Naphta is a dangerous little man. His impulse toward wholeness drives him into the arms of fascism. He is so intolerant of figurative estrangement, disfigurement, and dismemberment that he is finally willing to celebrate literal estrangement, literal disfigurement, and literal dismemberment. This is a man who waxes nostalgic for inquisitions.

Wherever the center cannot hold, when everything solid melts into air, critical minds see in the crisis a new opportunity to create. Disorder is a chance to join together what false gods have put asunder. It’s a time to forge new associations, mental and even social, if the critic wants to get political. And for all these same reasons such times pose a risk to the critic’s soul. This has always been especially true for critics of liberal modernity, like ourselves.

Just as the divide between the “two minds” is familiar, so is the tendency for some defenders of Sympathy to become sympathizers with cruelty. The Naphtha path is always there for the taking, and there are always brilliant Heideggers who wander too far in the dark. The romantic impulse toward wholeness, or the longing for when things were better—take a few bad turns in that mood, and you find yourself chanting hymns to blood-and-soil. People can start out defending Berry’s proper prejudices and end up celebrating prejudice itself.

“Celebrating prejudice itself”—one name for that is “nihilism.” Where Berry’s Sympathetic Mind says “I like it because it is good,” the nihilist says “It is good because I like it.” For Patrick Deneen, who is drawing on Philip Rieff, this is precisely where liberalism ends up because liberalism fosters an “anti-culture.” Genuine culture is a human construction, an accretion of “fundamental likes and dislikes” laid down over time by experience and tradition, by arts of association both mental and social. A good culture is built by discovering goods and cultivating our attachments to them. Liberalism, by contrast, is mainly a deconstructive force, the force of analysis. Liberalism starts with what Gadamer called the Enlightenment’s “prejudice against prejudice,” and sweeps away the good ones with the bad ones. Nihilists simply take liberal Rationality to its perverse but logical conclusion, and embrace the bad ones along with the good ones, because: why not.

I share Deneen’s worry about liberalism. But I also worry about worrying too much, and ending up like Naphta. If liberals can turn into nihilists, so can critics of liberalism’s tendency toward nihilism. The flavors will be different, to be sure. The liberal’s Rational mind will have reduced everyone’s prejudices to mere preferences, and then it will embrace its own freedom to prefer whatever it will. This kind of nihilist insists, at the end of every conversation, “at least I’m honest.” Like most of my students, he constantly incants: “that’s just my opinion.” Meanwhile the liberal’s critic, in the name of Sympathy, will have elevated his own preferences to the status of good prejudices. This kind of nihilist, Naphta’s kind, hides his own will to power behind facades of humble submission to truth, tradition, culture, beauty, virtue—stuff we porchers like to talk about an awful lot.

Fellow critics of the Rational Mind: how do we keep off the Naphta path?

Read the rest