The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, is one of those books, proposing a radical new thesis, that had an enormous impact when it was first published (1976), but has since fallen into the backwaters of intellectual fashion. Today it still has an ardent cult following, but otherwise it is not so much rejected as it is not taken seriously in the first place, and thereby, it is almost totally ignored.
This neglect is somewhat unfortunate. While I don’t think there is any scientific “proof” for Jaynes’ argument, and while certain of his assertions are almost certainly wrong, his book remains intellectually provocative; it opens up some very important questions, even if we are not ready to follow its conclusions.
Basically, Jaynes argues that consciousness, as we understand it today, has only been possessed by human beings for the last four thousand years or so. (By “consciousness” he means, not the primary perceptual awareness that all mammals, and perhaps many other ‘lower’ organisms as well, seem to possess, but what I would prefer to call self-consciousness, or second-order consciousness: the ability to reflect upon oneself, to introspect, to narrate one’s existence). Jaynes proposes that, in the second millennium BC and before, human beings were not self-conscious, and did not reflect upon what they did; rather, people heard voices instructing them in what to do, and they obeyed these voices immediately and unreflectively. These voices were believed (to the extent that “belief” is a relevant category in such circumstances) to be the voices of gods; their neurological cause was probably language issuing from the right hemisphere of the brain, and experienced hallucinatorily, and obeyed, by the left hemisphere (which is where speech is localized today).
This is why Jaynes calls the archaic mind a non-conscious, “bicameral” one. Thought was linguistic, but it did not have any correlates in consciousness; people didn’t make decisions, but instead the decisions were made automatically, and conveyed by the voices. One half of the brain commanded the other, so that decision-making and action were entirely separate functions. Neither of these hemispheres was “conscious” in the modern sense.
It was only as the result of catastrophic events in the second millennium BC that these voices fell silent, and were replaced by a new invention, that which we now know as self-conscious, reflective thought.
Jaynes introduces his theory by making reference to the Iliad, in which there is almost no description of interiority and subjectivity, or of conscious decision-making; instead, all the characters act at the promptings of the gods, who give them commands that they obey without question. Jaynes suggests that we take these descriptions literally, that this was the way the mind worked for thousands of years of human history. After the opening section of the book, where he quite interestingly discusses a range of philosophical issues having to do with the nature of consciousness and its relation to language, Jaynes supports his argument almost entirely through an analysis of ancient texts and of archaeological discoveries.
Where to begin in discussing such a suggestive, even if overly simple and overly totalizing, thesis? First of all, Jaynes argues that language is a prerequisite for consciousness, rather than the (common-sensical) reverse. This seems to me to be unarguably true, if we mean reflexive, or second-order consciousness. His arguments for this thesis, coming out of the tradition of Anglo-American empirically-grounded psychology, are interesting precisely in their difference from deconstructionist, and other Continental philosophical, arguments to much the same effect. This is useful because Jaynes thereby is able to point to the (relative) primacy of language in the human mind, without getting lost in those rather silly skeptical paradoxes that the deconstructionists are partial to.
Second, I find incredibly valuable the way Jaynes presents his picture of the schizophrenic, pre-conscious “bicameral mind” as a mechanism of social control. The bicameral mind arises, according to Jaynes, in tandem with the development of agriculture and the creation of the first cities (i.e. the first stirrings of “civilization” in Mesopotamia, and perhaps also Egypt, the Indus River Valley, and the Yellow River Valley, at around 9000 BC). Its purpose is to ensure obedience and social harmony; it entails, and enables, the creation of vast, rigid, theocratic hierarchies, such as existed in ancient Sumeria and Egypt (and also, much later, in the Mayan cities of the Western Hemisphere, and in other civilizations around the world). This is the aspect of Jaynes that interested William Burroughs, with his investigations into language as a form of social control and as a virus infecting, even as it created, the human mind.
In describing the passage from bicamerality to self-consciousness, Jaynes is really proposing a genealogy of different regimes of language and subjectivity, in a manner that resonates with ideas proposed by Deleuze and Guattari at around the same time (see especially the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in A Thousand Plateaus). For Jaynes as for Deleuze/Guattari (I assume that Jaynes was unacquainted with D&G’s work, and vice versa), a “despotic” regime is displaced and replaced by a passional, subjectifying one. (I need to be a bit careful here, because I don’t want to merely translate Jaynes’ terms and arguments into deleuzoguattarian ones. The specific interest of Jaynes’ book is how he defamiliarizes the bicameral mindset, shows how it cannot be reduced to the categories that we, subjective people, take for granted).
The latter parts of Jaynes’ book, where he gives massive evidence for his thesis, are somewhat disappointing; in part because the readings of the historical and literary record are so obviously so tendentious, and in part because Jaynes seems content just to reiterate his big idea, rather than really exploring its potential ramifications and implications. He does have a short and interesting discussion about how so many aspects of our world today, from scientists’ search for a “theory of everything” to the worldwide fundamentalist backlash, can be seen as continuing responses to the collapse of the bicameral mind, which still casts its considerable shadow, thousands of years after it happened. But all this is sketchy in the extreme. I note that Jaynes never published (hence, probably, was unable to complete) a promised second volume, devoted to The Consequences of Consciousness, in the twenty years he lived after publishing The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
How “true” is Jaynes’ theory, however? Some of Jaynes’ speculations on neurobiology clearly need to be revised, in the light of our far greater knowledge of the subject today compared to 1976. And I don’t know enough about classical texts to pass any judgment on his readings of the Iliad or Babylonian cuneiform.
But on a larger scale, Jaynes’ theory is pretty much like those of psychoanalysis and evolutionary psychology, and like Terence McKenna’s speculations on the psychedelic origins of consciousness: all of these are stories that cannot be backed up or “proven” scientifically, but that also can’t be simply dismissed, because they refer to issues that themselves demand some sort of self-conscious narrativization, that cannot be resolved by positivist means alone. Empirical investigation can disconfirm particular theories, but it can never succeed in getting rid of our need for such unprovable, metaphorical “just-so stories.”
(The weakness of sociobiological, or evolutionary psychological explanations, in comparison to those of Freud, McKenna, or Jaynes, is that the evolutionary psychologists lay claim to a positivistic grounding that they do not really have, as well as that these theories are totally reductive and unimaginative to boot. Evolutionary psychology theorists generally cannot see beyond their own noses; they fail to realize how tautological they are, in their repetitions of the cliches of our own culture, especially in matters of sex and gender. For all their differences, Freud, McKenna, and Jaynes, at least, are trying to think beyond the narrow prejudices of their own cultural situations; for they are all profoundly aware, as Steven Pinker is not, that their own perspectives are culturally constrained).
As an unprovable but tantalizing “just-so” story of how consciousness came to be, then, Jaynes’ book is valuable precisely for its sense of the contingency of what we take most for granted, of the ways that very deep parts of our mentality are culturally specific and variably, rather than being inscribed “in the genes.” (Or more precisely, how we are genetically endowed, precisely, with such a wide and weird range of mental potentialities). Jaynes’ observations on the neural substrate of bicamerality, on the one hand, and subjective self-consciousness, on the other, suggest new and as yet unfollowed possibilities of research, even if his particular formulation proves to be (as it probably is) incorrect.
The biggest flaw in Jaynes’ scheme, I think, is his failure to consider in any adequate way what might have come before the great bicameral despotisms. Though he only looks at a very narrow sample of ancient history — that of the Middle East, Greece, and Egypt — he claims results that are universally valid. (He suggests, for instance, that similar events took place in China, though he says that he cannot pursue the investigation himself, since he does not know Chinese). But even if we accept that the bicameral model applies to China, and to the Maya, Aztec, and Inca empires, this says nothing about all the so-called “primitive” peoples around the world, who never experienced the bicameral despotic state. He is right to suggest that such peoples are by no means outside of history, and that today they are as fully self-conscious as people anywhere else: the idea of “noble savages,” untainted by contact with “civilization,” is nothing but a racist and imperialist myth. Still, Jaynes seems to assume that all the peoples of the earth went through a period of bicamerality, that the pre-bicameral mind is not a fully linguistic one, and that “hunter-gatherer groups” have either already “been a part of a bicameral theocracy” in the past, or else were “like other primates, being neither bicameral nor conscious,” until learning consciousness by contact with other groups. But this is obviously wrong; Jaynes wants to locate the origin of language as recently as 12,000 years ago, when it certainly has to be much earlier, before the ancestors of modern Homo sapiens spread out from Africa. A major expansion of Jaynes’ theory is therefore needed, one that would consider the mentality of gift societies (Mauss), stateless societies (Pierre Clastres), etc, societies that know nothing of (and might even actively “ward off”) bicameral despotism.

2 Responses to “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”

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