The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
Mariner Books, Originally published in 1976
512 pages – Amazon
Jaynes isn’t a philosopher. He did doctorate work on the psychology of animals and later came to apply his understanding to humans. Although it doesn’t seem like he did much experimental work with humans, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind came out of “left field” as it were, without much prompting in the mid-70s to a very mixed reception. Richard Dawkins, for example, said, “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.” A quick glance at various internet comments and you’ll see that people either suggest that this work is genius or that it is a load of crock. After reading this book, this controversy isn’t un-understandable. What Jaynes has done here is he’s make a strong argument that our consciousness as we understand it, and as he’s defined it, has not always been a personal awareness and in that sense may not have even been an awareness at all until close to 2000 years ago.
In his preface, Jaynes notes very briefly that throughout the centuries, countless philosophers, writers, and scientists have sought to define the problem of consciousness with a myriad of countless arrangements. We split the problem into mind/body dualities, speak about souls, psychologies, personal histories with innumerable appeals to structures, positivisms, epistemologies, metaphysics, biologies and are never able to get to the root of the issue as “the problem of consciousness is still with us. Something about [consciousness] keeps returning, not taking a solution.” Jayne then provides us with this insight into the problem:
[Consciousness] is the difference that will not go away, the difference between what others see of us and our sense of inner selves and the deep feelings that sustain it. The difference between the you-and-me of the shared behavioral world and the unlocatable location of things thought about. Our reflections and dreams, and the imaginary conversations we have with others [. . .] How is this possible? How do these ephemeral existences of our lonely experience fit into the ordered array of nature that somehow surrounds and engulfs this core of knowing?
We can summarize the problem thusly, that consciousness isn’t simply the recognition that we all understand and know things differently, but that sometimes we are of the same mind and other times there is an insurmountable gulf of difference between us. While these two positions are at odds with each other, yet account for the same “ephemeral existence” of consciousness is a difficult and tricky situation indeed.
Although Jaynes briefly goes over a variety of possible explanations for consciousness, his lengthiest analysis takes us through the text of the Iliad hunting for evidence of selfhood. The key for Jaynes has to do with the development of internal consciousness as a separate space, the height of this development, of course, being Descartes’ eventual claim of “cogito ergo sum” wherein selfhood is identified with a singular awareness that is completely divorced from the body. Although Jaynes looks through a variety of ancient texts (Egyptian and Babylonian as well as chapters in the Bible), analyzes different housing arrangements found at archeological dig sites, carvings on statues and pottery, he devotes the most time to an analysis of the types of language used by the Greeks in The Iliad and The Odyssey. For example, in The Iliad, Jaynes notes a series of pre-conscious hypostases which
are the assumed causes of action when other causes are no longer apparent. In any novel situation, when there are no gods, it is not a man who acts, but one of the preconscious hypostases which causes him to act. They are thus seats of bicameral mind to subjective consciousness.
Such terms maybe thumos, phrenes, kradie, etor and so on. Each of these terms loosely refers to parts such as the heart, lungs, liver, gut, mind and soul but such terms can change location in the body. Eventually such terms give way to noos (sight) and psyche (breath). In other words, this internal space allows the self (in this case, Odysseus) to realize that he has choices. He can also test the responses of others (gods and goddesses included) before making choices. The formation of internal spaces also allows him to lie and deceive.
Warnings of destruction are ‘head’ from the kradie or pounding heart of Odysseus when he is wrecked and thrown into tempestuous seas (5: 389). And it is his ker, again his trembling heart or perhaps his trembling hands, that makes plans for the suitors’ downfall (18: 344). In the Iliad, these would have been gods speaking. Noos, while being referred to more frequently, is sometimes not changed [. . .] At one point, Odysseus is deceiving Athene (unthinkable in the Iliad!) and looks at her revolving in his noos thoughts of great cunning (13: 255) (original italics).
When compared with The Iliad, Jaynes highlights how The Odyssey much more of a self, one that refers to a particular interior space separate from the knowledge of others far more frequently. Such individualism also allows selves to create narratives particular to themselves, to formulate life stories and personal histories. What I’ve quoted here is but a taste of the kind of heavy linguistic analysis Jaynes teases out from these texts.
To sum, Jaynes draws a historic transition from a god-based consciousness that he notes originates from a right-brained community based awareness that is directive to a left-brained individual-based consciousness that corresponds with the development of linguistic constructs such as space, time and personal identity. Hence, this distinction of the right is split into two parts, with the “executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man” which is the bicameral split, of which “neither part was conscious” in the sense that we understand consciousness as being self aware. I don’t want to summarize his book completely, but to give you another taste, he locates this breakdown in Mesopotamia “some time between Hammurabi and Tukulti.”
Jaynes highlights the empty throne as the absence of the gods who led us in the old world. Whereas for such past people, those with bicameral minds, Jaynes reads the texts of their seeing and hearing gods frequently as literal mass auditory and visual hallucinations. By our standards, for left-brain individuals, such hallucinations are no longer necessary for social order nor are they welcome.
The consequences of the disappearance of auditory hallucinations from human mentality are profound and widespread, and occur on different levels. One thing is the confusion of authority itself. What is authority? Rulers without godso guide them are fitful and unsure. They turn to omens and divination, which we will take up shortly. And as I have mentioned earlier, cruelty and oppression become ways in which a ruler imposes his rule upon his subjects in the absence of auditory hallucinations. Even the king’s own authority in the absence of gods becomes questionable. Rebellion in the modern sense becomes possible.
Following these broad strokes, Jaynes notes that not only is linguistic sophistication immanent as an organizational tool for awareness and personal narratives but for the rise of law as well: Language is necessary for social order. In the later parts of the book, Jaynes extends these ideas to schizophrenia and enlightenment philosophy leading up to the Scientific Revolution. When you read his book you will realize, wrong or right, that our understanding of consciousness (as an individual awareness separate from others) is in fact a necessary underpinning of all social order including the rise of the Scientific Revolution. Our need to find our place in the universe is in fact an extension of how we need to find our place among other human beings. In this sense, then, consciousness is a catch-all phrase for how we determine selfhood, and how we make sense of the way we self organize be it shame, guilt, sexual expression, love or pride.
For this reason, Jaynes argument for the dissolution of such a basis artifact as consciousness addresses the very foundation of knowing itself. Without consciousness as a point of reference, evaluating his argument becomes impossible. Jaynes ideas are unfalsifiable. We cannot disprove them. We can’t do EEG readings on people that were alive many generations ago. We only have textual analyses. And we can’t reproduce the results of the past either because it’s unethical or we have become so tainted with our own evaluations of consciousness that such “experimentation” would be impossible to reproduce in a pure clinical environment. In this sense, what Jayne is doing isn’t science, even if he is coming from a scientific background. What he is doing is doxa, or opinion. And science really only likes questions that it can readily answer…meaning that it only poses questions it can answer, in general, questions that do not shake things up too badly so that we lose our ability to even know if a question has or has not been answered.
What I like especially about this book is that Jayne takes us to a faraway place. He throws his thesis out there, marks it as a point for us to follow. In doing so, he begs us to loosen our sense of what we take to be knowledge and consider how the given-ness of our ideas of ourselves limit and frame what we study. Objects of knowledge are created by the conditions of our knowing. But what is the proper basis for knowledge? By what legitimacy can we come to before we understand and know?
This is one of the most frightening implications of what he says. There is no proper basis. Legitimacy is often justified by being self referential, mediated through the figures of our knowledge, which he claims are imperatives extracted from our language and our body. The most rigid of us (or unimaginative) would consider that he makes no sense, because sense making requires certain correlations in our thinking that are made unavailable if we are to consider what he says as being actual. His chapter in hypnosis is most telling. If we consider what he says to be true: that different hypnotic experiments parrot the ideas of what the hypnotized subjects thought was hypnosis, then it frighteningly follows that our own ideas of what is true inexorably alters what we believe can be true. In objective terms, should we come to a rejection of everything we assume to be given, but then what do we replace these assumptions with?
Perhaps this is the larger take away from his work is that how we understand something is a defraction from what it is. His position of understanding as an abstraction based in metaphor is central to his analysis. So what is important about metaphor? What role can metaphor play in the formation of knowledge? To unpack the point of metaphor we must turn to how we designate what is. That is to say, the copula is is the force of designation. Paul Ricoeur in his book The Rule of Metaphor notes that while is is often taken as the form of “literal truth,” metaphor itself highlights what is as it seems to us. This last statement can only be taken meaningfully when we oppose it from the view that poetic feelings necessary for metaphor should be discarded if we want to talk about truth as being characteristically different from “primitive animism”. Ricoeur synthesizes these two view points by writing that this paradox
underlines the inescapably paradoxical character surrounding the metaphorical concept of truth. The paradox consists in the fact that there is no other way to do justice to the notion of metaphorical truth than to include the critical incision of the (literal) ‘is not’ within the ontological vehemence of the (metaphorical) ‘is’. [. . .] In the same way that logical distance is preserved in metaphorical proximity, and in the same way as the impossible literal interpretation is not simply abolished by the metaphorical interpretation but submits to it while resisting [. . .]. It is this tensional constitution of the verb to be that receives its grammatical mark in the ‘to be like’ of metaphor elaborated into simile, at the same time as the tension between same and other is marked in the relational copula (original italics).
In other words, there is no metaphoric form of is because metaphors are the metaphoric form of is. The difference between metaphoric copulas and naked copulas, is a matter of what comes to be is at first seen at a distance, before becoming fully formed when its presence is understood. The simple understanding as a direct relation is the naked copula which simply marks that relation within a discourse as being self evident.
Such a position comes to bear on ontological truth by becoming, in discourse, without metaphorization as a basic relation that organizes social awareness. Slavoj Zizek in his book Less than Nothing calls this a zero sum signifier, a term he borrows from Claude Levi-Strauss:
Every signifying field thus has to be “sutured” by a supplementary zero-signifier, “a zero symbolic value, that is, a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains” (original italics).
Such a term in generic, everyday discourse is, of course, the copula is, what Ricoeur notes is how designation is determined. Spoken in another way, is is the null metaphor. Applied directly, truth is nothing more than metaphorical truth, that there is no truth that is not an arrangement of parts which may or may not be connected in various ways. While at this point we can question the veracity of Jayne’s arrangement between human experience and biological imperative, it is more interesting to note that Jaynes’s emphasis of the hypostases of consciousness as half-baked metaphors in The Iliad to designate action is direct evidence of a people coming to modern consciousness.
Thus, modern consciousness as individuality is not only the breakdown of the bicameral mind on a cognitive existential basis but it is also a linguistic imperative that becomes a thing that defines each of us is as an individual unit. In fact, such a break literally forces us to be each one instead of being a whole one. To emphasize this Jaynes traces some of the histories of the ancient world to highlight how this event, the birth of modern consciousness, disrupts social order causing endless strife before modern law is born as a metastable basis for a contemporaneous society of strangers living together. In particular, his citation of the very interesting but very different letters between common people of different eras tell of very different modes of consciousnesses, that is, different ways of splitting apart what kinds of choices we have in the world.
Taken literally, modern consciousness is the ontological ground that organizes our pre-conceptions. For Jaynes, the contemporary loneliness and our lack of personal connection with each other stems from no more than “a nostalgia for an earlier certainty” that there is in fact a
Universal stability, an eternal firmness of principle out there that can be sought for through the world as might an Arthurian knight for the Grail, is, in the morphological history, a direct outgrowth of the search for lost gods in the first two millennia after the decline of the bicameral mind.
Indeed, this searching, as Jaynes notes, pervades not just our mythology but our movies, our culture, our psychoanalysis, and even this very book he wrote. In post-structuralist terms, since consciousness isn’t just a lack of content but a lack of a lack. In our incessant searching we seek to alleviate ourselves of the burden of providing our own meaning and instead seek a larger being to incorporate us in our experiences, to give us direction, fulfillment, and comfort. For Jaynes this searching is the echos of a bicameral time.
Even if you were to reject his analysis (and what an analysis it is!), any reader familiar with even half of what he says would be hard pressed not to admit that Jaynes has at least hit upon a basic truth of our situation. Consciousness (or at least our modern self reflexive awareness of being and having a consciousness) is the mysterious root from which pretty much all our problems and solutions originate, if only because consciousness conditions how we relate to others inasmuch as how we are able to relate to having a self at all. The recognition of selfhood as being unessential is perhaps a frightening thought, but it is always the border marking the start of our struggles, when we come to understand the possibility that what we are was once not, and that sense may not have ever been, that the self is but a metaphor for everything the self is supposed to always-already be.