- Paperback: 491 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company (September 19, 1990)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0395563526
- ISBN-13: 978-0395563526
- Package Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 1.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 325 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,354,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Origin of Consciouness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Paperback – September 19, 1990
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At the heart of this book is the revolutionary idea that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution. Rather, Jaynes presents consciousness as a learned process that evolved from an earlier hallucinatory mentality only three thousand years ago. The implications extend into every aspect of human life.
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But unfortunately for Jaynes his theory did not really take over psychology during the last few decades the way he probably hoped it would. The reasons for this are probably many but among them must be the weaknesses in the central theses of the book themselves. I thought at the beginning that I would probably be 90 percent convinced of Jaynes' theory by the end of the book. Unfortunately that didn't happen.
But before we delve into the details let's briefly review the structure of the book. Coming in at 469 pages including the Afterword the book requires a sizable investment of time to wade through. It is divided into three sections: 1.) The Mind of Man, 2.) The Witness of History, and 3.) Vestiges of the Bicameral Mind in the Modern World. But in the Afterword (written in 1990) Jaynes informs us that there are four independent theses in the book: 1.) consciousness is based on language, 2.) the bicameral mind, 3.) the dating, and 4.) the double brain. Jaynes would have been better served if he had structured the book around these four theses.
So let me now critique the arguments in each of these theses and show why there are substantial reasons to reject each of them.
Thesis #1: Consciousness is based on language. According to Jaynes consciousness is a metaphor of reality and he goes to great lengths to define what a metaphor is. This part of the argument I found confusing with its metaphiers, metaphrands, paraphiers, and paraphrands which appear to be terms that Jaynes invented for his own purposes. Suffice it to say that the implications of this thesis are staggering. It means that human beings had no consciousness before there was language and of course nonhuman animals don't have consciousness either. Since metaphor is a rather advanced stage of language it's not clear at what age Jaynes thinks human beings acquire consciousness. He doesn't really address this issue. The other implications of this thesis are that human beings with cognitive and/or language disabilities are also not conscious. As the father of a nonverbal autistic child I find this claim to be rather ludicrous. I suspect my son is as fully conscious as any other human being. It's just that he lacks the verbal ability to tell us about his introspections. So I completely reject thesis #1.
Thesis #2: The Bicameral Mind
Jaynes describes his bicameral mind as a type of nonconscious mentality in which the right hemisphere of the brain generates auditory (and sometimes visual) hallucinations that are received by the left hemisphere as voices. This is similar to how schizophrenia operates today only in the past such voices were interpreted to be those of the gods. What this has to do with consciousness is a bit perplexing since even schizophrenics are conscious of what the voices are saying and they can tell others exactly what is said and even the tone of the voices. Thus, it would appear that people hearing voices in their heads were conscious to some extent. Jaynes denies this which is one of the central tenets of his entire theory.
In any case, Jaynes envisions entire societies where all of the people heard hallucinated voices which they interpreted as the voices of their gods. The content of these voices were mainly admonitions or commands which enabled the people to survive. All decisions were made by the gods and transmitted to human beings via the voices. Now, this does not sound like a very good basis for the construction of a society for several reasons. First of all, there are bound to be contradictions between the voices. My god tells me to do X and your god tells you to do Y which may be the opposite of X. Since both gods had to be obeyed (another tenet of the theory) we can easily see how conflict would be inherent in such a system. Jaynes tries to step around this issue by claiming that bicameral societies were rigid and hierarchical but I'm not sure it really solves the problem at all. If only the god of the king is to be obeyed first then that necessarily erodes the authority of my personal god who may be telling me different things.
So the possibility of a truly bicameral society is a bit suspect. Jaynes' case would be made much better if he could point to any recently discovered primitive tribe that was bicameral. The highlanders of central New Guinea and the Yanomamo Indians of South America first came into contact with modern civilization in the 20th century. As far as we know none of these recently discovered societies were bicameral in the way that Jaynes is suggesting. That's a bit suspicious in and of itself. So thesis #2 is a bit weak.
Thesis #3: The Dating
By this Jaynes means his historical chronology of the Near East in which the bicameral mind began breaking down in c. 1000 BCE and consciousness arose in Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia in the 1st millennium BCE. In the book Jaynes says the cause of this breakdown was ultimately the eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera which he dates to 1470 BCE or possibly later. This caused massive social disruption and a huge refugee crisis which the bicameral societies of the time could not handle. They thus broke down resulting in the rise of modern consciousness. Modern tree-ring dating puts the Thera eruption back at 1628 BCE which is even earlier than Jaynes thought it was, but it probably doesn't change the argument substantially.
Jaynes doesn't use the term Bronze Age collapse (which occurred in c. 1200 BCE) although he is clearly referring to it. According to his theory bicameral Mycenae, the bicameral Hittite Empire, etc. all collapsed internally due to the stress induced on the bicameral mind which was ultimately caused by a natural catastrophe. Modern scholarship would refute this by claiming that none of these collapses were internal. They were caused by the influx of conquerors from an unknown source collectively known as the Sea Peoples. There is thus no room for a bicameral collapse.
Jaynes' claims about bicameral societies in the Americas are even more ludicrous. He claims that the Mayans and Incans (and presumably the Aztecs too) were bicameral. But since we have detailed chronicles of the Spanish conquest of both the Aztecs and Incas one would imagine that the Spanish conquistadors would have noticed such a difference in mental functioning in their conquered subjects. Both Moctezuma and Atahualpa were captured by the Spanish and kept in confinement for long periods of time. Never once do the Spanish report that their prisoners are being commanded by voices in their heads.
What some might call Jaynes' strongest claims involve the Iliad of Homer. According to Jaynes the Iliad contains no concept of consciousness and its view of the human mind is entirely bicameral. Jaynes chooses the Iliad because he says it is the oldest literary work in which the translation is certain. But then he goes on to say that modern translators have read consciousness into the Iliad when it really wasn't there. I'm certainly not in a position to comment on the meanings of such Greek words as "thumos", "phrenes", etc. and how they changed over time. Jaynes may be right that these words did not imply consciousness when they were used in the Iliad. But I'm not sure what that proves exactly. The ancient Greeks of the Bronze Age also had no word for arteriosclerosis but that does not mean that this particular disease didn't exist in those days.
One side note I will mention in passing. According to Jaynes bicameral man was not capable of deceit. Therefore we should not find any deceit being carried out by the Achaeans or Trojans in the Iliad. That does not seem to be the case. Doesn't Patroclus don Achilles' armor in order to deceive the Trojans into believing that Achilles has taken the field of battle? Not to mention the Trojan horse itself (not covered directly in the Iliad) which is the ultimate deceit. Also, one tends to wonder if bicameral man is incapable of deceit then why are their prohibitions against deceit in both the Ten Commandments of the Hebrews and the Code of Hammurabi, core documents of two supposedly bicameral societies.
Thesis #4: The Double Brain
This is perhaps the least controversial thesis of Jaynes since it does seem to have some solid experimental evidence behind it. It does appear to be the case that right-handed individuals have their language center in the left hemisphere of the brain with the right hemisphere of the brain being mostly nonverbal. Jaynes does present some evidence that the right hemisphere is involved in the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenics. I'd like to know what further research has been conducted in this area since Jaynes' death in 1997. But it's not clear how the neurological evidence for the double brain makes the actual existence of bicameral societies more likely.
So those are my objections in a nutshell. I don't buy Jaynes' theory although I must say that the book is a pleasure to read particularly due to Jaynes' florid writing style. Just thinking about these issues in history, psychology, and neurology is stimulating whether or not you agree with the arguments in the final analysis. So Jaynes certainly has done a great service to all of these various fields by getting people talking about these issues. So I highly recommend the book even though I vehemently disagree with most of the theses asserted in it.
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