Julian Jaynes and the Muting of the Gods

Rachel Aviv writes at n+1:

Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton, had little patience for his colleagues, who spent hours in the lab doing “petty, petty humdrum things.” He dismissed their “objective aridity,” “cunning lingo,” and “valiant nonsense.” The field of psychology, he wrote, was little more than “bad poetry disguised as science.”

Jaynes published only one book, in 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which tells the story of how mankind learned to think. Critics described it as a bizarre and reckless masterpiece—the American Journal of Psychiatry called Jaynes “as startling as Freud in the Interpretation of Dreams.” Drawing on evidence from neurology, archaeology, art history, theology, and Greek poetry, Jaynes captured the experience of modern consciousness—“a whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can”—as sensitively and tragically as any great novelist.

Jaynes knew that he would be punished for “hustling into territories jealously guarded by myriad aggressive specialists.” Although his book anticipated theories in linguistics, neuroscience, and philosophy, he has been more or less eliminated from the history of ideas. The first book on Jaynes’s life and work is long overdue; it was published by the Julian Jaynes Society, a cultish group of scholars and enthusiasts. The society’s founder, Marcel Kuijsten, who has a degree in business, has filled two volumes with nearly all Jaynes’s interviews and papers—on dreams, hallucinations, poetry, animal cognition, and cave paintings. The first volume, called Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, opens with a biography of Jaynes, written by William Woodward, a historian of science, and June Tower, Jaynes’s old neighbor. Narrated in a spare, humorless tone, the biography describes Jaynes as a psychological prophet who oriented his life around a single question. He felt almost afflicted by his need for a scientific theory for consciousness, a narrative that would allow all the mysteries of the world to “shiveringly fall into accurate and wonderful place.”

Born the son of a Unitarian minister in Newton, Massachusetts, Jaynes was mystified by his own capacity for inwardness, a nagging stream of desires, worries, invented futures, and humiliations. He attributed the inspiration for Origins to an episode of “darkest distress” when he was lying on his couch, despairing over the question of “how we can know anything at all”: “Suddenly, out of an absolute quiet, there came a firm, distinct loud voice from my upper right which said, ‘Include the knower in the known!’ It lugged me to my feet absurdly exclaiming, ‘Hello?’”

As a doctoral student at Yale, Jaynes produced highly regarded papers on animal learning, but he became increasingly frustrated by the principles of behaviorism, the reigning school of psychology at the time, which took a mechanistic view of the human mind and the scientist’s role in observing it. Jaynes mocked himself for running paramecia and protozoa through mazes, “all on the naive assumption that I was chronicling the grand evolution of consciousness. Ridiculous!” He moved up in the animal kingdom, studying learning in worms, fish, rats, chicks, and cats, before finally realizing that he had fallen prey to a “huge historical neurosis.” He concluded that consciousness had no location in the brain. Instead, it was a function of language.

Jaynes began inspecting the world’s earliest literature for the first signs of human consciousness. “I started off like in a detective story,” he told a reporter for the Princeton radio station. As he moved backward through the centuries, he saw that consciousness, as he had defined it, disappeared somewhere between the Odyssey and the Iliad. Odysseus is a modern hero, introspective and deceptive. In the Iliad, the writing of which scholars date some three hundred years earlier, the characters are passive and mentally inert. They have no concept of a private mental space. The word “psyche” referred only to actual substances in the body, breath, and blood, which leave the warrior’s body as soon as he dies. The gods, emerging from mists or clouds or the sea, handle the warrior’s decisions. When Achilles accuses Agamemnon of stealing his mistress, Agamemnon insists he had no agency. “Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus,” he explains. “So what could I do? Gods always have their way.”

Critics have interpreted the meddling presence of the god as poetic devices, but Jaynes accused translators of imputing a modern mentality to people with subjectivities foreign to us. “The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination,’” he wrote. “They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system, probably his right hemisphere.” Jaynes drew on research with patients with severed corpora callossa, the band of fibers that separates the two hemispheres of the brain, which showed that the two chambers can function independently, without conscious awareness of information processed in the other half. Jaynes proposed that the Trojan War was fought by men with a kind of split brain, a “bicameral mind.” In moments of stress, the left hemisphere, “slave-like,” perceived hallucinated voices in the right hemisphere—the god hemisphere—as direct commands.

Read more here.

 

 

 

, , , ,

  • Trevor Smith

    Fascinating. Jaynes was definitely one of those minds that peered deep into things and, luckily, was had the skill to download his insights into language to share with everyone. Gotta love em

    My thoughts on him have changed dramatically though after reading this work, which in my opinion validates much of what he thought on the left/right hemispheres but also radically changes many things about how we look at them http://leftinthedark.org.uk/

  • Trevor Smith

    Fascinating. Jaynes was definitely one of those minds that peered deep into things and, luckily, was had the skill to download his insights into language to share with everyone. Gotta love em

    My thoughts on him have changed dramatically though after reading this work, which in my opinion validates much of what he thought on the left/right hemispheres but also radically changes many things about how we look at them http://leftinthedark.org.uk/

  • Nirvanasteve

    Thank you for sharing this. This author sounds very intriguing and I can’t wait to get a copy of his book.

  • Nirvanasteve

    Thank you for sharing this. This author sounds very intriguing and I can’t wait to get a copy of his book.

    • Nirvanasteve

      I got it. I can’t put it down – which is terrible because it’s finals week. But hey, I’d take actually learning something worthwhile over temporary knowledge for the sake of a grade any ol’ day.

  • BuzzCoastin

    > before finally realizing that he had fallen prey to a “huge historical neurosis.”
    He concluded that consciousness had no location in the brain.
    Instead, it was a function of language.

    I will take another 200 years
    (assuming this shit careens on that long)
    before this idea becomes “common sense”

  • BuzzCoastin

    > before finally realizing that he had fallen prey to a “huge historical neurosis.”
    He concluded that consciousness had no location in the brain.
    Instead, it was a function of language.

    I will take another 200 years
    (assuming this shit careens on that long)
    before this idea becomes “common sense”

    • mannyfurious

      Wittgenstein ended philosophy 60 years ago by pointing out how all our problems were simply limitations in language… and, yet, here we are.

    • mannyfurious

      Wittgenstein ended philosophy 60 years ago by pointing out how all our problems were simply limitations in language… and, yet, here we are.

      • BuzzCoastin

        most of what we call our opinions & beliefs
        are shaped during our childhood by the culture and language
        this remains invisible to the majority of people
        which is why it works so well
        and why it is so easy to manipulate the ignorant with language
        With Liberty and Justice for All

      • BuzzCoastin

        most of what we call our opinions & beliefs
        are shaped during our childhood by the culture and language
        this remains invisible to the majority of people
        which is why it works so well
        and why it is so easy to manipulate the ignorant with language
        With Liberty and Justice for All

  • jnana

    I think Agamemnon’s awareness of Necessity, or what the Greeks called “Heimarmene”, didn’t make him unconscious, but rather conscious of the reality of the rulers. Perhaps those who deny the big hands of the rulers in men’s affairs are the ones who are unconscious. As well, it seems to make more sense to me that consciousness produces language, at least conscious language as opposed to babbling. for example, those who speak in tongues are unconscious of what they are saying. It is only with the light(consciousness?) that they may interpret the ecstatic expressions, if they are interpreted at all.

  • jnana

    I think Agamemnon’s awareness of Necessity, or what the Greeks called “Heimarmene”, didn’t make him unconscious, but rather conscious of the reality of the rulers. Perhaps those who deny the big hands of the rulers in men’s affairs are the ones who are unconscious. As well, it seems to make more sense to me that consciousness produces language, at least conscious language as opposed to babbling. for example, those who speak in tongues are unconscious of what they are saying. It is only with the light(consciousness?) that they may interpret the ecstatic expressions, if they are interpreted at all.

  • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

    I had a bicamral mind for a while.

  • bobbiethejean

    “Consciousness had no location in the brain. Instead, it was a function of language.” That sounds kinda backwards to me. How do we know language isn’t a function of consciousness?

    On another note, I remember watching a really fascinating lecture about a guy whose corpus callosum was severed. Apparently half his brain believed in god and the other did not. Whichever answer he gave depended on which hand he was asked to answer the question with. I wonder if the atheist half would go to hell while the devout half would go to heaven?

  • bobbiethejean

    “Consciousness had no location in the brain. Instead, it was a function of language.” That sounds kinda backwards to me. How do we know language isn’t a function of consciousness?

    On another note, I remember watching a really fascinating lecture about a guy whose corpus callosum was severed. Apparently half his brain believed in god and the other did not. Whichever answer he gave depended on which hand he was asked to answer the question with. I wonder if the atheist half would go to hell while the devout half would go to heaven?

  • Monkey See Monkey Do

    Thanks a lot for this, his name slipped me. Keep these thoughtful articles coming, helps with my current studies.

  • http://skadhitheravernerblog.wordpress.com/ Skadhi_the_Raverner

    Though no one nowadays takes the specific claims made by Jaynes about Greeks etc seriously nowadays, people forget he influenced authors such as Norretranders and Dennett. Over the course of human evolution evolved sentience, a user illusion of a nonexistent ‘self’ or ‘soul’ as distinct from the physical body and physical reality.

    This ability is becoming harmful today as people start to see themselves increasingly as having needs contrary and separate from their bodies needs as a biological animal. Nietzche wrote of the ‘despisers of the body’ and the absurdity of looking into ones own soul only to find nothing, because there’s nothing really there.

    • alexis sycamore

      he also influenced joined up thinkers like T Mckenna

    • alexis sycamore

      he also influenced joined up thinkers like T Mckenna