Julian Jaynes is the Bizarro Descartes

With the opening of Batman v. Superman this weekend it seemed an appropriate time comment on an all-star clash of two superstars of psychology and philosophy, Julian Jaynes and Rene Descartes. At the moment I happen to be brain-deep in a first, and much belated read, of Jaynes’ seminal work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Break Down of the Bicameral Mind. There is a fascinating section in chapter three, The Causes of Consciousness, in which Jaynes appears to stake a decidedly un-descartian position. He suggests that the breakdown of authority and the gods resulted in a state of panic and hesitation in man. He reminds us that, according to his hypothesis, early man was not truly conscious, at least not in the subjective way we judge conscious man to be today. Instead the bicameral man turned to the Gods (who revealed themselves in auditory and visual hallucinations originating in the brain’s right temporal-parietal region) when navigating any particular difficult choice in action that might be required at any point in these early human’s lifetimes. In any forced violent intermingling of these early people they would seem to each other as coming from totally different nations, as having different Gods. Thus the observation “that strangers, even though looking like oneself, spoke differently, had opposite opinions, and behaved differently might lead to the supposition that something inside of them was different.” Jaynes points out, correctly in my view, that this exact opinion “has come down to us in the traditions of philosophy, namely that thoughts, opinions, and delusions are subjective phenomena inside a person because there is no room for them in the ‘real,’ ‘objective’ world.” Connecting the doubts Jaynes then argues that before any individual man had objective thoughts he first “posited it in others, particularly contradictory strangers, as the thing that caused their different and bewildering behavior. In other words, the tradition in philosophy that phrases the problem as the logic of inferring other minds from one’s own self has it the wrong way around. We may first unconsciously suppose other consciousnesses, and then infer our own by generalization.” Descarte’s cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am, becomes he thinks, therefore I do (am).

In this one short paragraph, tucked away in a sprawling work, Mr. Jaynes seeks to overturn ages of generally accepted western thought. The gravity of his argument cannot be overstated. If true it suggests that man first became conscious through observation/interaction with other men, and not, as has been the tradition in western thought, through personal introspection. In another part of the book Jaynes is somewhat dismissive of the role of Darwinian evolution in the emergence of consciousness in man. Perhaps he is correct but his outlook on the importance of social interactions among persons of different races/cultures/upbringings in the emergence of consciousness argues strongly for a sort of social Darwinism, albeit of a different type. Competition among men served to select the physically and mentally most fit to survive through a completely passive natural process. In addition, it provided a pro-active “kickstart” to the evolution of subjective consciousness in man by facilitating the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

I’ll leave it to more competent philosophers than I to develop this argument further along the lines I have suggested. My study of the works of Julian Jaynes is only in its infancy but I’m already thoroughly fascinated by the way his mind works. I consider myself a fairly competent scholar of the philosophy of Wittgenstein. As I read Jaynes I see threads connecting their ideas. I have no idea if Jaynes was aware of Wittgenstein’s philosophy (please comment if you do) but I see a straight line from W.s so called private language argument, to the theoretical causes of the breakdown of the bicameral mind as suggested by Jaynes. I shall have to save my thoughts on that subject for another day.

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