Julian Jaynes: How Old Is The Self?

I recently had an article published in Philosophy Now. Because only subscribers can read it online, I’ve uploaded the text. Here’s a brief recap:

UnknownJulian Jaynes’s 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, holds that true consciousness emerged only around 3,000 years ago. Before, our “bicameral” minds deemed the chatter in our heads the voices of gods. Around 1000 BC, societal and geopolitical upheavals forced the change. Jaynes’s theory has been widely discussed and given much credence.

By “consciousness” Jaynes means a sense of self, that there’s a “me” in there. While we don’t fully understand how selfhood arises, it can be seen as an emergent property of the mental system as a whole. But a lot of mental functioning is more or less unconscious; we can even perform complex tasks, like driving, apart from conscious attentiveness. Jaynes is saying people could have had such complex mental functioning without the emergent property of self. But this is contradicted by the evidence of seven billion examples, wherein the complexity does produce selves, even for people dumb as boards.

images-2Jaynes focuses on The Iliad. In this ancient epic about the Trojan War, he says, characters are never portrayed with inner lives, but instead always manipulated by gods. The war, Jaynes declares, “was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers . . . were noble automatons who knew not what they did.”

But what The Iliad really illustrates is cultural evolution. Civilization was new, and it took time to develop all its familiar characteristics. The Iliad followed the convention of the time for how tales were told. Literature had to evolve a lot before portraying characters’ inner lives. And Jaynes misreads The Iliad. He stresses how Achilles vacillated over killing Agamemnon until the Goddess Athena told him to. But what was this vacillation if not the working of his own mind? And while Jaynes says the vacillating is depicted physiologically – “gut churning,” etc. – surely the Greeks understood such imagery as conveying something mental.

images-3Jaynes repeatedly describes “bicameral” inner voices as “hallucinations.” But they were people’s own thoughts, which were real, and that’s different from hallucinating nonexistent voices coming from elsewhere. Conceivably they might have been thought “voices of gods” if popping up suddenly after a lifetime of silence. But normal people become aware of their own thoughts at least as soon as they learn language, and know who is doing the talking. And even hallucinators (like schizophrenics) still have selves, and thoughts they know are their own.

Also, Jaynes evades the issue of how god directives were carried out. You’d need an intermediary, hearing the god voice, deciding to obey it, and working the muscles accordingly. images-4So there’d still have to be a self, even if one that’s heeding god voices.

Jaynes seems to date bicameral minds to the beginnings of civilization (around 10,000 years ago), the god voices evolving from actual voices of kings. This begs the question of what sort of mental life preceded bicameralism, and on this Jaynes is remarkably silent. Would earlier people have had selves, and given them up? Or were they previously not even bicameral? Yet archaeological evidence shows that stone-agers led quite sophisticated lives with plenty of technology and artisanship. Language goes back tens of thousands of years, and it’s hard to imagine its developers didn’t know when they were talking to themselves.

Jaynes is also conspicuously silent about civilizations outside the Near East and Mediterranean areas. Obviously his invoking social upheavals 3000 years ago would be inapplicable to other regions with very different histories. And his discussion of those alleged upheavals is anyway cursory. Life throughout ancient times was pervasively tumultuous, difficult, and much more violent than today. Jaynes fails to show something so uniquely unsettling about the times around 1000 BC that it changed how minds work.

Survival was always a struggle; consciousness was a useful survival adaptation, evolved to at least some degree in many creatures. Homo Sapiens is simply the most extreme example, whose high level of consciousness likely evolved to facilitate the complex social cooperation that figured so large in his survival, long before 1000 BC.

images-6Anyone studying deeply the earliest civilizations must see how alike we are. Those ancestors, who first figured out how to grow crops, domesticate animals, build villages and then cities, created writing and literature and music and art, invented governmentimages-7 and law, launched great projects of architecture, exploration, trade and conquest, and laid the foundations of science and mathematics, could not possibly have done it all with minds that functioned in the primitive – in fact, downright silly – manner Jaynes postulates. He offensively belittles those people and their stupendous achievements.



18 Responses to “Julian Jaynes: How Old Is The Self?”

  1. doughawes Says:

    Homo sapiens – small S on sapiens. Doug H.

  2. Gregg Millett Says:

    Incredibly thoughtful piece! I must admit I was taken by Jame’s theory and have often said things like I think most of us live in a culturally induced hypnotic-like state. Caught a piece on the news the other day related to the measles outbreak with the preacher at the “church of outbreak” saying — “I’m not saying, I’m not saying, I’m not saying you should not have your children vaccinated, what I’m saying, what I’m saying, what I’m saying is that you should listen to God. Listen to God. Listen to God. If God tells you, if God tells you …” etc!

    All I can say, all I can say … is, let’s hear it for striving for higher and higher states of consciousness and the wonderment of looking into the unknown. And the challenge of trying to understand Frank Robinson!

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    The challenge of trying to understand me? Gee, I hope not. I thought I wrote lucidly!

  4. James Says:

    You’ve badly misunderstood the theory.

  5. rationaloptimist Says:

    James, I read the book with careful attention, but if you think I’ve misread it, would you care to elaborate?

  6. Adrian Says:

    “He offensively belittles those people and their stupendous achievements.” The masses didn’t invent anything. A few people invested all of those things.

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    Actually, “A few people” is a gross overstatement. Yes, in every age, a fraction of the population is in the vanguard moving things forward, but that includes quite a large number of people, and that was true as well in ancient times when it took significant numbers to comprise that vanguard; it was not a matter of a handful of lonely geniuses, because lonely geniuses cannot accomplish much on their own, without the role of networks of other people. And anyhow, the rest of the population should not be belittled as mindless drones. I have always been impressed how useful so many people actually are.

  8. Adrian Says:

    I think I was the one who replied above. I was saying that the masses didn’t invent anything. By inventing something, I mean to come up with the idea and make a functional prototype and to do it a couple of times. Even in our times, the masses do not invent much. They simply copy what has already been created by others.

    I wasn’t referring to the actual constructions of the inventions created by a few. And I also wasn’t saying that 100% of the people back then had the bicameral mentality. There might have been a couple who had closer mentalities to ours.

    I don’t know where you live but in my country, Romania, most people’s decision making process is unconscious and it’s quite close to the decision making process described by Julian Jaynes.

    I try to make my decisions based on rationality. By this I mean, that I calculate the costs and the possible rewards when it comes to big decisions. Most people I know do not make the calculations in math before making a decisions. You can even look at consumer behavior for big ticket items. Most people who borrow lots of money do not think about the actual work that they will have to put and the time required to pay down the debt. They think of what they want to get and they mostly ignore the costs. This is one example that shows you how most people even today aren’t thinking rationally. They let their unconscious processes dictate most of their decisions big and small.

    Regarding the listing of the achievements at the end of your article, Jaynes explained that you can actually learn new things, learn a craft, without needing a well developed sense of self. Actually, your self is many times an hindrance to learning a physical skill. You don’t need to imagine yourself doing better or doing things in a certain way when you are learning a skill. You can simply dive in and repeat the processes until they become unconscious. It’s enough for a feeling to direct you.

    Also, you are listing all of those achievements of humanity as a whole, but simply by listing something and being in awe doesn’t prove anything. To prove your point I suggest that you analyze each particular thing that you’ve listed and then look for proof if that particular skill requires a sense of self. Or if you can find proof that people who did those amazing things actually had a self.

    Did you read Primitive Mentality by Lévy-Bruhl ? The author researched various primitive tribes around the world and focused on their thinking process. The book was written in 1920s and the description of their mentality is much closer towards the mentality described by Julian Jaynes.

    You can download and read for free and legally Primitive Mentality from here: http://archive.org/details/primitivementali00lvuoft (the download links are to the left of the page)

    I would be more than happy to further discuss this theory. You can email me at the email that I added to this comment.

  9. rationaloptimist Says:

    Adrian, many thanks for taking the trouble to comment in depth — but I think you are missing the point. You obviously have a sense of self. I do too. (While what this actually means is a philosophical swampland, we both have an intuitive knowledge of how it feels to have a self.) We are not special people; every normal human has this. Jaynes was saying people didn’t start having it until around 1000 BC. That’s what I was rebutting.

  10. Adrian Says:

    I’m saying that most people today do not have a well developed sense of self. Their mentality is closer to the mentality described by Julian Jaynes. So his theory is very probable.

    Nowadays, only few individuals have a high developed sense of self. Most of the others obey their feelings most of the time.

    The masses, most people today, have the following habits:
    * they care about what other people are thinking about them
    * they feel like they are part of a clan/group, they do not think like they are independent from their peer group
    * they feel like things happen to them instead of themselves causing most of them
    * live in the moment, do not imagine themselves in the future and how their present actions will affect their future selves
    * do what other people are doing and other authority figures say that they should do
    * have trouble motivating themselves and acting based on their own ideas
    * they trust less their ideas and more the ideas of others, especially external authorities

    Just talk to people who are poor, uneducated and don’t read books. Talk to them about how they make decisions. Money or long term decisions. See how many of those are based on their own ideas and how many are obeyed. Find out if they can come up with a rational explanation for their beliefs or they simply believe them like commands. And when they don’t know what to say, they simply repeat their previous ideas and are not persuaded by logic.

    “Jaynes was saying people didn’t start having it until around 1000 BC. That’s what I was rebutting.” Do you think that animals have an inner space in their mind where they imagine themselves doing stuff in the future? Do you think that they can see spatially the future and past, in their minds? When do you think that humans developed their selves?

  11. rationaloptimist Says:

    1. None of your characterizations of how people think and act is inconsistent with having a sense of self. No normal person believes his inner voice is not his own.
    2. Obviously, consciousness is far more developed in humans than in other animals; only the highest animals, such as elephants and dolphins, seem to have a sense of self that might approach ours.
    3. When did humans develop it? Certainly when the species Homo Sapiens emerged, very roughly around 100,000 years ago; but other proto-human species, like Neanderthals, may well have had it too.

  12. Adrian Says:

    1. “None of your characterizations of how people think and act is inconsistent with having a sense of self.”
    My argument was that these current behaviors show the presence of a weaker sense of self. Not that they imply that those people had no sense of self. Look at it as a gradual process made out of different parts that evolve over generations. Not at something that is invented at once.

    When a person obeys a leader or a person in authority, that person knows that another person issued the order. But when it wants not to obey the person in authority, a feeling and an inner voice tells him to continue do the same thing. It comes up with a story to justify the behavior. Same happens with people who want to quit smoking. Their inner dialog and emotions pull them in the wrong direction. They obey it without question most of the time.

    A person with a more developed sense of self can take a step back and imagine in its mind eye different scenarios and then simply take the right approach.

    Did you never experience any of the above scenarios?

    2. “Certainly when the species Homo Sapiens emerged, very roughly around 100,000 years ago” Certainly based on what proof? And if it happened back then, how did it evolve or it just came back in existence?

    3. When you say “a sense of self” what do you more precisely mean by it?

  13. frank S. Robinson Says:

    1. Of course I have experienced this. We all do. There is indeed much in life that we do without conscious attentiveness. But, again, that by no means implies lack of a self.
    2. a) Biologically people that far back were the same as us, with the same brains. There’s no reason to think their brains worked any different. b) There is ample evidence for their mental sophistication — cave paintings, tools, ritual objects, even jewelry going back at least 80,000 years, all of which strongly evidences a sense of self.
    3. This is an extremely problemsome question which has vexed philosophers throughout the ages. I will have a further blog post by and by touching further upon it. Suffice to say here that one knows it when one feels it.

  14. Jason Says:

    Have you read this commentary?


  15. frank S. Robinson Says:

    No, I hadn’t, many thanks for bringing it to my attention! I will have to study it carefully. But, on a quick perusal, I do not find the criticisms persuasive. In fact, I had read every word of Jaynes’s book with care and believe I was accurately responding to his points. The commentary you cited seems, in general, to torture the facts so that they fit Jaynes’s theory. It is evidently the work of a “true believer” (based on the website’s title).

  16. rationaloptimist Says:

    Regarding, the above, I have now posted a fuller response: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/defending-myself-about-how-old-is-the-self/

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  18. Joel Inbody Says:

    Thank you for being willing to critique Julian Jaynes’ outlandish “theory” of consciousness. It is nonsense and I do not understand why it has been taken up so fervently by his disciples in the Julian Jaynes Society. As I see it, Jaynes is projecting New England society back on the past. He grew up and lived in 20th century Boston, MA. Thousands around him claimed to hear the Christian god in their head as Jesus, the holy spirit, etc. Ergo, he thinks people used to hear gods in their heads. I really think it’s that simple. He has not taken himself out of his study of the past.

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