Defending Myself About “How Old Is The Self?”

Recently I posted a recap of my Philosophy Now article critiquing Julian Jaynes’s “bicameral mind” theory. Marcel Kuijsten replies with a long scathing attack, on the Julian Jaynes Society website.*

images-1In brief, Jaynes said modern introspective consciousness (a “sense of self”) did not arise until around 1000 BC, before which people believed their thoughts were not their own but, rather, voices of gods instructing them (the “bicameral” mind).

I criticized, as historically wrong,  Jaynes’s argument that societal upheavals around that time caused the changeover. Kuijsten doesn’t really rebut that, but says Jaynes was instead relying mainly on supposed evidence that the change did occur then, such as the “cognitive explosion” of Greek philosophy and the religious “Axial age” – which actually came somewhat later! – but this just begs the question of why the alleged dramatic transformation occurred, leaving Jaynes with no answer.

And if the Greek flourishing evidenced the onset of introspective consciousness, did the later Dark Age evidence its loss?

imagesKuijsten repeatedly contends that earlier (“bicameral”) peoples made a bigger deal of gods than do moderns. For example, in Mesopotamian cities, “the entire leadership consisted of gods, who made all the important decisions,” conveying them through priests. “People psychologically similar to us,” he says, “would have no need for these elaborate machinations.” Likewise, “if the Mycenaean Greeks were psychologically identical to us, there would be no need for gods.”

Really? Has he never met a fundamentalist Christian? “No need for gods” indeed!

I have read intensively about ancient societies, and Kuijsten’s casting them as god-obsessed is very dubious. The idea of gods was a handy construct to explain the inexplicable, but people didn’t take it all that seriously. God plays a far bigger role in the lives of many religious believers today. Yet Kuijsten doesn’t suggest they’re bicameral.

Joseph Smith with his harem

Joseph Smith with his harem

He does cite some fairly modern people, like Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, hearing god voices, as supposed vestiges of bicameralism. Kuijsten seems to take such stories at face value. Smith (whose life I’ve studied) heard no voices; he was a con man who made it all up to gain wealth, power, and sex with lots of women. No doubt “god voices” were similarly useful for the ancient priests Kuijsten invokes.

He makes many other similar arguments that modern mental phenomenology evidences a past bicameralism; such as auditory hallucinations, which he says are quite common among normal people. Common (on occasion), perhaps; normal (if continual), no. Normal healthy people don’t constantly hear voices thinking they’re from gods; and mentally healthy ancient people likewise did not confuse their own thoughts with god voices.

UnknownWhere I noted that children, once they learn language, realize their thoughts are their own, Kuijsten chides me for ignoring childrens’ imaginary friends, which he deems yet another bicameral vestige. However, imaginary friends are not analogous to believing one’s own thoughts come from gods; children grow out of this phase; but, according to Jaynes, ancient adults did not.

My assumption that introspective consciousness was a very ancient biological adaptation is attacked as lacking evidence. The only alternative is woo-woo supernaturalism. And while Kuijsten says such consciousness could not have evolved without language sophistication, that certainly arrived long before 1000 BC. Kuijsten himself elsewhere puts it around 50,000 BC!

I am labeled “oblivious” to dozens of brain imaging studies supposedly validating Jaynes’s model. Well, I’m no neuroscientist; but I daresay no 3,000-year-old people have had their brains imaged.

Kuijsten (like one blog commenter) also emphasizes that much mental activity and behavior is unconscious or not fully present; and the concept of self can vary among different people and cultures. All true, but hardly suggestive that even the dullest normal modern human lacks a sense of self. The same would be true of our ancestors. And while just what a sense of self really means has long vexed philosophers, we all know what the concept refers to. There’s no convincing reason to imagine people before 1000 BC didn’t have it, and believed their own thoughts were voices of gods. They were not so stupid.

My poet wife points me to the work of Enheduanna, c. 2300 BC, the first writer to sign her name. Here’s a sample. Read this and try to tell me she lacked a self.

images-2Kuijsten concludes that I cannot explain all “the otherwise mysterious phenomena Jaynes’s theory explains” – auditory hallucinations, childrens’ imaginary friends, “monumental mortuary architecture,” religiosity, and more. None of these is “mysterious” and all can be well understood via conventional science and psychology, with no need for a theory that Jaynes himself conceded seems “preposterous.”

Kuijsten’s final line notes the tendency “to only seek evidence that confirms are (sic) existing beliefs.” His own article is a prime example.

* I have (so far)  been denied access to respond on that website itself.


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13 Responses to “Defending Myself About “How Old Is The Self?””

  1. Kurt Carson Says:

    Cats do not fit into Kuijsten’s notion. They are self aware. When did cats have their Enlightenment? I have had discussions regarding ancient peoples. Many think those long gone were two dimensional sun fearing pin heads. I expect people have not changed much. Us Now People have the same desires and fears as the ones before us. Only now we have more toys. Kuijsten would have you think all ancient people were insane. To finish: Kuijsten is full of shit.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Well said. Thanks.

  3. Didius Julianus Says:

    “hardly suggestive that even the dullest normal modern human lacks a sense of self” – while I agree with this statement I sometime have my doubts. For example, check the work of Mark Dice and the insane initiative he is able to get the average person off the street to sign (search youtube for examples). The term zombie is currently used a lot to refer to those people so, well, immersed in self, that they are effectively unaware (mostly) of what is going on and go along with almost anything.

  4. Pedro Dunn Says:

    How do you gather primary source data on what people “were thinking” circa 1000 BC??? Where is your historical evidence that spells this out in clear language and in the quantity necessary to make a group judgement? The extreme limitations of surviving material makes me VERY suspect of writers who claim they know what “People” thought, or how there was some kind of group consciousness.

  5. Adrian Says:

    @Petro Dunn
    “The extreme limitations of surviving material makes me VERY suspect of writers who claim they know what “People” thought, or how there was some kind of group consciousness.”
    You can interfere how they thought based on their writing. After all, writing represents thoughts on paper. You can’t put something on paper that you do not think in your mind. And everything you put on paper or papyrus comes from your mind and it’s entirely based on how you think.

    Written evidence exists and this points with a high probability towards how people thought in ancient times.

    @Kurt Carson
    “Cats do not fit into Kuijsten’s notion. They are self aware.”
    No, they are not self aware. I’m not saying that they are not aware of their own bodies. I’m saying that they can’t imagine introspectively their own self. Read Julian Jaynes book for a more clear explanation. They do not ponder and make plans. They live in the moment and react to present circumstances.

    “Kuijsten would have you think all ancient people were insane. ”
    They were not insane, they were different from us. Their mentality worked well at their level.

    “I have read intensively about ancient societies”
    Read this book too, it’s about tribal societies as they were about 100 years ago:

    It’s about tribes who were not much influenced by the western culture of rationality. If a bicameral person learns our current cultural norms, he becomes like us. The difference between the bicameral mind and our current mind is mostly a difference in learning.

    “I am labeled “oblivious” to dozens of brain imaging studies supposedly validating Jaynes’s model. Well, I’m no neuroscientist; but I daresay no 3,000-year-old people have had their brains imaged.”
    One can’t say for sure that 3000 year people had bicameral minds. But they surely had a more primitive mentality which was closer to this bicameral mind mentality. I’m not sure if it was exactly like the bicameral mind but was pretty close based on the current evidence.

  6. Karl Miller Says:


    You repeatedly ask what happened around 1000-1500 b.c. to cause contemporary consciousness to emerge from the bicameral mind and in neither post do you examine the most potent factor, which Jaynes discusses at length: the invention of written language.

    Of all the causes that Jaynes offers, this one squares his bicameral interpretation of the existing literature with his definition of contemporary consciousness. If you agree with his first section, which lays out the dispositive features of consciousness, you can see how the evolution of language from oral to written forms allows the inner-reflection, the mind-space, and the “analog I” to come into focus, too.

    Because you can re-translate written language back into the oral channel, you needn’t be literate to enjoy many of the fruits of this profound technological change in our language. But there’s no mistaking the seismic cultural and psychological shift that happened after the invention of the written word. Helen Keller is a fantastic case study here, who gives credence to the idea that one can raise a bicameral child in contemporary society and one could achieve consciousness in a bicameral society. Her own testimony of her inner life before she had comprehension and command of language parallels the transformation Jaynes describes and you elide.

    You have to appreciate the change. When a voice stops being something “signal bound” by space and time, something heard, and becomes a frozen mark on a page that can be manipulated with the fine dexterity of the human hand and scrutinized with the human eye, free of time and space, then we have radically changed what we mean by a “voice.” Jaynes’s contention throughout is that consciousness is a linguistic, cultural construction that was not necessary or likely before we invented this powerful feedback loop in written language around … yes, 1500 b.c..

    Evolution can at best explain half of consciousness, the necessary preconditions, but evolution also generates superfluities along the way and our neocortex is one such superfluity. Our prodigious grey matter is a side-effect of cranial cooling that became necessary when the Savannah thinned out and we started standing closer to the sun. It’s proven quite useful since, but it was not catalyzed by a sudden need to philosophize or perform differential calculus. Moreover, evolution gets its strength as an explanatory theory for speciation precisely because it is an unconscious process. Consciousness is certainly useful and confers a survival advantage, but it is also something profoundly useless, superfluous, and, as Jaynes demonstrates, harmful. Consciousness resists being used, it is how we take action and responsibility for action. Put another way, we are conscious of evolution. Evolution is necessary but not sufficient for explaining the origin of consciousness.

    Jaynes’s image of a bicameral mind can be confusing because the actual experience of bicamerality would be more straightforward. There may be some interval between hearing a command and executing it, but there is no inner-struggle or scrutiny of the command voice. For that, we need written language. Before that, “to hear was to obey.”

    For whatever it’s worth, I cotton to the “weak version” of Jaynes’s theory, which has it that this process was not the clean “breakdown” of his title, but involved the same basic features: schizophrenia, hallucination, and written language. His theory does not account for hunter-gatherers who roamed ahead and never stopped to go through an agricultural-city-state bicamerality phase. But for all that, I’d love to hear how a philosopher like yourself contends with a) Jaynes’s definition of consciousness and b) the influence of written language on consciousness.

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    Very briefly: 1) written language emerged long before 1000-1500 BC; 2) if written language was important here, I fail to see why the extent of literacy was irrelevant; until quite recent times, written language was the province of a very small segment of humankind; 3) as to the evolutionary points, it seems evident we developed our sophisticated kind of consciousness in order to facilitate the high degree of social cooperation that was essential for our forebears’ survival. Yes, that adaptation brought with it a whole host of side effects not necessarily functional for the primary purpose — what Stephen Jay Gould called “spandrels.”

  8. Karl Miller Says:

    1) no, not long before. You keep rounding up to the nearest millennium, but an even earlier date does not undo the central insight of Jaynes’s theory. The invention of some kind of common symbolic code happened around 3000 b.c. in the regions Jaynes examines and as late as 1200 b.c. in China. In his “Preface to Plato” Eric Havelock traces the rise of literacy to explain the emergence of Plato’s philosophy of forms and his famous beef with the poets. It’s a bracing read that parallels Jaynes’s inquiry here. I’d like to hear what you think of it. In any case, we may dicker on the precise century, but we’re still talking about a history/origin of consciousness that turns on this massive technological change in language. This change was not co-incident with the evolutionary explanation, which can only date the speciation of homo sapiens (40,000 to 200,000 years ago). If you believe, as Jaynes and Havelock do, that subjectivity in our modern sense is built up in a lexical field of mind-spaces and analog-I’s, then this pivot point (5000 years ago at the earliest) suffices to date the origin of consciousness. That does not altogether prove Jaynes’s “bicameral mind” theory as a map of what preceded it, but it does dispense with the “problem” of consciousness, as I’ve heard it argued in philosophical and neurological circles.

    2) As I said, you can re-translate written content back into the oral channel, so illiterate people can be taught consciousness. A literate person is not conscious only when they are in the act of reading, but when they employ a literary feedback loop in the rest of their cognitive activity. This feedback loop, the lexical field Jaynes details, can be taught to illiterate people without teaching the antecedent activity of reading and writing that made its emergence and discovery possible in the first instance. A similar development happens in mathematics. You can only do so much math with your digits and short term memory; you cannot derive calculus without manipulating a symbol system in visual space. Once you know that process, however, you can perform advanced math without the pencil and paper. It’s the difference between asking aloud, “What is five times twelve” as opposed to asking “what is one, one, one, one, one, one, one, etc …” Jaynes and Havelock show how the latter question is like the “signal-bound” discourse of oral language, while written language doesn’t just make writing of talking but gives us categorically new ways of talking and things to talk about.

    3) You seem satisfied with the evolutionary explanation, that consciousness, whatever it is, must have been stamped into the genome tens of thousands of years ago. Is that how you would answer the question in the title of your own post? Again, if you agree with the dispositive features of consciousness that Jaynes lays out in the beginning of his book, then you have to concede that much of what we take to be modern consciousness and subjectivity is not *necessary* in the evolutionary sense, because, like evolution, it proceeds unconsciously. Learning, judgment, habit, tool-making, group co-ordination … none of these require consciousness in the modern sense. Introspection, narratization, etc., do. If you disagree with this first part of Jaynes’s book, I’d like to know why.

    There’s plenty of good reason to be skeptical of the bicameral mind theory. The best test of it would involve taking a flock of infants and raising them in some bicameral biosphere and our humanism clearly forbids such an enterprise. This is why, again, I think Jaynes was right on the merits and much of the argument, but that the weak version of his theory is more likely. If we’re casting about for an origin of consciousness or the true “age of the self” as your title suggests, then 3000 b.c. is just as radical an answer as 1000 b.c.. Both upend religious and evolutionary explanations and suffice to end the conceptual shell game our pop-philosophers and pop-neuroscientists have been playing so much lately.

  9. Karl Miller Says:

    “because, like evolution, it proceeds unconsciously.” — sorry, misplaced clause. Should not have been attached to that sentence.

  10. rationaloptimist Says:

    Without being cavalier about your points (and Jaynes’s), I think you’re both torturing the evidence and arguments to support a characterization of ancient people totally at odds with everything I’ve read about past people and societies (which is QUITE a lot) and which totally indicates, to me, that their minds worked just about as ours do. Rebutting that would require highly persuasive evidence and arguments. For all the reasons I’ve given, Jaynes utterly failed to meet that burden. I think your arguments elide the essential absurdity of the mental model Jaynes argued for. People didn’t believe their own thoughts were voices of Gods.

  11. Karl Miller Says:

    If you’d like to avoid being cavalier about the points, you should … address them. I’ll assume you’ve conceded them in the meantime.

    You’re ignoring two (QUITE) huge sections of Jaynes’s book and I think you would be richly rewarded with a second read — and a first of Havelock, if you haven’t already. If you have a better text to answer your post’s titular question, I’d be happy to check it out.

    Yes, “people didn’t believe their own thoughts were voices of Gods” … and neither did Jaynes. Jaynes is talking about a persona responsible for command and novel decision-making, not the entire stream of cognitive activity in a person’s head. This dovetails cleanly with contemporary conceptions of the super-ego, but even if you’re not a Freudian you live in a culture that makes one’s “conscience” a separate voice one still hears from time to time, and I don’t think we can say this voice is just a literary device. When you sit on the couch and think “I should get off the couch” you’re really not too far from an alternate quasi-schizo mentality that experienced “You should get off the couch” instead. Again, the shift from a “you” that is heard to an “I” that is thought is made possible by certain features of language that were not necessary or likely before language passed through a written form.

  12. rationaloptimist Says:

    What “I” really means is actually a very tricky issue. I have a draft of something relevant to this, in the queue for eventual posting on this blog.

  13. search Says:

    Nice answers in return of this issue with genuine arguments and describing the whole thing on the topic of that.

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