Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

I came across two books: Beyond Nature and Culture by Philippe Descola and How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn. They are about identity, experience, and perception. Both authors consider anthropological examples, through which they explore the relationship between the human and the world.

These books connect to much else I’ve been reading as of late. One of my long term projects is a series of posts about radical change, in relation to such things as Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism, the Axial Age, and the Enlightenment Age. I’m still thinking about it and not prepared to write anything in detail, but for the moment I wanted to throw out a few thoughts.

We have a hard time seeing outside of the world we are raised in. It is our entire reality. Perusing the books mentioned above reminded me of how true that is. An animistic worldview isn’t just a belief system, in the way we today talk about religion. Animism forms an entire reality, and to us modern Westerners it is a foreign reality.

Within animism, it isn’t just that the world is alive. It is also quite fluid. What is human and not isn’t absolutely demarcated, nor is the subjective and objective. Other distinctions also become less clear and certain: religion and society, economics and politics, individual and group.

One thing easily becomes something else. Perspective and its shifting defines everything. The world is alive and aware, overflowing with thinking beings, every mind a different mentality. The larger world is a society of beings and minds, spirits and gods, each species a potential community, each category of things a potential pattern of forces. This requires a careful attitude in relating to and negotiating with the others in the world, a constant concern and worry about breaking an agreement or trespassing boundaries (boundaries, by the way, that are social rather than conceptual).

This animistic world is a cacophany of voices, for those who hear them. These aren’t metaphorical notions. These people aren’t pretending to believe in what we scientific-minded moderns ‘know’ to be ridiculous. Still, it is hard for us to accept their reality for what it is.

Those who live in this animistic worldview typically are hunter-gatherers, although I don’t know if it is limited to them. In Jaynes’ theory, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle preceded the early civilizations where bicameralism developed. However, hunter-gatherers today aren’t the same as hunter-gatherers from before all of civilization. I doubt there is a single hunter-gatherer tribe that survived into the modern world without ever having been impacted by the bicameral and post-bicameral societies that surrounded them, whether through direct or indirect influences. Anthropologists have no firsthand observations of and knowledge about supposedly bicameral societies, much less pre-bicameral societies.

A while back, I discussed bicameralism with an anthropologist, Cris Campbell (see: All Mixed Up: Julian Jaynes). It was surprising that he didn’t understand this basic point. Even when others explained it to him, he wouldn’t concede its significance and relevance.

I got the sense that Campbell was too caught up in Jaynes’ language that he couldn’t fully take seriously the hypothesis itself and the evidence its based upon or something like that. He did admit that insights were to be found within Jaynes’ writings (see: here and here; not that he goes into great detail). Plus, he certainly has an understanding of and appreciation for animism, in which he mentions Philippe Descola (his blog in general is worth checking out).

For some reason, he believed some tribal people had escaped all influences and therefore should show evidence for Jaynes’ theory, despite the fact that Jayne’s theory never was about hunter-gatherer tribal people in the first place. Campbell apparently couldn’t take the theory on its own terms, even to criticize it on its own terms, which isn’t to say there aren’t genuine criticisms to be made (and already have been made by others, including those who have developed similar theories; e.g., Iain McGilchrist in his book, The Master and the Emissary–a book I mentioned to Campbell and received no response).

I don’t think it was ever made clear exactly what was the basis of Campbell’s doubt toward Jayne’s theory, besides the language issue. The discussion, in the comments section, simply ended without resolution. It seems he just gave up on the issue, which maybe just means he is giving it more thought. I hope that is the case, as I suspect he could delve much deeper into the topic.

Anyway, I wonder why there is such difficulty in taking Jaynes seriously (whether or not that is the case with Cris Campbell, for I admit that I’m likely not be giving him enough credit). My guess is that it has to do with how, to most people, such a proposed worldview appears alien and incomprehensible. How could people live without an interior sense of self, a society entirely dominated by external voices and social experience? It seems patently absurd, for someone who claimed such things today would be labeled as insane and probably institutionalized. And it seems beyond improbable that a society of people like this could actually be functional, especially to the extent of building great civilizations and massive monuments.

To take Jaynes seriously means to consider the immense potential within humans. This is what leads us down radical lines of thought and this is what causes many to pull back from that ledge. However, if we can anthropologically recognize what to us seems like the strange worldviews of hunter-gatherers, it is a small step to consider that the bicameral mind or something akin to it might have been a real possibility for ancient humanity.

10 thoughts on “Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

  1. The more I think about it, the more I believe our standard of living has something to do with biodiversity.

    • That makes sense to me.

      There is another aspect that ‘civilized’ people don’t understand about ‘primitives’. To put it simply, they were and are a lot less primitive than we are able to understand.

      Their societies and economies were much more closely intertwined with the environments within which they lived. They didn’t invest money into banks or, through taxes, into public infrastructure. For this reason, some claim that these people lacked surplus wealth.

      That is false. It’s just they had a different kind of surplus wealth and a different way of investing it.

      With gifts, they invested in social relationships and in the social order, securing their position in the society and cementing support systems. Also, with immense knowledge and effort, they altered and shaped the natural world around them (controlled burns, planting specific plants in specific places, redirecting water flow, etc).

      This surplus wealth and these investments were invisible to most foreigners and outsiders who came in contact with these hunter-gatherers, including many early anthropologists. Westerners, in particular, had become disconnected from their own hunter-gatherer ancestry and so had forgotten how such a world operates. All that imperialists and colonizers saw was wilderness, which in many cases was hunter-gatherer gardens that had grown unruly, because the hunter-gatherer gardeners had been massacred or died of disease.

      They couldn’t recognize that the health of a society was dependent upon the health of the environment, and they couldn’t understand that the hunter-gatherers they observed were those under extreme stress. Civilization had allowed the externalization of costs, often externalizing onto distant people, including the indigenous. Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, couldn’t externalize costs for there is no where to do so in such a lifestyle.

      However, we are getting to the point where civilization can no longer shove the problems off onto other people, other places, and other generations. We are only recognizing the utter necessity of biodiversity for survival as that biodiversity is quickly disappearing.

      There is no where else on planet Earth to escape to. No people left to conquer, no lands left to discover, and not even much resources left to steal. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point. The accumulated natural wealth of the Earth turns out not to be limitless, after all.

      Healthy ecosystems, once destroyed, are hard to bring back to life. The harm done to the entire planetary biosphere is an even greater challenge. Environmental blowback will be worse than any war or terrorism in history.

  2. Here is an interesting viewpoint:


    I don’t know how it might fit in with my thinking here, but it seemed potentially relevant. The article discusses the possibility of much earlier development of written language. The theory is based on the evidence of symbols in cave paintings.

    “For von Petzinger there is no question that the symbols she studied had been used intentionally, but what surprised her even more than this intentionality was the fact that 65% of them were already in regular use 40,000 years ago. The reason this is so significant is that this was approximately the time when modern humans came to Europe and started displacing the Neanderthals. If humans were already using a large number of symbols for communication at that time, the origins of written communications may have been even earlier. Von Petzinger told CBC, “… it doesn’t look like a beginning, it looks like something that’s already in practice.” The potential implications of this hypothesis, if proven, are major; so far anthropologists have argued that it was only after modern humans moved to Europe that they advanced culturally, developing in a relatively short period what we now consider modern human behaviour. Yet, if it turns out that they had created written communication, which is an instance of abstract thinking, back in Africa, the origins of modern human behaviour would be pushed significantly further back.”

  3. Great post. Very well written. Thankfully physics has come of age with advancements in quantum mechanics, field theory, holism and systems thinking, which I believe is leading us back to animistic ideas. For this reason, my experential understandings of conciousness and energy work that I have developed through my Shamanic practices can be articulated in contemporary terms. This is exciting for me because it means the metaphysics and esoteric practices of ancient cultures can be understood for the highly advanced sciences they were. Many thanks. I really dig it when people share links to their cool stuff.

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C . Clarke

  4. I was thinking again of Cris Campbell. I came across his blog while doing a web search about Marx in relation to Jaynes. He didn’t actually have any posts that discussed the two together, but he did have some interesting posts about Marx.

    The reason I was interested in Marx is because of his rather radical views of human nature: species-being, alienation, and psychological change. I realized that Marxian and Jaynesian views might have some overlap or otherwise allow for a greater context of thought.

    At the same time, I was looking at a book about hunter-gatherers. It is The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum by Robert L. Kelly. The last chapter interested me the most, and here is what one reviewer said about it:


    “Chapter ten then logically looks at hunter-gatherers and prehistory in the light of the previ-ous chapters, and suggests why the arguably pejorative category of “hunter-gatherer” persist with any credibility at all, as these peoples are clearly not Palaeolithic relics. Here we enter the realm of evolutionary psychology, which assumes that the structure of the modern mind is modular, largely adapted to Palaeolithic lifeways, and retains the underlying psychological mechanisms developed mainly in the distant past. Kelly notes that the variability of ancient environments may well have matched the huge variability of ancient forages and hunters, making this approach diffcult to operationalise by looking at modern ethnographic examples. If you are studying prehistory and fail to read, follow, reference, or at least criticise part of the premise of this chapter, given its range and utility I would be simply astounded.”

    Kelly is making the same basic point I was trying to explain to Campbell. But Kelly of course does it with greater expertise and detail. It is a highly academic book, although also quite readable.

    There is the issue that pre-bicameral hunter-gatherers can’t tell us much if anything about the bicameral mind and bicameral societies. Even ignoring that, post-bicameral hunter-gatherers in the modern era can’t tell us much if anything about pre-bicameral hunter-gatherers, at least not without careful consideration of archaeological evidence. We can’t just assume all hunter-gatherers are basically alike. We have to prove a specific conclusion by testing it against the available facts.

    The reason for this is that conditions today are different than conditions in the past. Each hunter-gatherer society has to be taken on its own terms, which requires us to look at specific conditions. The point being that there was immense variance in past conditions and there remains immense variance in the present. Generalized conclusions are hard to make, not that we should never make them.

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