Lock Without a Key

In his recent book The “Other” Psychology of Julian Jaynes, Brian J. McVeigh brings the latest evidence to bear on the the theory of the bicameral mind. His focus is on textual evidence, the use of what he calls mind words and their frequency. But before getting to the evidence itself, he clarifies a number of issues, specifically the ever confounding topic of consciousness itself. Many have proclaimed Jaynes to have been wrong based on their having no clue of what he was talking about, as he used consciousness in a particular way that he took great care to define… for anyone who bothers to actually read his book before dismissing it.

To avoid confusion, McVeigh refers to Jaynesian ‘consciousness’ as conscious interiority (others simply call it J-consciousness). McVeigh states that his purpose is to “distinguish it from perception, thinking, cognition, rational thought, and other concepts.” Basically, Jaynes wasn’t talking about any form of basic awareness and physiological reactivity (e.g., a slug recoiling from salt) nor complex neurocognitive skills (e.g., numerical accounting of trade goods and taxes), as the bicameral mind possessed these traits. Starting with Jaynes’ analysis, McVeigh as he does in other books gives a summary of the features of concious interiority:

  • Spatialization of Psyche
  • Introception
  • Excerption
  • Self-narratzation
  • Self-autonomy
  • Self-authorization
  • Concilence
  • Indidviduation
  • Self-reflexivity

These describe a historically contingent state of mind and social identity, a way of being in the world and experiencing reality, a social order and cultural lifestyle. These traits are peculiar to civilization of these past millennia. But be clear that they are no indication of superiority, as archaic civilizations were able to accomplish tasks we find phenomenal — such as envisioning and planning over multiple generations to carve stones that weigh hundreds of tons, move them over great distances, and place them into precise position in the process of building large complex structures, something we don’t know how to accomplish without the advances of modern mathematics, architecture, and technology.

There is nothing inevitable nor necessary about consciousness, and it is surely possible that civilization could have developed in alternative ways that might have been far more advanced than what we presently know. Consider that the largest city in the world during early European colonialism was in the Americas, where the bicameral mind may have held on for a longer period of time. If not for the decimation by disease (and earlier Bronze Age decimation by environmental catastrophe), bicameralism might have continued to dominate civilization and led to a different equivalent of the Axial Age with whatever would have followed from it. History is full of arbitrary junctures that end up tipping humanity one way or another, depending on which way the wind happens to be blowing on a particular day or how the entire weather pattern might shift over several centuries.

That said, in history as it did play out, we now have our specific egoic consciousness and it is hard for us to imagine anything else, even if in the grand scheme of things our mighty neurocognitive monoculture is a mere momentary blip in the passing of eons, maybe disappearing in the near future as quickly as it came. Our civilization lives in a constant state of precarious uncertainty. That is why we study the past, in order to grapple with the present, and maybe just maybe glimpse what is yet to come. We might as well spend our time in this game of attempted self-understanding, if only to amuse future generations who might happen upon our half-witted ponderings.

Let us consider one aspect of consciousness. Here is McVeigh’s quick summary of concilience (pp. 39-40): A “slightly ambiguous perceived object is made to conform to some previously learned schema.” Consilience (or assimilation) is “doing in mind-space what narratization does in our mind-time or spatialized time. It brings things together [as] conscious objects just as narratization brings episodes together as a story” (Jaynes 1976; 64-65). I hadn’t previously given this much thought. But for some reason it stood out to me in my perusal. Immediately coming to mind was Lewis Hyde’s metonymy, along with the nexus of metaphorical framing, embodied mind, and symbolic conflation. Related to concilience and narratization, McVeigh speaks of coception which he defines as “how perceptions and introceptions coincide (such overlapping deludes us into assuming that interior experiences are sensory reflections of reality)” (p. 41).

I’m not sure to what degree I comprehend what McVeigh is getting at. But I grasp some hints of what it might mean. It resonates with my readings of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World (see “Why are you thinking about this?”). Hyde defines metonymy as “substituting of one thing for another” (p. 169), “an unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap. Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman).”

Even more relevant is Hyde’s detailed exploration of the body and shame. I’d propose that this is a key factor in the rise of consciousness. Jaynes’ noted that shame and general obsession over nakedness, sexuality, etc can’t be found in the earliest texts and art (maybe not entirely unrelated to how anthropologists have observed the depression that follows when tribal people first see themselves in a mirror and so see themselves as others see them, which leads to the entertaining thought of Bronze Age civilizations having collapsed as mirrors became widely used and the populations descended into mass despondency). Hyde says that, “The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. […] In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.”

This word magik of hypnotic metonymy and concilience is how we fall into our collective trance. We mass hallucinate our moral imagination into social reality. And then we enforce the narrative of individual selfhood onto ourselves, passing it on as an intergenerational inheritance or curse. What if shame is the cornerstone of modern civilization built over the buried corpse of bicameral civilization? We construct the social order around us like a prison to which we forgot to design a key. Shame is the trap we set for ourselves, the trap we keep on triggering, the door locking behind us each time. And so shame is the mechanism of the lock that we refuse to look at, the mechanism that would release us.

It is only in consciousness that we can remain unconscious.


Vestiges of an Earlier Mentality: Different Psychologies

“The Self as Interiorized Social Relations Applying a Jaynesian Approach to Problems of Agency and Volition”
By Brian J. McVeigh

(II) Vestiges of an Earlier Mentality: Different Psychologies

If what Jaynes has proposed about bicamerality is correct, we should expect to find remnants of this extinct mentality. In any case, an examination of the ethnopsychologies of other societies should at least challenge our assumptions. What kinds of metaphors do they employ to discuss the self? Where is agency localized? To what extent do they even “psychologize” the individual, positing an “interior space” within the person? If agency is a socio-historical construction (rather than a bio-evolutionary product), we should expect some cultural variability in how it is conceived. At the same time, we should also expect certain parameters within which different theories of agency are built.

Ethnographies are filled with descriptions of very different psychologies. For example, about the Maori, Jean Smith writes that

it would appear that generally it was not the “self” which encompassed the experience, but experience which encompassed the “self” … Because the “self” was not in control of experience, a man’s experience was not felt to be integral to him; it happened in him but was not of him. A Maori individual was not so much the experiencer of his experience as the observer of it. 22

Furthermore, “bodily organs were endowed with independent volition.” 23 Renato Rosaldo states that the Ilongots of the Philippines rarely concern themselves with what we refer to as an “inner self” and see no major differences between public presentation and private feeling. 24

Perhaps the most intriguing picture of just how radically different mental concepts can be is found in anthropologist Maurice Leenhardt’s   intriguing book Do Kamo, about the Canaque of New Caledonia, who are “unaware” of their own existence: the “psychic or psychological aspect of man’s actions are events in nature. The Canaque sees them as outside of himself, as externalized. He handles his existence similarly: he places it in an object — a yam, for instance — and through the yam he gains some knowledge of his existence, by identifying himself with it.” 25

Speaking of the Dinka, anthropologist Godfrey Lienhardt writes that “the man is the object acted upon,” and “we often find a reversal of European expressions which assume the human self, or mind, as subject in relation to what happens to it.” 26 Concerning the mind itself,

The Dinka have no conception which at all closely corresponds to our popular modern conception of the “mind,” as mediating and, as it were, storing up the experiences of the self. There is for them no such interior entity to appear, on reflection, to stand between the experiencing self at any given moment and what is or has been an exterior influence upon the self. So it seems that what we should call in some cases the memories of experiences, and regard therefore as in some way intrinsic and interior to the remembering person and modified in their effect upon him by that interiority, appear to the Dinka as exteriority acting upon him, as were the sources from which they derived. 27

The above mentioned ethnographic examples may be interpreted as merely colorful descriptions, as exotic and poetic folk psychologies. Or, we may take a more literal view, and entertain the idea that these ethnopsychological accounts are vestiges of a distant past when individuals possessed radically different mentalities. For example, if it is possible to be a person lacking interiority in which a self moves about making conscious decisions, then we must at least entertain the idea that entire civilizations existed whose members had a radically different mentality. The notion of a “person without a self” is admittedly controversial and open to misinterpretation. Here allow me to stress that I am not suggesting that in today’s world there are groups of people whose mentality is distinct from our own. However, I am suggesting that remnants of an earlier mentality are evident in extant ethnopsychologies, including our own. 28

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Text from:

Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness:
Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited
Edited by Marcel Kuijsten
Chapter 7, Kindle Locations 3604-3636

See also:

Survival and Persistence of Bicameralism
Piraha and Bicameralism