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

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