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.