Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Luhrman on Jaynes

The book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,is one of those gangly, overwritten academic books that is undoubtedly wrong, but wrong in such an interesting way that readers, on finishing it, find that they think about the world quite differently. The book begins, “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind!” Jaynes was a psychology professor at Princeton, back in the days before psychologists had walled themselves off from literature, when he noticed that the gods in the Homeric epics took the place of the human mind. In the Iliad we do not see Achilles fretting over what to do, or even thinking much. Achilles is a man of action, and in general, he acts as the gods instruct him. When Agamemnon steals his mistress and Achilles seethes with anger, Athena shows up, grabs him by the hair, and holds him back. Jaynes argued that Athena popped up in this way because humans in archaic Greece attributed thought to the gods—that when the ancient kings were buried in those strange beehive Mycenaean tombs, when social worlds were small and preliterate, people did not conceptualize themselves as having inner speech. Jaynes did not think that the role of the gods in the Iliad was a literary trope. He thought that people who did not refer to internal states used their brains differently and—the cognitive functions of speaking and obeying split across their unintegrated hemispheres—actually experienced some thoughts audibly. “Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips?” Jaynes asked. “They were voices whose speech and direction could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices.”



  1. Interesting stuff. I've heard this book referenced by Robert Anton Wilson in Cosmic Trigger. He seems to think it was a useful model for perhaps explaining his interstellar communication experience that Paralleled PKD's 1974 experience. I've also heard Terence McKenna refer to Jayne's theory in several lectures. It leads me to wonder whether there was something to Jayne's theory of conciousness or there was something in the water in California in the early '70's.

  2. Thanks for the comment BrentQ. There is an interesting letter that PKD wrote to Julian Jaynes with lots of details on Dick's take on the split brain theory as applied to his mystical experiences. IIRC it's in the 1974 volume. I've been meaning to get around to doing a post about it.

  3. (it's also probably worth mentioning that D.E. Wittkower--editor of PKD+Philosophy--recently wrote on Facebook how he was annoyed PKD gets Jaynes so wrong. In my view this is a wrongheaded approach. What's interesting is where Jaynes took PKD, not whether he got the theory "right.")