Julian Jaynes Society Discussion Forum: Exploring Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind Theory since 1997

"Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl & Jaynes' Theory
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Author:  Moderator [ Thu Mar 03, 2005 4:16 pm ]
Post subject:  "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl & Jaynes' Theory

Lévy-Bruhl's book "Primitive Mentality" was influential in Jaynes's thinking on the bicameral mind.

Lévy-Bruhl writes that compared to modern society, a greater number of individuals in primitive (i.e. bicameral) societies experience hallucinations, experience them more frequently, and the hallucinations play an important role in their day-to-day lives.

[Please note that the book was published in 1923, so the language in some of the quotes below would not be considered politcally correct by today's standards.]

Lévy-Bruhl states:

"To them the things which are unseen cannot be distinguished from the things which are seen. The beings of the unseen world are no less directly present than those of the other; they are more active and more formidable. Consequently that world occupies their minds more entirely than this one, and it diverts their minds from reflecting, even to a slight extent, upon the data which we call objective" (pgs. 61-62).

Has anyone come across more recent studies of tribal societies that support the bicameral mind theory?

Author:  Soupdragon [ Tue Mar 08, 2005 4:31 pm ]
Post subject: 

A lot of English soccer fans certainly seem to demonstrate a tribal mentality, but have any of the psychosociologists that like to interview them ever asked about visions or voices? I doubt it. :wink:

Author:  Alberto53 [ Mon Jul 25, 2005 5:46 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Levy-Bruhl

Lévy-Bruhl states:

"To them the things which are unseen cannot be distinguished from the things which are seen. The beings of the unseen world are no less directly present than those of the other; they are more active and more formidable. Consequently that world occupies their minds more entirely than this one, and it diverts their minds from reflecting, even to a slight extent, upon the data which we call objective."

Marshall McLuhan says: "Terror is the normal state of any oral society [he means archaic, preliterate societies], for in it everything affects everything all the time" (The Gutenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press, 2000, p. 32). Both quotations are in compliance each other, but McLuhan explains the lack of objectivity in thought of archaic societies by referring to the configurational - as oppossed to lineal or analytic - mode of consciousness proper to any oral society: their members are not capable of keeping events and things apart of each other, but "simultaneously" are aware of multilayered relationships — "meanings." I am interested in exploring to what extent McLuhan´s and Jaynes's theories of mind (configurational / bicameral) are compatible. Did somebody think about that?

Alberto Carrillo

Author:  Moderator [ Fri Oct 19, 2007 2:44 am ]
Post subject:  "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Levy-Bruhl

I'm revisiting "Primitive Mentality" again, in part because I am still hearing the incorrect statement that primitive tribes (or indigenous people, or non-technological, pre-literate oral societies, or whatever you want to call them) show no evidence of bicameralism. Below I've posted some additional quotes from the book relevant to the bicameral mind discussion.

Chapter 1 – Indifference to Secondary Causes

"In a general way there is no such thing as chance to a mind like this, nor can there be. Not because it is convinced of the rigid determinism of phenomena; on the contrary, indeed, since it has not the most remote idea of such determinism, it remains indifferent to the relation of cause and effect, and attributes a mystic origin to every event which makes an impression on it. Since occult forces are always felt to be present, the more accidental an occurence seems to us, the more significant it will appear to the primitive mind. There is no necessity to explain it; it explains itself, it is a revelation. More frequently, indeed, it serves to explain something else — at least in the form in which this type of mind troubles about an explanation. But it may become necessary to interpret it, if not definite preconception has provided for this" (pgs. 43–44).

Chapter 2 – Mystic and Invisible Forces

"When anything new presents itself to us we realize that we have to seek for an explanation of it, and that the number of our problems is going to increase at the same time as our knowledge is enlarged. The primitive, on the other hand, in the presence of anything new, knows already everything he needs to know. In any unusual event he immediately perceives the manifestation of an invisible force. Moreover, the primitive's mind is not, like our own, orientated to cognition, properly so called. It knows nothing of the joys and advantages of knowledge. Its collective representations are always largely emotional ..." (p. 61).

"The invisible forces which persistently preoccupy the primitive's mind may be briefly arranged in three categories, which, however, frequently overlap. These are, firstly, the spirts of the dead; secondly, the spirits (taking the word in its widest sense) which animate natural objects (of the animal and vegetable worlds), inanimate objects (such as streams, rocks, sea, mountains, manufactured things, etc.), and lastly, charms or spells due to the agency of sorcerers. Sometimes the line of demarcation between these categories is very finely drawn. ... Everywhere, or nearly everywhere, however, among inferior races, these mystic influences are direct data, and the preconnections in which they occur as the predominating factor, impose themselves on the collective representations. The fact is well known, and I shall confine myself to a few examples only" (p. 62).

"Everything not immediately explicable by natural and visible agency is put down either to evil spirits or to witchcraft" (p. 64).

"Between the clear conception of spirits who are, as it were, real daimones or divinities, each of whom has his name, attributes, and frequently his religious following, and the representation, both general and concrete, of an indwelling power in objects and beings, such as the mana (unless this force is individualized), there is room for an infinitude of intermediate forms, some fairly definite, others more fleeting and vague, with outlines that are less distinct, though none the less real to a mentality which is but slightly conceptual, in which the law of participation still predominates" (p. 66).

"... The word 'spirit,' although too precise a term, is the least cumbersome that we have to denote those influences and agencies which continually surround primitives" (p. 66).[/b]

Author:  Moderator [ Fri Oct 19, 2007 3:13 am ]
Post subject:  "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Levy-Bruhl

Quotes from Chapter 2 – Mystic and Invisible Forces continued...

Here Levy-Bruhl quotes a missionary that studied primitive tribes. References to "the devil" can be viewed as the missionary's interpretation of the bicameral hallucinated voice:

"... 'with these undesirable denizens of the spirit-world,' says Father Jette, 'the Ten'a may be said to have an almost continual intercourse. They hold themselves liable to see or hear them at any time. Any unusual noise, any fancy of their imagination, quickly assumes the shape of a devil manifestation. If a black, water-soaked log, under the action of the current, bobs up within their view, and disappears, they have seen a nekedzaltura. If they hear a whistling in the woods, somewhat unlike the cries of birds that are familiar to them, a nekedzaltura is calling them. No day passes in an Indian camp without someone reporting that he or she has heard or seen something of the kind ... 'The manifestations of the devil's presence are as familiar to the Ten'a as the blowing of the wind or the singing of birds'" (p. 66).

"In another passage this same missionary had already remarked: 'The intensity as well as the extent of their devil-belief is beyond our conceptions ... Hence, to hear them talk, one would think that they are constantly in touch with the devil, and that they have seen it hundreds of times'" (pgs. 66–67).

"Speaking of a Bantu tribe, a careful observer tells us 'It is of the utmost importance for students of the sociology of these people to try and realize the reality and closeness of the influence of the ancestral spirits upon the daily life of the native, and unless an ethnologist has been in daily contact with the people, and striven to understand their point of view, it is difficult for the weight of this to be felt to a full extent'" (p. 67).

"The Jesuit Fathers of New France often laid stress upon the position which the dead occupied in the minds of the Indians" (p. 67).

In this next quote from Levy-Bruhl we see the idea among primitive tribes of slow fading away of the hallucinated voice after someone dies. This is similar to what has been described by Jaynes and also Michael Carr, who described the phenomenon among the ancient Chinese:

"In short, as I have shown in another place, the dead are alive, at least for a certain time; they are living beings of a different kind from ourselves, beings in whom certain participations are ruptured or at least impaired, but who only by slow degrees cease to belong to their social group. To understand the primitives' mentality, we must first of all rid our minds of our own idea of death and the dead, and try to replace it by that which dominates their collective representations" (p. 68 ).

"... 'it is above all the spirits of the dead who intervene in men's lives to help or injure them. Therefore men appeal to their ancestors for support ... they present them with offerings, sacrifice to them, and so on'" (p. 76).

"In communities which are rather more civilized than the preceding, such as the Bantus and other South African tribes, for instance, the relations between the living and the dead are no less close, but they appear to be better organized, and they tend to create a kind of ancestor-worship ... The dead are alive, there is no doubt of that" (p. 78 ).

"In a general way the dead, in varying degrees, form an integral part of the social group, and the individual member does not feel himself entirely separated from them" (p. 80).

"The trouble taken to retain connection with the itongo [spirit] is thus clearly shown, and this trouble is prompted by the feeling of power possessed by the spirit — a power upon which the health, prosperity, and the very life of the inhabitants of the village depend. As we have just seen, every ghost is not an itongo. The amahlosi do not all of them become amatongo, but only those who are dead chiefs; in the world of spirits the itongo occupies a rank which is superior to ordinary ihlosi. In addition to the amatongo, who are common to the tribe, each family has its special itongo. 'Our father, whom we know,' say they, 'is our whole life.' He is regarded as a kind of tutelary genius of the family. If it migrates, and the itongo does not show himself in the new home, they have to go and look for him. ..." (pgs. 82–83).

"'Thus, to the Zulu, side by side with the world of sense, there exists a world of spirits, which he imagines as continuing to live in close connection with the former, and which he fears all the more because these spirits, though unassailable by men, have the power of doing them harm at all times' ... Similar ideas and beliefs are found in Central and Western Africa" (pgs. 83–84).

"Besides those who have recently died and the dead whose memory is still green, whose features, disposition, and habits the survivors recall, with whom they converse in dreams, and even (if Miss Kingsley is to be believed) when wide awake, we have to take into account those more distant dead who disappeared long ago from among the living, but who nevertheless exercise considerable influence upon their fate" (p. 86).

"The all-pervading presence of spirits, witchcrafts, and enchantments ever threatening in the background, the dead so closely connected with the life of the living — this ensemble of representations is an inexhaustible source of emotion to the primitive, and it is to this that his mental activity owes its characteristic features" (p. 89).

On the primitive conception of time Levy-Bruhl writes (compare to Jaynes, i.e. the conception of time is an aspect of modern consciousness):

"Our idea of time seems to us to be a natural attribute of the human mind. But that is a delusion. Such an idea scarcely exists where primitive mentality is concerned, for that sees the direct causal relation between the given phenomenon and the extra-spatial occult power" (pgs. 93–94).

With regard to the primitive concept of space, Levy-Bruhl writes:

"In spite of appearances, homogeneous space is no more a natural datum of the human mind than homogeneous time. Undoubtedly the primitive moves in space exactly as we do; undoubtedly when he desires to throw his projectiles or to reach a distant goal, he knows as we do, and sometimes better than we do, how to calculate distances rapidly, to retrace paths, and so on. But action in space is one thing, and the idea of space quite another" (p. 95).

Levy-Bruhl on what might be thought of in Jaynesian terms the transition of primitives from the bicameral to the conscious mode of thinking:

"Thus it is that in primitive mentality, which is wholly mystic and prelogical, not only the data, but even the limits of experience fail to coincide with our own. Bergson's well-known theory which requires us to conceive of time as a homogeneous quantum, does not seem applicable to primitive mentality. It is only in races which are already somewhat developed, when the mystic preconnections become weak and tend to be dissociated, when the habit of paying attention to second causes and their effects is growing stronger, that space becomes homogeneous in the representations, and time tends to become so too. Thus the limits of our experience are sketched little by little, are strengthened and become fixed. Much later, when reflection leads us to make these ideas our own, we are tempted to believe that they are its constituent elements — innate, as the philosophers used to say. The observation and analysis of the collective representations of inferior races are far from confirming this hypothesis" (p. 96).

Author:  Moderator [ Fri Oct 19, 2007 3:58 pm ]
Post subject:  "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Levy-Bruhl

Chapter 3 - Dreams

In Chapter 3, Levy-Bruhl discusses the prophetic nature of dreams among tribal people.

"To the primitive mind, as we know, the seen and the unseen worlds form but one, and there is therefore uninterrupted communication between what we call obvious reality and the mystic powers. Nowhere perhaps is this more directly and completely brought about than in dreams, in which man passes from the one world to the other without being aware of it. Such is in fact the ordinary idea of the dream to primitive peoples. The 'soul' leaves its tenement for the time being. It frequently goes very far away; it communes with spirits or with ghosts. At the moment of awakening it returns to take its place in the body once more. ... At other times, it is the spirits of the dead, or even other powers, which come and visit the soul in sleep" (pgs. 98–99).

This immediately calls to mind E.R. Dodds' discussion of the prophetic nature of dreams among the ancient Greeks. Dreams in ancient Greece, unlike modern, conscious dreams, often took the form of a visitation by a god or spirit that issued some form of command. See the discussion of Dodds' book here:


There seems to be strong evidence for the very different nature of what we might call "bicameral dreams" vs. "conscious dreams." For those interested in this subject, I highly recommend reading Levy-Bruhl's entire chapter on dreams along with Dodds.

More on the commanding nature of primitive people's dreams:

"It frequently happens that when all the missionary's efforts to induce a native to change his faith have proved ineffectual, a dream suddenly determines him to take the step, especially if the dream is repeated several times. For example, among the Basutos, 'what plays the chief part in the conversion of the Mosuto? ... The paramount role is played by the dream. ... To make him definitely decide, there must be something out of the common, a Divine intervention (as he regards it) which strikes his imagination. ... If you ask a heathen who has heard the Gospel, when he will be converted, he will answer in the most matter-of-course way: 'When God speaks to me'" (p. 110).

"In Central Africa, dreams have similar meanings. To give but one example: "The Azande of the Upper Congo believe that during the night the dead make their wishes known to the living. Dreams are quite authentic to them, and they are convinced that when they see a dead relative in a dream they really have a conversation with his ghost, and in its course he gives advice, expresses satisfaction or displeasure, and states his aspirations and desires" (pgs. 111–112).

"'The Iroquois,' says another Jesuit priest, 'have, strictly speaking, but one divinity, which is the dream; they submit to it and follow all its orders most implicitly.' ... It is not simply a question of advice, hints, friendly suggestions, official warnings conveyed by dreams; it is nearly always definite orders, and nothing can prevent the Indian from obeying them" (p. 113).

Author:  Moderator [ Fri Oct 19, 2007 5:24 pm ]
Post subject:  "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Levy-Bruhl

Chapter 4 - Omens

"The noting of omens was a custom of ancient times, and it was especially practised in the Roman republic, where it was an official institution. Our reading of Latin authors has familarized us with the custom. We should be wrong, however, if we were to admit, without previous examination of the matter, that what was true of omens in classical times is necessarily so of the omens of primitive peoples. Our best method will be to study first of all the omens of the primitives, as if we knew nothing of those of the ancients or their theories about them. It may be that on the other hand the analysis of data collected from primitive peoples will shed fresh light on the omens of classical races, and help us to understand them better" (pgs. 122–123).

Author:  Moderator [ Fri Oct 19, 2007 7:14 pm ]
Post subject:  "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Levy-Bruhl

Chapter 6 - The Practices of Divination

"Of all the direct data which their experience affords, primitives are chiefly interested in those which proceed from the unseen world, and reveal to them the orders issued by the mystic powers dwelling therein. The prosperity of the social group, the health and very existence of each one of its members, depend at all times on the good or bad influences exercised upon them. As long as they are uncertain whether one of these mystic forces may not be effectively engaged against them, they cannot hope that any enterprise they undertake will prosper. Hence the need of assurance that these powers are on their side, and that their venture will be successful" (p. 159).

"Even when solicited and induced, the dream may fail to appear. The primitive will then have recourse to other means of communicating with the powers of the unseen world. The simplest and most effective of these, whenever it is possible, is direct interrogation. It is employed in the case of the dead whose relations with the living are not entirely ruptured, and especially for those who have but recently died, for these, as a rule, are not very far away. The presence of the corpse, whether in the charnel-house, or in the neighborhood, or just placed in the tomb, is considered the same as that of the deceased. If, therefore, the native is desirous of learning anything from him, he will ask him about it. He certainly no longer speaks, but he still hears, and there are many ways of obtaining his reply" (pgs. 169–170).

Author:  Moderator [ Thu Oct 25, 2007 11:50 pm ]
Post subject:  "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Levy-Bruhl

Chapter 11 – The Mystic Meaning of the White Man's Appearance and of the Things He Brings with Him

"Printed books and writing are no less astonishing to primitives than are firearms, but they find no hesitation in accounting for them. They immediately perceive them to be divining instruments. 'My books puzzled them,' says Moffat, in reference to certain Bechuanas; 'they asked me if they were my bola (prognosticating dice).' Livingstone, too, says: 'The idea that enters their minds is that books are our instruments of divination.' We remember the reply made by a Transvaal native to the missionary who was reproving him for consulting dice: 'That is our book; you read your Bible every day, and you believe it, and we read ours.' The book, like the astragali, predicts the future, reveals what is hidden, is both guide and counsellor; in short, it is a mystic power. Of the Barotse Arnot says, 'The only difference, they think, between our lequalo and theirs is that ours is a confused mass of little black marks on paper, and theirs is surely much more sensible, as it consists of substantial things!'..." (p. 368).

Author:  Moderator [ Fri Oct 26, 2007 12:02 am ]
Post subject:  "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Levy-Bruhl

Chapter 12 – The Primitive's Dislike of the Unknown

"The slightest intercourse with foreigners, the simple fact of receiving food or implements from them, may lead to catastrophe" (p. 385).

Compare this chapter with Jaynes on reasons for the breakdown of the bicameral mind including the mixing of growing societies with foreign cultures.

"'The chiefs who have died,' says Junod, 'become the country's gods'" (p. 393).

"'Everything must originate with the head of the tribe; if Lewanika orders us to learn what you tell us, we shall learn; if he rejects your teaching, who will dare to act differently?' 'The nation has but one mind, one will. The individual is annihilated, we have here the centralization principle pushed to its extreme limit, or to put it another way, the death of all for the sake of one'" (p. 401)

Compare with Jaynes's description of bicameral theocracies.

Author:  thegitksan [ Fri Jun 20, 2008 11:52 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

I don't know of any studies that look at "primitive mentalities" in my region, whether from a Jaynesian perspective or otherwise.

I do think that the range of recorded oral histories of the people of the northwest coast of north america might offer significant clues to a changing mentality.

You have to be careful of using terms like "primitive", which may carry pejorative connotations. I think of the willfully ignorant rednecks in Canada, for example, as "primitive mentalities" because I despise them for their intentional avoidance of knowledge that might change their minds about a political stance they have - knowledge of real events, laws, or worldviews, for example. Others in Canada typically use "primitive" also in a pejorative sense, from their own political perspective, of course.

I think also, that the term, "primitive" might also be mistakenly applied to sophisticated techniques for directly engaging the right side of the brain in awareness. I speak of Zen training that brings people to awareness of Tao, or Satori. I think perhaps we are evolving quickly to integrate this kind of awareness in some of us... Once the Tao is perceived, and can be reliably brought forward in awareness (no words!), the successful person is better integrated as a human.

But back to "primitive mentality" - I invite people here to consider the recorded oral histories of NW Coastal peoples of Canada and USA as possible sources of information for a more recently transitioning group of people out of bicamerality into consciousness.

I have texts which may help.

Author:  Moderator [ Tue Jul 08, 2008 11:04 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: "Primitive Mentality" by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

Thank you I will have to look more into the tribes you mention. Yes as noted above Levy-Bruhl's book was published in 1923 and the term "primitive" is no longer considered appropriate as it was at that time.

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