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Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited (Book Review)

Ilkka Kallio
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2008, Volume 15, Issue 8.

Available in the Member's Area


Julian Jaynes (1920-1997) was a Princeton psychologist with a reputation as something of a maverick genius. His best known work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, appeared three decades ago. It certainly contributed to the late 20th century renaissance in consciousness studies, but seems generally to have been regarded as a bit of an anomaly. Nevertheless some of Jaynes' ideas have had an enduring influence; Endel Tulving, Daniel Dennett, Merlin Donald, Robin Dunbar, Elkhonon Goldberg, Susan Blackmore, Roy Baumeister, and Guy Claxton, for example, have all either incorporated aspects of Jaynes' thinking into their own theories or have otherwise been sympathetic to his ideas.

There has lately been a revival of interest. A biennial "Julian Jaynes Conference on Consciousness" is held at the University of Prince Edward Island. An active Julian Jaynes Society publishes a quarterly newsletter for members, runs a useful web site (, arranged a workshop at Tucson 2008 and has also published this book. Edited by Marcel Kuijsten, founder and organizer of the society, the book is a compilation of four (republished) articles by Jaynes himself and nine others - many of them reprints or revisions of original papers - by afficionados of his theory, preceded by an editor's introduction looking at reasons for the relative neglect of Jaynes in academic circles. Overall, it is clearly an invitation to reassess the worth of Jaynes's contributions to the theory of consciousness.

Jaynes aimed to show that, in the past, societies existed within which social control was based on auditory hallucinations. In the papers reprinted here, the idea offers insights into otherwise inexplicable aspects concerning the pharaoh Tutankhamun and dragon-motifs in Shang China. He took William Blake for an example of the occurrence of this sort of "bicameral" mentality, along with his ordinarily conscious one, in relatively recent times. To this day, he also pointed out, auditory hallucinations are surprisingly common, even in sane people.


In addition to Kuijsten's extensive review of empirical evidence for the four independent hypotheses of Jaynes' theory - consciousness being based on language, the bicameral mind, the historical dating, and the neuropsychology - two contributors defend Jaynes' theory with original empirical studies of their own.

I think John Hamilton's work on auditory hallucinations of congenital quadriplegics who have never spoken in their lives may put a strong constraint on the feasible theories of auditory hallucinations not easily reconcilable with the claim by Peter Bick and Marcel Kinsbourne that auditory hallucinations are silent talking to oneself, the stand embraced even by Dennett, the most Jaynesian of the presently prominent philosophers of mind. Michael Carr's corroborative evidence for Jaynes's psychohistory in ancient China is perhaps the most important of the contributions. He concentrates on the personation ceremony of the dead in which a young relative acts as an intermediary for messages from the deceased by hallucinating them, an apparent remnant of a waning bicameral management of affairs.

Jan Sleutels ingeniously refutes Ned Block's criticisms of Jaynes via an a priori argument that consciousness can in fact be identified with its concept. Other conceptual developments of Jaynes' theory are less persuasive. The significance of consciousness' being identical with its concept is missed by John Limber in his erudite elaborations on how consciousness, language, and Jaynes' theory relate to each other. It is suggested by Brian McVeigh that the self provides us with volition through division into two mental subcomponents, one of which is able to command the other. This makes Jaynes' heritage look uncomfortably ambiguous, as my guess is that he himself would rather have put (our delusional belief in) free will (Jaynes, 1990, p. 345) in the role of provider of conscious volition (1990, pp. 98-9). ...