Consciousness Is the Word Preventing People from Understanding Jaynesian Psychology


How Jaynes Grappled with Describing This Word Illustrates What He Meant

For many (mis)interpreters of Jaynes, the word consciousness acts as blank canvas upon which they draw and impose their own definitions of what they assume Jaynes meant by this term. The result is serious misunderstanding and a distortion of his arguments.

How to clear up the confusion? The obvious place to start is to look for how Jaynes himself defined consciousness in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (pp. 55, 65‒66). These definitions are fleshed out in an essential but much overlooked section of his book in which Jaynes explains six features of consciousness (pp. 59‒65). In a 1990 Afterword to his book, Jaynes added two more features (I have expanded this list with several of my own features). It is also vital to note well what he did not mean by consciousness (pp. 27‒44). Another commonsensical thing to do is to carefully read Jaynes in his own words rather than getting him through second-hand accounts, reviews, commentaries, critiques, etc.

Examining Jaynes’s Own Words

An analysis of how Jaynes advanced his theories using other terminology besides “consciousness” reveals what this word meant to him. Several points stand out. First, the frequency of “subjective” is salient. Its cognates appear about one hundred times (Table 1). While not quite as precise as qualia (a philosophical term he did not use; it refers to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives), “subjective,” like qualia, denotes first-person, quasi-sensory experientiality (what I term introception to describe the conscious counterpart of perception). One is tempted to wonder what would have happened if Jaynes had used “subjective” rather than consciousness in his book title. I strongly suspect this would have aided readers in appreciating his arguments. With all due deference to Prof. Jaynes, consider the ring of The Origin of Subjectivity in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind or The Origin of Subjective Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Since we’re on the topic, other titles that come to mind are The Non-evolutionary Origins of Subjectivity, The Cultural Invention of Subjectivity, or The Historical Invention of Subjectivity.

Table 1. The Frequency of the Cognate “Subjective.”

nonsubjective (dialogues)1
nonsubjective manner1
protosubjective consciousness1
subjective (phases in linguistic development)4
subjective act1
subjective age2
subjective categories1
subjective conscious man2
subjective conscious mind9
subjective consciousness23
subjective era3
subjective experience1
subjective feelings1
subjective groping1
subjective identity1
subjective men1
subjective mentality1
subjective mind-space2
subjective outcroppings1
subjective phenomena1
subjective phenomenon (of spirit possession)1
subjective sadness1
subjective Saul2
subjective side1
subjective states1
subjective thinking1
subjective thought3
subjective uncertainties1
subjective view1
subjective world2
subjectively conscious1
subjectively conscious people1
ultra-subjective Upanishads1
unsubjective past1
unsubjective times1

The second point is Jaynes’s use of words that indicate the metaphorical meaning of interiority when attempting to conceptualize consciousness (33 expressions) (Table 2). Like subjectivity, the connotation of inner-ness caries a quasi-perceptual sense of an imaginary spatiality centered within the person. In my own writing I have introduced “conscious interiority” as a way to alert the reader that I am referring to Jaynes’s use of consciousness. Like introcosm (a word Jaynes used twice) “interiority” resonates with an inner, imagined location (incidentally, I have also employed the rococo “subjective introspectable self-awareness” whose wordiness is intended to drive home the meaning).

Table 2. The Frequency of Expressions Denoting “Interior.”

inner experience2
inner kingdoms1
inner mind-space1
inner space1
“inner” worlds (conscious)1
interior (spatial)1
interior ‘space’1
interior dialogues1
interior mind-space1
interior self/selves2
interiority of consciousness1
interiorization of attribution1
introspectable (what is)2
introspective data1
introspective psychologists/psychology2

Finally, we should pay attention to how Jaynes modified nouns with “conscious,” creating compounds. Not infrequently he prefixed conscious with “subjective” (e.g., subjectively conscious, subjective conscious mind, subjective consciousness) (Table 3; the frequency of the adverbial form — “consciously” — and conscious sans a modified noun are not listed). 

Table 3. The Frequency of Compound Expressions with “Conscious.”

conscious age1
conscious archaism1
conscious articulate1
conscious attention2
conscious automata (T. H. Huxley)1
conscious automaton1
conscious causations1
conscious component1
conscious concentration1
conscious conception of time1
conscious connotation1
conscious contrition1
conscious decision1
conscious deduction1
conscious desire1
conscious entities1
conscious experience3
conscious expression1
conscious faculties1
conscious familiarity1
conscious fantasy1
conscious functioning2
conscious future1
conscious habit1
conscious human (beings)3
conscious imagery1
conscious induction1
conscious “inner” worlds1
conscious landscape1
conscious life1
conscious lives1
conscious logic1
conscious man5
conscious mechanism1
conscious memory1
conscious men8
conscious mentality1
conscious mind10
conscious models1
conscious narratization2
conscious nonhallucinating robbers1
conscious objects1
conscious of consciousness2
conscious people2
conscious period(s)3
conscious plans1
conscious poet2
conscious populace1
conscious portions1
conscious process3
conscious psyche1
conscious psychology1
conscious reason(ing)2
conscious recitation1
conscious referrents1
conscious reminiscence1
conscious retrospection1
conscious Saul1
conscious self/selves4
conscious self-control1
conscious self-reflective men1
conscious spatialization1
conscious stage of mind1
conscious subjective mind-space1
conscious subjective word1
conscious thought2
conscious time1
conscious way2
conscious world1

Other relevant terms Jaynes utilized are preconscious hypostases (sixteen times), preconscious innocence (once), preconscious mentality (twice), and preconscious mind (once). Note that he did not use preconscious in the Freudian sense. To describe consciousless cognition he used nonconscious ten times, nonconsciously once, unconscious 31 times, and unconsciously seven times. He uses consciousless expressions in the Freudian sense only in about two or three places. Other relevant terms that might be mentioned include aware (ten times), awareness (six times), and self-awareness (twice). Finally, he verbified the word conscious four times (“consciousized”).

Keep It Simple and Just Say Jaynesian Consciousness

When all is said and done, it remains a challenge to discuss with others a Jaynesian perspective when the most fundamental concept of his intellectual contribution — consciousness — is misunderstood. Jaynes was more than clear in his writings and lectures that he was talking about a specific form of mentation that is not perception, thinking, learning, and any other psychological processes commonly confused with consciousness. In any case, after much consideration this writer has concluded that, in order to preclude confusion and for the sake of clarity, it is probably advisable to rely on “Jaynesian consciousness” when debating with others about the merits of Jaynes’s hypotheses.  

Brian McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh has a MS in counseling and a PhD, Anthropology, Princeton University. He researches how humans adapt, both through history and therapeutically. The author of 17 books, his latest publication is "The Self-healing Mind: Harnessing the Active Ingredients of Psychotherapy" (in press). He works as a licensed mental health counselor.

One thought on “Consciousness Is the Word Preventing People from Understanding Jaynesian Psychology

  • July 29, 2022 at 2:23 am

    I agree I’ve always stumbled over “consciousness” in reading Jaynes, but “Jaynesian consciousness” suggests a kind of arcane byway, of little relevance to the main field of consciousness studies. Why not just “subjective consciousness” or even “self-consciousness” (not so good, as suggests something like “embarrassment”)?

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