Julian Jaynes's Theory

Falling between the Cracks: Jaynes’s Defiance of Scholarly Conventions Challenged Cherished Methodological Assumptions — This Is What Makes Him Hard to Appreciate


Academics make progress when they are inspired by the cross-pollination of ideas, and most researchers, arguably, utilize a multi-disciplinary approach to some degree, i.e., no piece of research fits perfectly into one scholarly field. Much of the academic landscape can be described as combinatory endeavors — social psychology, psychological anthropology, psychology of religion, neuropsychology, neurotheology, etc., to name just a few. Cross-fertilization is a wonderful and much-needed antidote to specialization, subspecialization, sub-subspecialization, etc.

Nevertheless, despite all the hoopla surrounding interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches, not everyone is enamored with a multi-faceted approach. Let’s be honest: Department heads, university presidents, publishers, manuscript reviewers, project referees, and the average reader/consumer typically feel more comfortable pigeonholing an article or book into a scholarly field. This probably happens unconsciously. It often seems easier to be narrowly focused and to produce siloed research. After all, mastering one field is hard enough, but becoming proficient in more than one is not only challenging but may hinder one’s climb up the academic ladder. Building bridges is difficult, often unrewarding, work. While in grad school I can remember members of my dissertation committee dismissing my interests as theoretically muddled.

In Search of an Academic Home: Jaynes Transcended Traditional Disciplinary Borders, Making Him Difficult to Pin Down

Where does one position the contributions of Jaynes on the scholarly map? He seems to defy disciplinary categorization not just because his arguments are so wide ranging, but because he combines two fields that seem particularly unrelated: Psychology and history (Table 1). Some jump to the conclusion that the best fit is evolutionary psychology. But while Jaynes certainly was an evolutionist, he was not an evolutionist when it came to explaining the origins of conscious interiority. Jaynes, we should note, was a comparative psychologist by training, and he did not deny the major principles of biological evolution. But he concluded evolution could not explain the origins of conscious interiority. Indeed, Jaynes’s overriding premise was that one needs to investigate cultural changes to account for the origins of consciousness. Jaynes located the emergence of conscious interiority in our recent history and saw its transmission via socialization (not through genes). Moreover, he saw the nature of subjective introspectable self-awareness as ideational and cultural (though it is of course grounded in our neuroanatomy).

Table 1. Positioning Jaynesian Psychology in the Disciplinary Landscape.

DisciplineProvides evidence, substantiation, and methodological direction for …
Ancient HistoryBicameral mentality and postbicameral vestiges
AnthropologyCross-cultural comparisons and postbicameral vestiges
ArchaeologyChanges in mentality as configured by material and technological advances
LinguisticsLanguage as the socializing mechanism, particularly the role of metaphors, in constructing conscious interiority
Literature and the ArtsUnderstanding changes in how the self and mental states have been represented and explored aesthetically
NeurologyHow bicameral mentality and postbicameral vestiges function from a neuroanatomical, neurophysiological perspective
PhilosophyAddressing mind‒body dualism and other philosophy of mind conundrums
PsychologyExperimental and theoretical framework
Religious StudiesBicameral mentality and postbicameral vestiges

Jaynes as a Cultural-historical Psychologist

So what disciplinary labels best describe the Jaynesian endeavor? I suggest “cultural psychology” as a good candidate. Cultural psychology explores how psyche is radically configured — but not determined — by nongenetic social forces. Let’s explain this field by looking at what it is not. First of all, it is not mainstream general psychology, whose primary purpose is the search for a presupposed “central processing mechanism” (CPM) characterized by fixed, abstract, universal, and invariant rules. Rather, the “cultural” in cultural psychology mandates attention to what is socially specific, particular, variable, concrete, contextual, and between people. Psyche is viewed as deeply engaged in the environment, not as disembodied, detached, or uncontaminated by a person’s surroundings. Second, cultural psychology is not cross-cultural psychology, a specialty of general psychology that, like mainstream psychology, assumes a CPM defines the core elements of psyche. The strategy of many researchers has been to sift through all the cultural accretions layered over a CPM. This quest for psychic unity, rather than psychic diversity and plasticity, privileges mind over its environment, form over content, and the deeply hidden over what operates on the surface. Third, cultural psychology is not psychological anthropology. This is an interdisciplinary attempt to discover the laws of the CPM by investigating the social environment. Psychological anthropology, like general psychology, does not appreciate how the psyche is radically configured by external forces. Stated differently, psychological anthropology sees the socioecological context as somehow expressive of deep and invariant psychological processes. This is reductionistic and assumes that society is the consequence of the projection of mysterious psychic forces. Finally, cultural psychology is not ethnopsychology, which has taken a taxonomic, classificatory approach to mind, self, emotions, and norms (similar to ethnosemantics or ethnoscience). Like botany or kinship, this folk belief approach is not person-centered enough.*

An apt description of the Jaynesian endeavor requires one more element that recognizes the role of changes to psyche over time: Historical. Thus, the fully expounded disciplinary appellation that best defines Jaynes’s methodology is cultural-historical psychology. Psyche cannot be surgically extricated from historical processes (strictly speaking, “cultural-historical psychology” is associated with Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria, and while their work certainly resonates in important respects with that of Jaynes, for the sake of clarity we need to at least mention this more narrow definition).

Dispensing with Social and Psychological “Essences”

Some thinkers, depending on the targeted topic, react instinctively to which methodology should be employed (anthropological, sociological, historical, or psychological).  But such reactions are often related to academic territoriality, not an acknowledgment of the limitations of a certain methodology. Just because a phenomenon can be understood sociologically does not negate its existence as something psychological, and by the same token, examining the same phenomenon psychologically does not negate its existence as something social. No “social essence” exists separately from a “psychological essence.” The social-versus-psyche divide is a product of methodology, not ontology. Constructed in certain places at particular times, mind cannot be reduced to computational processes immune from culture. Psyche is not an asocial, acultural, ahistorical entity. The orthodox division between formal mental processes and cultural content may reflect the demarcations between psychology, sociology, anthropology and history departments, but it does not do justice to the realities of human mentation.

Mind cannot be bracketed off from society. It is not a mysterious substance dwelling in our heads. Once this is understood, we can look for mind where it operates (among individuals) and acknowledge that what is regarded as external to the mind—institutional settings, meanings, beliefs, values, knowledge—is actually the stuff of mind. We need a socially pragmatic approach to mental operations, i.e., mind is more than an aspect of our neurological apparatus; it is assembled by political processes and the needs of society. Conscious interiority is a set of culturally learned beliefs about volition, motivation, and what supposedly occurs “within” the individual. It is more than neurophysiological processes. What are conventionally referred to as psychological events are in fact also functions of social interaction; that is, the workings of intentional behavior and sociopolitical relations.

* This treatment of cultural psychology is based on Richard A. Shweder, “Cultural Psychology: What Is It?” In Cultural Psychology: Essays on Comparative Human Development, eds., James W. Stigler, Richard A. Shweder, and Gilbert Herdt. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 1‒43.

Learn more about Julian Jaynes’s theory by joining the Julian Jaynes Society and reading our publications.

Brian J. McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh has a MS in counseling and a PhD in Anthropology, Princeton University. He researches how humans adapt, both through history and therapeutically. The author of 17 books, his latest publication, "The Self-healing Mind: Harnessing the Active Ingredients of Psychotherapy" (2022), adopts a Jaynesian framework to explain how therapy works. He works as a licensed mental health counselor.

Brian McVeigh

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