The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and the American Indians

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's second hypothesis - the bicameral mind, specifically the subtopic of the mentality of preliterate societies, theories of primitive religion, and vestiges of bicameral mind in preliterate societies.
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The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and the American Indians

Post by Gary »

I am new to this society but am "old" in terms of Jaynes --- having read him in 1970 and several times since. The one question that has always bothered me is his notion that the turmoil in the Mediterranean (I forget when) disrupted the bicameral society and somehow stimulated the breakdown and resulting development of consciousness. (I'm working from memory here, so please excuse my vagueness). He has the Iliad as a bicameral story and the Odyssey as a conscious story, narrowing the timeline for the transition.

The problem I saw back then and ever since is the American Indians who were already here at the time of the breakdown and never suffered the same traumas. According to theory, then, shouldn't the American Indians have been bicameral at the time of contact with the Europeans? And, similarly, shouldn't the many primitive tribes discovered in the 20th century have also been bicameral? Has anyone ever studied the possible evidence for bicamerality in these peoples? If they were fully conscious in the modern sense when first contacted (as seems to be the case) then doesn't this undermine Jaynes' proposition, or at least he proposed scenario for how and when it happened? He also never explained the origin of consciousness in the African peoples who did not have contact with the Mediterranean world, or with remote parts of Asia or Australia.

I cannot imagine that many others have not noticed this problem and, since the theory is still viable, they must also have resolved the apparent problems with it. I would very much welcome references to literature that addresses these questions.

Gary Brueggeman, new member
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Re: The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and the American Ind

Post by Moderator »

I've moved this topic from the General Discussion to this section. You may want to check out some of the other posts in this section, specifically those on the work of Lévy-Bruhl. Jaynes wrote a chapter on this subject but it was not included in The Origin. In short, there is a great deal of evidence for vestiges of bicamerality in pre-literate societies worldwide.

The transition from bicamerality to consciousness happened at different times in different places throughout the world. This occurred both independently and through diffusion. Michael Carr has documented the transition in the early Chinese at about the same time as Jaynes documents it in Greece. In Mesoamerica, the transition occurred much later. These is evidence that the Aztecs were still in transition from bicamerality to consciousness when they were conquered by Cortez. Lévy-Bruhl's work documents vestiges of bicamerality in the tribes (including Native American) contacted by missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Newly discovered tribes in the Amazon, New Guinea, and elsewhere should be studied from the perspective of Jaynes's theory, but this is not being done. However, differences in mentality have been documented that support Jaynes's theory, and these will be touched upon in a forthcoming book, The Julian Jaynes Collection (due out in early 2012). See also the chapter by Brian McVeigh in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness.
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