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Julian Jaynes's Use of the Word 'Consciousness'

Posted: Wed Jul 11, 2007 5:43 am
by Mike Finch
I am new here, both to this forum and to Julian Jaynes's ideas. But there is one issue I need help with:

And that is, Jaynes's use of the word 'consciousness'. Elsewhere on this forum I have read about the one-minute elevator test, where you attempt to explain the essence of something in a casual encounter lasting a short space of time - which I have attempted to do with Jaynes's ideas several times. I have found that if I say 'consciousness has only appeared in the last approx 3000 years' I have lost my audience; but if I say 'self-awareness has only appeared in the last 3000 years' then I have a conversation.

I understand that given Jaynes's definition of 'consciousness', his theory follows. I am merely saying that this definition is sufficiently far removed from normal usage to cause unnecessary confusion. I also understand that all such words are vague in everyday usage, polyreferential as Jaynes says, but surely if you are going to define a normally vague word with some precision for your own purpose, then that definition at least should lie within normal usage.

For instance, I would say that my dog is conscious; and I suspect that most people would agree, as they would that the painters of the Lascaux caves were conscious. However, if I say that my dog is self-aware, that is a much more tenous proposition, which in fact after reading Jaynes I now think is false.

I note that in the document linked on this site ... ussion.pdf Jaynes is asked this very same question. He responds by saying that 'awareness' is vague and so he would prefer the term 'self-consciousness' in any case. Elsewhere he also remarks on the 'self' as being vague as well, a social construct different from the I (bodily I or analog I). But I suggest that the compound 'self-aware' is sufficiently in normal usage that we can think of it as one term, with a reference separate to that built up from its constituents (perhaps a new word, without the hyphen: selfaware).

And so I would define 'self-aware' as: narratizing in mind-space with a clear sense of the analog-I as doing the narratizing. Whether I am actually focusing intently on the analog I at the time, or only sense it as an enabler of my thinking and to which I return now and again as my narrative meanders in mind-space, is not I think important.

This would take care of Jaynes's main objection to using 'self-awareness' or 'self-consciousness': in his answer he gives an example of worrying about a late night returning daughter, which he claims to be an example of consciousness ('narratizing in mind-space') but he then says: 'I can’t see how that could be called self-consciousness or self-awareness.'

Well, I think it can be. Perhaps in the intial worry about the errant daughter he is not thinking of the analog I specifically, but in thinking of the issue he surely does observe his own thinking, and the analog I is at least in the periphery of this thinking, if not the center.

Anyway, there is never going to be a word or compound word in everyday usage which fits exactly with Jaynes's definition, but I think that 'self-awareness' does a better job than 'consciousness'. And in any case, consciousness of the analog I is surely the root phenomenon to be explained, so that even if self-awareness does not cover all instances of consciousness, it covers the most essential part of it, from which the rest follows.

As I say, I am new here, so I apologize if the above seems elementary and naive, and has been thought through many times by those more familiar with Julian Jaynes and his thought.

-- Mike Finch

Email: [email protected]

Posted: Wed Jul 11, 2007 3:12 pm
by Moderator
Yes, confusion over the definition of the term "consciousness" is a real problem, not only for the acceptance of Jaynes's theory but for the field of consciousness studies in general. Your point that Jaynes might have encountered less resistance using different terminology such as self-awareness is well-taken. Others have come to the same conclusion: in discussing Jaynesian consciousness, Robert Kretz adopted the phrase "modern self-awareness" (MSA) and Brian McVeigh uses the term "interiority."

I think ultimately Jaynes was correct, even if his use of the word is contrary to popular (incorrect) usage. In the article "Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind" that you reference Jaynes comments that perhaps if he had given the book the title "The Origin of Conscious Experience in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," it might not have met with such resistance. However, he preferred to "remain with consciousness as Locke and Descartes and most other people — including behavorists — would define it: as what is introspectable." Jaynes discusses this issue further in the Afterword that appears in the 1990 and later editions of his book.

We already have a number of more precise terms to describe what one might (mistakenly) refer to as "consciousness" in dogs, infants, etc. such as cognition, reactivity, awareness, attention, perception, etc. To use consciousness with these populations renders the term somewhat meaningless — as Jaynes argues persuasively that cognition, learning, awareness, etc. can all take place in the absence of an introspectable mind-space.

Using a very broad definition of consciousness creates a lot of problems. For example, I recently attended the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness's recent conference to find the same problem: nearly every speaker used a different definition of consciousness yet no one took note of that fact or made any attempt to outline their operational definition of consciousness at the beginning of their talk. Many talks dealt strictly with what I would say falls under the category "sense and perception." One talk that stands out in my mind discussed "consciousness in infants" and the speaker argued that they are perhaps "more conscious" than adults. I think what she meant was "more attentive to novel stimuli" etc. But by that definition kittens are perhaps more "conscious" than human adults.

So there are a lot of scholars still presenting papers at major conferences on consciousness that have in my opinion not sufficiently thought through their definition of consciousness and would perhaps greatly benefit from reading Jaynes's discussion of the topic now 30 years old.

Other theorists such as Dr. Stuart Hameroff — from my cursory understanding of his theory — seem to equate consciousness to simply not being anestized or unconscious. Among those present at the conference, Daniel Dennett's definition of consciousness seemed closest to Jaynes's.

With such confusion over terminology still widespread, it would seem advisable for those writing or lecturing on the topic to in every case outline their definition of consciousness at the outset.

But returning to the topic of presenting Jaynes's theory to others — I agree it's a good idea to quickly add that by "consciousness" Jaynes means "self-awareness" — as the finer points are not important when trying to expose new people to Jaynes's ideas without turning them off completely because of their more broad definition of the term consciousness.

Posted: Thu Jul 12, 2007 4:40 am
by Mike Finch
Thanks for your response, I take all your points.

It still seems to me that consciousness implies the ability to be conscious of itself. The definition you quote 'that which is introspectable' implies both something which is introspected (consciousness, or at least its contents) and something which does the introspecting (again consciousness). This dual nature of consciousness, as both the looker and the looked at (all metaphor of course), seems to me to capture the essence of what a satisfactory definition or understanding must contain.

I was particularly taken with the opening of Chapter 1 of Jaynes's book, where in the first paragraph he specifically states that consciousness is not conscious of consciousness.

First a nit-picking comment: In the second para he has several sentences 'We feel...' and then follow several commonly-held statements about consciousness. He then says these are all false. It is certainly not false that we feel what Jaynes says we feel, so the statements 'we feel...' are not false, but the descriptions of what it is that we feel.

The rest of the book follows, but nowhere does he return to that very first paragraph to support his statement that consciousness is not defined as being conscious of itself.

I cannot really imagine being conscious without being conscious of my own consciousness. Well, I can imagine it, but that of course is memory or structure after the fact. But what does it mean to say 'I am conscious' without in fact being conscious of that state?

If I am in a movie theater engrossed in a movie, am I conscious at that time? Before reading Jaynes, I would have said 'yes'. Now I would say I am only conscious when I realise I am in that theater watching that film, or something occurs to me that makes me observe myself watching that film. If asked after the movie: was I conscious while watching it? my answer (before Jaynes) would have been Yes because I can imagine myself as a watcher of the film. But this is getting very close to arguing as Jaynes does.

Could bicameral man watch a movie and be engrossed? I believe so, showing that there is no need to posit consciousness to be engaged or engrossed in the film. But surely consciousness in the sense that Jaynes means it requires some feedback, some loop, some consciousness of itself to even *be* consciousness (as Jaynes means it).

I certainly agree with you that 'a very broad definition of consciousness creates a lot of problems'. And although I am not a practicing academic in the field of consciousness studies, I read much of the literature, and it always occurs to me that writers are not defining their basic terms around consciousness, and often using them inconsistently. Quite apart from the bicameral thesis, Jaynes seems to me extremely valuable for clear thinking about the basic terms, and that alone would make him memorable.

So in this post I am moving away from my previous post saying Jaynes's use of the term conflicts with common usage, or that it matters if it does. I am trying in fact to be precise about consciousness as Jaynes means it, both to myself and in re-reading Jaynes's work. It seems to me that consciousness must be aware of itself by definition (by Jaynes's definition, that is), and in page after page of The Origin... I read Jaynes as saying and confirming this. Yet when he spells it out explicitly, he denies that is the case. That I think is my point of confusion.

-- Mike

Response: Jaynes's Use of "Consciousness"

Posted: Fri Jul 13, 2007 7:37 am
by bjmcveigh
I appreciate Mike Finch's comments on the problematic word, "consciousness." Yes, this one word has caused much confusion. Just a couple of comments. "Self-aware" is certainly moving in the right direction, though I suspect many others would still be confused. For my own purposes, I prefer "conscious interiority," or just interiority. This works from the metaphor of spatiality of innerness. Jaynes himself once acknowledged to me the problem with this word, which leads to all sorts of problems, since everyone has their own definition and agenda.

Another related point. "Consciousness" is used to subsume about 6 or 7 cognitive processes or features, which Jaynes listed in his book. This fact is crucial, since probably not all features were present during certain historical periods. In other words, consciousness is a package of features, ---it is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon.

Posted: Tue Jul 17, 2007 2:27 pm
by Moderator
Mike Finch wrote:
I cannot really imagine being conscious without being conscious of my own consciousness.
Unless I've misunderstood you, I think you might mean "being conscious of your own awareness." This is an important aspect of Jaynes's definition of consciousness. Like he diagrams it: 'I' > .

Being "conscious of you own consciousness" Jaynes touches on in the "Open Discussion" on p. 2 ( with the example of the schoolboy taking an exam while daydreaming about himself with a girl in the class.

I like the movie theater example, which is similar to the driving example. You become engrossed in a movie to the extent that your consciousness is "turned off". I think being engrossed in a movie for some people can borderline on what we might call a trance state (which implies a "turning off" of consciousness). I think one's ability to become engrossed in a movie may in fact be a good indicator of hypnotic susceptibility. During the movie, consciousness may then return to the forefront when someone kicks your seat, stands up, or rudely answers their cellphone. Bicameral man could of course be engrossed in a movie because this involves awareness and sensory perception and not consciousness per se.

Focusing on the internal dialogue aspects of consciousness, which I think is what's important in these examples, makes these examples easier to understand. The person driving to work while talking on their cell phone is not conscious of the drive but is thinking about the conversation, unless some novel situation occurs.

Posted: Thu Jul 19, 2007 5:45 am
by Mike Finch
Brian and Moderator, thank you both for your responses. Since making my posts above, I have read your book Reflections On The Dawn of Consciousness, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Brian: I like 'interiority', the only problem being that in the hypothetical one minute elevator ride (that started this thread) that one minute will be taken up in explaining the need to use 'interiority' other than 'consciousness'! I am glad that you appreciate my comments, and that my concerns about that one word that 'has caused much confusion' (as you put it) are not as naive as I thought they might have been.

I find now in my own discussions with colleagues, that I am using the phrase 'mind-space', or even (more precisely) the whole phrase ''I' narratizing in mind-space', and when asked to define what I mean, I say 'consciousness as Jaynes means it'.

I enjoyed your article in the book, particularly your explanation of the four-quadrants model and its relationship to Jaynes.

Moderator: Yes, I probably do mean 'being conscious of my own awareness', but I am still not convinced that 'conscious of my own consciousness' is wrong (even though Jaynes said it was wrong). I think my issue is parallel to the use/mention dichotomy in the Greek Zombies article on Ned Block's criticism. A physical given precedes the concept of it, but a socially generated entity is preceded by its concept. Since we are talking about Jaynes's meaning of consciousness (J-con), which is socially and linguistically generated, then its concept is prior, or at least not post.

Although the time period in the use/mention dichotomy is taken to be substantial, I think you can draw a parallel in much shorter time-periods, like minutes or even seconds, certainly in the time-period in watching a movie. Just as 'concept of J-con' is concomitant with J-con itself, does not having or possessing J-con imply that that J-con can hold within itself an image of J-con (strongly metaphorical I agree)? J-con must be self-referential, otherwise it is not J-con.

In other words, while 'I' > diagrams an example in J-con as you say, surely 'I' > ['I' > ] does as well, and in fact captures the essence of J-con better than the first example.

So while we have the two definitions of J-con mentioned in the book: denotative 'that which is introspectable' and connotative 'analog 'I' narratizing in mind-space', perhaps there can also be a self-referential or recursive third definition. Or if not 'definition', then at least consider strong self-reference as a necessary (perhaps even sufficient as well) quality or property of J-con.

-- Mike

Posted: Tue Jul 24, 2007 10:47 am
by Moderator
Good to hear you enjoyed the new book.

I'm not sure I completely follow you on your last post.

There is what Jaynes describes somewhere as Bertrand Russell's error in confusing his perception with his consciousness:

While the contents of his consciousness is more likely to be something like "I need a new table," or "I should really clean that table": 'I' >

Then later he might be lying in bed, imagining the moment earlier that day were in his mind-space he sees himself looking at and thinking about the table: 'I' > ['I' > ]

I would agree this third form is important, but it seems to me that it probably occurs much less frequently?

Posted: Wed Jul 25, 2007 12:57 am
by Mike Finch
I'm not sure I completely follow you on your last post
I am still grappling with Jaynes's definition of consciousness (J-con), and my post above was attempting to say the following:

There are several definitions of J-con that Jaynes gives:

1) denotative 'that which is introspectable' and

2) connotative 'analog 'I' narratizing in mind-space' and

3) perhaps constructive, bootstrapping consciousness up from metaphor.

It seems to me that a necessary property of J-con, given the above, is that it is strongly self-referential. In fact, that is surely such a pertinent quality of J-con, that I suspect one could fruitfully define it a fourth way in self-referential terms. At the very least, one of the most fruitful things to say about J-con is that it is conscious (in Jaynes's sense) of itself.

And yet, Jaynes seems to deny this formulation when made explicitly, even though much of his book seems to use this self-referential relationship implicitly. That is what I find confusing.

The diagram: 'I' > ['I' > ] was merely an attempt to explicate this self-reference in terms that you (and Jaynes) use. You say 'I would agree this third form is important, but it seems to me that it probably occurs much less frequently?' I would say it is more than important, it is almost a definition.

What can go on the left side of the '>' operator other than the analog 'I'? So forgetting Russell's original which was the point Jaynes was discussing, but maintaining Jaynes's diagramming and the operator '>', one can then perhaps define the analog 'I' self-referentially as:

4) that variable x that satisfies x > x, and the only solution is x = 'I'. J-con is then defined as the expression 'I' > 'I'.

This is getting more formal and abstract than I want. My point is that Jaynes's opening statement in Book 1 chap 1 is that it is not true that J-con is consciousness of consciousness. It seems to me both that it *is* in fact true as he later defines it, and that Jaynes uses the fact that it is true in much of the following book.

Thanks for keeping going with me on this!

-- Mike

Posted: Sat Aug 04, 2007 11:49 am
by Moderator
You might consider developing some of these ideas for a short essay for the JJS newsletter.

J-con infers the "I", Jaynes wrote outside the inf

Posted: Wed Oct 31, 2007 2:49 pm
by cboesche
Greetings: I've read this post on the fly and need to get back to work, but would like to add something before it slips from my mind. One of the things that struck me most when reading Origin was the profound effect it had on my conscious experience while reading certain passages. Not the excitement of an intellectual "on the right track" (although that often occurred as well), but a very simple and profound stillness. Later, I discovered in other traditions improperly labeled as religions, that the primary goal was to foster that same experience of stillness. The great facilitator of the experience is exactly what Jaynes explores with such scholastic tenacity and clarity: that the 'I' sense at the center of interiority is an inference with no actual reality or 'final' self. Another way of saying that J-con is consciousness of consciousness (if I am reading you correctly) is that "I" am aware of my self-awareness. The "I" that is aware of self-awareness is the ultimate physiological inference, the final by-product of J-con, and is a false inference. To see through this inference - that an actual, core, irreducible, separate "I" that must preserve itself in light of the "reality" filtered back to it through the narrative apparatus of J-con - is not to lose interiority . . . it is to lose the compulsive aspect of interiority. J-con is not consciousness of consciouness . . .consciousness is aware of j-con. If still trapped in the inference of an "I" as "real", then there is no clear experience "outside" of J-con, no witnessing of J-con. Who is witnessing J-con without reacting to the final side-effect of the analog I (the inference) as real? It is within the reader's immediate experience, but little can be said about it. So Jaynes referred to that very early on and had nothing left to say about it after that. I've often felt that the very title Consequences of Consciousness implied that he intended to more directly address the illusion of inference later on.

I'll finish with an example frequently used in an attempt to transmit the nature of the inference of a final "I" created by J-con. Imagine you see what you believe to be a snake and you experience fright. You then see that it was merely a rope. Your fright dissolves into relief. Your fright, while it lasted, was real . . . the inferred snake was not. In the same way, the experiences you have in relation to the contents of interiority, at its center the felt sense of self attached to "I", those experiences are real, like the fear in the example, but the "I" at the center, like the snake/rope, is not. Jcon sees the snake, but you seeing Jcon seeing the snake is the seeing of the rope "outside" of Jcon. Jaynes saw the rope.

Posted: Thu Nov 01, 2007 2:16 pm
by Mike Finch
Thanks for your input.

I try to make sense of 'I' (irony intended) in my paper Metaphysics Of Distinction, Performance And Practice where I make distinctions between various senses of 'I' - such I-nothing, I-self, I-body etc.

I suspect you are equating your use of 'I' with what I call 'I-self', which is what in our everyday life we most often take to be 'I' (usually lurking behind the eyes, for westerners).

I agree with you that I-self is constructed or as you say inferred, and as such is not real (although as you point out the experiences it engenders are).

What I call I-nothing may perhaps be likened to your seeing the snake as no-thing, an absence of snake, in which the fear vanishes.

I am not sure that Jaynes's analog I fits exactly with either my I-nothing or I-self, and I suspect is a different categorization. I need to think about that.

-- Mike

Re: Jaynes's Use of the Word 'Consciousness'

Posted: Sat Nov 01, 2008 8:22 pm
by cbarcus
I prefer Jaynes' use of the word. One can imagine Jaynes' bicameral people as being asleep in the sense of their linguistic inability to identify themselves as directing their own experience. There is no moral choice in this situation, and this is important psychologically, because I believe that people who have been traumatized, or exist within organizations with a great deal of fear, have a tendency to abandon (or fail to develop) reason (a linguistic ability). Moral choice involves examining the consequences of one's actions (reasoning) as if their life depended on it. I believe this is how individuals develop. At the other end of the spectrum is instinctive reaction. The brain has some very interesting evolutionary boundaries- various regions of the limbic system (such as the amygdala) store a more primitive, lower-resolution pattern. It would seem that this crude representation can vie with the more refined neocortex over the interpretation of experience. I believe in a different way, both hemispheres can also vie for control (the dual brain scenario). An implication of all of this is that organizations can become conscious at some point, but can also retain elements of, or perhaps even slip back into, bicamerality. This isn't a mutually exclusive condition. If I recall Jaynes correctly, he posits that at a particular point in human history, crises altered the conversation that humanity has with itself. Culture changed dramatically by including conscious moral decision making in its art. This does not automatically make everyone who experiences the art a conscious moral actor. One type of religious experience involves repeated suggestions during a narrative oration to a relatively hypnotized audience. One can think of the orator as a kind of art critic who interprets and articulates moral positions, usually by including personal experience; the suggestions implanted to influence later decision making. Advertising works in a similar fashion.

I'd like to add one other thing that I think is relevant to the larger discussion. There is this notion that the structure of nature has some inherent qualities. There is a deep reason why Einstein's Theory of Relativity (as an example) has had such an incredible impact on art in the 20th century. Nature is a system, it is relative, it is probabilistic, it is a fractal... I find that psychological phenomena have these characteristics. Society is a complex system that filters and feeds back on itself through its creation and distribution of art.

Re: Jaynes's Use of the Word 'Consciousness'

Posted: Mon Nov 03, 2008 6:40 pm
by James Cohn
Quick thoughts:

As noted, Jaynes himself had (at one point at least) a distaste for the equation of "consciousness" with "self-awareness."

I use the word "introspection" more and more. A dog or an infant can be quite aware, maybe even "self-aware" as confusing as that usage is, but doesn't likely narratize its life into an "I/me" as Jaynes described.

Brian's "interiority," though I don't love neologisms, might be the solution. I'm reminded of that picture that shows a little girl in her ballerina outfit who looks in the mirror, seeing the image of an adult professional ballerina. Somehow that sums it up better than any words.