In Two Minds About Consciousness

Mike Holderness, New Scientist, July 17, 1993, 139.

“Ah, yes, Julian Jaynes,” smiled the assistant in the bookshop. “Have you tried under Alternative?” But The Origin of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind is in its own way one of the more bitingly rationalist books I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Its central proposition – that consciousness arose only some time after the Iliad stories were first told – caused outrage among classicists when it was first published in 1977. The underlying thesis is that before then everyone was a florid schizophrenic, instructed in their every move by insistent “voices,” which were named as gods. Can consciousness have arisen simply as a metaphor ‘I’, as a side-effect of a personal narrative? Is all religion a nostalgia for the divided (bicameral) mind?

How many students of cognitive science have read this deeply unfashionable book under, as it were, the bed-covers? Someone is certainly reading it, prompting Penguin to issue a third paperback edition (identical to the second – shame it was not given a new index).

It is a while since a philosophical book made me laugh out loud. I’ve already ordered from the library half-a-dozen of the half-century-old and (to me) deeply obscure papers so copiously cited. I pick holes in the argument – and Jaynes, disconcertingly, proffers answers a few pages on. As with Robert Graves’s eccentric work The White Goddess to challenge much of Jaynes would require an encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient culture and literature – particularly disputed translations of the Iliad and the Gilgamesh. There is, indeed, a whiff of the white goddess in Jaynes’s abundantly confident theory of everything, consciousness-wise. There are even surprise endings. Read this, wherever you dare, for the style if not for the science.