The Last Modern Psychologist: Julian Jaynes’ Search for Consciousness in the Natural World

Scott Greer, Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics, 2016, 4, 1, 13-25.

Abstract: Julian Jaynes, late professor of psychology at Princeton, is best known for his controversial yet provocative book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Based on an unpublished manuscript, and other archival documents, this paper examines his unpublished work, the “History of Comparative Psychology,” which represents a failed search for the origin of consciousness as a natural kind. Jaynes abandoned this work to begin the Origin of Consciousness, which represented a radical break in theorizing about the emergence and nature of consciousness. In Jaynes’ mature theory, the “breakdown” of the non-conscious bicameral mind led to the process of internal narratization, existing through time in what he called a “mindspace.” Jaynes’ final definition of consciousness was that of “an analog ‘I’ narratizing in a mindspace,” and as “based on metaphor, developed through language, and is an operator, not a thing.” A number of profound implications follow from understanding of consciousness as socially constructed. Most dramatically, Jaynes brought the modernist conception of consciousness as a natural kind to a close and provided an alternative explanation; and eschewing centuries of reification, Jaynes he concluded that consciousness does not exist – at least not in the way it is often assumed, as a brain function. Consciousness, as phenomenal experience, can only be said to exist intersubjectively, pointed to a moral and ethical dimension that purely naturalistic investigations of consciousness are unable to address.