Julian Jaynes and the Analog "I"
I read Julian Jaynes' book "The origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" many years ago, and didn't understand a word of it. Years later after I'd read a few more recent books and thought a little more about the subject of consciousness, I reread Jaynes and was struck by how much his ideas now made sense.
I see that his ideas have been mentioned here a few times, but I'm not sure there has ever been a complete thread dedicated to his ideas. I thought I'd start one, just to see what others think. Of course I am not widely read so perhaps I miss the point but I still feel that Jaynes has captured something essential about the human experience. And I think too often, his ideas are misunderstood.
So, to kick things off, here's what I get from his book. The trick to understanding his model is first understanding what he means by "consciousness". I don't think he means what most of us mean when we talk about say the "hard problem" of consciousness.
In modern considerations of consciousness, I think we largely refer to subjective experience - the "what it is like" to be aware of the world. Jaynes however dismisses this as mere sensory perception. He is more interested in what it is to have an internal "mindspace", an "analog I" that experiences the world. Jaynes argues for the emergence of this sense of self and an inner mindspace from language. He sees the infinite capacity for metaphor inherent in human language as a means by which we can build similarly infinite concepts and ideas about our relationship with the external world.
That is, when we introspect upon our experience as selves in the world, we construct an inner self, an "I" that exists within our mind's eye which is what it is that has these experiences, these relationships. This inner self is an analog for what our senses perceive and how we react and is what gives us a sense of the first person in how we view the world. I guess Jaynes' is thinking here of some kind of conscious interiority, a feeling of being "in here" rather than "out there" (or perhaps nowhere at all).
Jaynes observes (as have many others) that this kind of awareness rests upon language. Human language has two distinctive features - the capacities for metaphorical representation and infinite recursion. With these basic tools, human beings can build infinitely complex models of self and experience. We can also use language to communicate - share - these models. In fact, over time it is this sharing that helps to construct commonly held models of experience that shape the course of cultural progress.
Knowledge itself is represented in these shared models although my guess is that we absolutely must have written language in order for this to happen with any lasting substance. In symbolic representation of inner models we can share and build upon these models as part of a larger process over time.
Jaynes of course also argues that this kind of "consciousness" has been present in human beings for only a few thousand years. He suggests that in earlier times, the capacity for language was expressed in human minds as being like the voices of Gods.
That is, that when we speak voicelessly inside our heads today, we know that this voice is ours, even though it lacks any perceptible quality. Jaynes argues that before this inner voice became integrated with our sense of self, it did have qualities - it sounded entirely like others speaking. Naturally, people interpreted these voices as arising externally rather than internally. The ancients literally "heard" their own inner narratisation as coming from an externally derived source.
How true this might be is open to debate and seems to me to be one of the reasons for Jaynes' ideas being dismissed. Nonetheless, it is his idea of an inner self-aware analog of experience that most intrigues me. I suspect he has nailed something here.
In suggesting that language gives rise to introspective consciousness, Jaynes is saying that it is our internal narrative that we think of when we think about being ourselves. It is the sense of being "me", being some "thing" that entertains ideas, that plans actions, that can report upon my state.
Indeed, a moment's introspection certainly supports the idea. Whenever we think of things, it seems to me that we do not appear to have access to our own thoughts. We know we have them, and we can report upon them, but we do not have access to them directly. Rather, we experience only the perceptual imagery that accompanies this process - verbal imagery (words in our mind) or visual imagery (pictures, diagrams in our mind). And so often, this rests upon some kind of metaphorical description of things.
I've mentioned before that I don't believe qualia to have directly apprehensible inherent qualities but rather to gain qualitative substance through comparison, through metaphorical representation. "Green" has no meaning of itself, but takes its qualitative character from metaphor - "That liquid is as green as grass", or "Blue is the colour of the clear sky".
And so Jaynes argues for a form of conscious awareness that gains expression through the built world of inner narratisation and shared experience, all resting upon a foundation of metaphorical representation facilitated by language.
Another way to think of this is to imagine what would be in our heads without language. What would be left of you, had you no language with which to express your experience to yourself? I suggest no "you" at all, beyond the immediacy of existence. In this respect, it is instructive to recall Helen Keller's words in her essay "Before the Soul Dawn":
"Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.
I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith."
And her awakening upon beginning to know language, when she first appreciated the relationship between a finger-movement against her palm and the idea of 'water':
"That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song. Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought".
(As an aside, notice here the striking contrast between the non-world of conscious unconsciousness first described and the bounding, fulsome world of metaphor that springs forth in that final paragraph).
Without language, there can be no "me". If we do not have language and hence an introspective "I" in our heads, what then might we have? The answer appears to be that we do not have anything at all. At least, not of that nature. Our brains construct perceptions, perhaps even models of attention as per Graziano's "Attention Schema" because without that we are not going to be able to adapt our behaviours, but beyond that we simply do what we do. And that in itself is pretty much what we do most of the time anyway - we don't accompany our every moment with a running commentary upon which our actions depend. Rather, we just do things.
Yet with language comes a more complex "me", a linguistic "I" that permits social communication and creates the basis for more adaptive flexible behaviours. It is an evolutionary adaptation which confers not some ineffable spirit but rather a metaphorical representation of representations. If you think about this kind of consciousness, it becomes apparent that it has a spectrum quality, that it must exist as a continuum across place, time and culture. Introspective consciousness depends upon cultural context, knowledge, local customs and frameworks of behaviour. This consciousness is a cultural construction derived from the necessary evolutionary pressures of social cohesion.
This kind of consciousness, this Jaynesian consciousness, is not some static intrinsic thing but rather a learned experience, a self that is constructed in each of us upon the scaffold of language. Whatever is inside a human brain is a potential, a capacity for expression that requires language and learning.
We use language to learn to be conscious. This is what I think Jaynes uncovered. Natural Thoery of Mind only goes so far. Language, expressed in "Jaynesian" consciousness, takes us the rest of the way...