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Julian Jaynes’ Theory of the Bicameral Mind and A Different Path to Subjective Consciousness in China
Abstract: That the man-made secondary society is foreign to humans is once more illustrated by the phenomenon of bicameral minds, first described by Julian Jaynes. According to Jaynes, people with bicameral minds followed auditory hallucination, the divine voice, in response to an enlarged community from 9000 to 1000 BC, and subjective consciousness appeared around 1000 BC. Unlike the Mediterranean civilizations on which Jaynes' theory is based, Chinese civilization started with genetically coded primary society and therefore, went through a different pathway in the evolution of human minds to subjective consciousness. This essay presents overwhelming evidence for the presence of subjective consciousness around 1400 BC in China, and therefore, subjective consciousness may have appeared in a primary society setting. The bicameral mind pervasive among the Mediterranean civilizations was likely a response to the sudden appearance of secondary society. The author believes that subjective consciousness might have first appeared with the tool explosion around forty thousand years ago and switched to the bicameral mind in early Mediterranean civilizations but not in early Chinese civilization. The left and right hemispheres of our brain and their connection provide a good neuropsychological explanation for the emergence of a complex secondary society five or six thousand years ago after humans had lived in primary society for millions of years. As the processor of visuospatial images and holistic or intuitive awareness, the right brain may be responsible for the primary society while as the processor of language and rational thought, the left brain may be responsible for the secondary society.
When I was once searching on Internet about poetic thought last year, a peculiar term came into my vision field and caught my full attention immediately: the bicameral mind. I spent the next few weeks reading about the theory of bicameral mentality and its author, American psychologist Julian Jaynes (1920-1997). According to Jaynes, humans once lacked consciousness but followed auditory hallucination, the divine voice, in response to an enlarged community and the subsequent hierarchal theocracy. Human consciousness is only a cultural artefact based on language, and it first appeared around 1000 BC.
Thus both the division of human society into primary and secondary societies and the theory of the bicameral mind hold the insight that a fundamental culturally constructed change took place in recent human history due to a bigger society. As the theory of primary and secondary societies holds that Chinese civilization started with primary society while the Western civilization started with a typical secondary society. One may expect that the Chinese history of bicameral mentality may be fundamentally different from the Western one. Julian Jaynes based his theory, mainly on analysis of the Western history, including that of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and Greece. Very little study has been done regarding the application of Julian Jaynes' theory to Chinese history.
A primary analysis of available literature confirms that the phenomenon of the bicameral mind was much less visible in Chinese history. Divination by oracle bones appeared around 4000 BC in China, and the earliest records that are detailed enough for assessment yield overwhelming evidence for the presence of subjective consciousness around 1400 BC in the ruling class, but the bicameral mind seemed to prevail among the peasants. Records from around 2356 to 1400 BC also suggest subjective consciousness, though it is inconclusive whether those records are absolutely reliable. The idea of a morality apart from legality only began to appear in Greece in the 5th century BC while Chinese civilization started with a strong emphasis on morality. Therefore, Chinese history is more consistent with the weak form of Jaynes' theory that consciousness could have begun shortly after the beginning of language and co-existed with the bicameral mind before the latter was sloughed off. It is a striking contrast to the full-blown bicameral minds in the early Mediterranean civilizations.
I will introduce Julian Jaynes' theory, the definition of subjective consciousness, and then concentrated on the documentation of the presence of subjective consciousness in China around 1400 BC followed by a short discussion.
(1) Juilian Jaynes and his Theory of the Bicameal Mind
Julian Jaynes was born in 1920 to a highly educated mother of 30 and a priest father of 66. His father died two years later of heart attacks and left him a fatherless childhood. Julian Jaynes attended Harvard University and was an undergraduate in McGill University. He received both his master and doctorate degrees from
Yale University. He made significant contributions in the fields of animal behavior and ethology. After Yale, Jaynes spent several years in England working as an actor and playwright. Jaynes later returned to the states, and lectured in psychology at Princeton University from 1966 to 1990, teaching a popular class on consciousness for much of the time. He was in high demand as a lecturer, and was frequently invited to lecture at conferences and as a guest lecturer at other universities. He spent much of his summers at his home in Prince Edward Island, Canada while teaching at Princeton University. After he retired, he lived in Prince Edward Island and died in 1997.
Julian Jaynes was best known for his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) , in which he advanced his theory of the bicameral mind. Jaynes uses the word “consciousness” but does occasionally use the term “subjective consciousness” to talk about his theory on human consciousness. Since Jaynes's theory remains highly controversial and consciousness is a common word, the term “subjective consciousness” seems to be the preferred one for the “consciousness” Julian Jaynes describes .
To help students master his concept of consciousness precisely, Julian Jaynes usually started his lecture by talking what consciousness is not. First, consciousness is not all of mentality, as so many things that the nervous system does for us automatically without our consciousness. For example, a large class of activities is termed as preoptive such as how we sit, walk, move. All those activities are done without consciousness, unless we decide to be conscious of them, the preoptive nature of consciousness. Even when we are speaking, the nervous system automatically picks up the right word from the lexical storehouse in the brain and adds it to a string of words framed in the grammar structure. What we are conscious of the actual speaking can only be best described as intentions of certain meanings. Consciousness should not be confused with simple sense perception. All worms have sense perception, and we cannot say worms have consciousness.
Secondly, Consciousness does not copy experience, as we do not always remember what we have experienced. Our memories are even constructed differently from what we have experienced. Our memories of swimming tend to see ourselves from another point of view, a bird's eye view, which we have never experienced.
Thirdly, consciousness is not necessary for learning. For example, learning motor skills seems to happen without much consciousness. When we are first to learn how to ride a bicycle, it requires our consciousness to plan and start the process of learning and practicing. The nervous system takes care of a major part of the learning process by the so-called automatization of habit: our feet are paddling for most of the time without our consciousness, and we are even surprised to find out that our skills have improved more than we have expected.
Fourthly, consciousness is not necessarily for thinking or reasoning. Here I introduce a Julian Jaynes' term, the struction. Structions are like instructions given to the nervous system, that, when presented with the materials to work on, result in the answer automatically without conscious thinking or reasoning. Such phenomenon applies to most of our activities, from simple judging, solving problems, and to scientific and philosophical activity. Consciousness studies a problem and prepares it as a struction, a process may result in a sudden appearance of the solution as if out of nowhere. During World War II, British physicists used to say that they no longer made their discoveries in the laboratory, they had their three B's where discoveries were made, the bath, the bed, and the bus. It illustrates well that discoveries as an important process of thinking and reasoning can be achieved without much consciousness except for the consciousness starts the automatic process.
Finally, most people would say consciousness is in our heads, but since we cannot say the location of bicycle riding is inside our heads, Julian Jayness thinks the phenomenal location of consciousness is arbitrary.
Jaynes also lists several features of consciousness such as a mind space for introspecting, narratization or self-talk, an analog ‘ I' acts as the agency for the introspection and narration, and consilience. Consilience is the mental process to make things compatible with each other, or to narratize and consiliate all together into a story.
Only after we get rid of all common misconceptions about consciousness, may we be in a position to understand Jaynes' theory of the bicameral mind. Jayness summarizes his theory in four ideas: 1) consciousness is based on language; 2) a different mentality, the bicameral mind, existed based on verba
2) a different mentality, the bicameral mind, existed based on verbal
hallucination before the development of consciousness; 3) consciousness appeared around 1000 BC; 4) the right hemisphere of the brain hears the auditory hallucination, a divine voice, and the left hemisphere carries out the order from the hallucinated devine voice.
The three phases:
Phase 1: Primitive Mentality, Homo Sapiens
200,000 BC language evolves
40,000 BC tool explosion
10,000 BC first gods
Phase 2: Bicameral
9,000 BC first towns
3,000 BC writing begins
Phase 3: Conscious
1,000 BC divination, prophets, oracles
Jaynes termed the first phase as Neanderthals, and I changed it to primitive mentality and home sapiens. Now it is well established that Neanderthals are not our direct ancestors.
Thus the West went through a bicameral phase from 9000 to 1000 BC, which was characterized by a forceful theocracy. They organized their complex city states under the name of gods, and people developed bicameral minds to hear the divine voice and obey those gods. The subjective consciousness emerged after the bicameral mind broke down. As pointed above, the early Chinese social environment allowed them to still live in primary and quasi-primary society, which was based on human nature. The ancient Chinese did not go through this bicameral phase though to a certain degree, they might still have the bicameral mind in a different context.
(2) The Definition of Subjective Consciousness
What constitutes the subjective conscious mind may be a matter for debate. In his essay entitled Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind , Julian Jaynes attempts to clarify what subjective consciousness is, “Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what we call the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behaviour in the physical world …And it is intimately bound with volition and decision.”
From the view of a society, this real world consists of many minds of the members of the society, and those minds communicate with each other by the vocabulary of metaphor. Thus impressions, feelings, emotions, concepts, imagery and other elements, which are available for introspection but may or may not be represented by words, are the building blocks of this real world or the subjective conscious mind. Each individual mind though may be different is greatly influenced by other minds and by the vocabulary they share. If we consider the analog of the real world as a perspective and consider volition and decision as free will, subjective consciousness essentially equals perspective plus free will.
A fundamental question is why humans are able to build secondary society while animals are not. The answer is that humans have the ability of self-transcendence: They are continuously looking for something higher than themselves and their real life. This eventually lets them create new worlds for themselves. Under certain circumstances, people with primitive mentality and bicameral minds may be able to use rudimentary language in a creative way, but they use language just as other tools only to enrich their lives. Humans with subjective conscious minds use language to create totally new worlds such as many novels, especially scientific fictions. Each novel literally represents a new world created by man. Our secondary society is also one of those worlds created by humans. But this one is a real one, created not by one person but by numerous people over thousands of years. Such new worlds themselves are a result of free will, and those new worlds in turn show individuals how to execute free will to create unique lives for themselves.
As mentioned above, one feature of subjective consciousness is narratization or self-talk and an analog ‘ I' acts as the agency for the narration. Our life may be considered as a novel or fiction narrated in multiple media, words, images, concepts, feelings, and so on for a life long time. As the narrator of this novel of life, we exercise free will all the time in our inner world. Neither primates nor early human beings could achieve such a life experience. What is the minimum requirement of vocabulary for subjective consciousness to appear? The number of words has to be enough for the members of society to create a new world or a new life in their minds first before a world or a new life is created in reality. A few hundred words may be enough for a modern writer to create a fiction, but I tend to think many more words may be needed for subjective consciousness to appear among ancient people.
Each secondary society is a creation by man but primary society is the society humans are born with. With the above mentioned Chinese super state of primary society, the ruling class of the king and vassals might not be able to change the overall social structure to create a new sub-society but as an idle class, they might be able to develop sophisticated vocabulary and form a subgroup with a distinct culture, which might not suit the definition of secondary society but was certainly a creation of their own. When a particular social issue was elaborated and debated for a long time even in a primary society setting, it might have created free will and led to the emergence of the subjective conscious mind.
(3) Evidence for Subjective Consciousness Around 1400 BC: The Oracle Bones
From the late Shang dynasty between 1400 and 1122 BC, some fifteen thousand pieces of oracle bone inscriptions have so far been excavated. It was in 1400 BC when King Pan-Geng gave his three speeches that are available for analysis. The reader should be reminded that the dating of Chinese history before 841 BC is only approximate.
From 1400 to 1122 BC, the kings of the Shang dynasty, the ministers, and the diviner officials developed an extraordinary enthusiasm towards divination by oracle bones. It is very much like the Egyptian pyramids that stand out without any match in human history. They certainly created a life of their own, a life of divination by oracle bones.
In the West, especially in Mesopotamia and Greece, civilization started with city states where primary society was broken to form a typical secondary society with free individuals. In its early stage, there were no well established laws and social structures to provide the cohesive force to stabilize the society. A forceful religious faith was a must, and the execution of Socrates shows how forceful the religious faith could be. Such social circumstances provided the cultural environment to hatch the bicameral mind. Thus, people heard divine voices, and they sought divine voices by divination when they could no longer hear the voice clearly.
Chinese civilization started with primary society, and there was no forceful authority in primary society. The gods they imagined were just like their headmen, not forceful either. According to the belief system of the Shang dynasty, there was a natural deity for each of the natural forces they could perceive such as the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, the snow, the cloud and so on. There was a super god, but their deceased ancestors seemed to be the most important ones. Those ancestors and gods had the power to influence the human world and their lives, but they represented a different world. People could seek favour but could not seek orders to organize their lives from those ancestors and gods, just as the members of a primary society cannot expect their headman to organize their lives. As a result, they had endless questions to ask and to ponder, which, facilitated by language development, eventually led to the emergence of subjective consciousness.
1. The divination by oracle bones was sophisticated enough to hatch subjective consciousness in the late Shang dynasty:
As mentioned above, more than 150,000 oracle bones were found for the two hundred and seventy eight years from 1400 to 1122 BC. Considering that many may still lay underground and even more might have been lost during the last three thousand years, and that a piece of bone could be used repeatedly and one session of divination might contain several questions, the number of questions subjected to oracle bones may be several times of those discovered oracle bones. Curiosity and the idle lifestyle of the ruling class were apparently the major factors behind those questions. Those oracle bone inscriptions contain more than 5000 Chinese characters but only a third was deciphered. Nowadays, one needs only to master 1000 Chinese ch
Nowadays, one needs only to master 1000 Chinese
characters to be able to read newspapers, and university graduates only mastered some 4000 Chinese characters on average.
A wide variety of topics were asked, essentially anything of concern to the royal house of Shang, from illness, birth and death, to weather, warfare, agriculture, tribute and so on. One of the most common topics was whether an illness of any member of the royal house and any member of the court officials was curable or not. As a topic of divination, the illness was often a minor one such as toothache.
Each oracle bone inscription normally consists of four sections, preface, topic, reading, and verification. During a divination session, the shell or bone was anointed with blood, and an inscription starts with the date that was recorded using the Chinese system of Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, the diviner's name was also noted. Next, the topic of divination was posed, such as whether a particular ancestor was causing a king's toothache. Then the bone was subjected to heat until it cracked. The diviner in charge of the ceremony read the cracks to learn the answer to the divination. The divined answer was sometimes marked either "auspicious" or "ominous". The king occasionally added a “prognostication” and his reading on the nature of the omen. On rare occasions, the actual outcome was later added to the bone in what is known as a “verification”. A complete record of all the above elements is rare; most bones contain just the date, the diviner, and topic of divination, and many remained uninscribed after the divination. There is some evidence that the divination was made on brush-written words, and those written words were inscribed later by a workshop.
From the different names of diviners on the oracle bones, we know that the king had many diviner officials. Those officials prepared the oracle bones and kept them for late reference. One topic of divination could be raised multiple times, and often in different ways or by changing the date being divined about. This indicates that they concentrated their minds on one question for a period of time.
2. Two examples of the oracle bone inscriptions show the mind space of the people who were involved in the divination:
The following is a typical oracle bone inscription:
It will rain today? Rain will come from the west? Rain will come from the east? Rain will come from the north? Rain will come from the south? (郭沫若: 《卜辭通纂
The General Compilation of Oracle Bone Inscriptions》, 375 )
This oracle bone inscription shows that those people had a clear representation of the physical world and its four directions in their minds to enable them to ask and monitor the outcome of those questions.
It is understandable to ask whether it will rain or not today but what is the point to ask a total of four questions about which direction the rain will come? It shows an essential part of human nature, the curiosity of an idle mind.
The following oracle bone inscription is a completed one with the verification and was read by King Wu-Ding himself. King Wu-Ding ruled from 1350 to 1292 BC approximately.
Divination date: Kui/Si; diviner: Hui; Topic: whether misfortunate events will happen within ten days; King Wu-Ding read the bone cracks and concluded: ominous, and misfortunate events will happen; Verification: misfortunate events came from the west after five days. Zhi-Huo reported that Tu babarians invaded our eastern suburb and destroyed two towns, and Shu babarians invaded our farm fields in the western suburb. (《菁》, 2)
Those divining people apparently had a sense of time, the past, the future, and the present. Ancient Chinese people worshiped ancestors, and they often kept the shrines for each of their deceased ancestors in order of time from a generation to the next. This may give the Chinese a sense of time much earlier than in the West. For the same reason, Chinese kept good records about their ancestors: their deeds and their words from prehistoric time.
Jaynes’ concept of the mind space is much broader than the actual represention of time and physical space. Nevertheless it is part of the mind space that enable to think about the answers to our questions.
3. Conscious dreams in oracle bone inscription:
According to Julian Jaynes, there are conscious dreams and bicameral dreams. There are four oracle bones asking the meaning of a particular dream and whether the dream was auspice or ominous. In their dreams, one saw jades, and one (king) saw many sons, and two saw ghosts in several times (《合集》5649; 《合集》17383 ; 《合集》17451;《合集》17450 ). Those are apparently conscious dreams. The dreamer recalled their dreams and put them on oracle bones t
The dreamer recalled their dreams and put them on oracle bones to seek the meaning of them. It is apparently self-introspection:
‘I’ à[‘I’ saw ghosts or jade or many sons in dream]
Those oracle bones are direct evidence for the presence of subjective consciousness.
4. Bone inscriptions of memorable events:
Some bone inscriptions were records of a particular event. For example, the king once on a hunting tour (?1203 BC) killed a tiger, and he used the tiger bones to make table utensils, and then recorded this event on it (William Charles White: Bone Culture of China, the University Toronto Press, 1945, Plate XV). This clearly shows that the king was proud of what he had done. It is consisted with subjective consciousness.
5. Conflicting Opinions and Book of Ancient texts
After the Shang dynasty was overthrown by the Chou dynasty in 1122 BC, King Wu of the Zhou dynasty sought governing experience from a Shang minister, Duke Ji. According to Duke Ji, the Chinese kings had ruled the country based on nine principles since Yu the Great around 2200 BC. The seventh of the nine principles is about divination. It is a reliable source to see how divination was carried out during the Shang dynasty. (《Collection of Ancient Texts: Great Principles 尚書﹕洪範》)
According to Duke Ji, the first thing for the king was to select and appoint the right persons as diviners. For one issue, the king had to ask three diviners to perform divination and take the two identical readings as the final result, which is consisted with the archaeological finding that divination was often repeated for a single issue.
According to Duke Ji, the king, when facing a difficult issue, had to think it over himself first, and then consult with his ministers, his people, and finally consult with divination. There were six possible ways of conflicting opinions among divination by oracle bones, divination by milfoil stalks, the king, the ministers, and the people (Table 1). It clearly indicates that the Chinese super state had no forceful authority. The ruling class had to learn how to deal with different opinions, and it might well have facilitated the development of subjective consciousness.
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Although Julian Jaynes’ Theory of the Bicameral Mind has not been widely accepted in the field of modern psychology, this essay provides a new view to the same issue coverying several aspects of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.
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