On the origins of consciousness and of the I

Throughout his studies, Julian Jaynes (1976) has been very well-acquainted with Buber’s dialogics and especially with Peirce’s structural categories. He analyses the origins of consciousness and the I in his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”.

Consciousness is the human being’s (the body’s) spatial and action-oriented interpretation of his own existential surroundings.

According to Jaynes, consciousness is, however, not that necessary for a person’s function. Consciousness is a relatively new invention bound by history.

The concept of I is one part of the historical product which is consciousness and therefore both consciousness and the concept of the I are creations of history and can be changed in history.

Jaynes presents a long list of historical examples and evidence to show how consciousness and the I have developed step-by-step down through history. (Some of these “facts” seem obvious, others fantastic and others still utopian. However, I have chosen to use the sum of these historical “facts” in the literature as “theory”.)

Until the present day, consciousness and the I have developed through three phases:

  1. Human feelings, instincts, decisions and actions were recognised 3 - 5000 years ago as being caused by “divine” intervention, i.e. the work of the Godsthrough Man.

At that time, human beings had no free will and were not conscious in the same way as modern Western Man is today. That is why human beings were then not responsible for their actions because their actions were carried out in response to messages and orders from the Gods.

Jaynes justifies this with a reference to the two halves of the human brain. All the non-linguistic activity in the right side of the brain is signalled by the left side of the brain in the form of voices (which were later materialised in the form of gods and amulets), “messages and information from the Gods” who spoke inside people’s heads.

Incidentally, the majority of people function most of the time without an ego-consciousness. We are not aware of it because we are not conscious of it whilst we are doing it. If we were, we wouldn’t then be unconscious of it - because we cannot be conscious of what we aren’t conscious of, simply because the conscious is conscious.

  1. Jaynes describes, by means of reference to analyses and quotations from the classics of Greek literature and especially from the Old Testament, how people in the Middle Eastern cultures in the second century BC were faced with change. Through the failure of their environment, the migration of the peoples with the consequent confrontations, wars, natural disasters and social collapse, people learned about other cultures. As language began to appear in writing, the power and magic of the spoken word and storytelling was weakened. The Gods could no longer speak - or at least they stopped speaking to people. (God has forsaken me!) Confrontations and conflict tempted people to regress and return to their gods, to let the gods shoulder responsibility or to put the blame on them for all the misery in the world when the conflicts became too violent to bear, or to interpret their misery as God’s anger.

These situations are not only described in the Old Testament but also in the stories of the Greek heroes. The world had become ambivalent and people - described via the reactions of the judges, the prophets and the Greek heroes - had to come to terms with division and ambiguity. They had to make personal choices where the subject, the I, became conscious of his own free will to choose.

As the I confronted its surroundings (and vice versa), the monotheistic God emerged, together with problems of morality and conscience. The human being began to view himself from outside himself and was obliged to consider how the conscious self ought to behave in relation to himself and to others in certain concrete situations.

Jaynes coolly sets an historical data for the origin of consciousness: i.e. when Solon of Athens introduced democracy around the year 500 BC.

  1. Jaynes’ analyses suggest three phases in this historical development:

Firstly: a pre-conscious phase, where people had no free will and acted spontaneously and directly on the commands of their many gods, the inner voices.

Secondly, a socially conscious phase, where free will is regulated by conflict, confrontation and social contacts. Social norms and laws (based on the Ten Commandments formulated by God and delivered by a striking personality) determine the framework for the community which is defined through appeals, warnings, stage performances and ceremonies.

In the third phase, the personally conscious phase, the relationship between God and Man is again internalised (as it was in the pre-conscious phase) but now there is a balance between the conscious and the unconscious, although from time to time the I has great difficulty confirming itself when consciousness insists on the absence of unconsciousness. Thought and action have become one and the same thing as Man’s free will and personal, individual choice involves the possibility for breaking the Commandments/laws - for sinning in both thought and deed.



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