Julian Jaynes' "Preposterous hypothesis [1] "

John Limber [2]

University of New Hampshire, Durham NH 03824


I first heard Julian James speak when he visited UNH about 1975; his topic was that of his forthcoming book on consciousness, language, and the bicameral mind. (Jaynes, 1976/1990).   In his talk he proposed that human consciousness -- suitably delimited [3] -- was a cultural artifact, based on structural and functional aspects of human language, brought about by upheavals in society due to eruption, migration, conquest, as well as the onset of trade and the invention of writing.   Most remarkably -- some might say incredibly -- this fundamental change in human nature occurred within the last few thousand years.  He supported this tale with his interpretation of the history of early civilization, evidence from neuropsychololgy, clinical psychology, and his own analyses of ancient texts where he argued the lack of mental state words like think or believe and the like in those texts indicated that the people of those times did not think or believe.

For Jaynes, the subjective human conscious mind was essentially an analog to the real world, what cognitive scientists today might call a representational mind. [4]

My immediate reaction to the talk was that of a number subsequent reviewers of the book -- intriguing yet preposterous [5] !  There was no way human language could have taken on such a burden so rapidly.  Jaynes speculation on the functioning of the cerebral hemispheres went far beyond the evidence available at the time.  How could it be that the builders of the pyramids or inventors of writing were not conscious?   Finally, why did I find in my own research [6] that 30-40 month old children -- unlike the characters in Jaynes' ancient texts -- used mental state words like think Could our children be "conscious" but even the adults in ancient Egypt were not?   Was Jaynes just recycling a more sophisticated version of the behaviorist/relativist dogma of Watson/Whorf that thinking was subvocal speech [7] ?  And what was all this about "gods" and religion anyway?

Other's response to OC

I confess I did not thoroughly read OC until some fifteen years later after I had myself become interested in what might be called "comparative consciousness" (Limber, 1996) -- the idea that interspecies communication using human-based codes might reveal shared interspecies consciousness.  By this time a second edition of OC -- with a new brief afterward -- had appeared.  And a third edition by Penguin was issued in England.  A reviewer in the New Scientist of 17 July 1993 wondered "how many students of cognitive science have read this deeply unfashionable book under, as it were, the bed-covers?  Someone is certainly reading it  Holderness (1993)."

While bedtime reading data are hard to come by, a check of citations shows that OC continued to receive a substantial number of yearly citations over its more than twenty year existence.  Comparing OC with two other books published on similar topics, Bateson's (1979) Mind and Nature and Penfield's (1975) Mystery of the Mind reveals OC was not ignored over that period. 


See  Figure 1.


Some of these citations are in connection with Dan Dennett's work on consciousness where he advocates a notion similar to Jaynes on the role of language but without embracing many of the collateral claims many found so intriguing -- and preposterous! But a growing number also are on the topics of schizophrenia, cultural diversity in cognition, and of course, religion.

The future of OC?

Jaynes was writing into a wave of cresting cognitivism when OC was published.  Chomksy (1964) had rallied many of the younger scientists dissatisfied with behaviorist scientism; even self-described behaviorists like Osgood (1953) had already alluded to a representational mind.   Neisser's (1967) book, Cognitive Psychology, had achieved considerable fame with a novel Freudian-cognitive-linguistic constructive approach to cognition and consciousness.  And of course, maybe there is a little something to the traditional ideas on the role of language and cognition variously articulated by Watson, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Whorf. and others.

  This background makes it extremely difficult to make any solid claims on Jaynes impact. OC certainly marks the start of the recent renaissance in consciousness research. [8]   In addition, it serves as an example of the need for non-dogmatic, multidisciplinary perspectives on psychological problems.  Even the most critical readers come away with an appreciation for the complexity and dynamic nature of the human mind and possible connections among phenomena previously ignored.

A new millennium update of OC, incorporating recent work [9] on consciousness, evolutionary psychology, origins of language, attribution theory, theory of mind, effects of society on mind, and neuroscience could make for very interesting reading.



      Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Bantam Books.

      Block, N. (1981). Review of Julian Jayne's  Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Cognition and Brain Theory, 4, 81-83.

      Block, N. (1994). What is Dennett's theory a theory of? Philosophical Topics, 22, 23-40.

      Block, N. (1995). On a confusion about a function of consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 18, 227-288.

      Chomsky, N. (1964). Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. In J. A. Fodor & J. J. Katz (Eds.), The Structure of Language (pp. 50-118). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

      Dennett, D. (1986). Julian Jayne's software archeology. Canadian Psychology, 27, 149-154.

      Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.

      Dunbar, R. (1996). Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

      Carruthers, P., & Smith, P. K. (Eds.). (1996). Theories of theories of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

      Gazzaniga, M. (1997). Why can't I control my brain? In M. Ito, Y. Miyashita, & E. T. Rolls (Eds.), Cognition, computation, and consciousness (pp. 69-79). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

      Holderness, M. (1993, 17 July, 1993). In two minds about consciousness. New Scientist, 139, 39.

      Jaynes, J. (1976). The evolution of language in the late pleistocene. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 280, 312-325.

      Jaynes, J. (1976/1990). The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. (Second edition ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

      Limber, J. (1973). The genesis of complex sentences. In T. Moore (Ed.), Cognitive Development and the Acquisition of Language (pp. 169-186). New York: Academic Press.

      Limber, J. (1977). Language in child and chimp? , 32, 280-295 (Reprinted in Sebeok, T.  & Sebeok, J. (Eds.) (1980).  Speaking of Apes (pp.1197-1218).  New York: Plenum Press.).

      Limber, J. (1982). What can chimps tell us about the origins of language. In S. Kuczaj (Ed.), Language Development: Volume 2 (pp. 429-446). Hillsdale, NJ: L. E. Erlbaum.

      Limber, J. (1996, ). Interspecies communication, consciousness, and the cognitive verb gap. Paper presented at the Toward a scientific consciousness II, Tucson, AZ.

      Milgram, S. (1977). The individual in a social world. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

      Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive psychology. New York: Appleton Century Crofts.

      Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.

      Penfield, W. (1975). The mystery of the mind: A critical study of consciousness and the human brain. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

      Osgood, C. E. (1953). Method and theory in experimental psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Notes to the text

[1]   "The preposterous hypothesis we have come to is that human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man.  (Jaynes, 1976/1990, p. 84)  All references unless otherwise indicated are to the second edition of T­he Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  When necessary, I will refer the book as OC.   For the curious, the word "preposterous" means something like contrary to nature, reason, or common sense; absurd.  See "foolish!"

[2] Please send any suggestions or criticism to john.limber@unh.edu. Julian Jaynes' "Prposterous hypothesis". Paper presented at Cheiron conference, University of Southern Maine, June 27, 2000.

3 Jaynes tried to make clear what he meant by "consciousness" in the first chapter of the book.  He did so by enumerating eight more or less distinct perspectives on the problem, then trying to remove them from contention by pointing out their shortcomings.  In the 1990 Postscript he indicates he wished he had done a better job here, especially distinguishing his sense of consciousness from perception.

[4] " conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world.  It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. P.55"

[5] Ned Block (1981, p. 81-82), for example in reviewing OC, said "These claims are, of course, preposterous.. absurd.."  Block has gone on to write extensively on consciousness (e.g. Block, 1994, 1995) and predictably continues to maintain that "the idea that consciousness is a cultural construction is hard to take seriously."  Predictably he is also a critic of Dennett's (1991) views. Much of the criticism of OC indeed stems from this point -- often coupled with intuitions that consciousness should not be excluded from animals or infants.  Jaynes attempted to address these points but wasn't very successful overcoming such strong intuitions.  See notes 3 and 4.

[6]   At the time I had recently finished a longitudinal study on the acquisition of complex sentences in one to three year old children (Limber, 1973).  I was preparing a comparison of those children with claims about the language capacities of apes (Limber, 1977) and beginning to think about the implications of these claims for evolution of human language (Limber, 1982).  Then I realized a certain congruity of my own ideas, relying on the "Baldwin effect" with those of Jaynes (1976) on language evolution and his notion of "aptic structures."  As in much evolutionary speculation, timing is all-important.

[7] Jaynes had an excellent behaviorist heritage, going back to Watson via Lashley and Beach.  Yale, where he worked on his Ph.D. was also the home of Hull -inspired symbolic behaviorism, e.g. Osgood, 1953.

[8] Dozens of books, several new journals, and of course the three wildly popular Tucson Conscious Conferences underscore this revival.

[9] I have in mind, for example, the research in Dunbar (1998), Nisbett and Wilson (1977), Carruthers and Smith (1996), Milgram (1977), Gazzaniga (1997) and of course Dennett and his critics.

I  take this opportunity to thank the students in my recent classes on consciousness for their critical contributions to my thoughts on consciousness and Jaynes.