Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind has been making the rounds over the past year or so (despite originally having been published in 1976 – I blame Westworld.)
I read it last summer, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was wholly skeptical of the premise as I had encountered it prior to reading the book, in particular the shift from bicamerality to unicamerality/consciousness happening in such a brief period over such a wide area. (Spoiler: a good part of it is driven by the advent and diffusion of literacy.)
The book was not at all what I was expecting. It’s a deep dive into the anthropology and history of archaic cultures and early civilizations, particularly those of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, and what our knowledge (as of the mid-1970s) tells us about their conception of knowledge and its origins, what that reveals about the structure and operation of their minds, and how these things evolved over thousands of years – first glacially and then all at once.
There are plenty of summaries and analyses of the book and Jaynes’ ideas, however, so I’ll focus instead on an aspect that I find particularly interesting: the reaction to it all.
My take is pretty common, and I would say properly scientific: the book is a flood of interesting ideas and conjectures, some of which are argued more convincingly than others, but which overall are very thought-provoking and point in a potentially useful and informative direction. One can and should read it (as all science books) with open-minded skepticism, and tease out the useful threads of inquiry. As I’ve seen it put by several readers, Jaynes may not have hit a home run, but he’s definitely on the field – however flawed or limited, there is a “there” there that merits consideration and further exploration.
And then there are the reactions from the “scientifically-minded”.
Because it’s not wholly-accepted and Expert-Approved Science™, or employs some evidence which has been overturned in subsequent decades, or engages in conjecture which is (of necessity given the antiquity of the examples) unfalsifiable, they write the whole thing off as pseudoscience.
Which is itself an unscientific attitude to take, but one which is all-too-common among those who fucking love Science™ but are utterly bereft of the curiosity and ability to think independently which are essential to true science. If science is supposed to be about the discovery of knowledge and the development of understanding about reality, closing one’s mind to new ideas and dismissing potential insights in this manner is plainly counterproductive.