Lecture at the 2012 Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Symposium

The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of Private Language


In 1984 Julian Jaynes gave a lecture in Kirchberg entitled “Four Hypotheses on the Origin of Mind”. The first of these hypotheses and most interesting from a philosophical point of view states that subjective consciousness is a social construction dependent on language, built upon metaphors of behaviour in the physical world.

Wittgenstein would perhaps have been in sympathy with Jaynes. He too thought that consciousness is not some “private theatre”. Inner processes at the bottom of conscious thought, accessible only to the individual, he called a “dangerous metaphor”.

Like Jaynes Wittgenstein held that language is logically prior to consciousness and when he claimed that dogs cannot be hypocrites but also not sincere Jaynes would certainly have agreed. And like Jaynes Wittgenstein was not afraid to be accused of behaviouristic tendencies.

1. Jaynes in Kirchberg

Very nearly 30 years ago, in 1984, Julian Jaynes gave a lecture here in Kirchberg where he summarized his theory on the origin and nature of consciousness, a theory that he had introduced in his best-selling book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

He proposed what has been called the “rarest of things: an absolutely original idea” (Stove 2006, p. 271). His main hypotheses was that consciousness is based on language and that consciousness developed only around three thousand years ago and is in fact a cultural construction. This alone was original and shocking enough, it not only meant that little children and all animals were not conscious but even our ancestors who built pyramids and invented written language were denied the gift of consciousness.

In addition he postulated a preconscious mentality he called bicameral mind, based on a double brain neurological model (people hallucinated the voices of dead rulers giving orders on how to behave in stress situations). He explained the origin of religion, schizophrenia, and he had some definite views on the origin and function of language. A lot of the evidence he drew from his reading of ancient texts analysing for example the difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey. No wonder he himself called his theory preposterous (Jaynes 1976, p. 76). If true, his views should have had an impact on science comparable only to Darwin, Galileo or Freud.

But more than 30 years after the publication it seems that Jaynes has left few traces. In the vast literature on consciousness he is all but ignored. If he is mentioned even by someone who has obviously absorbed some Jaynesian thought as Antonio Domasio or Daniel Dennett then only in passing or he said to be seen as idiosyncratic and indeed eccentric and treated as a straw man listed among “hardliners” more or less denying the existence of consciousness. (Donald 2001, p. 35).

The fact that Jaynes is not discussed more widely these days can be explained in a number of ways (see Kuijysten 2006). One of the main reasons, it seems to me, why people do not embrace his theory of consciousness is that it is contrary to a paradigm of science that seems to indicate that man is meant to be removed further and further away from the position he once held as crown of creation. And even worse, it is easy to misread Jaynes in a way that makes his theory ethnocentric.

But few, if any of his main arguments, have actually been proven wrong. And so he might still like Copernicus, or Mendel or Wegener before him be recognized later on.

When I was sitting here listening to Jaynes all these years ago, I thought that Jaynes had deliberately chosen to talk here because he felt that he would find open minds among philosophers used to the unconventional ways of Wittgensteinian thinking. In fact, he was invited to give the lecture and probably did not give too much thought on the audience he was going to face here.

In a way a philosopher like Wittgenstein, who claimed not to be interested in building up a theory or starting a school but limited himself to asking questions and making us mistrust our deepest philosophical convictions could not be more different from a psychologist like Jaynes who gave us a huge theory with impact not only on philosophy but also on neurology, psychiatry, history and religion among other fields. The difference in style is enormous. Whereas Jaynes is crystal clear, maybe a bit on the pompous side (“Lo, and behold”) Wittgenstein was terse but enigmatic even though he used simple everyday language. Still, there were a lot of things Jaynes had in common with Wittgenstein it seemed to me. And I promised myself that I would work out some of these common traits in the thinking of these two men.

2. The Problem of Other Minds

There are two very different views to the question which creatures are to be counted among the ones possessing consciousness.

One school claims that it is doubtful that other conscious minds exist at all. Here is how John Stuart Mill poses the question: “By what evidence do I know, or by what considerations am I led to believe, that there exist other sentient creatures; that the walking and speaking figures which I see and hear, have sensations and thoughts, or in other words, possess Minds?” (Quoted by Malcolm 1966, p. 371)

His answer is that the conclusion can be drawn by analogy. Since other people seem to behave as he does in certain circumstances he is obliged to conclude that their bodily actions are caused by feelings. He cannot perceive their feelings though and is granting the possibility that other people are automatons.

Descartes, of course, after a clever train of thought having convinced himself that he himself exists could only arrive at the conclusion that other people like himself existed by the detour of proving the existence of God first and by being sure that God would not deceive us by populating the world by demons who just behaved like he does. The same, unfortunately, could not be said about animals that were seen by Descartes indeed as automatons. The other school sees consciousness nearly everywhere. John Searle, for example, lets us know: “My dog, Gilbert, is plainly conscious....” (Searle 2011) Thomas Nagel famously thought that we do not know what it is to be like a bat but he was very sure that the bat does know. Only extremists, he says, have been prepared to deny the existence of consciousness even for other mammals (Nagel 1974).

In this sense Jaynes certainly is an extremist. He denies that consciousness evolved through natural selection and that human consciousness differs only in degree from the consciousness of our fellow creatures.

3. What Consciousness is not

Not surprisingly Jaynes’s solution of the problem of the origin of consciousness starts with a clarification of the notion of consciousness.

He insists that consciousness is not to be equaled with sense perception. It is not what he calls reactivity, it is not a copy of experience. Otherwise, how could I imagine things I did not experience? Even in conscious memory we do not relive some thing that happened to us but we reconstruct it. In his lecture he asked his audience to think of the last time they were swimming. And I, for sure, saw myself swimming from a bird’s perspective. “Memory is the medium of the must-have-been” (Jaynes 1976, p. 30). Consciousness is not necessary for learning. All types of learning, he says, conditioning, motor learning and instrumental learning can occur without awareness or assistance from consciousness. He does not deny that consciousness often plays a role in learning. We decide what to learn, we give ourselves rules how to learn or go through the steps of a task to “see” were we are mistaken. But this is not learning. The same, Jaynes thinks, is true for thinking and reasoning. What does happen consciously is that we give us the instruction (Jaynes decided to use a technical term “struction” for this) for example to solve a particular problem. Wether we have to judge which of two coins is heavier or to solve a complicated mathematical problem, the actual process of reasoning “the dark leap into huge discovery [...] has no representation in consciousness.” (Jaynes 1976, p. 44)

Finally Jaynes says that it is an illusion that we are always conscious. We cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. His favourite metaphor is the flashlight in a dark room searching for something that is not illuminated.

This goes almost back to a radical behaviourist position. And Jaynes admits it does. His conclusion is that it is perfectly possible that a race of men existed that spoke and judged, reasoned and did most of the things we do but who were not conscious. And indeed he wants us to believe that humans once were not conscious and not too very long ago. But if we need not to be conscious what is the advantage of being conscious? And what is consciousness and how did it originate? Before answering this let us see what Wittgenstein has to say about consciousness.

4. Wittgenstein on Consciousness

Wittgenstein rarely uses the word “consciousness” in a technical sense. “Could one imagine a stone’s having consciousness?” (PI 390) he asks and if so why should that be of any interest to us? And the “feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between consciousness and brain-process: how does it come about that this does not come into the considerations of our ordinary life?” (PI 412)

Typically Wittgenstein asks how the word consciousness is used:

“Human beings agree in saying that they see, hear, feel, and so on (even though some are blind and some are deaf). So they are their own witnesses that they have consciousness” — But how strange this is! Whom do I really inform, if I say “I have consciousness”? What is the purpose of saying this to myself, and how can another person understand me? (PI 416)

He goes on explaining that expressions like “I see” or “I hear” or “I am conscious” do have their uses for example when I am telling it to someone who thinks I have fainted.

But is being conscious or having consciousness a fact of experience? “But doesn’t one say that a man has consciousness, and that a tree or a stone does not? — What would it be like if it were otherwise? — Would human beings all be unconscious? — No; not in the ordinary sense of the word.” (PI 418)

This is followed by a puzzling paragraph:

In what circumstances shall I say that a tribe has a chief? And the chief must surely have consciousness. Surely we can’t have a chief without consciousness! (PI 419)

If this last remark is meant ironically, which to me does not sound implausible, we would have a good authority backing up Jaynes in thinking that there could have been a world in which people were not conscious.

5. The Advantages of Consciousness

Although, according to Jaynes, a civilization is possible were consciousness is unknown it does not follow that a conscious person is not very different from an unconscious one. Consciousness, for one thing means, the ability to give one self structions. But in addition it builds duplicates or extensions of already existing mental phenomenons.

In additon to feeling pain a conscious being is able to suffer. He can concentrate instead of just giving attention. The anger of a non-conscious being can develop into hate through consciousnes. Fear can become anxiety. Shame can be transformed into guilt. Out of affection grows love etc.

These new mental abilities are all analogs of their preconscious counterpart. And whereas pain and anger can be described and understood in a behaviouristic way their counterparts cannot. But who is it who suffers and who hates? Just as consciousness creates the analog of pain it creates the analog of the self that feels pain it creates an analog “I”.

“There is nothing in consciousness that is not an analog of something that was in behavior first.” (Jaynes 1976, p. 66) It is obvious that these mental abilities have their uses. Instead of fighting when angered and risking to be killed I can have my analog I do the fighting in a fantasy. I can wait till the anger disappears or until it transforms into hate that I can hide until maybe at later time I can have my revenge when circumstances favor me. Jaynes gives the example of a man watching his wife being raped. But how do theses analogs come into existence? Jaynes answers: By the power of metaphor.

Understanding according to Jaynes always means substituting some unknown thing by something we are more familiar with. The explanation of thunderstorm for example by reference to battling gods is perfectly legitimate. It makes a strange phenomenon familiar. And for thousands of years a better explanation was neither needed nor looked for. The important thing of any explanation is that the explained thing changes the meaning of the explaining thing. Once thunderstorm is linked to battling gods it becomes part of the meaning of a god to have the ability to create thunderstorms.

Jaynes uses some technical jargon to make this clear. The metaphor consists of what he calls a metaphrand, the unfamiliar that is illuminated by the more familiar metaphier.

With every (complex) metaphor there are associations and attributes attached that he calls paraphiers and these project back as the paraphrands of the metaphrands.

Which just means that once the connection between god and thunderstorm is established, any aspect of the one will flashback and change the concept of the other. So when someone gets killed by lightning it becomes an aspect of the god to kill and from this it is an easy step to interpret the killing as punishment. Once the concept of a punishing god is established bad luck in hunting will be explained by the wrath of god and someone will come up with the idea to offer sacrifices.

Now, when someone uses the metaphor “see” for the finding, for the arriving at a solution of a problem the seeing is a metaphier of our physical world applied to the “otherwise inexpressible mental occurrence” (Jaynes 2012, p.159). The word “see” carries with it the association of space and so space becomes a paraphrand of the mental event. The spatial quality becomes, so Jaynes wants us to believe, with constant repetition the functional space of our consciousness: mind space.

And with the next step an analog to the physical body that sees is developed, an analog “I” that does the seeing in mind space.

The important thing in the ability of metaphors to create new entities is that at a certain point the new entity, the analog, can become more familiar, more real, than the original. “For a map-maker the metaphrand is the blank piece of paper on which he operates with the metaphier of the land he knows and has surveyed. But for the map-user, it is just the other way around.” (Jaynes 1976, p. 59) The map is the familiar that helps to understand the land. And so consciousness can in a sense become more familiar than the world leading in extreme cases to idealism.

6. Language

Without language there cannot be consciousness, this is the main idea of Jaynes. But more than this, there could very well be language without consciousness. And Jaynes thinks that for thousands of years this was the case.

Consciousness cannot exist without a living language and consciousness has to be learned. A child, Jaynes says, could even today be raised in a way that it would not develop consciousness. But a child learning language will also learn to develop the analog “I” and the other components of consciousness. This is done partly by drilling. People will ask the child “Do you remember this and that”. What the child learns then is that there is an “I” that is supposed to do the “remembering”. And since there is no “I” in the first place it will construct one. And of course the child learns by watching. People seem to be able to not only do what they are told to do, but they can make their own decisions. They judge, before doing something, what might be a likely outcome of an action and they adjust their doing accordingly. This is something that every child will learn to mimic. And after a while the mimicry will become the real thing. If all this is true then it is clear that Mill or Descartes are fundamentally wrong. It is senseless to doubt the existence of other minds since my own mind is only created thanks to my parents and my society implanting the “I”.

But are there not “inner” experiences? Experiences independent of language and anything we have learned? Like the pain that I feel? And isn’t the public language I am using to communicate not just a sometimes insufficient tool to explain my thoughts to the world? How could I have the feeling that something is on the tip of my tongue? Does this not prove that in a way I know what to say is logically prior to language, like some kind of private language that only gets translated?

These, of course, are exactly the questions Wittgenstein deals with. Interestingly, Wittgenstein quotes William James who mentions a deaf-mute who claimed to have had thoughts about God and the world in his youth before he was able to speak.

And Wittgenstein asks: “Are you sure—one would like to ask—that this is the correct translation of your wordless thought into words?” (PI 342) Helen Keller, of course is the witness for the defence. She testified that she was not fully conscious before she had learned language. (See Donald 2001, who thinks that Heller was naïve in thinking she was not consciouss.)

‘“But doesn’t what you say come to this: that there is no pain, for example, without pain-behaviour?”—It comes to this: only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious.’ (PI 281)

And when he gives the objection ‘“But in a fairy tale the pot too can see and hear!” he answers: “Certainly; but it can also talk.”’ (PI 282)

Again and again Wittgenstein struggles with the claim that there must be inner processes. If I only pretend to be weak, for example, in order to rob the man helping me that must be more than just behaviour. There must be an internal difference. And the proof is that I can admit my crime. This is true, says Wittgenstein, but he calls the “inner process” a dangerous metaphor. Does it follow that the intention was some kind of internal process? (RPP, I 824)

‘“Are you not really a behaviourist in disguise? Aren’t you at bottom really saying that everything except human behaviour is a fiction?”—If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction.’ (PI 307)

And this in the end is exactly what Jaynes says. There is nothing in consciousness that was not in behaviour before. So in a sense consciousness is a grammatical fiction.

7. Literature

Donald, Merlin 2001, A Mind so Rare, New York.

Jaynes, Julian 1976 The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of The Bicameral Mind, Boston.

Jaynes, Julian 2012 “Four Hypotheses on the Origin of Mind”, in: Marcel Kuijsten (ed.) The Julian Jaynes Collection, Henderson 2012, 152-165.

Kuijsten, Marcel (ed.) 2006, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited, Henderson. Malcolm, Norman 1966 “Knowledge of Other Minds”, in: George Pitcher (ed.) Wittgenstein. The Philosophical Investigations, New York, 371-383.

Nagel, Thomas 1974 “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” in: The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 435-50.

Searle, John 2011 “The Mystery of Consciousness Continues” in: The New York Review of Books, June 9.

Stove, David C. 2006, “The Oracles and Their Cessation: A Tribute to Julian Jaynes” in: Reflections, 267-294.


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