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Slugs leave trails, sheep leave droppings, bees make honey, and humans leave two things: art and garbage. Where these meet is called entertainment.

Robyn Hitchcock


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Sunday, May 29th, 2011

Further to historical accuracy

I'm heartened to read, in Jan Sleutels' essay "Greek Zombies: On the Alleged Absurdity of Substantially Unconscious Greek Minds," (from Philosophical Psychology, 2006) that he "will not try to establish that the claims made by Jaynes are historically correct... For present purposes it suffices that the data make sense." -- I get the feeling from this of being on the same wavelength as Sleutels, trying to establish the weak claim that Jaynes' ideas are plausible rather than the strong claim that they are an accurate description of history.

Most of the authors whose work appears in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness agree that there are four related but independent theses in Jaynes. John Limber summarizes the theses as: "(1) human consciousness from language, (2) the role of verbal hallucinations in the ancient bicameral mind, (3) the history/timing of the changeover, and (4) the underlying biology" -- these essays seem to focus primarily on defending points (1) and (2). Sleutels is the only author who really devotes much energy to point (3), to Jaynes' assertion that the historical changeover to consciousness consisting of an internal mind-space and a narrative self occurred as recently as 3000 years ago; he is devoting his energy to defending the plausibility of the assertion rather than its accuracy, probably wise.

How does he do? I think he makes his task much more difficult than it needs to be by using language which implies this changeover occurred abruptly, in an on/off fashion. It seems to me that if you are saying consciousness is a social construct, a learned behavior, then that statement necessarily entails a long period, likely thousands of years, in which society is adopting this behavior, constructing this concept, learning this vocabulary. Jaynes and Sleutels both compare consciousness to baseball as a practice which necessarily entails its concept -- i.e. you cannot play baseball without having a concept of the game of baseball, you cannot be conscious without having a vocabulary to describe the mental state of consciousness. But this seems a little limited to me. There is no Abner Doubleday of consciousness. If the internal mind-space and narrative self which Jaynes describes are going to arise out of the process he describes, a process of applying concrete vocabulary metaphorically to abstract states and internalizing those metaphors, I don't see how that could possibly happen in a sudden fashion. When I'm reading Jaynes' timeline I'm thinking of his 1300 bc date as a date for this long, gradual process to come to fruition; he declares himself that well before that time, society had grown to the point where it was difficult and stressful to maintain a bicameral state of unconsciousness, what Sleutels is calling a "zombie" state.

That said, I liked Sleutels' essay a lot; its entertaining title was the least of it. The arguments he is refuting from Ned Block are atrociously poor (assuming he is quoting the best of what Block has to offer). Looks like I ought to find out more about Daniel Dennett. (Also, interesting recommendation from John: The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature by Bruno Snell.)

At YouTube, you can listen to Sleutels giving a lecture on "Greek Zombies" at the 2006 Julian Jaynes Conference on Consciousness at the University of Prince Edward Island.

posted morning of May 29th, 2011: Respond
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Saturday, May 28th, 2011

Tutankhamun means "the living form of Amun"

The key to [the King Tut] exhibit is...back in the Valley of the Kings on the north wall of the burial chamber. ...The second figure from the right is a depiction of the mummy as if it had just been stood up erect from where it lay and dressed as Osiris, the god of gods that each king becomes at what we call death.

Facing him... is Tutankamun's successor, Ay, caped in the sacramental leopard skin usual in such succession scenes. In his hand is a wrench-like prying instrument... What Ay is doing is well known and described in hieroglyphics that translate as "The Opening of the Mouth" of Tutankhamun's mummy.

A strange phrase. ...But not so strange to anyone remembering the history of a thousand miles to the east and a few centuries earlier In the great city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates, gods were wooden statues or idols, elaborately dressed, jeweled, and anointed, which from time to time underwent a ceremony called in cuneiform "The Washing of the Mouth." The idol was ritually carried to the river, where its wooden mouth was washed out with solutions of exotic ingredients as it was faced in various directions. And cuneiform texts state that such statues spoke and commanded their votaries what to do.

-- Julian Jaynes
"The Meaning of King Tut"
Art/World Magazine, 1979

My archetypal reaction to Jaynes' writing: the bicameral-mind explanation of this mural seems completely plausible, so strongly so that I can't imagine its not being correct. But on the other hand... this is not at all my area of expertise. I can confirm via Google that the ceremonies Jaynes is referring to existed historically. So... I am just going to treat Jaynes' ideas as historically accurate and see where that leads me. Here is what the Egyptian Book of the Dead has to say about the mouth-opening ceremony, in Miriam Lichtheim's translation:

My mouth is opened by Ptah,
My mouth's bonds are loosed by my city-god.
Thoth has come fully equipped with spells,
He looses the bonds of Seth from my mouth.
Atum has given me my hands,
They are placed as guardians.

My mouth is given to me,
My mouth is opened by Ptah,
With that chisel of metal
With which he opened the mouth of the gods.
I am Sekhmet-Wadjet who dwells in the west of heaven,
I am Sahyt among the souls of On.

posted afternoon of May 28th, 2011: Respond

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Μελέτη της Ψυχής

Holding as we do that, while knowledge of any kind is a thing to be honoured and prized, one kind of it may, either by reason of its greater exactness or of a higher dignity and greater wonderfulness in its objects, be more honourable and precious than another, on both accounts we should naturally be led to place in the front rank the study of the soul.

--Aristotle
De Anima
(tr. J.A. Smith)

An interesting tidbit from Scott Greer's essay "A Knowing Noos and a Slippery Psychê: Jaynes's Recipe for an Unnatural Theory of Consciousness": Jaynes' estate library includes a copy of The Basic Works of Aristotle, in which the pages of De Anima are (unlike anything else in the library) covered with marginalia -- clearly it was an important book for Jaynes.

Funnily enough I have the same edition of Aristotle -- I have not read any of his works but I did make a brief stab at De Anima 11 years ago.* My pages of De Anima have some annotations, the early pages, but they are generally more of the "trying to unravel the syntax" sort than the "introducing original insight" sort. Next to the opening sentence (quoted above) I have written, "There are types of knowledge; some types are more desirable. The best type is the study of the soul."

*And there must have been some sort of faking-having-read Politics or portions thereof in freshman year of college. I've also (that I can remember) made attempts to read Metaphysics and On Generation and Corruption, but not really gotten anywhere with any of them.

posted evening of May 22nd, 2011: Respond

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Streams of Consciousness

I shut my eyes and try not to think, but consciousness still streams on, a great river of contents in a succession of different conditions which I have been taught to call thoughts, images, memories, interior dialogues, regrets, wishes, resolves, all interweaving with the constantly changing pageant of exterior sensations of which I am selectively aware.

-- Julian Jaynes
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Here is something that has been running through my head as I read John Limber's essay "Language and Consciousness: Jaynes' 'Preposterous Idea' Reconsidered": What about meditation? I have had mixed results with my occasional attempts over the years to meditate; but my understanding is that it is intended to address precisely this state of streamingly verbal consciousness. When one is in a successfully meditative state, so I believe, the stream of thoughts, images, memories, interior dialogues, regrets, wishes, resolves falls away and one is left with quiet interiority... Is this a reversion to bicamerality? In his piece "The Self as Interiorized Social Relations," Brian McVeigh suggests (if I am taking his point correctly -- it is an extremely dense essay) that hypnosis and spiritual possession can be seen as forms of reversion to the bicameral mentality. I wonder if meditation is another point in the same continuum -- I have heard meditative prayer described as "listening to the voice of God" which is certainly suggestive of something along these lines.

posted afternoon of May 21st, 2011: 2 responses

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Eidetic imagery in art

For my birthday gift, Ellen and Sylvia gave me Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes' Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited, recently published by Marcel Kuijsten of the Julian Jaynes Society. Thanks, Ellen and Sylvia! It was just what I wanted.

Started reading the book last night -- not much to say about it yet other than it is a lot of fun to read and thought-provoking. I wanted to quote some passages about occurrences of hallucinated imagery in visual and textual art. (The first essay in the book, after a prefatory biography of Jaynes, is a short piece Jaynes wrote for Art/World magazine in 1981 called "The Ghost of a Flea: Visions of William Blake", about Blake as a transcriber of heard voices.)

I'm interested to read Jaynes' 1979 article "Paleolithic Cave Paintings as Eidetic Images", not reprinted in this volume but referenced a few times -- this is a great book if considered only as a source of outside references. Kuijsten references a couple of other writers in support of the idea that cave paintings are transcribed hallucinations, including

David Lewis-Williams, who argues that cave art was painted by individuals hallucinating in trance states. Lewis-Williams noticed similarities between recent rock art of the San tribe of the Kalahari and that of much older European cave art. He learned that modern San shaman engage in trance dances to "contact another world" for various purposes such as healing the sick, then noticed that the San rock art from past generations did not depict scenes from daily life but in fact represented spiritual experience and trance.
Kuijsten also talks about European and American writers, poets and artists who
have been known to draw inspiration from actual hallucinations. Judith Weissman discusses this in her book, Of Two Minds: Poets Who Hear Voices [ooh! another ref. to follow up...]. V.S. Ramachandran... describes visual hallucinations in the writer and artist James Thurber. Thurber was blind by the age of 35 and experienced visual hallucinations that he incorporated into his work. ...

While in Egypt in 1904, [Aleister Crowley] claims that for three days between the hour of noon and 1pm his "Holy Guardian Angel" Aiwass dictated the Book of the Law to him. In his book Equinox of the Gods, Crowley describes the event in detail, saying that as he sat at his desk, the voice of Aiwass came from over his left shoulder in the furthest corner of the room. ...Crowley himself did not entirely rule out the possibility that the voice came from his own mind:

Of course I wrote them, ink on paper, in the material sense; but they are not My words, unless Aiwass be taken to be no more than my subconscious self, or some part of it; in that case, my conscious self being ignorant of the Truth in the Book and hostile to most of the ethics and philosophy of the Book, Aiwass is a severely suppressed part of me. Such a theory would further imply that I am, unknown to myself, possessed of all sorts of præternatural knowledge and power.

posted evening of May 19th, 2011: Respond

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

Inspiration, Perspiration

A question I need to ask myself about The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: What does it mean for me to say I like this book, to say that it has influenced my thinking?

I read a lot of novels and stories, and the notion of being influenced by a book I've read is a familiar one to me in the case of fiction -- it means the images from the story have become part of my intellectual currency, part of the landscape of imagery on which I live my internal life... Jaynes' book is clearly not a novel; in order to assimilate his imagery do I need to make the assertion that I believe his psychological theory to be true?

That would be a difficult assertion for me to make. I am not a historian or a neurologist -- while some of the historical and neurological evidence he lays out to back up his theory sounds convincing, some sounds strained, I don't ultimately have the background to judge it valid or not. I appreciate his literary analysis of The Iliad -- it greatly enriches my reading of the poem -- but have trouble accepting that as the basis for a historical theory of consciousness. So I am going to go with the much weaker assertion that Jaynes' model resonates with me: that it gives me a plausible means of understanding my own consciousness, one that matches up with the moments of inspiration which have been part of my experience.

And ultimately that is really what I'm looking for -- a way to understand inspiration. What I'm looking for is a way to write, and to write I need inspiration. The idea that the inspiration coming all-too-seldom to me is the pre-conscious voice of an internal God, and that the perspiration necessary to turn that voice into writing is the process of giving birth to consciousness, well... it works for me. YMMV. (And note, this blog post like most of my posts is almost completely inspiration-free -- a couple of wording choices may have the freshness of inspiration, but in general it is written self-consciously, a product of striving to get at the source of inspiration... That is for me a necessary part of the process.)

posted morning of May 7th, 2011: 2 responses

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Varieties of Religious Experience: Prophecy

I've been rereading Julian Jaynes' The Birth of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind -- a book which I read shortly before I started blogging about reading and which has pretty strongly influenced my ways of thinking -- and thinking there is a lot I want to write about it; but nothing is coming together yet when I sit down to write about it. Instead I want to quote a passage from another book, from William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, a passage which surprised me when I happened across it this afternoon.

I was raised a Quaker but never really learned much about George Fox. I guess to the extent that I have any image of him, it is as an ethereal, meditative pacifist, a thoughtful, reflective man. Below the fold, James quotes a passage from Fox' journals which shows him in full-on bicameral, hallucinatory prophet mode. Check it out.

posted evening of May 5th, 2011: 1 response
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Monday, July 21st, 2003

Unity, Duality

I opened The Birth of Tragedy to the first page of the main text (i.e. not counting the Critical Backward Glance or the Foreword to Wagner) and read the following first sentence:

Much will be gained for aesthetics once we have succeeded in apprehending directly — rather than merely ascertaining that art owes its continuous evolution to the Apollonian-Dionysiac duality, even as the propagation of the species depends on the duality of the sexes, their constant conflicts and periodic acts of reconciliation. [emphasis added, except "ascertaining" is emphasized in the original]

Well that sentence sort of knocked me for a loop. I will confess before I start laying this on you, that what I have come up with bears a bit of a tenuous relationship to this particular book, and is probably more pertinent (if still not that solidly so) to Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I am going to assume that you have read the latter, or have some knowledge of Jaynes' ideas.

What got me going is Nietzsche's formulation, "apprehending directly — rather than merely ascertaining" -- I have seen similar formulations before and never remarked on them -- the idea is pretty straightforward and familiar to me, and I would think to others as well. But look at the distinction -- what is implied is ('scuse me while I use my big words)1 a dualistic epistemology. There are two ways of knowing, at "first hand" and at "second hand", and the two are not necessarily closely related or part of the same process. And this is where I want to bring in Jaynes' idea of the bicameral mind.

Ascertaining, "coming to know", is different from knowing because it involves the willful intervention of the conscious mind. If I did not treat my conscious mind as a separate entity, there would be no need for such a distinction. My thinking is that this conscious "other" is the modern vestige of the bicameral voice Jaynes wrote about -- and I believe this fits in with what Nietzsche is writing about as well; I will talk about that when I write about the text.

What interests me right now, is dualism. I have felt for a long time that there is something wrong with dualistic metaphysics, and something right about monistic metaphics; but have never been able to explain to myself the common-sensical appeal of dualism. That is to say, both dualism and monism have attractive features but they will not fit together in the same box. But now I am realizing I can combine a monistic metaphysics with a dualistic psychology and end up with an extremely coherent world-view. (Why I should want such a thing is left open to question.)

---

1 I write about philosophy as a layman. Some concepts demand technical descriptions, which I use in the hope that I am not embarassing myself with misuse. Here are my understandings of terms I use here or plan to use in the near future:

dualism
This needs an entry of its own, or several; but basically I'm talking about a worldview which splits the universe into two types of being, usually along the lines of "mental" and "physical". Think of Plato's theory of forms as a good representative.
monism
The opposite of dualism, the idea that everything in the universe is in one category or something like that.
metaphysics
A statement or group of statements about what matter the universe is made up of.
psychology
A statement or group of statements about what constitutes the human mind.
epistemology
A statement or group of statements about how the human mind can come to understand the universe.
When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

-- Humpty-Dumpty

posted evening of July 21st, 2003: Respond
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