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The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Paperback – Aug 15 2000
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When Julian Jaynes . . . speculates that until late in the twentieth millennium b.c. men had no consciousness but were automatically obeying the voices of the gods, we are astounded but compelled to follow this remarkable thesis." - John Updike The New Yorker "
About the Author
Julian Jaynes (1923-1997) achieved an almost cult-like reputation for this controversial book, which was his only published work.
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Top Customer Reviews
I found it very challenging to get through. For example, I remember spending an entire commute (about an hour) considering the thoughts presented on one page. I initially rejected Jaynes' contention on that page. It took me an of consideration to conclude that he was entirely correct.
Considering the amount of thought required though, this book is really a page turner of a sort.
Jaynes' main thesis, that consciousness evolved due to changes that evolved in the brain around 2 thousand years ago, is fascinating, and, in my opinion, well supported by the evidence he presents. However, I have not concluded that it is entirely true.
Nevertheless, this book is a must read for intelligent, curious people regardless of whether his theory is eventually proven true.
Specifically, I have received the following benefits from reading this book:
I understand why some activities are much easier to learn by visual observation and why oral instruction is often detrimental in learning to perform physical activities. This helped me teach my children how to ride their bicycles.
I understand the significance of Christ in western culture, and why our calendar is divided into pre and post christ eras.
I understand my feelings concerning the loss of my parents.
Less specifically, I understand many things about people.
I owe Jaynes credit for teaching me these things through the reading of his book.
The book is basically an elegant and meticulously detailed theory about the historical appearance in humans of what we call consciousness. The tough sledding referred to by many of the other reviewers, I think, is in his explication of what precisely consciousness IS, and how that differs from our common misconceptions about it. This part, admittedly, is no page- turner: I had to stop and think frequently just to make sense of what he was saying and trying to relate that to my own experience.
But the definitional foundation pays off as Jaynes places the origin of human consciousness into the historical timeline, and starts applying it to the ancient literature of the Old Testament and the Iliad, and to several curiosities in idols observed throughout the prehistoric world. This is the portion of the book that I found breathtaking. In particular, reading the Old Testament has a resonance for me that it never had before. As a modern skeptic, many of these stories were difficult for me to think about: there seemed to be no middle ground between thinking of the stories as cultural fabrications or else having to confront the odd hypothesis that they are records of a completely implausible reality. Now the stories are revealing in ways that I never would have imagined.Read more ›
I also note that the author taught at Princeton University (he died in 1997), so his theories ought to have received a hearing. But apparently the follow-up book he intended was never published, and he was considered somewhat of a maverick, if not quite a crackpot. This website offers some perspective: [...]
His theory, in simplest terms, is that until about 3000 years ago, all of humankind basically heard voices. The voices were actually coming from the other side of the brain, but because the two hemispheres were not in communication the way they are now for most of us, the voices seemed to be coming from outside. The seemed, in fact, to be coming from God or the gods.
So far, so good. That is certainly imaginable to most of us, because we know that schizophrenics and some others still hear voices in apparently this manner today.
But he also posits that many sophisticated civilizations were created by men and women who were all directed by these godlike voices. What is not very clearly explained (a serious gap in his theory) is how all the voices in these "bicameral civilizations," as he calls them, worked in harmony. But his theory is that ancient Greece, Babylon, Assyria, Egpyt, and less ancient but similar Mayan and Incan kingdoms were all built by people who were not "conscious" in our modern sense.
When one hears voices, whether then or now, the voices tend to be commanding and directive, and the need to obey them compelling. Free will is not possible.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
This book is the only one Jaynes (1920 - 1997) ever published. Although he is widely considered a kook, serious authors do quote those of his ideas that corroborate their... Read morePublished on Aug. 8 2011 by Mira de Vries
This book is my all time favorite. Whether you agree with its every statement or not is irrelevant, it is refreshingly original and will start you thinking about what awareness and... Read morePublished on July 25 2009 by Lexa Sharp
Jaynes' book is hardly new (1977), but it stands the test of time remarkably well. It does so not because Jaynes' ideas have proven correct (the jury is out, perhaps forever), but... Read morePublished on Aug. 16 2007 by Scott Greer
Since you are reading this, you are obviously reading readers' reviews. I read all the reviews and don't understand half (actually more like 95%) of what all these full time... Read morePublished on Oct. 9 2005 by HDT
I read this book about 20 years ago, and it still stands out in my mind as a very interesting theory. I initially believed it, but then developed doubts. Read morePublished on July 6 2004 by Peter McCluskey
This book is disturbingly ill-reasoned tripe. Do NOT listen to the positive reviews that have been granted this work, as they ignore the fundamental problems that are endemic in... Read morePublished on Feb. 24 2004 by BENJAMIN DENKINGER
An extraordinary, challenging, enduring idea lies at the core of this book: an idea that encompasses and seeks to explicate the birth of consciousness, and thus the origin and... Read morePublished on Jan. 8 2004 by MR C TERRY
I cannot say enough good things about this book. This is an absolute masterpiece, one of the top five books of the Twentieth century. Read morePublished on June 2 2003 by Ross James Browne
Impressive. (THOSE WHO ARE WRITING PAPERS IN HISTORY OR CLASSICS OR ENGLISH COMP/LIT TAKE NOTE: there are some good quotes and some interesting and useful concepts in this... Read morePublished on May 19 2003 by Atheen