Debate Magazine

Ghosts of Julian Jaynes

By Cris

Over at n+1, Rachel Aviv has posted a perceptive piece on Julian Jaynes, whose dichotomous fate veers wildly between (scientific) derision and (popular) adoration. I prefer a middle position, one which recognizes that while Jaynes may have gotten many things wrong, he at least asked the right questions and pursued synthetic answers in ways that could yield tremendous insights.

In this post, I addressed Jaynes’ primary thesis at some length and identified where he went wrong. While the basic structure of his argument rings or feels true, Jaynes was way off in his timelines and seems to have known almost nothing about human evolution, behavioral modernity, non-written prehistory, and cognitive architecture. Had Jaynes lived longer, had access to the past 35 years of scholarly work in these subjects, and exercised some restraint, I’m confident that his long contemplated (but never published) second book would have been an even bigger bombshell. But he didn’t, so he continues to suffer his dual fate.

In this excerpt, Aviv points us toward another middle way of reading Jaynes:

Critics have praised The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) for accounting for the role of religion in shaping consciousness—Richard Dawkins wrote that it is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between!”—but thirty years after its publication, the book feels most relevant as a critique of science. In a 1970 essay, “The Study of the History of Psychology,” Jaynes criticizes psychologists for repeatedly asking the same questions, formulating them in increasingly obscure ways, while ignoring the long history in which these questions have already been studied. They fail to grasp that there is “a kind of truth in the history of a science which transcends the science itself,” Jaynes writes.

Though Jaynes here is talking about psychology as a discipline and psychologists as practitioners, I can’t help but think these remarks are equally apropos when it comes to many scholars now working in the interdisciplinary field of evolutionary religious studies. They hardly seem cognizant of the fact that their field isn’t new and that most of their questions have already been studied, often in great detail, with considerable subtlety, and tremendous range.

When E. Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley announced a new and seemingly fresh cognitive approach to religion in the early 1990s, those who responded and got on board seem not to have bothered with the already enormous scope and history of the subject. This has resulted in the re-discovery of much that was already known. It has also resulted in the pursuit of investigative paths that may not be productive.

“Intellectualist” or cognitive and evolutionist approaches to religion have a 140 year old history and a 110 year history of critique. While not all of this history and critique is valid or well-taken, much of it is. Deep awareness of this history would serve modern evolutionary scholars well, and save all of us from false-starts, dead-ends, blind-alleys, and re-hashed stories.

darwin word tree art

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