Monthly Archives: May 2009

Linguistic Scaffolding and the Evolution of Consciousness

ED: This is from the end of a paper I have been writing this summer on pragmatic externalism and the implications of Clarksian linguistic scaffolding for how we understand the evolution of consciousness. For the rest of the paper, in an unfinished form, go here.


Once we have taken seriously the notion that our human consciousness is crucially constituted by the presentation of salient features of an external environment, our investigation into human nature opens up dramatically as we examine just what has been salient to humans as civilization as developed over time. In this section, I will be exploring the ramifications of Julian Jaynes’s theory of linguistic consciousness in terms of Heideggerian externalism. By following Jaynes in claiming that the development of complex, metaphorical language is a necessary step towards full-blown human consciousness, I wish to argue in support of Jayne’s thesis that the internal mind-space of modern, intentional consciousness is an analog of the external environment.

An analog is a model, but a model of a special kind. It is not like a scientific model, whose source may be anything at all and whose purpose is to act as a hypothesis of explanation and understanding. Instead, an analog is at every point generated by the thing it is an analog of (my emphasis). A map is a good example (Jaynes, 1976, p. 54).

The concept of analog can be grasped easily in terms of the Gibsonian theory of externalist realism we have been discussing. The question then becomes, if human conscious is an analog of the environmental patterns of salience as presented to our nervous systems, then what happens when the external stimulus information specified includes language and metaphor? Would not everything change? “…metaphors increase enormously our powers of perception of the world about us and our understanding of it, and literally create new objects (my emphasis)[1]. Indeed, language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication” (Jaynes, 1976, p. 50). Heidegger would concur. Seeing the world in terms of language allows for radically different specifications of stimulus information as related to pragmatic coping.[2] Furthermore, language opens up the possible spatialization of the world around us through the development of an analog “I” which can “look out” onto the world. Through a deeply embedded container metaphor, the internal mind-space of modern human consciousness becomes operative and allows for more complicated behavioral processes in response to novel situations and stressful environment contexts.[3]

All of this orients us towards a theory of consciousness that allows for psychological development within a relatively short evolutionary timeframe. This has drastic implications for when we place a date on the evolution of modern consciousness, contrary to the traditional view of it lurching slowly over the course of many millions of years. If Jaynes is right that language provides for radically different salience patterns in the environment to catch our attention[4], and that such new perceptual powers would necessarily lead to the development of advanced cultural pragmatics (see note 36), then we are necessarily forced to date the development of language closer to when archeological evidence indicates signs of civilization emerged. Subsequently, if it turns out to be true that the advent of full-blown consciousness can only emerge after the metaphorical and narratization powers of humanity have sufficiently developed, we can then place the full maturation of human consciousness at a relatively later point of time than orthodox theory as supposed. A more detailed discussion of the historical record and evolutionary/neurological plausibility of this theory[5] is beyond the limited scope of this paper, but needless to say, Jaynes does much to provide a truly interdisciplinary theory of human psychohistory and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind deserves a place as one of the most challenging works of the 20th century, upsetting much dogma, and in the words of one reviewer, “rendering whole shelves of books obsolete.”

[1] Furthermore, “…such new perceptions and attentions resulted in important cultural changes which are reflected in the archeological record” (Jaynes, 1976, p. 132). I don’t have space in this paper to delve into the numerous archeological and anthropological examples Jaynes utilizes to support his theory, but needless to say, there are many.

[2] Andy Clark discusses this fact in the third chapter of his new book, Supersizing the Mind. He claims that the “linguistic scaffold” has three interlocking effects. “First, the simple act of labeling the world opens up a variety of new computational opportunities and supports the discovery of increasingly abstract patterns in nature. Second, encountering or recalling structured sentences supports the development of otherwise unattainable kinds of expertise. And third, linguistic structures contribute to some of the most important yet conceptually complex of all human capacities: our ability to reflect on our own thoughts and characters and our limited but genuine capacity to control an guide the shape and contents of our own thinking” (Clark, 2008, p. 44). I am in debt to Clark for his many insights and cool scientific references concerning pragmatic externalism.

[3] “Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narrative the situation and so hold his analog “I” in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘internal’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do” (Jaynes, 1976, p. 134)

[4] Gibson sometimes speculated that the brain in some way “resonates” with the external environment (for a refreshingly original account of Gibsonian resonance in terms of Bergsonian temporal dynamics, see Robbins (2006) ). Accordingly, for there to be linguistically framed environmental salience patterns  understood by humans so effortlessly, then there must be a corresponding neurological adaptation that goes along with it. As Jaynes speculates, the lateralization of language in the cortical hemispheres  through the development of the two, interconnected language centers in the left hemisphere (Broca’s and Wernicke’s) is a good candidate for the neural substrate of externalist, language-infused cognition.

[5] For a brief synopsis of the growing neuroscientific evidence to support Jaynes theory, see Olin (1999) and Sher (2000).


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Update on the being of humans

Link to the updated version of my most popular post of all time.

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