I decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.
Have human beings always had a self? Has there always been an “I” who reflects on a “me”? We’ll never know what it was like to be alive at the origins of self-consciousness, but that doesn’t keep us from speculating.
Charles Taylor imagines the following scenario in Paleolithic times: As a hunting group is closing in on a fierce woolly mammoth, the beast suddenly charges at Hunter A. In that moment, Hunter A thinks something like “Oh no, I’m really in for it now.” At the last moment, however, the beast changes course and kills Hunter B. Hunter A then experiences a mixture of relief for himself and grief for his companion.
Julian Jaynes, author of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, would have a somewhat different take on the situation. For Jaynes, Hunter A would not have thought “I’d better run for it.” He would have heard a voice from the left side of his brain saying “run for it,” and his right brain would have interpreted this as a message from the gods. Read more