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What Is It Like To Be Nonconscious? A Defense of Julian Jaynes

Gary Williams
Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, October 2010.

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I respond to Ned Block's claim that it is "ridiculous" to suppose that consciousness is a cultural construction based on language and learned in childhood. Block is wrong to dismiss social constructivist theories of consciousness on account of it being "ludicrous" that conscious experience is anything but a biological feature of our animal heritage, characterized by sensory experience, evolved over millions of years. By defending social constructivism in terms of both Julian Jaynes' behaviorism and J.J. Gibson's ecological psychology, I draw a distinction between the experience or "what-it-is-like" of nonhuman animals engaging with the environment and the "secret theater of speechless monologue" that is familiar to a linguistically competent human adult. This distinction grounds the argument that consciousness proper should be seen as learned rather than innate and shared with nonhuman animals. Upon establishing this claim, I defend the Jaynesian definition of consciousness as a social-linguistic construct learned in childhood, structured in terms of lexical metaphors and narrative practice. Finally, I employ the Jaynesian distinction between cognition and consciousness to bridge the explanatory gap and deflate the supposed "hard" problem of consciousness.