A Theory of the Unconscious


A Theory of the Unconscious


From a biological point of view, the mind is a problem-solving device: the problem of finding food, the problem of avoiding predators, the problem of reproducing and raising offspring. That’s why the mind exists—to solve problems. Sometimes we consciously reflect on problems, using Rational Thought. The problems can be moral, mathematical, scientific, and philosophical. The brain is the mechanism whereby such problem solving is carried out. Problem solving is a universal biological feature. In life animals are confronted by problems and they try to solve them: this is an existential truth. If so, we would expect the unconscious mind to follow suit: it exists to solve problems. It differs from the conscious mind in being, precisely, unconscious. The reason for this, presumably, is that there are too many problems for the conscious mind to solve—it doesn’t have the capacity to solve all the problems confronting the organism. So some problems are consigned to the unconscious problem-solving capacity. This suggests a theory: the unconscious mind always functions to solve problems. Or rather, the many unconscious minds have the same general problem-solving character; so there is a unity to their diversity.[1] Is this theory plausible?

            It works nicely for the creative unconscious—the kind of unconscious process that leads to solving scientific problems or writing a novel or planning a tricky trip. You are confronted with a difficult intellectual problem and your unconscious works to provide a solution to it. But how does it work in other cases? In the case of the linguistic unconscious we can say that the problem is producing or understanding an utterance that is grammatical, meaningful, and relevant. Much linguistic processing of this kind is unconscious, so the linguistic unconscious is engaged in problem-solving activity. The activity is unconscious because of the need to minimize what reaches consciousness. The same can be said of the perceptual unconscious: all the unconscious activity that leads to a conscious percept is designed to solve the problem of providing an accurate representation of the external world (not an easy problem). We don’t want all of this taking up the limited channel capacity of the conscious mind, so the problem solving is done unconsciously. What about the Freudian unconscious? It is a question whether this really exists as Freud depicted it, but we can make room for something along these lines that probably does exist, thus providing a partial vindication of Freud. We can surmise that we do have an unconscious faculty for resolving family and other interpersonal problems. We are a social species and are constantly confronted by problems arising from interactions with other people, large and small, and it is reasonable to expect that these problems receive unconscious attention. The problems will often be of an emotional nature, so this “Freudian” unconscious can be said to concern the kinds of problems that occupied Freud; no doubt they will centrally concern parent-related problems. So the psychoanalyst is dealing with a real psychological formation, even if it doesn’t have all the properties postulated by Freud.  This type of unconscious falls into line with the other kinds, being essentially a problem-solving device. Repression isn’t the reason for its existence; cognitive overload is. It is unconscious for the same reason other types of unconscious processing are. So we can say that all forms of unconscious are uniform in this respect, though not in other respects (they have different subject matters). The unconscious mind may be much more extensive than the conscious mind, but both types of mind have their biological rationale in problem solving.

            Thus the disunity of the unconscious is compatible with a kind of higher-level unity. No doubt the various unconscious systems operate according to different principles, being concerned with different types of problem, but they all function to solve problems and they are all unconscious for the same reason. Theoretically, this is a nice result.[2]        


Colin McGinn

[1] This paper adds to, and modifies, the position taken in my “The Disunity of the Unconscious”.

[2] I would say that the philosophy of the unconscious mind is a relatively undeveloped branch of the subject that needs to be brought to the forefront.

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