Consciousness and Synthesis



Consciousness and Synthesis



How does conscious intentionality differ from the unconscious kind? How does the intentionality of our conscious thoughts, in particular, differ from such unconscious representations as there might be? Even if there is no real intentionality of the latter kind, but only derivative intentionality or quasi-intentionality, we can still ask what is characteristic of conscious intentionality. I shall here ask what unconscious intentionality would be like if there were any—how it would differ from conscious intentionality. No doubt many replies are possible, but I shall focus on just one, which I believe has been neglected.

            Suppose I think, consciously and reflectively, that John is a bachelor. Then my thought can be analyzed as having the content that John is an unmarried man. The intentional objects of my thought consist of John and the property of being a bachelor, but this property resolves into two further properties (which may themselves resolve into yet further properties upon deeper analysis). The intentionality of my thought is capable of analysis. If I had simply thought that John is a man who is unmarried, then my thought would not have had such an analysis: it would already be analyzed (compare thinking that the king of France is bald and thinking that there exists a unique king of France and he is bald). We can think a proposition in an unanalyzed form or in an analyzed form. If we thought every proposition in an analyzed form, then there would be no need for (or possibility of) conceptual analysis. So some of our intentionality is analyzable and some is not. The kind that is analyzable involves an operation we can call synthesis: a number of conceptual elements are brought together in thought so as to produce a unified concept that combines them. The elements have been synthesized into a whole, where before they were unconnected. There can be analysis only where there has been synthesis. There are three levels of conceptual connectedness: possession, conjunction, and synthesis. Thus a sequence of concepts C1…Cn can be jointly possessed by a subject, just when he has each of them; but it is also possible for the subject to conjoin the possessed concepts in thought, simply by use of the mental equivalent of “and”: however, there is still a stronger relation, which consists in the fact that the concepts may be synthesized into a concept—where this goes beyond mere conjunction. Conjunction is not sufficient for synthesis. This means that complex analyzable concepts are not psychologically equivalent to mental conjunctions. When I think that John is a bachelor I don’t think the conjunction of unmarried and man—I think the concept that synthesizes these two concepts. Similarly for more interesting cases of conceptual analysis, such as Russell’s theory of descriptions or Suits’ definition of games. The mind has performed the operation of synthesis to produce a complex concept, where using this concept is not reducible to thinking just the conjunction of the conditions that define it. It is because of this operation that analysis is possible: the seeming primitiveness of the concept is shown by analysis to conceal a hidden conceptual complexity. The surface unity is backed by an underlying diversity. This apparent unity is the upshot of the operation I am calling synthesis.

No doubt synthesis is somewhat puzzling and mysterious. How can the generation of complex concepts be anything other than composition by conjunction? How can synthesis produce unity from disparate elements? I shall come back to this question, but for now the point is that synthesis is a real psychological phenomenon: when we have a conscious thought of the analyzable kind synthesis has occurred. I shall accordingly speak of “synthetic intentionality”, meaning that the intentionality in question is the product of synthesis—as with my thought about bachelors. I shall contrast this with what I shall call “associative intentionality”, meaning that kind that is involved in consciously thinking that John is a man who is unmarried. This latter kind of intentionality can be understood as employing the mental operation of conjunction, without any accompanying synthesis into a new unity. We might think of the process of complex concept formation as a two-stage process: first, the possessed concepts C1…Cn are combined according to conjunction; second, the conjunction is subject to synthesis, whereupon we have a new concept C* that unifies the conjoined elements into a conceptual whole. When the second stage is complete the concept C* no longer looks like a conjunction, or feels like one introspectively—nor is it expressed by a syntactic conjunction in ordinary language. It has its own primitive predicate and its own phenomenology—yet it has an analysis in which the conjunction figures. We might say that it masquerades as primitive and could turn out to be primitive—but it is in reality complex and analyzable.

I hope I have said enough to establish the reality of synthesis as it applies to the concepts we employ in conscious thought. My thesis, then, is that conscious intentionality involves synthetic intentionality, while unconscious intentionality (if there is any) involves merely associative intentionality. More exactly, conscious intentionality has the power of synthesis, while unconscious intentionality does not have this power. We need to put it that way because not all of conscious intentionality involves synthesis—notably, thinking that involves primitive concepts. Only complex analyzable concepts involve synthesis, not simple concepts. Then the idea is that consciousness has the power to synthesize simple intentionality into complex intentionality, but nothing else does. In effect, unconscious intentionality is just a conjunction machine: it can only bring concepts together by conjunction—it cannot really form synthetic wholes. In a certain sense, abbreviation is possible for conscious intentionality but not for unconscious intentionality. Abbreviation, then, turns out to be a lot more interesting (and mysterious) than we thought: it results from the power to transcend conjunction in forming complex concepts. To put it differently, consciousness is what permits the possibility of analysis—while unconscious representations have no analysis. The unconscious representation that John is a bachelor is just the representation that John is a man and unmarried—there is no defining to be done. More interestingly, an unconscious representation that the king of France is bald just consists in the representation that someone is a unique king of France and is bald. The unconscious representation is already analyzed, so permits no analysis. Consciousness is what conceals underlying structure, and hence makes analysis possible.

Let me note, as an aside, that according to this conception philosophy is possible only for conscious beings with the power of conceptual synthesis. Because of synthesis our knowledge of the analysis of our concepts is not an introspective given—we can’t just read the analysis off by introspecting our thoughts. Abbreviation is necessary to the possibility of philosophy (conceived as conceptual analysis). A being without synthetic consciousness would have no use for philosophy, because the analyses of its concepts would already lie open to view. Or better: if all complex concepts appeared in thought as conjunctions of their primitive components, then the job of analysis would not need to be performed. If a being had all our complex concepts, but lacked the power of conscious synthesis, then those concepts could only exist in its mind as conjunctions, in which case the analysis has already been done. This being could still pursue science in much the same way we do, but philosophy would be a dead end—because already complete! This is perhaps why some analytic philosophers have supposed that our task is to discover the language that lies unconsciously beneath our conscious thinking—for in that language all is revealed. Ironically, consciousness makes philosophy more difficult. The reason is that conscious intentionality typically involves synthesis, and synthesis is what blocks the immediate recognition of conceptual structure. An unconscious thinker is a better philosopher than a conscious one (i.e. Mentalese is more logically transparent than the natural languages we consciously use).

What is my ground for making this distinction? I think it is apparent upon inspection that conscious intentionality is synthetic, but inspection is not so possible for unconscious intentionality. My reason for insisting on merely associative intentionality for unconscious representations is simply that I cannot see what could generate synthesis in the absence of consciousness: how do we get the surface-deep distinction for unconscious representations? We can’t appeal to introspection, because the representations are unconscious. How couldcomplexity of representations in the unconscious ascend above the level of conjunction? All complexity there has to be, in a word, serial—a matter of concatenation—without the benefit of genuine synthesis. Computer code, say, resolves into a series of 1’s and 0’s: these basic representations never disappear into a higher unity as conscious concepts do. Unconscious intentionality can only mechanically combine; it cannot creatively synthesize. The conscious mind has the power to convert a conjunction into a synthesis (a mysterious power: see below), but the unconscious cannot perform this operation—it must sluggishly conjoin and concatenate. The synthetic power gives rise to the appearance of simplicity in our complex concepts, but unconscious representations cannot have this appearance-reality distinction—there is no representational appearing down there. In the unconscious a conjunction is just a conjunction.


What is this power of synthesis, of generating or recognizing unities within pluralities? It is as if the conscious mind sees in a set of concepts a higher-level unity or coherence and then produces a synthesis of the elements. For example, the concepts truth, belief, and justification are apprehended as forming the complex concept knowledge(assuming this is a good analysis of the concept)—and not merely as capable of being conjoined with and. We can combine any old concepts with and and not thereby produce anything with conceptual unity—as with “false and warm and triangular”. What we want to say here is that “true” and “believed” and “justified” form a special unity—which we describe as “knowledge”. We thus see these three concepts as parts of a whole. What kind of capacity is this? Here we may be reminded of the Gestalt psychologists: they studied the way the human conscious mind imposes or discovers unities in arrays of stimuli, concentrating on perceptual unities. They tried to ascertain the particular laws of association that produce apprehended unities, such as propinquity and continuity. They viewed consciousness as a unity-detecting device—something that takes mere plurality and converts it into unity. Using their terminology, we can describe the synthesis of concepts, as in the knowledge case, as one kind of Gestalt detection (or imposition). I would say that the perception of Gestalts is only possible for the conscious mind—because this is a matter of how the world appears in consciousness. The unconscious could only compute geometric relations and possibly deliver verdicts as to function; it could not experience perceptual unity. Genuine Gestalt perception is essentially conscious. This is because the power of true synthesis is unique to consciousness—finding unity in plurality. Thus conscious perceptual intentionality is different from unconscious perceptual intentionality—the former being synthetic, the latter associative. The phenomenological Gestalt is the province of conscious perception; unconscious perception can only generate a simulacrum if it—a calculated unity not an apparent unity. If this is right, then conceptual synthesis is special case of Gestalt synthesis—the ability to find unities in pluralities. And the general thesis is that consciousness is the sine qua non of synthetic unification. It is not an accident that the Gestalt psychologists concentrated their efforts on conscious perception, because unconscious perception (if there is such a thing) has no Gestalt dimension—just as unconscious thoughts (if there are any) lack the kind of conceptual synthesis characteristic of conscious thoughts.


I don’t think we have any very good theory of how synthesis works. It has a kind of magical feel to it—getting something from nothing, spontaneous generation. It goes beyond mere conjunction, but we have no other model for how the simple gives rise to the complex in the conceptual domain. Consciousness just seems to whisk the new unity into existence—a kind of emergence takes place. (It is not unlike the way consciousness itself is mysteriously whisked into existence by the brain, apparently emerging from something insufficient to accommodate it.) But this very mysterious quality supports the thesis I am defending—that synthetic intentionality belongs exclusively to consciousness. Unconscious intentionality is not so mysterious, being both unconscious and lacking in magical-seeming synthesis. The kind of synthesis I am discussing is akin to that identified by Frege, who puzzled over the unity of the proposition: why is a proposition (or sentence) not just a list of elements—whence the unity? It is certainly made of parts, which may be detached from it—so how come the parts manage to cohere into new type of whole? Frege invoked the mysterious notion of “saturation” to handle this problem. I am talking about a psychological analogue: how the constituents of a complex concept cohere together into the higher unity represented by the concept itself—how do the parts arrange themselves into the whole (if not by simple conjunction)? We want to speak here, not of composition, but of gestation—the parts give birth to the whole by the mysterious mechanism of synthesis. But my aim in this paper is not to explain synthesis; it is merely to use it to distinguish two kinds of intentionality. I can put the proposal very simply by saying that conscious intentionality is the kind that admits of analysis, whereas unconscious intentionality does not. Contrary to Freud, the unconscious has no analysis; but the conscious is deeply analyzable. That is, in the unconscious everything is analytically explicit, but consciousness contains implicit content—hidden by the synthesis it has imposed on sets of primitive concepts. Thus Brentano may be wrong to think that intentionality is the mark of the conscious mind, but we can easily amend his thesis to say that synthetic intentionality is the mark of the conscious mind. Only the conscious mind directs itself to things outside itself by synthesizing its more primitive states of intentionality.


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