Knowledge of the Unconscious

Knowledge of the Unconscious

We have two minds: the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. These two minds differ in respect of the distinctive mark of consciousness (“what-it’s-likeness”) and in their accessibility to knowledge. The unconscious mind lacks the mark of consciousness and isn’t known in the way the conscious mind is. We know what is in our conscious mind but not (generally) what is in our unconscious mind. If we had equal knowledge of both, Freudian psychoanalysis and Chomskian linguistics would be a lot easier. We would know the contents of our dynamic emotional unconscious and the contents of our syntactic cognitive unconscious. But there is no direct route from the unconscious to the epistemic faculties; we have to resort to inference and postulation. Thus, we are naturally ignorant of what resides in the unconscious. It is the same for other species of unconscious—perceptual, creative, dream, memory-related.

But how deep does this ignorance go? We don’t know what is in the unconscious, but do we know what it is to be unconscious? Do we have an adequate conception of the state of unconsciousness? We do know what it is to be conscious of something, since our consciousness is hooked up to our faculty of knowledge, even if we don’t know much scientifically or philosophically about consciousness. But there is no such hook-up between the unconscious and knowledge, so it is a question whether we know what we are talking about when we use the words “unconscious mind”. Do we know what this peculiar condition consists in? We have neither introspection nor perception of the unconscious, so we have no natural mode of presentation of it. What kind of being does it have? It might be thought that this question poses no great puzzle: we simply subtract consciousness and are left with a purely physical or functional state—and we know what they are. I know what a brain state is—I’ve seen them and read about them—and an unconscious mental stare is just a brain state. But this is exactly wrong: an unconscious mental state is precisely a mental state—a desire, a belief, a piece of knowledge (“tacit knowledge”), a visual perception, a memory. We mustn’t confuse an unconscious mental state with a non-conscious physical state such as the state of being magnetized or having a mass. Similarly for functional states. No, we must remove consciousness but still be left with something distinctively and recognizably mental—but what is that exactly? Isn’t our whole positive conception of a mental state shaped and formed by our awareness of our conscious mental states. Surely, we cannot be thinking of our unconscious mental states as somehow implicitly conscious—as it might be, faintly conscious. So, unconscious mental states cannot be merely physical nor un-merely (as it were) conscious—but what else is there? Aren’t we just thinking by analogy to the conscious mind while disavowing the analogy? The unconscious mind is not there for the subject, as the conscious mind is, so what is its mode of existence? Isn’t the whole concept of the unconscious something cobbled together from unsuitable conceptual materials, a mishmash of the purely physical and the frankly conscious? If we had a way of directly knowing about it, we could use this to form a conception of what we are referring to, but that is precisely what we lack. We just have a word derived from negating the word “conscious” not a positive substantive conception of its reference. No wonder, then, that the unconscious was a relatively late discovery in human thought and perpetually in peril of denial (though evidently real)—it is actually a “mystery of nature” (in Hume’s phrase). It is something we need and can talk about, even formulate theories of, but not something of which we have any clear and distinct idea (rather, it is unclear and murky).  Nor is the case like that of the unobservable constituents of matter: we dohave a clear idea of imperceptible constituents of matter, because we can model these on bits of matter we can see and touch—we don’t need to step outside the circle of physical concepts.[1] But the unconscious mind is a concept that radically extends our other concepts, being neither a physical concept nor a concept of consciousness. It can feel like a pseudo concept (compare the putative concept of immaterial substance).

The underlying question is whether we have a concept of the genuinely mental that leaves the concept of consciousness behind. The general concept of the physical will not do because it is too general; ditto for the concept of the functional. Nor will the concepts of the informational or dispositional or computational help us, since they are also too general and reductive. How can we form a concept of the mental that is non-reductive and properly specific that contains no hint of the conscious mind? The whole point of the notion of an unconscious mind is that the mind is not confined to its conscious compartment and is not dependent on it; it is a realm of mentality in its own right. How, then, can it require the concept of consciousness in order to be made sense of—except by beings (such as ourselves) that have no other conceptual resources to go on? When God looks into our minds, he sees the unconscious part for what it is, not as a kind of wan reflection of the conscious part; but that is not a perspective we can aspire to. We are epistemically cut off from the nature of the unconscious, even though we possess an unconscious and can refer to it in our theories. The unconscious is thus at its heart a necessary mystery. To be unconscious is to be naturally unknown (i.e., not a subject of acquaintance). The unconscious is, in fact, rather like the bat’s conscious experience as far as we are concerned. The bat’s experience differs from our experience in such a way as to be conceptually alien to us; but much the same is true of our own unconscious in that we can’t form an adequate conception of that either—such a conception is unavailable to us. It is as if we have an alien mind living in our head, one that eludes our modes of understanding (apprehension). It’s like having a bat mind existing side by side with our ordinary conscious mind, in regular contact with it but different in nature. The conscious mind is just one form that mind can take, though it dominates our thinking about the mind, and its unconscious partner is really very different from it, intrinsically, ontologically. Yet both fall equally under the concept Mind. Things are always stranger than we tend to suppose from our limited standpoint.[2]

[1] It might be thought that quantum physics provides an analogy to the case of the conscious and the unconscious, in that we also have to make a conceptual leap from the observable classical physical world to the non-classical quantum world. It is as if the quantum world is the macroscopic world’s unconscious—a world for which we require different concepts and different rules of operation. However, I don’t think the leap from classical to non-classical physics is as wide and abrupt as the leap from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind, since we are still dealing with a spatiotemporal world of extended objects subject to the same forces in the former case, while in the latter we are asked to jump from the conceivable conscious to the inconceivable unconscious. Also, it’s never wise to place much reliance on analogies to quantum physics!

[2] I think the case of the unconscious is one of those cases in which we are compelled on theoretical grounds to postulate things that lack clear roots in our given conceptual system (rather like Hume on causation or Newton on gravity). The resulting theory is not strictly intelligible (to humans) but it may be the best we can do and serves many of our purposes. So, I am in no way deriding the unconscious or our theories of it, just noting a conceptual lacuna or shortfall. The unconscious is inherently theoretical.

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