Puzzles of the Unconscious


Puzzles of the Unconscious


When was the unconscious mind discovered? The question makes sense in a way the comparable question about the conscious mind does not. The conscious mind was “discovered” when it came to exist, just by being conscious: being conscious and knowing one is conscious are inseparable. But that isn’t true of the unconscious: it is precisely not known just by existing. The unconscious is a postulate, a hypothesis, a theoretical conjecture; and it makes sense to ask when such a postulate was initially proposed. As with all theoretical postulates, we can only approach it indirectly: we certainly can’t know about the unconscious by means of direct introspection. We have to employ inference, experiment, and theory construction. Let’s say for convenience that the unconscious was discovered by Leibniz in the seventeenth century, and later investigated by Helmholtz, Freud, Chomsky, and many others.  [1] We can say that we now know that the unconscious mind exists; at any rate, I have no wish to dispute its existence. Still, there are many unanswered questions about the unconscious that tend to be ignored, because in the minds of many people the idea is regarded as questionable or even taboo. I propose here to accept the robust reality of the unconscious mind (or many such) and tabulate some outstanding questions regarding its nature. My aim is to show how little we know about it.

            Why does the unconscious even exist? Why isn’t everything mental conscious? Some of it clearly is, so why not all of it? Freud thought that repression ensured the existence of the unconscious, but aside from various questions of empirical support and conceptual coherence there is the following point: why couldn’t repression banish disturbing mental contents to another parallel consciousness? After all, I am not disturbed by unseemly desires in your mind, so why couldn’t I have two conscious minds, one containing my acceptable desires and the other containing my unacceptable desires? All I need is to not know what is going on in the unseemly consciousness. It is not a necessary condition of epistemic insulation that the mind containing repressed material should be inherently unconscious, just that we don’t know what it contains. Another popular idea is that for some types of unconscious mentation there is a processing constraint: the conscious mind has a relatively narrow bandwidth, so we are organized in such a way as not to overburden it–nature relegates the bulk of mental activity to an unconscious that doesn’t intrude on our circumscribed consciousness. This is a pretty feeble explanation: whyis this so, and is it really true? For example, much linguistic processing is unconscious, with only the final product reaching consciousness, but it is quite unclear whether this has anything to do with considerations of cognitive capacity. Some consciously produced sentences are extremely complex, and some simple conscious utterances have simple processing antecedents. Complexity is not the determinant of what reaches consciousness. So we really don’t know why the unconscious exists, though it evidently does; we don’t know why there is such a thing as an unconscious. (Likewise, we don’t really know why the conscious mind exists, instead of complete unconsciousness, but that is another story.  [2])

            Is unconsciousness the natural condition of the mind with consciousness as a derivative and recent addition, or is it consciousness that is basic? Did the unconscious evolve first and only later came to coexist with consciousness, or was it the other way about? Were animal desires, say, initially all unconscious with consciousness something superadded (as higher-order thought theories imply)? How would we set about answering this question? What is the value in knowing what is in one’s mind as opposed to simply having a mind? Do some animals now existing have entirely unconscious minds? Could we encounter aliens whose minds are completely devoid of consciousness yet as sophisticated as ours? More generally, is the basic form of the mental an unconscious form, with consciousness something out of the ordinary? If most of mental activity is unconscious, as seems to be the case, at least in some areas (vision, linguistic understanding), then that would seem to imply that unconscious existence is the norm, the default condition. Consciousness might be incidental to most mental activity, by no means intrinsic to it. Again, this is not a question to which we have any clear answer, or any clear way of getting an answer.

            The underlying puzzle is why the mind has a kind of dual existence or identity: why is it partly conscious and partly unconscious? Why not just one or the other? These seem to be very different states of being, and it is hard even to understand how one thing can manage to be both: what is it for a desire, say, to be now unconscious and now conscious? We might suggest that it is simply to be known or not known by its possessor, but that raises a host of questions, not the least of which is that this makes the consciousness of a conscious desire quite extrinsic to its nature. One would expect uniformity in this respect, but it appears that the mind can happily exist in both forms. Thus we are sometimes told that all mental phenomena are intrinsically unconscious with consciousness injected from the outside by means of second-order belief; or contrariwise that the mind is intrinsically conscious with no unconscious at all or only a derivative unconscious (e.g. unconscious mental states are dispositions to consciousness). It is not conceptually easy to accept that the mind enjoys a kind of double life, now bound up with consciousness, now indifferent to it. For instance, words and grammar occupy two worlds, being both elements of consciousness and also components of a language faculty that largely operates behind the scenes. How do they make the transition to consciousness, and is their intrinsic nature quite independent of their appearance in conscious speech acts and conscious inner thought? Is meaning itself essentially an unconscious thing or a conscious thing? What exactly are we asking when we ask this question? Obscurity billows.

            Why is it that some mental phenomena readily admit of such a dual existence while some don’t? We can easily accept that beliefs often exist in an unconscious form, but we don’t think that sensations of pain do. You can firmly believe that p unconsciously but you can’t have an intense pain unconsciously—nor can you have a vivid experience of red unconsciously. So some of the mind can exist in both forms but some can’t: why is that? What is it about beliefs that allows them to flit between the conscious and the unconscious, while pain is stuck on the conscious side of the divide (sometimes the option of unconscious pain would be highly desirable—no need for anesthetic at the dentist)? Emotions too appear to prefer consciousness—can you be extremely angry or elated unconsciously?—though they can also exist in a partially unconscious form. It all seems rather arbitrary, with no obvious rationale or point. Can we imagine creatures that invert our psychological make-up, with beliefs capable only of conscious existence and sensations of pain easily sliding from one state of being to the other? It’s all very puzzling. The division between the conscious and the unconscious seems to fall arbitrarily across the mind.

            The unconscious is often credited with creative powers beyond those possessed by the conscious, and there is much anecdotal evidence to this effect. Problem solving can occur both consciously, as with deliberate mental effort, and unconsciously, often during sleep. But why is this? Why isn’t creativity confined to one side or the other? It is commonly assumed that unconscious creativity is the surprising thing, but why exactly do we suppose that creativity naturally requires the exercise of consciousness? We readily accept that vision is largely an unconscious process, so why not accept that creativity is? Is there anything about creativity itself that favors one or the other mode of operation? Could it be that so-called conscious creativity is largely driven by unconscious creativity? The creativity of dreams is entirely unconscious, and maybe all creativity employs the same mechanisms (if that is the right word); also linguistic creativity, in the form of ordinary speech, is driven by unconscious mental processes. Maybe creativity is predominantly unconscious in human beings, despite our prejudice in favor of the conscious kind. But there would still be the question of why creativity prefers to operate in secret, not revealing its methods to conscious scrutiny. It appears that creativity can operate at two mental levels, but why this should be so remains a mystery. Creativity is already mysterious, and its ambivalent relation to consciousness only compounds the mystery.

            What exactly is the mode of being of unconscious mentation? It isn’t another locus of consciousness cut off from the primary locus (like other minds) yet it is still mental in nature: but what is this mode of existence? It would be wrong to call it “physical” despite the lack of conscious expression: it hovers in a strange ontological no-man’s land. Do we really have any adequate conception of what kind of thing unconscious mentality is? We can’t conceive it on a perceptual model, but we also can’t conceive it on an introspective model; nor can it be compared to unobservable entities like atoms (the unconscious is not just very small consciousness). We can talk of it, but do we really know what we are talking about? We might imagine the brain murmuring softly to itself, but that is so much desperate imagery; we find ourselves comparing it to especially unobtrusive types of consciousness. Or we wheel in something like computation and declare it to be just like that: but computation itself raises similar questions—what kind of being does it have? We know what conscious computation is, but what is unconscious computation? Computation can’t be just electromagnetic activity and the like: is it perhaps like unconscious computation in the mind? But now we are back where we started. We really have no clear conception of what an unconscious mental state is. That doesn’t mean there is no such thing, or that the notion has no theoretical utility; it merely points to a lacuna in our conceptual scheme. Accordingly, we find ourselves puzzled by the mode of existence of the unconscious (as Hume was puzzled about causation). We talk blithely of something whose nature eludes us—a not unfamiliar situation.

            Mental states seem to transform from one state of being to the other: the same thing can appear consciously or unconsciously. We have a caterpillar-to-butterfly situation. But what is the nature of this metamorphosis: how does a mental state make the transition, the transformation? According to one theory, it simply acquires a suitable second-order belief to the effect that it exists, but that is hardly plausible for such cases as linguistic processing: when a word goes from unconscious manipulation to conscious utterance it doesn’t do so by being believed to exist. It undergoes a special type of transmutation: the unconscious lexical item becomes a conscious word. By what mechanism or procedure does this occur? Is it akin to biological metamorphosis? Not literally, to be sure, but the process may be as drastic and as profound—though occurring in an instant and evaporating as quickly. The unconscious-to-conscious transformation is real but baffling: it is not at all like moving counters about on a board. It is literally transformative—a kind of abrupt alteration of being. It would be different if the conscious and the unconscious shared no elements, keeping strictly to their own domain, but in fact there is systematic transfer of elements, thus raising the puzzle of how that is achieved. This puzzle is already raised by memory, which also involves a sudden transition from the unconscious form to the conscious form—the same thing taking on a quite different mode of being. It is as if it is injected with some sort of alchemical fluid that catapults it onto a new level of being. Look, Ma, I’m conscious! More soberly: there are transformational mechanisms that elevate the unconscious to the level of consciousness—though we have no idea what these mechanisms look like. Again, this is not a count against the unconscious, just an indication of how little we understand of its workings.

            Is there a biological law at work here? Does every creature with a mind split that mind into a conscious part and an unconscious part? No organism has a mind that is exclusively one or the other.  That seems plausible, though some empirical confirmation would be desirable. But it does raise the question of the ground of such a law: where does it come from, why is it true? In particular, why this arrangement as opposed to having two (or more) conscious minds, each dedicated to different tasks (as, arguably, with the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system,  [3] or the distributed consciousness of the octopus)? It seems like a solid law of mental functioning, but its rationale is obscure. It isn’t even clear what its functional significance is—what it does for the organism. It just seems like a brute fact (at least Freud had some sort of explanation of why the two parts of the mind exist as separate entities).

            Are we sure the unconscious mind can be described using terms drawn from the description of the conscious mind (including the use of the term “mind”)? We discovered the unconscious mind in the seventeenth century (we are supposing) and immediately began describing it by re-deploying the terms already at our disposal, those used to describe the conscious mind. But is this a good way to proceed?  Maybe a quite new vocabulary is needed (as with computational vocabulary): after all, the unconscious differs rather dramatically from the conscious precisely in not being conscious. Should we really be talking about unconscious beliefs, desires, knowledge, creativity, competence, etc.? But (a) no other terms suggest themselves and (b) how else can we maintain the view that we have an unconscious mind? Everyone knows that a great deal of brain activity has no conscious counterpart, but that doesn’t imply a second mind; using the same terms allows us to recognize that we are dealing with another level of mentality. Yet that may mislead us into ascribing more commonality between the two than is strictly warranted. Again, there seems to be a conceptual gap in our thinking about the unconscious. What we call “the unconscious mind” is an I-know-not-what—we refer to it but we don’t know what it is exactly that we are referring to. Is it subjective or is it objective? Do we know what the unconscious of a bat is like? Can a blind man grasp our visual unconscious? Even that basic question goes unanswered.

            Is there a competence-performance distinction for the unconscious mind? Here at least we can be fairly definitive: there is indeed. Linguistic competence is very largely unconscious, but a good deal of linguistic performance is too—all the activity that goes into producing an utterance. In the case of memory we have the competence (knowledge) that consists in storing information in a retrievable form, but we also have the performance that consists in actually accessing this competence—which can be affected by many outside factors. There is memory knowledge and there is memory action, and both are mainly unconscious. Then too, we have a competence-performance distinction for the conscious mind, so the distinction doesn’t track the conscious-unconscious distinction. It would have been striking if the unconscious were limited to competence and the conscious limited to performance, but that appears not to be the case.

            What kind of intentionality does the unconscious mind have? Is it just like the intentionality of the conscious mind? Do we have referential opacity in both domains? Could it be that one is object-directed and one is not? Jung’s unconscious seems far more amorphous than the conscious, so it is possible that some types of unconscious mentation lack the kind of definite intentionality we associate with the conscious mind. The more primordial the unconscious mind is thought to be the blurrier it is conceived as being (the unconscious as a “blooming, buzzing confusion”). Is unconscious desire as finely targeted as conscious desire? It’s hard to say, but the options are logically available. Is the unconscious mind as thoroughly infiltrated by the language faculty as the conscious mind? That would seem to be denied by the Freudian conception of the unconscious, which is not linguistically sophisticated (that inarticulate id). Different types of intentionality might be exploited in different unconscious parts of the mind. Maybe some regions of the unconscious are more analogue than others. There might be as many types of intentionality (representation) as there are types of unconscious.

            Are there degrees of unconsciousness or is it a binary distinction? People generally assume the latter, but it is not clear this is correct. Consider memory: memories can exist at varying distances from full recollection—from completely inaccessible to accessible after intense effort to tip of the tongue to flooding consciousness. Conscious accessibility is a matter of degree: some items in memory lie very close to consciousness, some are remote from it, some are just around the corner, and some are buried under a pile of misremembering. Language is similar: grammatical rules can sometimes be excavated and brought to consciousness, though some cannot; we construct some utterances at lightning speed with no conscious knowledge of how it is done, while others are laboriously constructed (as with writing) in full knowledge of word choice and grammatical form. In general, we should stop thinking in sharply binary terms and accept that the distinction is graded and fluid, with borderline cases and varying accessibility constraints.

            Is personality partially unconscious? That was Freud’s main contention, his theory being that our motivations and personality traits are largely fixed by unconscious factors; and we still hear talk of “implicit bias” (i.e. unconscious prejudice), hidden sources of irrationality, unacknowledged cognitive dissonance, automatic stereotypical thinking, and the like. Common observation suggests that people are often only dimly aware of their true personality; they are lacking in self-knowledge. So it appears that large chunks of personality are unconscious—cut off from conscious knowledge. To put it differently, the springs of action are often unconscious springs. But some of our motivations are conscious enough, are they not? So again, why are some conscious and some unconscious? Freud had an explanation—repression, especially of a sexual nature. But that theory limps in many ways, leaving the question wide open. Must personality have an unconscious component? Do some people have a more unconscious personality than others? Do animals also have a partially unconscious personality? Do unconscious personality traits function in the same way as conscious ones? Would it necessarily be a good thing to render all personality traits fully conscious? Why exactly does personality divide up in this way? These are all good questions, though seldom discussed.

            It seems to me that the question of the unconscious is still regarded as ideological in character, quasi-religious even. You either Believe or you don’t. It is time to treat it as a scientific question, to be studied like all scientific questions; and the first step in doing this is recognizing how little we know about the unconscious in fundamental respects.  [4]


Colin McGinn       

  [1] I daresay this is not historically accurate; perhaps we can date the discovery of the unconscious back to Plato’s Meno with Socrates and the slave boy. The point is that the unconscious was discovered long after it began to exist, much later than the conscious. The existence of the unconscious is a genuinely surprising fact.

  [2] This is the question of why we and other animals are not unconscious zombies: why did evolution see fit to engineer consciousness into existence? But once it did what was the reason for adding an unconscious level of mental reality? Why not make the mind completely transparent?

  [3] See my “The Second Mind” in Philosophical Provocations (2017).

  [4] If the unconscious is by definition the part of the mind of which we are ignorant, then it is also the part that remains largely unmapped scientifically. And indeed it is in its nature resistant to easy investigation. If only we had an unconscious cerebroscope!

8 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    Regarding “the question of the unconscious is still regarded as ideological in character”: I don’t think it is the case nowadays. Just for example consider hypnosis and assume that it provides a sort of access to the unconscious of another person. Indeed science does not have an explanation of why hypnosis works or even what exactly it is, but, as a technique, it is actively used in clinical settings and it is widely studied in laboratory experiments. E.g. in Thalia Wheatley’s lab: http://www.wheatlab.com/publications the paper “Hypnotizing Libet…” is one such interesting study (independently of how one views the relevance of these experimental results to this or that philosophical position).

      • Free Logic
        Free Logic says:

        No direct support for sure but indirect support is conceivable. But there are quite a few conflicting theories on whether the hypnotized person is in an altered state of consciousness (somewhat like under the influence) or the personality undergoes a sort of split or another personality is awaken (the hidden observer theory of Hilgard) or that the hypnotist communicates with the unconscious part of the person’s mind (Milton Erickson whose conception of unconscious is similar to your wording in footnote 4). Semantics of the conscious/unconscious divide plays a role in each theory and the divide itself is not a binary one.

          • Free Logic
            Free Logic says:

            Do you have a license? 😉
            IMHO it is the genuinely puzzling phenomena like hypnosis — the reality of which is undeniable by common sense and science (unlike the stuff parapsychologists were after) — that might trigger the next “paradigm change” in psychology. But maybe these very phenomena are bound to remain the perennial illustrations of the puzzles we don’t have the capacity to solve.

          • Colin McGinn
            Colin McGinn says:

            One of the professors in my undergraduate psychology department had a strong interest in hypnosis and even built a machine that could hypnotize people (a glorified tape recorder). All I did was read from a hypnosis manual and put my brother under, no special talent required.

  2. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    Oxford University Press has a book out called, “The New Unconscious”, edited by Ran Hassin, James Uleman, and John Bargh. Though published in 2005, the essays therein compiled still seem to me the last word on the subject, at least as far as experimental psychology goes. Colin Mcginn reminds us, as always, of the usefulness of a more abstract approach.


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