The Disunity of the Unconscious



The Disunity of the Unconscious



Consciousness has enjoyed the limelight for some time now. It is time for its neglected sister, Unconsciousness, to be let out of the attic and investigated in her own right. One question we can ask is whether the unconscious mind has the kind of unity possessed by the conscious mind. I shall suggest that it does not: what is called “theunconscious” is a motley collection with no internal unity. There is an irreducible plurality of types of unconscious mind exhibiting nothing we could describe as unity. The usual way of talking of “the” unconscious results from modeling unconscious mental states too closely on conscious mental states. We are thus not forced to choose between one kind of unconscious and another; we can accept that there are many types of unconscious mental reality, each co-existing with the others. We are splintered when it comes to the unconscious. We are not as mentally integrated as we might naively suppose.

            Let us start with Freud, because he exemplifies the kind of singularity assumption I am questioning. Freud speaks of the unconscious, meaning the kind of unconscious he took himself to have discovered—mainly concerned with psychosexual relations within the family and beyond. Under his influence that is what many people today would refer to with the definite description “the unconscious”. The Freudian unconscious consists mostly of psychic materials disturbing to the person, and hence repressed; its content shows up in dreams, neurotic symptoms, jokes, and slips of the tongue. Erotic desire for the mother and competitive hatred of the father are part of its disturbing content. The Freudian unconscious is thus conceived as an autonomous, potentially disruptive, psychic system concerned with affect and personal relations—that is what the Freudian unconscious is about. As we would say, that is its intentional content. I am not aware that Freud thought there was any other unconscious apart from this one—though it is perfectly logically consistent to suppose that there is. What he did believe in, however, was what he called the “preconscious”, by which he simply meant mental states not currently present to consciousness—such as ordinary memories or desires not currently attended to. These are accessible to consciousness by means of exercises of will, unlike the contents of the unconscious proper, which are not so accessible, but which can only be brought to light by the practice of psychoanalysis (using, say, free association).

Yet these preconscious mental contents are still unconscious, just not deeply so. So we can say that Freud really believed in two unconscious mental systems: those accessible to consciousness easily and those not accessible easily. He should have spoken of two types of unconscious mental state—the superficial unconscious and the deep unconscious. The former is in many ways much wider than the latter, since it can contain memories of all kinds, not just those that cause anxiety in the person whose memories they are. Since Freud took his unconscious to be primarily sexual, and so limited to that subject matter, the preconscious unconscious includes a great deal more than the sexual—its intentional content can concern anything that can be remembered. In the vast ocean of the unconscious, thus broadly conceived, the specifically Freudian unconscious is quite limited and contained, even if it exerts a strong hold on the person’s conscious mind. It is not that everything mental is fully conscious except for the Freudian unconscious; there are two separate systems of unconscious mental reality existing side by side. And these two systems have quite different functional roles within the overall psyche, as well as different intentional contents: they are not unified in their modes of operation or general significance. In addition to the preconscious Freud also allowed that there are what he called “archaic remnants” of our evolutionary past that are inherited and which are also unconscious. These have a different kind of etiology from that of his own “dynamic” unconscious, and they do not play the kind of role that repressed memories and emotions play in his theory. They are not derived from encounters with the mother and father but stem from our deep biological past. So strictly they do not belong in the same psychic network as the contents of the Freudian unconscious—they are not repressed to start with. If it is difficult to access these archaic remnants, that is not because they are disturbing; rather, they are simply deeply buried and a matter of theoretical speculation. Thus Freud really postulates three unconscious systems—and yet he routinely designates only one of them as “the unconscious”. It is as if he thinks the other two do not quite count as the genuine article–while fully accepting that they are not conscious. He is making what I called the singularity assumption.

Here is where Jung is interesting. Jung also believed in an unconscious largely concerned with family and social relations, with less emphasis than Freud on sexual impulses. But he emphasized something Freud did not—those archaic remnants. For Jung, each person has two unconscious systems: the “collective unconscious” that consists of inherited archetypes and is universal among humans; and the “personal unconscious” which reflects the particular history of a given individual. The latter is more like Freud’s notion of the unconscious in that it reflects the course of a person’s history (it is acquired not inborn); the former corresponds to the inherited biological make-up of the species. No doubt these two forms of unconscious mentality interact, but for Jung they have a different kind of causation (one acquired, the other innate) and also have different intentional contents (the inherited archetypes are deemed unspecific compared to what they become under the impact of personal experience). For my purposes, what matters here is that Jung, more explicitly than Freud, accepted the plurality of the unconscious mind: he believed there were two distinct types of unconscious material (and no doubt he would also have accepted Freud’s preconscious). And again, this is so even though he was considering only certain aspects of the mind in his dual theory of the unconscious—those relating to human society, art, mythology, and so on. He was not considering the full range of human experience or cognitive capacity. 

Let us then range more widely and see how many other kinds of unconscious we need to accept. Once we do so the plurality multiplies. Perhaps the earliest recognition of the unconscious occurs in Plato’s theory of anamnesis, in which he proposes that we are born with knowledge of the forms acquired in a previous life, but forgotten. This knowledge, before it is elicited by experience, exists in us unconsciously, like ordinary inactive memories, but more inaccessibly. The Platonic unconscious is abstract and cognitive, quite unlike the Freudian unconscious, though both model the unconscious on memory—either repressed memories or simply lost memories. Knowledge of mathematics is what Plato wants to account for—not dreams, neuroses, and slips of the tongue. There is no reason at all why Freud should have any objection to Plato’s postulation of his mathematical unconscious, and it would be odd to insist that only his own unconscious should be called the unconscious. There are two separate domains here, both deserving to be called unconscious. It is not as if they are disagreeing about the same thing—as if there were only one unconscious and the question is what it contains (sex or geometry). There are simply two unconscious systems existing side by side, with nothing to unify them. Descartes and Leibniz, following Plato, also postulated an innate and unconscious level of mental reality in their general theory of knowledge. This rationalist unconscious is much wider in scope than anything dreamt of by Freud and Jung, taking in most of human thought. The Freudian unconscious (if it exists at all) is just one small island in the vast and compendious sea of the human unconscious.

Then there is the linguistic unconscious, cheek by jowl with the mathematical unconscious. The linguistic unconscious contains specific kinds of grammatical knowledge, and we are born with it. We have “implicit knowledge” of the rules of language, not “explicit knowledge”—these being alternative ways of speaking of unconscious and conscious knowledge. If we adopt the language of modularity, the linguistic unconscious is regarded as a module separate from the module of mathematical knowledge—and certainly separate from the Freudian unconscious module. The modules might occasionally interact—as repressed feelings might cause slips of the tongue—but the underlying systems are quite distinct and unrelated. In each of these cases we have a conscious expression of what lies beneath—we have conscious emotions or mathematical thoughts or experiences of grammaticality—but there is an unconscious module that regulates what occurs in consciousness. However, whereas the conscious events are unified in a single consciousness, the unconscious activities are not so unified, each proceeding in its own separate sphere. No unconscious module “knows” what the other modules are up to. They are like individual workers on an assembly line, each contributing to the final unified product of a total conscious state, but not communicating with each other. They mind their own business and speak their own language.

We must also add unconscious systems of knowledge suggested by the linguistic case: moral competence, knowledge of “theory of mind”, common sense physics, basic principles of biology. In each of these cases domain-specific cognitive modules have been proposed, usually with an innate basis. The competence in question is taken to exist in the mind before it becomes conscious during learning and maturation.

In addition we have the perceptual unconscious, as championed by Helmholtz and many later psychologists. Helmholtz spoke of “unconscious inference” in connection with perceptual illusions, where the inferences could not be deflected by conscious reasoning—as when our eyes can’t help concluding that the sun sets even though we know quite well that it is not moving but we are. Then there is subliminal perception in its many varieties, as well as the production of perceptual constancies, stereoscopic vision, and so on. None of these important processes are conscious; they are all unconscious. The systems that achieve conscious perception are specific and modular, operating automatically and without input from other systems, conscious or unconscious.

The Kantian unconscious must be mentioned: Kant believes in a noumenal self, analogous to the noumeal world outside, and we are quite unconscious of its nature. It is the hidden face of human nature, and no less real for its inaccessibility. This unconscious self must be presumed to play a role in generating how we perceive and think about the world (it is often pointed out that Freud and Jung were good Kantians who would be well aware of Kant’s hypothesis of a psychic world removed from our ordinary phenomenal awareness).

Adding an extra dimension to this already lengthy enumeration we have what might be called the Darwinian unconscious. The idea is familiar from evolutionary psychology and is an expression of Freud’s “archaic remnants”: we carry within us, as an evolutionary legacy, the psychological apparatus of our ancestors, still preserved (we could say pickled) in our modern brain. This general idea can be taken to varying degrees of remoteness, depending on how far back we care to go. It is often said that our current conscious lives are conditioned by the inheritance of a mind-brain adapted to the African savannah, but we could also postulate remnants of the earlier period of hominid tree dwelling. These could co-exist in the present human brain, occasionally manifesting themselves in our behavior and attitudes. We might go even further back and find remnants of our very distant past, say back to the placoderms: just as we inherited the basic body structure of these armored fish, so we inherited their basic psychological structure—and this may exist in us in unconscious form, perhaps never emerging into the light of day at all. Thus there may be multiple Darwinian unconscious minds lurking somewhere in the folds of our brains, some entirely dormant. We might have dozens of unconscious minds inherited from past species.

Now I have not attempted to argue for all of these varieties of the unconscious, and certainly some are more controversial than others, but the general point should be clear and uncontroversial: the domain of the unconscious is plural, heterogeneous, disunited, and disorganized. There is nothing like co-consciousness or a single conscious self to unify the disparate states and activities that constitute the range of unconscious systems that exist within us. If it is of the essence of consciousness to be a unity, then it is of the essence of unconsciousness to be disunity. We should not speak of “the unconscious” at all, unless we mean simply to refer to the totality of separate unconscious mental systems; certainly we cannot model unconscious mental reality on “the conscious”, where the definite article is fully warranted. The unconscious is eminently divisible, consisting of an assembly of separate systems, unlike consciousness as traditionally conceived. In this respect the unconscious is like the body, but with even less unity—it is made up of distinct organs each performing distinct functions (and some performing no function at all). Just as the lungs work differently from the heart, so one kind of unconscious organ works differently from other kinds. The whole of what we call “the mind” is thus like a colony of minds. Our unity is apparent only at the level of consciousness; behind the scenes we are fragmented and disunited.

Does this mean we consist of many selves? Are there as many selves as there are unconscious modules? My view is that there is no such thing as an unconscious self—all selves are conscious selves. So there is not an unconscious self that is specific to each unconscious system—as it might be, a mathematical self, a linguistic self, a moral self, a perceptual self, a libidinous self. Rather, we can say one of two things: either that the mental states in question have no self as their subject, or that they do but that self is just the familiar conscious self we encounter every day. That is, either there is no “I” for the unconscious systems, or each person can truly say “I am now in unconscious state S”. Of course, I won’t typically know what my unconscious mind is doing at any given time, though I may have indirect theoretical knowledge of such matters; but it will still be true to ascribe the underlying mental states to me. In much the same way, I have kidneys and a liver—though these are not components of my consciousness. If we choose to say the former, we abandon the principle that for every mental state there must be a subject, while we keep that principle if we choose to say the latter. It seems to me not to matter much what we choose to say; what is important is that no one possesses unconscious mental states in the way they possess conscious mental states. There is certainly nothing it is like for someone to possess an unconscious mental state—as there is for a conscious mental state. If there is any “phenomenology” to the unconscious, it is not a phenomenology that is like anything for its bearer—since there is no bearer. In any case, we don’t need to multiply selves in order to account for the plurality of unconscious systems. In the normal course of events, we have just one self and it is conscious; we don’t have in addition a gang of little unconscious homunculus selves. If we like we can say, “I unconsciously inferred that the sun went down”, as we can say “I digested my food”, but we must remember that all these statements mean is that certain unconscious activities within me can be ascribed to one individual rather than another (it wasn’t you who made that inference or digested that food). Conscious mental states must have a bearer, but unconscious mental states don’t have a bearer, except in the trivial sense just mentioned.

I want now to consider briefly four questions arising from the discussion so far. First, can any mental state that is conscious also be unconscious? It seems clear enough that many conscious mental states can take an unconscious form, notably beliefs and other propositional attitudes—memory by itself demonstrates that. According to psychoanalysis, emotions and desires that are conscious can also exist in unconscious form. There are many who would insist that conscious perceptual experiences can also exist unconsciously—as with subliminal perception. The case that has been most controversial is that of bodily sensations like pain: is it possible to have an unconscious pain? It is certainly possible to have an unattended pain, but there is some intuition that an intense pain at least can never be had unconsciously. Granted that all other types of conscious mental state can also be unconscious, it would be odd to find this one exception; but it may be that some mental states cannot exist in unconscious form in their very nature. Still, the general rule appears to be that what is conscious can also be unconscious. If we hold to anything like a higher order thought theory of consciousness, we get that result easily, since all that is necessary to produce an unconscious mental state is to remove the higher order thought. From the point of view of this paper, the interesting point is that states that must be part of a unity when conscious are not part of a unity when unconscious—yet it is the same state. Consciousness imposes unity on its contents, rather than reflecting a unity already found in the mental states as such. If I am consciously thinking about philosophy and at the same time seeing a red object, the two experiences will be unified in my consciousness; but if those same two mental states were to occur unconsciously, they would not be so unified. They would not exist for a single self and they would not be “co-unconscious”.

Second, is there some sort of hierarchy of unconsciousness? Are some forms of the unconscious more unconscious than others? Might one unconscious have another unconscious as its unconscious? All that seems perfectly possible. Freud would allow that some unconscious mental contents are harder to access than others, because more repressed; and the same would be true of other types of unconscious material. That is likely for the Darwinian unconscious, as ancestral forms of mind become ever more remote. Unconscious knowledge of universals, as envisaged by Plato, seems easier to access than unconscious knowledge of universal grammar, as envisaged by Chomsky: the former is elicited by experience, but the latter is not so elicited (or else linguistics would be much easier than it is). The deep Jungian archetypes appear particularly hard to access compared to their particular cultural manifestations. These might count as the unconscious of an individual’s personal unconscious—what lies behind and shapes the idiosyncratic personal unconscious formed by someone’s particular history. 

Third, can there be a totally inert and insulated unconscious? Generally speaking, an unconscious is posited because there is behavioral or conscious evidence for its existence—the unconscious is never encountered “directly”. But is that necessary? I don’t see why, though it would be difficult to find any evidence to make a specific attribution of such a sealed off type of unconscious (there might in principle be evidence from brain structure). What if some ancient ancestral form of mind persisted in our brains by dint of heredity but never revealed itself—it just sits there quietly minding its own business. It might still have psychological reality, just no effects on behavior or consciousness. That seems quite conceivable. And couldn’t the causal links between an unconscious system and behavior be abolished, so that the unconscious system no longer made any difference to behavior? Would that mean the states no longer exist? I don’t see why. If there were such an unconscious system, it would be even more isolated and autonomous than what we find with the systems we know about: it would be a mental world unto itself, with no interaction with anything else. Imagine severing the nerve fibers that connect the Freudian unconscious with the conscious mind and behavior: that would render it impotent, but not less real (this would be a simple surgical way to rid ourselves of the disruptive unconscious–no more bad dreams, neuroses, and slips of the tongue).

Fourth, is it true that every conscious faculty has its corresponding unconscious subsystem? Freud and Jung suppose that our conscious life of social and sexual relations has an unconscious substructure. Plato thinks that our conscious knowledge of mathematics rests upon recovered memories. Descartes holds that we could not have conscious thoughts without first having unconscious innate ideas. Helmholtz conjectures that there can be no perception without unconscious inference. Chomsky contends that we can only consciously use language because of an innate unconscious grammatical competence. So many conscious faculties require an unconscious foundation. But is the same true of our conscious knowledge of history and geography? Is it true that I have unconscious knowledge of historical dates and national capitals? Well, I do have such knowledge in my unconscious memory—but do I have any such unconscious knowledge before learning history and geography consciously? That sounds distinctly dubious; here the unconscious features only trivially, not foundationally. I certainly did not know that Paris is the capital of France unconsciously before learning it consciously. However, there is room for a weaker thesis, namely that conscious historical and geographical knowledge rest upon a foundation of unconscious cognition concerning time and space and the general nature of the material world. If such basic knowledge is innate, then at some point it was unconscious—and it is a necessary condition of acquiring conscious knowledge. It is therefore plausible to suggest that it is on the order of a psychological law that every conscious system depends on an unconscious system—that the conscious mind needs the unconscious mind. Whenever something is going on upfront there is always machinery whirring away behind. As a general rule, the conscious mind presupposes the (or a) unconscious mind.

What is the right image of the mind, viewed in this pluralist way? Just as people tend to a dualism of mind and body, so they tend to a dualism of mind and mind—the conscious mind, on the one hand, and the unconscious mind, on the other. The inner architecture of the mind is like railway tracks, or a pair of horses tethered together, or a married couple. But that dualism should be replaced by a plurality of minds: the conscious mind and its many unconscious partners (or rivals). Thus the architecture is more like a colony or a hive or an extended family. Many separate agencies work together, or ignore each other, or even oppose each other; there isn’t some simple dualism warranting the phrase “the unconscious”. The varieties of the unconscious are as extensive as the varieties of bodily organ or the varieties of animal species. Each of us contains mental multitudes.


10 replies
  1. Mark Lough
    Mark Lough says:

    Hi Colin,

    I was going to remark that this modular view (of which the consciousness could be just another module in the whole synthesizer so to speak) may be influenced by how we approach studying these things in the first place i.e. zap a section of the brain and get a particular result. However, in troubleshooting – we always break things down to smaller components, it’s obviously how we study reality, is it not instinctive to us to break things down? It could be the brain reflecting its’ own compartmentalized nature?

    Also reading this made me wonder about the purpose and mechanics of dreams. Do individual modules take turns at communicating to our consciousness via dreams ? Yet many of these modules communicate directly anyway (or at least influence the conscious mind) – my partner and I recently got into jigsaws and were surprised each of us, at different times, would reach into the pile of pieces, pull one out and immediately put it in its’ correct place as if part of us already knew where it went. So maybe some modules have more direct communication and others have to use a dream and a dream is just a separate module to allow this communication – the consciousness can hijack it when we are lucid dreaming.

    And I have always wondered why dreams don’t just come out with it, why all the metaphor when characters in the dreams are capable of stringing sentences together? Some aspect of language or imparting meaning directly must not be available to a particular module in the dream situation.

    Anyway many thanks – it’s a brilliant blog

    All the best


    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Recognizing many unconscious minds certainly opens up the field considerably. It is a puzzle why dreams are so opaque and often incoherent: wouldn’t it be easier to just dream literally and straightforwardly? We can imagine transparently, so why not dream transparently?

      But what is this curious word “its'” that you use? You don’t need that inverted comma–it’s just “its”.

  2. Mark Lough
    Mark Lough says:

    Ha, it’s the sign of an idiot attempting to cover up his poor knowledge of grammar. Apologies, I missed some lessons long ago in primary school and never seem to have caught up.

    I remember once, when I was visiting an elderly friend in a care home – a woman burst into his room and began speaking very strangely – she clearly had some type of dementia , poor thing. It just so happened that I was recording my friend’s life story so inadvertently recorded her too. The words were all there, parts of the structure were there and yet she said nothing at all – there was no meaning – not just small talk – something was missing. As we’ve already established -I’m no grammar expert so can’t delve any deeper into it, but when we’re dreaming, parts of our brain and body are switched off so perhaps some element of how we use language is disabled and other ways have to be found around the switched off neural pathways so to speak.

    Then again, it just may be the archaic part of the mind, that was more used to symbols and visual metaphors, long before language came along – it dabbles a bit these days with words, but it’s out of its depth ….a bit like me.

    All the best

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Don’t worry, most people can’t get “its” and “it’s” straight (the former is the possessive, the latter an abbreviation of “it is”), but I make it my mission to make what inroads I can into this abyss.

      Did the human mind ever consciously think as we now dream? Sounds like a type of hell.

  3. mark lough
    mark lough says:

    They must have had some crazy dreams even if they didn’t.

    I have often wondered if there was less of a barrier between the two (or three or four or….), but then, perhaps the dreams arrived later in human history and were the spark that lit the fuse. Were we ever meant to see them in the first place? Could it just be a quirk like sleep paralysis where we wake up unexpectedly during a routine process.

    I find it difficult to imagine a world without language. Perhaps it’s the way things were when we were very young children, though I don’t recall a time where I could not understand what my mother was saying ( maybe my memory doesn’t go back far enough). I do however recall a blurring of dreams and reality – a sense that I had existed before, though I think that was something I saw on the telly.

    Metaphors won’t be much good though if a woolly Mammoth is charging at you, but a dream must have been a hugely significant event to an ancient human.

  4. mark lough
    mark lough says:

    Yes, that’s a better question – when did they grasp the concept?

    Tied up in that is the realization that dreams and reality are different. Did they think they were going to a different world or did they always know it was inside of them?

    I remember a news article or TV prog about someone having made a connection between patterns in the visual cortex and something very similar in a piece of cave art. Reading the article below – it may have been at Altamira and Lascaux.

    Though this does seem to be emanating from shamanic practices with hallucinogens rather than dreams, cave art imay be the only evidence we could use to answer your question. I’ve only just discovered that the study of all of this is called Cognative Archeology.

    Spirituality, metaphor and dreams all go together in my view. This behaviour from chimpanzees is suggestive of ritualism:

    Whether they remember their dreams – who knows, but I’m pretty certain they have them for I have seen a dog apparently dreaming, also a rabbit. You can imagine that if the chimpanzees continually visit the above tree – they’re all going to dream about it and thus reinforce the magic of the experience. Perhaps it was a dream about that tree (that they all passed each day in the forest) started it all off.

  5. mark lough
    mark lough says:

    Perhaps, but that concept of reality may have been very different to how we think of it. Maybe safer to say that, at some point a distinction was made between the two forms of conscious experience.

    I regards to animals knowing if they dream – I refer you to no lesser a scientific repository than the American Dog and Kennel club. I googled just now on a search if dogs have nightmares, I reckon that that would be the most likely type of dream to manifest it’s aftermath in waking hours – in the 2nd last paragraph…


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