The Concept Of The Unconscious Research Paper

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The history of the concept of the unconscious in western thought will be discussed in three phases of its development:

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(a) from as early as the sixth century BC to the seventeenth century, when the concept was not usually distinguished from other, wholly metaphysical concepts in which it was embedded;

(b) the beginning of the attempt, under the influence of Descartes, to distinguish the concept of the unconscious from its metaphysical moorings, and to submit it to scientific examination;

(c) the modern period, in which the concept very commonly is assumed by researchers in the social sciences despite doubts by some about whether the concept’s separation from its metaphysical origins is, or ever can be, complete.

1. Metaphysical Beginnings

The idea that people are sometimes unaware of their own mental processes while they are going on and may even be incapable of later retrieving them introspectively, has had a long life of its own independent of and prior to its uses in modern experimental psychology, psychoanalysis, cognitive science and linguistics. However, the idea’s early occurrences do not appear tagged by a single term translatable as ‘the unconscious’; rather, the idea commonly occurs as a corollary of (a) the rationalist doctrine of innate ideas, and more broadly, of (b) the even more ancient idea of the microcosm, the traditional world-view according to which each mind contains the universe, in miniature, within itself (Levy 1967). Since the microcosm concept can be thought of, at least in part, as the view that all ideas are innate, the rationalist doctrine, for example, of Descartes, for whom only some ideas, e.g., of God, or of thought, are innate, is implied by, but does not imply the microcosm view.

Since, presumably, human subjects are never consciously aware of having all ideas within their minds, the concept of the unconscious is implicit in the idea of the microcosm; and to the extent that one might never consciously reflect on (what Descartes meant by) the idea of God or of thought, the concept of the unconscious is implicit in the doctrine of innate ideas, as well. However, rationalists often accepted the microcosm model, too, as for example, Leibniz, who writes of souls that they are ‘perpetual living mirrors,’ each representative of the entire universe; and Plato, who used the example of a young slave untrained in geometry, led only by questioning to the discovery of a mathematical truth, to show the boy ‘recovering the knowledge out of himself’ where the possibility of this ‘recovery of knowledge,’ (Meno, 85D), which Plato called recollection (anamnesis), rests on the claim that ‘… as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing … discover everything else (Meno, 81C-D). Since neither Plato nor Leibniz meant to say that any human subject could consciously experience themselves ‘mirroring’ the universe or consciously recall having known the recovered mathematical truth at some earlier time, the concept of the unconscious implicitly employed by them is a thoroughly metaphysical one.

2. Descartes And The Beginning Of Scientific Scrutiny

Descartes’s views require separate comment, since, unlike Plato and Leibniz, he had no attachment to the microcosm concept; yet although he had no difficulty with the existence of unconscious mental states insofar as his doctrine of innate ideas implied them (Cottingham 1998), he has nevertheless gained the reputation of having defined them out of existence as a consequence of his mind-body dualism and his supposed identification of conscious awareness as the essential attribute of mind. Whyte goes so far as to write, ‘Descartes … by his definition of mind as awareness, may be said to have provoked as reaction, the European discovery of the unconscious mind … Descartes … had no clear conception of the unconscious mind, for to him all that is unconscious is physiological’ (Whyte 1962, p. 80). But it is thought, not awareness that Descartes defines as essential to mind (Meditation II ), and Descartes takes seriously the possibility, concerning his ideas of the external world, that there is some ‘faculty not yet fully known to me, which produces these ideas without any assistance from external things; this is, after all, just how I have always thought ideas are produced in me when I am dreaming’ (Meditation III ). Such a faculty in him, by implication unconsciously active, apparently would need an intellectual substance to inhere in (Meditation VI ), so it cannot, presumably, be purely physiological in nature. What finally persuades Descartes that such a deceptive and unconsciously acting mental faculty does not exist is not the thought that the idea of it is incoherent in itself (as would be natural if his view were as Whyte supposed), but rather that once God’s existence has been proved, the existence of that faculty is incompatible with God’s perfect goodness (Meditation V ).

What it was in Descartes’s philosophy capable of provoking the somewhat desperate efforts to defend the as yet unnamed (Whyte 1962, pp. 25, 60) concept of the unconscious against him can more properly be found in his rejection of the comforts of the microcosm model, and his insistence on accepting as true only things that are clearly and distinctly perceived, things for which there are ‘sure signs’ (Meditation I ). For when such a standard is applied to the concept of the unconscious, its defenders as well as its detractors are at least temporarily at a loss, since no-one then knew, nor is there complete consensus even now, as to where the defining line separating conscious from other mental states is to be drawn. How exactly it can be proved that an unconscious part of the mind exists in reality, i.e., that it is more than a mere conceptual possibility (if even that), and what sure signs ought to be required of specific contents in it, remain subjects of debate. The contrast on these points with the conscious mind and its states appears quite stark. It was Descartes who first made necessary the project of attempting to separate the concept of the unconscious from the metaphysical moorings that had until that time shrouded it from scrutiny. The concept of the unconscious was itself about to enter consciousness. The search was on for its manifestations in empirical phenomena that could be examined in a scientific way.

3. The Modern Period

By the end of the nineteenth century, a wide range of psychological phenomena had been identified as seeming to need unconscious mental activity for their explanation; ordinary perception and habit-formation, hypnosis and post-hypnotic suggestion, dreaming and neurotic symptom-formation, to name a few. According to James (1890), however, all such ‘proofs’ of the existence of the unconscious would fail, since the very idea of the unconscious mind is an ‘unintelligible and fantastical’ notion, and more parsimonious explanations of the phenomena in question are in all cases available, e.g., explanations in terms merely of (a) ‘brain-processes to which no ideation seems attached,’ (b) ‘perceptions and volitions … performed consciously, only so quickly and inattentively that no memory of them remains,’ or (c) ‘split-off’ consciousness, without any reference to unconscious mental activity having to be invoked. By the end of the twentieth century, the range of psychological phenomena offered in support of the concept of the unconscious had expanded to include language acquisition and ‘subliminal perception,’ ‘blindsight,’ and cognitive dissonance and self-perception attribution processes (Nisbett and Wilson 1977). However, skeptics have continued to doubt the existence of unconscious mental activity entirely, for reasons roughly similar to those laid down by James, though with more sophisticated arguments (Searle 1992, Strawson 1994).

There is here an evident lack of prior agreement about what conditions a phenomenon must meet for it to be a genuine instance of unconscious mental activity; one side of the debate assumes that more (and more exotic) examples are needed to make their case, while the other side is already committed to the view that no possible example can succeed. At least it can be said of those who use the sorts of cases mentioned to support the existence of unconscious mental activity that they agree about what criteria determine the contents of the unconscious in any given case, and of what those contents are; there is, e.g., no dispute among them about what stimulus is unconsciously perceived in any given subliminal perception experiment, or what forgotten order the subject is obeying in posthypnotic suggestion even if there are many questions about the way these stimuli are unconsciously processed.

By contrast, the psychoanalytic evidence raises different problems on this point, since there is no agreement concerning what Freud thought the criterion of truth in psychoanalysis is, and of what the consequences of adopting one criterion or another would be. It is widely supposed (e.g., by Grunbaum 1984, Rey 1998) that Freud thought therapeutic success is the only (or best) evidence of the correctness of psychoanalytic interpretations. The acceptance of such a criterion of correctness seems to leave Freud vulnerable to the well-known criticism that therapeutic success could as easily be due to suggestion or placebo effects as to interpretive truth. By contrast, Wittgenstein (1966) and Levy (1996) attribute to Freud the view that assent by the subject of an interpretation is ultimately the sole, or main criterion of its correctness. Which criterion Freud accepted, and which he ought to have accepted, are questions impossible to settle here; however, in favor of the assent criterion as the answer to both questions, it can be said first that the assent criterion seems more in accord with Freud’s own most extensive discussion of the matter (Freud 1937). Indeed, he even considers there the possibility that in some cases the mark of a true ‘construction’ will be that the patient’s symptoms and general condition are not improved but rather aggravated (Freud 1937, p. 265). In addition, that criterion also allows interpretations to be true outside the therapeutic situation, where the danger of suggestion and placebo effects can more easily be avoided. Of course, in cross-cultural anthropological testing of non-individual psychoanalytic hypotheses (e.g., on the Oedipus complex, Whiting et al. 1958, Stephens 1962, Spiro 1982), neither the assent nor therapeutic success criterion is directly applicable. Lastly, it is wishes and ideas, for Freud, that inhabit the unconscious, not desires and beliefs (Freud 1893, p. 251, 1895, p. 10, 1915a, p. 152, 1915b, p. 178). However, ideas and wishes, whether conscious or unconscious, lack the tight connection with behavior to be found in desire and belief; it is plausible to say, in many cases at least, that the character of a subject’s ideas and wishes is ascertainable only by way of the assent and self-ascription the subject provides, whereas the comparable claim about desires and beliefs would have very little plausibility. This provides further evidence that Freud accepted the assent criterion, after all.

Regardless of which criterion is accepted, the question remains whether unconscious ideas and wishes as referred to psychoanalytically provide genuine exceptions to James’s requirements. Without trying to resolve this matter here, it should be noted that the presence or absence of a brain-process cannot hinge on the assent of the person whose brain it is; so if the assent criterion were assumed, explanations of James’s type (a) would be foreclosed. How, if at all, unconscious contents as psychoanalytically interpreted, might also elude his explanation types (b) and (c) remains to be seen. More broadly, whether psychoanalytic interpretations are capable of being tested experimentally, and how (if at all) to resolve the difficulties that arise when such testing is attempted are also unanswered questions (Edelson 1984, Erdelyi 1985, Erwin 1996).


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