Friday, 25 December 2015

on the alleged explanatory necessity of our concept of 'the unconscious'

One reads, I read, not infrequently, the suggestion that the concept of 'the unconscious' is forced upon us if we are to make explanatory sense of a significant range of human phenomena. We meet with this first in Freud - in his suggestion (in the Introductory Lectures and elsewhere) that the phenomena of post-hypnotic suggestion are unintelligible except on some such explanatory posit.

If we are to deny this - and dammit I do wish to deny it - it may seem that we are committed to the preposterous idea that there are no unconscious mental states; that we can do without the concept; that we can do justice to the phenomena which prompted the development of the concept without such a concept. And, well, I've already said that that such an idea (a la William James perhaps - see ch. 2 of Donald Levy's marvellous little book) seems to me to be preposterous. (And thank God for that, really, or I'd most likely be out of a job...)

The distinction I wish to invoke at this point is one between invoking a concept to offer, or by way of offering, acknowledgement to a phenomenon and invoking a concept by way of explaining a phenomenon. It is the latter claim which we meet with in the literature I'm carelessly recollecting here. (We do not serve ourselves well, I believe, by responding to my initial suggestion already with something like 'well, I'm just not going to join you Richard in making any such distinction between, as it were, descriptively acknowledging the being of some phenomenon on the one hand and properly explaining some already-acknowledged phenomenon on the other' - because the fact is that we do make such distinctions, and failing to make them risks both emasculating our concept of 'explanation' in ways which deprive it of its scientific potency and hyperbolically inflating our ability to recognise the life of the unconscious in our everyday interactions and reflections.)

Consider then Freud's claim that the phenomenon of post-hypnotic suggestion obliges us to wheel out the concept of the unconscious. The hypnotist puts the patient in a trance, and instructs / suggests to him that on awaking, when the hypnotist goes to leave the room, the patient will come and open an umbrella over his head before exiting the building, and the patient will yet remember nothing of this suggestion. All this goes down as suggested, and the patient, on being asked why on earth they've opened the umbrella, at best comes up with some absurd rationalisation like 'well I thought it might be helpful to you as you are about to go outside'. Doesn't this force us, Freud says, to deploy a concept like 'unconscious motivation' to explain the behaviour in question?

Well. No. It doesn't. Because explanation just isn't what we need here. What we need is rather to acknowledge the extraordinary fact of the phenomenon itself. This shit happens. That's what's incredible (to the person who's not yet (allowed themselves to have) met with it). That's what 'necessitates' the concept.

What, I think, stops us from even really seeing this, from being able to offer it due wondering acknowledgment, from accepting it, is i) an unhelpful and unwarranted and unargued epistemological conception of consciousness and unconsciousness, and ii) a correlative entified ontology of our thoughts feelings and intentions. Such ii) thoughts and feelings and intentions are thought of as inner objects that, perhaps, cause our actions. And to have unconscious feelings etc is supposed to be a matter of i) having feelings to which we don't have the normal inner epistemic access. Once that dose of double trouble is ingested, the explanatory conception of the work that the idea of the unconscious does for us will seem an inevitability. It will look as if we are required to posit an intention that the patient is not aware of - whatever that means - in order to make sense of why he acts as he does. And if now we start to push that 'whatever that means' scepticism, a la James or Sartre perhaps, it will look like we've just got our head in the sand, and that the only proper way with us will be one of impatience.

So let's back up. Let's just remind ourselves of the phenomena. Sometimes we meet with someone who, when asked why she does something, can do what we call 'giving us her reason'. Sometimes we meet with someone who cannot do this. Sometimes what she does is a matter of fulfilling an instruction given earlier. In the normal 'conscious' case, the two phenomena come together: the person both acts on the instruction and offers acknowledgement of this. In the case of an unconscious intention the person cannot offer such an acknowledgement. Nothing in this necessitates that her inability to offer the acknowledgement is based on a failure of acquaintance with her own intentions. Nothing necessitates the epistemic take. Nothing necessitates the idea, either, that the intention is an object with which acquaintance could be made. By contrast, what it is to intend to do something is to be disposed to do that thing, to be disposed to state it as a reason, etc. And what we mean by an unconscious intention is one which the subject is not thus disposed to state as a reason. Here we are stating matters of meaning; we are articulating the being of the phenomena; we have said nothing at all about explanation or about positing or about access or about inner awareness (whatever that is).

Once we've thus grasped the meaning or being of the unconscious, the idea that we require it to explain what the hypnotised subject is doing will rightly show up as hyperbolic. Now we can see clearly how, instead, our deploying the concept is itself nothing more than our offering the phenomena due recognition; it provides no kind of getting behind them. We can ditch the confusing 'inner access' model of conscious feeling. We can accept that our normal intentions and wishes are not merely contingently conscious; accept that consciousness is not best thought of as some kind of optional extra that we can enjoy if we are lucky enough. A conscious desire is not a desire we are conscious of - if by that we mean that it is a kind of transitive object of our consciousness just like sheep and goats are the transitive objects of the perceptual consciousness of someone walking through a farm; it is rather one that may be voiced, not one which has its only life in desirous motion. There is, though, no 'because' here: we don't voice it because we are conscious of it. That, once again, is but pretension.

A Cartesian conception of mind supposes that our capacity to avow our mental states is grounded in a kind of inviolable inner inspection of them. An anti-Cartesian conception of the unconscious supposes that our incapacity in avowing our repressed mental states is a function of an inability to thus inspect them. What I have been suggesting here is that this anti-Cartesian conception has a lot more in common with the Cartesian conception than it wants to acknowledge. In particular it has this idea of inner objects of inner inspection in common. If instead we get going with a Wittgensteinian conception of dynamic unconsciousness a la Elder and Finkelstein, the being of the unconscious can simply be located in the very phenomena that, according to the Cartesian, the unconscious is instead supposed to explain.