Let's leave epistemic (failure of 'introspective access' or of 'self consciousness' etc etc) accounts aside. The point here is to provide an understanding that doesn't trade in such conceptual and phenomenological futilities.
We might think: it's to do with a dissociation of action and self-ascription, such that if a desire is unconscious someone's behaviour will still express it in some way, but they will no longer have an ability to express it by self-ascribing it. (Finkelstein)
This view is important and helpful - yet problematic for reasons I leave others to articulate (Leite, in press). What I can instead get into here is my own elaboration of unconscious intentionality as loss of self-possession.
I'm suffering a repetition compulsion; I'm driven by my desires; I'm acting, perhaps even when I am aware of various facts about my psychology, in such a way that - still unbeknownst to me - I'm even now driven by these very facts. (By 'am aware of' here I mean 'have true beliefs concerning'.)
What is that? What is it to be driven by one's psychology, to lose self-possession, to lose sovereignty even when no one (other, perhaps, than oneself) has set out to depose us?
We might say to someone 'Are you trying right now to express envy / show me anger / demean yourself / depress yourself / etc.?' Notice that we might also say 'Are you aware that right now you are expressing envy...etc. etc.?' If they answer 'No', or 'Oh my God you're right', then - assuming that this is indeed what they were doing - they had indeed become non-self-possessed, become governed by unconscious desire/intention/emotion.
The temptation is to suppose that there is something which self-possession consists in. And then to suppose that lacking self-possession is lacking this.
To turn it around, and resist the temptation, I want to say: we do better to think that what is required for us are criteria not for the consciousness but for the unconsciousness, for the lost self-possession, of a mental state. (... Recall Wittgenstein's try-it-out comment (Philosophical Investigations 628) on the absence of surprise as a marker of voluntary action.... So too with consciousness: it's the absence of the markers of unconsciousness which, I'm suggesting, make for the consciousness of an intention or desire.)
An action or expression is unconsciously driven, I suggest, if someone is driven not by herself but by her desire, where the marker of this is that there is here room for what we call being brought to or arriving at a recognition of being thus driven. Someone who is non-unconsciously desirous cannot be said to be brought to, or to arrive at, a recognition of her desirousness. She can self-ascribe it without any such bringing, arriving, realising. You can't arrive where you already are (unless you first go away). The consciousness of an intention is the ontological default and has no markers other than the absence of the markers of unconsciousness. Unconsciousness wears the conceptual trousers (Austin). (Hmm, is that a sexist metaphor?)
(Freud got it the wrong way round. He thought that all mental states were in and of themselves essentially unconscious, but that we are able to become aware of some of them. We do better to almost reverse this: there is a default presumption of the consciousness of mental states, but sometimes we can defeat this presumption. (I say 'almost': this is because I'm talking ontology, whereas he was (supposedly) talking psychological theory.)
So, consciousness here is to be analysed as non-un-consciousness.
Do we really want to leave it (the fact or not of someone having an unconscious desire) all hanging in this way on what someone may or may not say of herself? Isn't it - the unconscious drivenness - not itself rather more visible in the behaviour expressing the unconscious intention than this suggests?
Well, the defendedness is often visible in the behaviour.
Perhaps I've been too dismissive of consciousness? Perhaps there is after all a kind of parity between consciousness and unconsciousness?
For might not a mark of the consciousness of a feeling or wish or intention be that it can enter into rational decision making? Geoffrey loves his wife, but - let's face it - he also appears rather drawn to his secretary Marjorie: the way he only seems to come in to work on the days she's there, the way he once called his wife Marjorie, etc. But Geoffrey really isn't aware of his desire for Marjorie - if you ask him he won't say 'yes of course', although - sure - he might (or might not) quite quickly say 'oh my God you're right'. If his desire was conscious then he could take steps to rein it in, or he'd leave his wife, or what have you - his desire can now function as a reason for and not simply as a cause of his action.
Well, sure, that's important. But it doesn't get to the significance of why it's important to give the ontological priority to conscious intention. The key claim is: it's not as if our intentions or desires are mental states to be understood as only contingently entering into rational deliberation, in which case we call them 'conscious', otherwise we call them 'unconscious'.
Why not? If we take an epistemic account - of the sort brusquely dismissed in the second paragraph - of the conscious / unconscious difference, it's easy to take that kind of a line. The desire is there, one might say, whether we're aware of it or not. Or: it is there whether or not it functions as a reason for action.
What's wrong with the epistemic account is not simply the idea of access, but the idea of the independence of the object which talk of access inspires: namely, the idea that desires are stand-alone phenomena such as may or may not be accessed by us. But what it means for a desire to figure or not as a reason for our action is not for us to possess an object which we may or may not be aware of and which, because of this awareness, may go on to function as a reason for action. No, what it is for us to have an unconscious desire is for us to not be able to use it as a reason for action. To have an unconscious desire, to 'not be aware that we have' this desire, is to be in such a position as makes meaningful talk of being brought from a state of not being able to use it as a reason for action (in which case we are no longer in the driving seat, but are instead being driven by our psychology) to a state in which we are able to use it as a reason for action.
The 'because' in the second sentence of the last paragraph was spurious. And whilst not spurious, the 'it's in the final sentence of the last paragraph may certainly be misleading. Misleading, that is, if we haven't already completely exorcised the misleading picture. For the 'it' might once again make it look as if we had here a selfsame item which may or may not get picked up. Here, however, the item and the picking up are of a piece. But... before we now get carried away with that (and start talking about, say, 'self-constitution', or pondering Escher hands drawing themselves into being), let's instead reject the whole metaphor; let's reject the whole 'it'... for otherwise we may be tempted also by the 'because'. Otherwise we may be tempted to think that the being of the intention or wish or desire is identical in conscious and unconscious cases. Otherwise we may forget that the 'cannot' in 'we cannot make use of unconscious desires as reasons for actions' is a grammatical 'cannot'. (Grammatical 'cannot's' do not make for explanatory 'because's'*.) We may start to think, that is, that the reason we cannot make use of them is because they are unconscious. (Once again we've slipped back into the spurious Freudian metapsychology.) We forget that our not being able to make use of them is their unconsciousness.
So often in philosophy it's such a tiny, subtle, slight difference that goes on to make all the difference.
*Well, Nozick has a concept of a 'philosophical explanation', and if we allow his use of 'explanation' then we may also sanction the idea that grammatical 'cannot's' can make for explanatory 'because's'. Nozick's concept of a 'philosophical explanation' is of an explanation as to how it is that something which we might have thought impossible is actually possible. The explanation involves showing us what faulty suppositions we'd made about the nature of the thing in question. The possibility of distinguishing between explanations of this sort, and explanations of how something works, ought I believe to be obvious. Speaking for myself I'd rather not follow Nozick, and instead distinguish between unmuddling and explanation. But, of course, one can say whatever one wants and it doesn't change the facts. The relevant fact here being that what an intention is when we have an unconscious intention is not the same as what an intention is when we have a conscious intention.
We do not need - there is not even room for - an explanation of how an intention becomes available to reason. We need an explanation of how it might become unavailable. (Operation of defences.) An intention can only be said to become available to reason if we have to do with de-repression. If it had never been lost from reason in the first place, there is no such thing as its becoming available to it.
We are (... own it Richard: I am...) constantly drawn to thinking of unconsciousness in terms of absence. Well, in a way it is - it is, one might say, the absence of self-possession. The person who unconsciously intends is someone who doesn't know (under all the relevant descriptions) what she is doing. But this is a rather spurious conceptual turn, since someone is self-possessed simply to the extent that she is not possessed by her unconscious intentions. (Self-possession is not self-control, except to the extent that we can be said to 'have self-control' just when we are not being controlled.) No, we might do better to say that unconsciousness here is a matter of presence, and consciousness a matter of absence. Where what is present is the possibility of being brought to or arriving at recognition of the fact that one intends something or other. The possibility of one's actions being guided by reasons which reasons include the intention in question.
It is so tempting to think: Well yes, Richard, but there's a reason why that possibility of being brought to a recognition of one's intentions obtains - namely that someone has an unconscious intention and the defences against it are challenged or vitiated! And so there's still a further question as to what the markers are of that unconscious intention! ... This is the temptation that is so hard to resist. And when we fail to resist it we end up concocting a philosophical theory of the unconscious, rather than simply sitting with and offering acknowledgement to the essential manifestations of unconscious intentionality. Sure, there truly is a psychological story we properly tell about why the intention is unconscious - the story invokes this or that defence, this or that bit of phantasy or history etc. But philosophically speaking our spade is turned sooner than we care to admit.
Paragraph 664 of the Philosophical Investigations has it that:
In the use of words one might distinguish “surface grammar” from “depth grammar”. What immediately impresses itself upon us about the use of a word is the way it is used in the construction of the sentence, the part of its use—one might say—that can be taken in by ear.—And now compare the depth grammar, say of the word “to mean”, with what its surface grammar would lead us to suspect. No wonder we find it difficult to know our way about.That just about sums up the situation with unconscious versus conscious intentions. It looks (from the 'surface grammar') as if unconscious intentions ought to be conscious intentions with something lacking. Or that conscious intentions are unconscious intentions with something added. This conception of intention merely adventitiously tacks reason onto the animal soul from the outside. Freud liked to do that - it pricked the self-image of man as rational animal in a satisfying way!
We can put it like this. In the normative (paradigmatic, defining) case, intending something includes using what is intended as a guide to action. A defeating condition for intention - i.e. such that we would no longer speak of someone intending something - is if she denies that she has the intention, or disavows it as a reason for her action. However there are defeating conditions for these defeating conditions. And this, finally, is where the unconscious comes into the picture. It is the positive presence of these defeaters of the defeaters which makes conceptual space for unconsciousness. As Finkelstein notes - although he provides different reasons for it - infants and animals cannot have unconscious (or conscious) mental states (i.e. there is yet, here, no room for that distinction).
In some ways, then, Freud's Copernican revolution perhaps wasn't quite as dramatic as envisaged! Yet at the same time Freud's concept of the unconscious was rather more distinctive and unique than he imagined. The unconscious: no merely inwardly unobserved yet self-same mentality. No, rather a different form of intentionality altogether.