Catching up with an old friend after a conference this week I was struck by the different ways we were disposed to understand dreams - and other phenomena which I naturally take to manifest the dynamic unconscious. Where I saw a domain of personal meaning he saw largely an epiphenomenon; where I saw self-evident truth he saw interesting but generally unlikely hypothesis. "If I were entering the pearly gates and about to hear the truth of the matter from the Almighty, I'd lay fifty quid on it", he said of the psychoanalytic theory of dream symbolism, "but nothing more".
I found myself trying to argue the case but quickly got trapped between two unappealing alternatives. On the one hand I wanted to offer evidence for the theory, but it became clear that this wasn't really going to help. For, in relation to the theory, it would always be natural - from within such an epistemological framework - to take the psychoanalytic explanation as something reaching beyond the facts in an hypothetical way. As positing a hidden mechanism behind them. Thus when I started talking about the primary processes which (as I see it) underlie the formation of what I see as dream symbols, the question quickly became "And what's the evidence for that being true?" "What's the evidence for that mechanism actually being instantiated". On the other hand I was honestly tempted to pull the Freudian fast one - of saying that my friend was unwilling to grasp the theory because he was defended against an acknowledgement of the dynamic unconscious itself. (I somewhat embarrassedly admit that I actually think there's often something right about this latter option, appalling as it is as a dialectical move!)
It strikes me now that when I normally think about dream symbolism, about the operation of defence mechanisms, about the transference, I don't for one moment think of these as consisting in posits or scientific claims. Sure, in individual cases we may have to do with hypotheses and guesses. For example I may not know you well enough to know that your tense relationship with your boss is a function of your expectation of him to act erratically or capriciously - as you tend to discern in your relationships more generally with the men in your life from your father onwards. I get some kind of a feel for that, but more observation is required! But in general I would tend to view my thinking in terms of the dynamic unconscious as on pretty much the same footing as (or, if you like, no more the kind of thing that requires footing than) my thinking about our conscious lives. I no more take it that my general thinking about the dynamic unconscious involves hypothesis than I do my conscious life. I no more take it that, on entering the pearly gates it would seem natural to me to ask if dreams really do manifest a range of defence mechanisms, psychoanalytic symbolisms, repressed emotions, etc, than it would to enter the pearly gates and ask God whether beliefs and thoughts really exist. The latter question is, I take it, simply a bad question. You'd have to subscribe to some kind of metaphysical Realism to get it off the ground, which is to say that you'd have to sublime the logic of the 'real' before you can generate the illusion that such an inquiry makes sense. It's a bad question because once you know how to ascribe beliefs then you know what the reality of believing amounts to, and there's no more question about whether believing itself is real than that.
This was the point I didn't appreciate at the time in what my friend was saying. For what the little celestial gambling parable was clearly designed to do was to indicate that the dynamic unconscious is here being taken as a posit. In effect it amounts to a kind of cognitive over-reach - a positing something which seems beyond our ken. Something which God can know about but not us.
This is where I should have demurred. For it seems to me that there are no less ascription conditions for unconscious beliefs, for condensation, for displacement, for phantasy, for psychoanalytic symbolism, than there are for conscious beliefs! "Look!", I should have said, "this is what is called displacement", "this is what it is for one thing to 'symbolise' another in the mind", etc. Psychoanalysis is phenomenology, not speculative psycho-mechanics. But here's the rub: you can't just do this phenomenological inspection by way of simple examples talked about over dinner. You certainly can't dispose of it through definition either ("an unconscious desire is a disposition with features xyz" etc). Grasping the ascription conditions for unconscious mentality involves a deepening immersion in a set of phenomena, a deepening development of a sensibility for the affective undertow of our lives. (This is why I think that Freud's "you're just defended against my theory!" canard is kinda right. Except it's not Freud or the theory that the sceptic here is defended against, but the unconscious itself. And, well: of course!) An enhanced memory for all one's: evasions, moments of humbling acknowledgement, collapses of defences into honesty, social anxieties that hardly show their face for all one's accomplished pseudo-maturity, yet which still show something of their coat tails. A live experience of the transference and countertransference - not, I hasten to add, some kind of over-familiarity with a psychological explanatory system which familiarity just churns out sentences concerning some putative background mechanism underlying the more straightforwardly observable phenomena of our lives; that kind of positing is religious cultishness (again, another reason, I suspect, for my friend's paltry celestial wager) - but instead noticing how one is pulled to believe and feel things of oneself and of the other in emotionally intense relationships (such as therapeutic relationships).
No, in fact if such ascription conditions were not available to us then they'd hardly be available to God either - for what we would have, instead of a genuine discourse regarding the dynamic unconscious, would simply be the illusion of such a discourse. All God could say, in such a circumstance, is not whether there really is or isn't a dynamic unconscious or a symbolic content to dreams, but rather "I'm sorry chum, we'll let you in, but you really gotta acknowledge that you don't even know what you're asking about when you put that wager down."
Now how about this idea that dreaming is an epiphenomenon? Surely, I want to say, we just know that this is largely correct! For what gives it its sense here is something which is evident to waking reflection on our dreaming alone: in our dreams we arrive at various predicaments, we can't think properly about them (because we're asleep!), yet we are to some degree anxious, so we anxiously try out various of the options that seem to present themselves, and the dream unfolds thereby out of our ongoing anxiously clumsy attempts to manage the dream predicament. There is a narrator function, a visual (and sometimes auditory) imagination function, and an anxiety response which are somewhat switched on in dreams, despite a shutdown of many other parts of brain function. In fact, unconstrained by reality contact, and utterly lost within the first-person narrator's perspective, the visual imagination function in dreaming can quite outstrip what it can achieve during the day, and this is surely one of the reasons that our dreams can seem wonderful and numinous to us.
Yet so far as I can tell none of this detracts from the psychoanalytic theory. Our personal anxieties and wishes have particular shapes, and the ongoing reactive dream landscape is a perfect one for them to automatically show themselves in. Some of these anxieties and wishes will be unconscious. Yet because of the dreaming state - because of the absence of imagination-constraining reality-contact - they still find some kind of expression in the dream (which is why the dream is the royal road to the unconscious). My wishes and counter-wishes are no longer simply blocked, but tend to play out, and the playing out may even contribute some of the creative energy of the dream itself.
Here, I believe, is a place where the epiphenomenal and the dynamic understandings don't clash: in the idea of dream genesis. You can imagine someone trying to stage a clash using the word 'just', as in: 'But what supplies the dream content is not my day residue plus longer-term unresolved issues - it is just a matter of random neurons firing off in your head.' This might look like competing hypotheses, but nobody wants to subscribe to dualism. Psychoanalysis is the name we give to one of the forms that the rejection of such dualism takes. 'Look', it says 'you really are all that too'. 'You are your id and not just your ego'. 'You are the dreamer of the dream. This is your mental life. These images and feelings and preoccupations are moments of your biography'.