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August 11, 2005


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Its funny that your partner says he does not think about the unconscious. The only way Derrida (or Foucault for that matter) make sense to me is with the assumption that the unconscious is something real (in the ordinary sense) and has an impact on our everyday experiences. I cannot imagine explaining the impact of childhood experiences (traumatic or otherwise) without some kind of notion of the unconscious. One looks in the history of philosophy and the unconscious dates back to Plato, if not the Presocratics. The positivist dismissal of the unconscious is perhaps one of the fundamental differences that contributes to the gap between so called "analytic" and "continental" traditions.


There is a third way. The unconscious exists. In fact, most of our thinking is unconscious thinking. The research about the unconscious coming from the cognitive sciences might be at variance with parts of a psychoanalytic theory. One would hope the differences would not be too deep or broad between psychoanalysis and the results from the other cognitive sciences.

Philosophy is stuck with using, or taking a position on, scientific research into how the brain works and how we think.

For instance, what the brain does when dreaming could be an effect of the need for the brain to organize the large amounts of information it gathers each day, so the brain can make efficient use of it during its waking hours. Part of this unconscious cognitive process activates our visual system. Taken that way, dreams are the evolutionary effect of a humdrum computing exercise the brain must do periodically to negotiate the world. If it is at variance with psychoanalytic theories about the work of dreams and the unconscious, it is merely a scientific issue to be resolved.

Scott Eric Kaufman


One difference between the way in which the cognitive sciences treat what're typically called "sub-conscious" processes and psychoanalytic "unconscious" processes is that they don't attribute narrative meaning to them; whatever else Freud's conception of the unconscious is, its interaction with the conscious mind is narrative-based: secondary elaborations, &c. Cognitive science largely ignores this narrative component of human cognition because, you could say, it recognizes all secondary elaborations to be cultural instead of biological processes. To wit: if you grow up in a culture--say, NYC wealthy elite in the '20s and 30s--in which psychoanalytic models of human consciousness are the means by which people narrate their own experience, these socialites will take whatever information they've acquired through purely biological means and filter it through the psychoanalytic model. (This is one reason why, despite my psychoanalytic apostasy I still acknowledge its value as an analytical tool when talking about much of 20th Century American literature, from Jack London's very, very early adoption of Freud and Jung circa 1911 all the way up through Philip Roth's latest novel.)



this might interest you. and paul.



Hum, thanks for the link. I'm printing the article even as I type.

Lynn, thanks so much for you comment. I'm not sure if what I'm about to say is relevant, but, well, anyway, a political theory friend of mind has been working on brain science, particularly the amygdala and visceral responses. My impression is that he thinks brain science provides a better account, one that displaces the need for psychoanalytic explanations for passionate attachments or foreclosed fundamental fantasies. I tend to think that the theories are not opposed but can work together. So, with dreams, yep, a bunch of brain/neural defragging but sometimes I (or one) feels compelled to analyze or explain or consider a dream. And, this compulsion might be the result of psychic issues; so, the fragments of stuff in the dream don't really matter; what matters is my need to put them together.

Scott, I assume that what you have in mind when you say narrative is something like the following. My understanding of Lacan (which is not excellent) is that the unconscious is less a matter of narrative than of disrupting narrative, of where and how narrative falters. Additionally, unlike brains, the unconscious is intersubjective (my desire is the desire of the other). I think, though, that my use of 'unlike' should be qualified with some attention to the way that interactions contribute to the forming of neural pathways (I hope I haven't used terrible terms here....)

Alain, glad you liked Paul's funny comment. I really like it as a sort of tag line for a relation or response to the unconscious.

So, here is my next question. If an interlocutor acknowledges the unconscious, do they need to acknowledge psychoanalysis or does Lynn's suggestion of a third way, brain science, entail that one can have one's unconscious and pass on the psychoanalytic cake?



I appreciate you clarifying your point. I think I understand what you are saying, and I don't disagree.

I'll try not to go off on too long a tangent. These are my thoughts, and I do not attribute them to you. It is a further reflection on my part based on what you have said.

Once a scientific theory becomes embedded in a culture, if only in a rough and rude way, it becomes both tool for analysis and an object of study. Self reference is baked into the cake.

Scientific theories are metaphorical and narative-based because that is the way we think. That does not mean that there is no truth to the matter about the objects science studies. Some metaphors are apt and others just aren't. The latest example is the whole evolution vs. ID debate.

But I won't get into that here because I am sure I have already tried Jodi's patience with an earlier rant about that at another well know place in Blogland.

Scott Eric Kaufman


That's essentially what I mean: the same thing that drove Alphonse van Worden to claim elsewhere that psychoanalysis is nothing more than literary criticism (not that you and she would agree) is what I had mind. Freud's interested in processes that work according to narratives (however Mom/Me/Dad basic they may be), whereas cognitive science's interested in the brain. Of course, the intersection of narrative/mind and brain is itself interesting, but that's not what psychoanalysis is invested in. So to answer your question, I think that serious gestures to the unconscious or unconscious processes always entail psychoanalytic models because otherwise there's no there there, i.e. psychoanalysis posits the creation and structurinig of the unconscious, whereas the cognitive sciences discuss processes that exist beneath the threshold of consciousness, but which are not, say, structured like a language or created by an analog of Greek tragedy. Does that make sense?



Thanks, for replying. You've given me some things to think on. The part I am scuffling with right now is, "And, this compulsion might be the result of psychic issues."

I have no ready made answer.

P. S. I don't think psychoanalytic theories are divorced from brain science despite all the debates about their differences.


Scott and Lynn, what would be helpful is if we could find a place where brain science and psychoanalysis intersect. From the standpoint of psychoanalysis, psychopharmacology is the 'wrong' approach (even as it might be helpful) if it doesn't attend to psychic structure. It's also interesting that the brain people have a hard time explaining mind, so the dilemma goes both ways.



It would be good to find an intersection set.


Scott, I think you miss the point.

It's one thing to say that psychoanalysis is narrative driven. That's fair enough on the whole: the talking cure and all that.

But I don't think anybody would claim that the processes of the unconcious itself "work according to narratives." Far from it.

And you don't have to read Lacan to get the point. After all, it's not as though the Oedipus myth is unconcious; it was dramatized for the entire citizen body of Athens.

If anything, psychoanalysis claims that people become ill when they are unable to come up with suitable narratives by which they could account for their desire.

(Which is, mutatis mutandis, more or less what Aristotle says about tragedy.)


Jon--and the key there would be 'suitable' wherein does suitable entail a functional adaptation to a flawed order (perhaps the view of Freud and the early Lacan) or does suitable involve coming to terms with the contingency and lack in one's fundamental fantasy (Zizek and later Lacan) or some other possibility?

Another way to put your point: that the unconscious is structured like a language does not mean that it is narratively structured.


Jodi, indeed. There are many variants. (Another would be R D Laing's theory of the "double bind," which is more overtly political.)

that the unconscious is structured like a language does not mean that it is narratively structured.

A fine way of putting things. Though again, I'd only stress that you don't have to buy into Lacan to believe that the unconscious is not a narrative. Freud would do.


Fair point--Lacan isn't necessary for the argument. And, I'm glad you pointed that out--I'm trying to work on making Zizek persuasive to political theorists. And, one of my tactics is to find places where his underlying suppositions are close to those that are widely shared. So, moving to Freud instead of Lacan is preferable.

On RD Laing--I went through a big Laing phase after reading Madness and Civilization. Since I was reading it on my own, sloppily, I might add, I didn't really understand why his work wasn't more widely accepted, why he seemed to be such a bad boy.


Didn't everyone have a Laing phase, around the time they read either On the Road or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Anyhow, that was the point at my life at which I read The Divided Self. I'm sure that Sanity, Madness, and the Family still bears re-reading.

Laing, Cooper, and others were connected to the whole "anti-psychiatry" movement, picked up by Guattari among others. (Cooper wrote the introduction to the translation of one of Guattari's books, as I remember.) But there was something of a parting of the ways as Laing and Cooper bought into existentialism, and so Sartre, rather than the Foucauldian or Deleuzian tendencies that elsewhere made for a reassessment of the history of mental health and stigmatization.

But I think some of Laing's disrepute also revolves around accusations of clinical malpractice. I can't remember the details. If you believe that sanity and madness are just points on a continuum, determined socially rather than biologically, then the distinction between clinician and patient is going to break down pretty fast, which is not good news for (at least) conventional views of medical ethics.


The inmates running the asylum....


Indeed, though I think the scandal was (as it usually is with psychoanalysis, too) about sex.

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