Dispensing with the dynamic conscious

Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology 9 (2):155-157 (2002)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 9.2 (2002) 155-157 [Access article in PDF] Dispensing With the Dynamic Conscious J. Melvin Woody FREUD'S THEORY OF UNCONSCIOUS mental processes depends upon an extremely narrow conception of consciousness. O'Brien and Jureidini rightly focus attention on the limitations of that conception and argue that it is time to dispense with the resultant conception of the unconscious. Of course, scientists often give narrower, technical meanings to ordinary words like matter and space, but in the midst of all the recently revived psychological and philosophical debates about the nature and existence of consciousness, the persistence of Freud's way of distinguishing the two can only breed confusion. Attempts to shore up or defend the dynamic unconscious of psychoanalytic theory by appeal to discussions of unconscious rules and processes in cognitive psychology attests to the potential for confusion thus spawned. In an early issue of this journal, James Phillips and I charted the differences between the neurophysiologic, cognitive, and dynamic conceptions of the unconscious (1995). Like O'Brien and Jureidini, we concluded that the evidence of a cognitive unconscious does not support the postulation of a dynamic unconscious. O'Brien and Jureidini go further in arguing that the two are incompatible. Elsewhere, I have argued that the Freudian unconscious is a hermeneutic myth, the result of a misunderstanding of the nature of interpretation (2003). Because I am in substantial agreement with them and already on record with arguments convergent with theirs on both these fronts, I will focus here on the source of confusion in the dynamic conception of consciousness and on their illuminating exploration of its limitations.Toward the end of his 1915 essay, "The Unconscious," Freud explains that the difference between conscious and unconscious thought hinges on the role of language: What we could permissibly call the conscious idea of the object can now be split up into the idea of the word (verbal idea) and the idea of the thing (concrete idea)... It strikes us all at once that now we know what is the difference between a conscious and an unconscious idea. The two are not, as we supposed, different records of the same content situate in different parts of the mind, nor yet different functional states of cathexis in the same part; but the conscious idea comprises the concrete idea plus the verbal idea corresponding to it, whilst the unconscious idea is that of the thing alone.... Now too, we are in a position to state precisely what it is that repression denies to the rejected idea in the transference neuroses—namely, translation of the idea into words which are to remain attached to the object. The idea which is not put into words or the mental act which has not received hyper-cathexis then remains in the unconscious in a state of repression. (pp. 201-202) This restriction of consciousness to verbal thought processes is not simply an innocent stipulative definition. It has perniciously misleading implications. For one thing, as Antonio Damasio points out in The Feeling of What Happens, it means that all other animals are unconscious for want of any language. Damasio recalls that when he asked what produces consciousness while he was a medical student, [End Page 155] Curiously, I always got the same answer; language did it. I was told that creatures without language were limited to their uncognizant existence but not we fortunate humans because language made us know... The answer sounded too easy, far too simple for something which I then imagined unconquerably complex, and also quite implausible, given what I saw when I went to the zoo. (Damasio 1999, 107) As Damasio notes, the trouble with explaining consciousness as a function of language is not just that it denies awareness of experience to all other animals, thus perpetuating the Cartesian view of animals as automatons, but that for all its complexities, language is far too simple to encompass the full complex range of conscious experience. O'Brien and Jureidini do well to highlight how much of our conscious experience never finds linguistic expression, indeed, how much experience seems to...

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J. Melvin Woody
Connecticut College

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