30 April 2012

Extreme but not Laughably So

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:07 pm

From Guy Claxton, The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious, 2005:

Lancelot Law Whyte [Unconscious Before Freud, 1967] has demonstrated beyond doubt that ‘by 1870-1880 the general conception of the unconscious mind was a European commonplace, and many special applications of this general idea had been vigorously discussed for several decades.’ Fifty thousand copies of von Hartmann’s book on the unconscious were sold in Europe in the 1870s, and it was as widely discussed as, say, the works of Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould are today. During the two hundred years before Freud dozens of thinkers, possibly as many as a hundred, had published a wide variety of ideas about unconscious processes. Yet shortly before his seventieth birthday, Freud was still insisting that ‘the overwhelming majority of philosophers regard as mental only the phenomena of consciousness’. Whether his amnesia for all the sources that were saying otherwise was feigned, deliberate or itself unconscious, we can only surmise.

Though Freud, in the end, may have added few if any truly novel ingredients to our understanding of the unconscious, he drew a number of strands of thought together, and packaged them in a way that was at once accessible, salacious and seemingly scientific. He appealed to people with tabloid interests and broadsheet intellects, and gave a repressed European society an impersonal language with which to talk about the desires and failings which their upbringings had taught them to hide.



  1. I agree with Claxton. It’s a shame that the common conception of the unconscious is still tainted by Freud’s salacious and seemingly scientific strands.

    Comment by Asher Kay — 30 April 2012 @ 3:44 pm

  2. Claxton’s book is a bit chaotic in organization, but he brings material from a wide array of sources to bear on his subject. Claxton contends that, while the conscious rationalism of Descartes sourced the mainstream of Western philosophical thought, there have always been philosophical apologists for the irrational and the unconscious. Though several years ago I bought the two-volume Schopenhauer I’ve never actually read it., but Claxton nominates Schopenhauer as the seminal systematic philosopher of the unconscious, with the universal Will driving individual human desires and actions from a position outside of their conscious awareness. The Romantics, contemporaneous with Schopenhauer, gloried in unconscious motivation for Art bubbling up from the soul, an idea explicitly if incompletely theorized by Keats as “negative capacity.” Nietzsche carried his mentor’s idea forward, and in reading the books one recognizes his anticipation of Freud throughout. Their version of the unconscious wasn’t as salacious as Freud’s, not such a threat to propriety that needed to be kept in check; it was, rather, a wellspring of force.

    Then there is the empirical, experimental work in psychology, beginning in the early 19th century. These scientists weren’t focused on creativity or repression; instead they investigated mechanisms like “just noticeable difference” (jnd) in perception, whereby a person is able to distinguish between, say, two very similar colors. In tracing the jnd to the buildup of chemical or electrical charge in neurons pushing perception beyond the limen into consciousness, these early psychologists’ work anticipated contemporary neuroscience. In the 1820s Johann Herbart began theorizing that neural activity was characterized by both activation and inhibition, with these opposing forces churning away in the unconscious until one particular idea won the battle and passed beyond the limen into awareness. For Freud this inhibition of ideas was imposed by ego on id, pushing unacceptable ideas back below the limen into unconsciousness. For Herbart and subsequent researchers inhibition is itself a basic function of the unconscious.

    I’ve again requested Deacon’s Incomplete Nature from the library, Asher. The idea of unconscious neural inhibition would seem to fit with Deacon’s emphasis on the propagation of constraints as a biological “trick” for overcoming entropy. So, e.g., visual focal attention and mental concentration require not just the amping up of certain synapses in the neural net, but also the simultaneous damping down of competing signals from the periphery.

    Comment by ktismatics — 30 April 2012 @ 4:45 pm

  3. After all the whittling we have to admit with more than a soupçon of chagrin that ‘yeah, well, Freud abides’ but not as a scientist rather the Prince of Mythologues. That movies are being made about him is no indication of his intrinsic worth of course and it would have been a grievous blow to his Newton of the mind ambitions, a vulgarisation of his system and a sideshow still there’s an irony which verges on the poetic in his becoming a sage of quasi-religious stature. Each element in his system is indefensible, fatuous and perhaps malign, one thinks of infantile sexuality in that regard, yet the whole hangs together in a way which satisfies. Just like religion itself he would have said.

    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 1 May 2012 @ 2:26 am

  4. He is an engaging writer, and the elaborate mythology does offer a compelling scheme for making sense of selves. Certainly Freud has had far greater influence on literature — the interpretation, and no doubt also the writing — than has experimental psychology. Claxton’s book focuses specifically on the unconscious, which, while a central concept, doesn’t come close to encompassing the entirety of Freud’s scheme. But as you say, each of the other elements could be minimized on historical and empirical grounds, yet the whole would remain standing.

    It’s notable that the experimentalists, in their investigations of the relationships between consciousness and the unconscious, have built a methodology and set of findings that owe virtually nothing to Freud. It’s not that they set about testing and debunking his ideas, as if he were some giant father figure who had to be toppled before his children could be freed. Rather they built on the neurological traditions developing in parallel to the philosophical and artistic traditions from which Freud emerged. Building on the neurologists’ work meant that the unconscious was always important to empirical psychology. On the other hand, aspects of psychology that are central to the psychoanalytic tradition — desire, emotion, inner turmoil — were set aside until quite recently. This is due more, I believe, to methodological limitations than to scientists’ repression and compulsive insistence on following proper procedures.

    Comment by ktismatics — 1 May 2012 @ 5:19 am

  5. I realized that writing helps me keep my mind off the more horrible things, so I commented on your wordpress comment.

    He appealed to people with tabloid interests and broadsheet intellects, and gave a repressed European society an impersonal language with which to talk about the desires and failings which their upbringings had taught them to hide.

    This criticism misses the point on the ”impersonal language”. It is precisely Freud’s development of that language, that is evidence of his genius, for thoughts that cannot be expressed effectively in language, do not really hit the target. I don’t want to be as orthodox-Chomskian as to say thought=language, but I would say it is pretty darn important to be able to express your thought in a language.

    Comment by parodycenter — 1 May 2012 @ 4:21 pm

  6. My understanding of the unconscious for neuroscience is that consciousness is like ‘fame in the brain’ (Dennett). Only one particular picture of the perceived reality gets to be definitive others vanish into obscurity. These simply are unconscious but not in the way that Freud meant ‘unconscious’ i.e. we might become conscious of them through therapy or transference etc. These processes are unconscious multiple parallel processes out of which matrix there emerges one winner.

    Bergson speculates in Time and Free Will that all processes even the famous one could have been like that i.e. unconscious. Consciousness then is for something. It might be for saying no to automatic reactions. It allows us to qualify our reactions. Extrapolating from that position of Bergson saying ‘no’ is fundamental to logic. What is in and what is out and The law of excluded middle are not so much the laws of consciousness/thought but consciousness/thinking itself.

    Alisdair MacIntyre wrote a monograph on the concept of the unconscious which I recollect showed it to be incoherent and unfalsifiable. Sartre held that consciousness permeated the person so that if you were unconscious of something by virtue of repression you by that fact had to in some sense ‘know’ what it was that you were repressing.

    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 1 May 2012 @ 5:06 pm

  7. Certainly the empirical psychology of Freud’s day would not have been much fun to read; Freud generally is. I could have imagined a different Freud writing as a high modernist, in which his style alternated between id, ego, and superego, where his objective rationality would have been punctured by abrupt unconscious intrusions which he would then struggle to repress. Then maybe he’d have been a novelist. Evidently Hartmann’s 1869 philosophy of the unconscious was written in the popular style of the day; the book may well have inspired Freud’s style. This is one of Claxton’s points: Freud’s genius didn’t come out of nowhere; he was a man of his time. He’s certainly a stimulating thinker and writer even for someone who disagrees with most of his theories.

    Comment by ktismatics — 1 May 2012 @ 5:40 pm

  8. but not in the way that Freud meant ‘unconscious’ i.e. we might become conscious of them through therapy or transference etc. These processes are unconscious multiple parallel processes out of which matrix there emerges one winner.

    I don’t understand how the implied cybernetic model contradicts Freud’s understanding? Already in the way the Unconscious, as Freud writes, uses the operations of condensation e.g. in dreams or in speech omissions, you can see ”multiple parallel processes”. After all, condensation is one of the basic operations of language.

    saying ‘no’ is fundamental to logic.

    I don’t understand what exactly you mean – is this referring to the adaptive/evolutionary function of consciousness

    Comment by nikolicdejan — 1 May 2012 @ 5:44 pm

  9. I’ve finally requested Bergson’s Matter and Memory from the library. From your thumbnail sketch, Michael, MacIntyre sounds like an eliminativist where the unconscious is concerned. I believe that he’s just as wrong as those who deny the reality of consciousness, and maybe even more so, since most human brain activity and perhaps all of non-human cognition takes place outside of consciousness.

    Sartre’s point of view is consistent with Freud’s theory: repression is the result of an intentional act. This belief leads Freud to search the patient’s memory for the traumatic event precipitating the repression, bringing it back to consciousness. I favor dissociation as the primary mechanism, in which unacceptable impulses or ideas never attain consciousness at all because their expression is inhibited at an unconscious level. See this old post entitled “All Thought is Unconscious”, where I give a brief description of psychoanalyst Donnel Stern’s theory of the unconscious as repository of “unformulated experience.” Freud’s predecessor Pierre Janet also believed that dissociation was key; Freud, always trying to assert his unique genius and especially his independence of Janet, dismissed dissociation in favor of repression.

    Comment by ktismatics — 1 May 2012 @ 6:13 pm

  10. John:
    The unconscious seems to mean different things depending on the context. As I read it, perhaps mistakenly, in the purely neuroscientific sphere the unconscious processes are merely cerebral events or neuronal traffic that do not become famous as Dennett puts it. In the world of depth psychology with its more mentalist approach ‘fame’ has its entourage of stuff that didn’t make it but remains sullenly lurking about the agent’s office. This agent most of the time is alert and protective of his favoured client but is overwhelmed occasionally by dream. In the dream opportunity knocks because the agent can’t say no there, logic does not apply. All negative scenarios have to be acted out to manifest themselves. Abstractions cannot be uttered. In a dream a man is instructed to find the buried treasure by going so many paces forward, so many paces to the right, turning around, a similar number of paces forward and again a number of paces to the right. There he must dig. Obviously he is back where he started. The buried treasure is in himself but in the dream that sort of logical abstraction is not possible for a man who would reject the idea in the waking state. The ‘royal road’ is a winding one, anfractuose in the extreme.

    I think that the concept of the unconscious is a useful one and it possibly could find a home in Bergson’s memory at the outermost regions of the classical cone illustration. Matter and Memory can be eased into by two more general and readable texts An Introduction to Metaphysics and Mind Energy both collections of essays and lectures available on Internet Archive. As a psychologist H.Bs discussion of psychophysics and Fechner et al in Matter and Mind will interest you and your critique of his assessment of its shortcomings would be interesting.

    Fascinating topic and definitely not rubbed out by the logical approach.

    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 2 May 2012 @ 6:35 am

  11. “cerebral events or neuronal traffic that do not become famous as Dennett puts it. In the world of depth psychology with its more mentalist approach ‘fame’ has its entourage of stuff that didn’t make it but remains sullenly lurking about the agent’s office. ”

    That’s all very useful and expresses a particular process i went through this week, makes it surface even more.

    “with its more mentalist approach ‘fame’ has its entourage of stuff that didn’t make it but remains sullenly lurking about the agent’s office. This agent most of the time is alert and protective of his favoured client but is overwhelmed occasionally by dream”

    Seems to follow, although I am not objecting to your ‘different spheres’ of psychology, don’t have the grounds to even if I wanted to.

    “All negative scenarios have to be acted out to manifest themselves”

    More extreme than in this case that affected me so deeply, but could apply to, even though the ‘acting out’ was done over long years, and long lurked beneath the surface.

    “The buried treasure is in himself but in the dream that sort of logical abstraction is not possible for a man who would reject the idea in the waking state.”

    That also rings a bell. ‘Rejecting the idea in the waking state’ is often necessary, to prevent even worse consequences, while leaving what may be a chronic mediocre image in place until it no longer seems malignant, as it were. I had mentioned something of this sort to John not too long ago, it’s that matter of knowing that you want to see these purposely suppressed, somewhat (or extremely) repellent images, but not till you can observe them thoroughly soberly.

    These ‘big ones’ don’t happen to one that often, so this one naturally was of great importance to me–and I wasn’t consciously working it, but I was often aware of the image as one I seemed to have accepted as inevitable.

    At some point the right moment came, perhaps stimulated from somewhere else or someone else, and the image could be seen for all the semi-inert baggage it had been carrying for some time, but specifically for either 9 or 23 years, and it was immediately superseded by an infinitely more energetic image that had once symbolized something full of power–but it wasn’t wishful, because the old sluggish image was just laid to rest as useless by now, it was fighting to be seen and dealt with. It’s as if that is all it wanted, and when that was done, it did not continue to cause ‘slow inguinal pain’, to use a phrase I once read in a medical diagnosis (although ‘pain’ is perhaps too strong a word here): It wasn’t thrown out, as it were, but it had never had the energy to coordinate enough events in the world on its own, rather it was replaced by something by now thought thoroughly inaccessible, which may be a thing somehow available only when you’ve given up hope of finding it (or retrieving it, as this was, although only in part–the newer version seemed better), but since the metamorphosis and ‘life-cycle’ of the old sluggish image was finished, one notices it immediately and grabs it. It’s what you know you want. It’s the energy that had often seemed to elude, and even though the ‘new images’ are nothing in themselves, they serve to remind you, by being the same, of what is behind them, are signals that tell you something with certainty.

    I have a rich dream life, but this particular experience with some asymmetrical, not terribly vital, image, that is superseded by another one when it’s looked at fully (acted out? however quietly, as if it just ceased to assert itself, petered out, whatever), may have been in dreams, even constantly so, but it was not in the form in which I saw it in waking life. That’s where I put it away, and I wonder what you think of that. I’ve had a number of forms of this occur and don’t know where exactly they all fit in, but their experience is always enough–and the ‘rich invalid’ I spoke of elsewhere had sometimes told me of images his psychiatrist would analyze. They would stick in MY head until their ‘life-cycle’ was over (in that case maybe 38 years), and then they’d have lost any vigour to draw attention to themselves. But in neither of these cases I’ve referred to as happening with images I was seeing dimly much of the time, not quite to the surface, were they going to disappear as a result of fighting them off with ‘programs’, rather they just became benign. This ‘benignity’, though, did not mean they were desirable or undesirable so much as they had very little to do with anything I was working with or under the auspices of any more.

    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 2 May 2012 @ 10:42 am

  12. Patrick:
    Sitting out by the apple trees in full blossom on a warm still day I finished reading Bergson’s short essay on dreams. He accepts the existence of the unconscious and finishes off with the hope that the coming century would bring about an investigation into the premonitory aspect of dream. He also made a remark, which seemed quite true, that dreams which were too close to the day’s events occurred in a sleep which was not restful. Dreams often bring resolution to long term knots and tangles, the lost in a maze feeling that harries. Things that can’t be unravelled consciously are just cut through and float away. I used to be threatened by dogs in dreams, pinned down. Then one night suddenly this figure appeared dressed in a long black robe like a Sikh mendicant. He had a spear in his hand which he fired at the bete noir killing it. Never again have I had one of those dreams.

    I would say that the dreams which are remote from the daily tussle are better in every way in terms of instruction and healing.

    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 2 May 2012 @ 1:16 pm

  13. I can’t remember the source with certainty, but I think it was Claxton who asserted that people report 80% of their dreams as being unpleasant, with men reporting a higher percentage of pleasant dreams. I’d say that at least half of mine are pleasant.

    Claxton is an advocate of the creative function of unconscious processes. Here’s the Publisher’s Weekly blurb on Claxton’s 1999 book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less:

    In a counterintuitive, often provocative assault on our everyday view of how our minds work, Claxton labels rational, ordinary, purposeful thinking the “d-mode” (deliberation mode or default mode). Modern Western culture, he maintains, overvalues the practical, conscious cogitation of the d-mode, which is diagnostic rather than playful, analytical and impatient instead of intuitive and relaxed. An Oxford-educated psychologist and visiting professor at Bristol University in England, Claxton draws heavily on recent research in cognitive science and studies of the human brain to argue that an “undermind” or intelligent unconscious works quietly below?and in some cases ahead of?conscious apprehension, helping us to register events, recognize patterns, make connections and be creative. A former pupil of Buddhist teachers Sogyal Rinpoche and Thich Nhat Hanh, Claxton uses descriptions of the creative process by Einstein, Mozart, Wordsworth, Ted Hughes, Henry Moore and many others to support his theory of the undermind. He includes deceptively simple puzzles and exercises, as well as anecdotes drawn from daily life, to bolster his thesis that we need to adopt slower, more meditative modes of knowing. While Claxton speaks the language of cognitive science, his ideas resonate with Freud’s description of the unconscious, Buddhist concepts of the divine ground of existence and the great Romantic poets’ notions of the fount of creativity.

    Here’s an excerpt from Hare Brain that I found by searching for “dream” on the Amazon page, in which Claxton extols the virtues of “the slow ways of knowing”:

    They spend time on knowing what may lie behind a particular question. They do not rush into conceptualization, but are content to explore more fully the situation itself before deciding what to make of it. They like to stay close to the particular. They are tolerant of information that is faint, fleeting, ephemeral, marginal or ambiguous; they like to dwell on details which do not ‘fit’ or immediately make sense. They are relaxed, leisurely and playful; willing to explore without knowing what they are looking for. They see ignorance and confusion as the ground from which understanding may spring. They use the rich, allusive media of imagination, myth and dream. They are receptive rather than proactive. They are happy to relinquish the sense of control over the directions that the mind spontaneously takes. And they are prepared to take seriously ideas that come ‘out of the blue’, without any ready-made train of rational thought to justify them.

    In order to rehabilitate the slow ways of knowing, we need to adopt a different view of the mind as a whole: one which embraces sources of knowledge that are less articulate, less conscious and less predictable. The undermind is the key resource on which slow knowledge draws, so we need new metaphors and images for the relationship between conscious and unconscious which escape from the polarisation to which both Descartes and Freud, from their different sides, subscribed. The crucial step in this recovery is not the acquisition of a new psychological technology (brainstorming, visualisation, mnemonics and so on), but a revised understanding of the human mind, and a willingness to move into, and to enjoy, the life of the mind as it is lived in the shadowlands rather than under the bright lights of consciousness

    Comment by ktismatics — 2 May 2012 @ 2:36 pm

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