20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Mind

"Mankind cannot bear too much reality": sketch for a reconstruction of the Freudian unconscious

Andries Gouws
University of Natal

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: This paper sketches a reconstruction of the Freudian unconscious, as well as an argument for its existence. The strategy followed sidesteps the extended debates about the validity of Freud's methods and conclusions. People are argued to have, as ideal types, two fundamental modes of fulfilling their desires: engagement with reality and wishful thinking. The first mode acknowledges the constraints reality imposes on the satisfaction of desires, while the second mode ignores or denies these constraints, inasmuch as they threaten to make such satisfaction impossible or unfeasible. The more aware one is that wishful thinking is just that, the less effective it becomes. Wishful thinking thus requires an unconscious; it is inimical to a clear, complete and unambiguous acknowledgment of its own status. The unconscious is subsequently reconceptualized in non-Cartesian terms; it is largely constituted by semantic phenomena: forms of representation which would conceal their meaning even if the full light of 'attention,' Cartesian 'consciousness' or 'introspection' were cast upon them.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

If wishful thinking is an integral part of mental life, philosophers and others wishing to "educate humanity" will have to proceed very differently from what would have been appropriate had rational thought and action been the only available option for satisfying desires.

"Mankind cannot bear too much reality": sketch for a reconstruction of the Freudian unconscious.

Freud and his legacy remain controversial. Though often pronounced dead, they refuse to die.

This paper is not meant as a wholesale defence of Freud. Its aim is limited: to show that any adequate theory of mind will have to posit something approximately like Freud's notion of the unconscious. It can also be read as a schematic statement of what I think must minimally be salvaged from Freud's notion of the unconscious. (1) Though Freud may need revision — radical revision, even — a wholesale rejection of his thought would cripple our ability to understand ourselves and each other. If philosophy would needs educate humanity, it should first let itself be educated, among others, by Freud and his legacy.

'The wish is father to the thought.' It is commonly acknowledged that when people cannot satisfy their desires by controlling reality, they engage in wishful thinking.

In this paper I try to systematise the distinction between the two modes of dealing with desires: 'the realistic mode' and (for lack of a better term) 'wishful thinking'. They form the two ends of a continuum, not a dichotomy:

1) The realistic mode: trying to satisfy needs and desires by controlling one's life in accordance with the reality principle. This involves taking account of countless constraints on thought and action. This mode is obviously indispensable for survival, and indeed, the satisfaction of biological needs is its paradigmatic example. Take the need for oxygen, for instance. Our actions in securing oxygen have to comply with an extended field of knowledge and with the general requirements of logic. Ignore any of the relevant constraints, and death can follow. Trapped in a sunken ship, you can fantasise about fresh air and gain momentary comfort from it, but this in itself won't save your life. Verbal or symbolic equivalents won't do, either. Very many of the crucial facts on oxygen and our need for it can be established more or less reliably.

2) Wishful thinking-the general tendency to think that the world is in accord with our wishes, or will become so without having to take account of the relevant, and often onerous, constraints. This mode thus ignores, suppresses or distorts constraints on the real satisfaction of desires. Instead, it juggles around signs or representations in such a way that a mental equivalent for a real satisfaction of the desire is obtained. (This typically does not bring the realistic satisfaction of the desire any closer). An essential feature of this mode is its general inadequacy for the satisfaction of biological needs such as those for food, shelter and protection against predators.

These two modes of satisfying desires pose contrasting demands. The realistic mode has an intrinsic need to know, and therefore, to put beliefs and behaviour to the test. The more realistic our thinking about the world is, the better our chances of avoiding dangers and securing the satisfaction of our biological needs (and the realistic satisfaction of our further desires). Wishful thinking, on the other hand, has no need to know, and even resists acknowledging anything that threatens the possibility or feasibility of satisfying wishes in this mode; it is not interested in negative feedback. The realistic mode tries to take account of innumerable constraints on thought and action, while the other mode ignores such constraints wherever they would obstruct wishful thinking. Therein lies their essential difference.

These two poles are only ideal types. Every thought or action will usually display elements of both. Wishful thinking need only be 'unrealistic' on some points: we will generally acknowledge and try to take account of some disagreeable truths, while whitewashing others. In social and mental life, the distinction between reality and appearance (or representation or fantasy) often breaks down. Procedures for establishing the objective truth in this area are complex, unreliable or absent-interpretation is the main game in town. Even if we are open to feedback, the feedback on many or our beliefs and actions will be inconclusive. This leaves considerable scope for wishful thinking. Many social demands are met if they seem to be met; many social desires satisfied if they seem to be satisfied, or are given a symbolic satisfaction. In social reality wishful thinking-such as delusions of grandeur-is frequently self-fulfilling. The distinction between the two modes of satisfying desires is thus not as simple as in the case of biological needs.

Psychoanalysis is especially interested in those forms of 'wishful thinking' where many of the constraints governing the realistic mode are bracketed simultaneously. Wishful thinking then starts displaying the features Freud ascribes to the unconscious or primary process. Psychoanalysis accordingly relies heavily on the words produced in situations where the constraints governing our dealings with reality are disabled: dreams, the analytic situation and psychosis. Noy has convincingly argued that wherever feedback mechanisms are suppressed, behaviour shows the features of the primary process.

1) Dreams. Dreaming is insulated from the present demands of reality. Because there is no action in reality, disregarding reality in dreams does no harm. Is it at all strange if this maximum disengagement from the demands of external reality during sleep is used to ignore these demands to the full?

2) The analytic situation. The analysand is denied the feedback and other cues we normally use to mind-read others, so as to influence them (or adapt to them) in the realistic mode. Through frustration the analysand's desires become more urgent. Wishful thinking then has free rein, increases exponentially and tends towards the primary process. The analytic contract largely robs the analysand's words of the performative force and other consequences (e.g. negative sanctions) they would have had in normal interpersonal relations. As with dreams, the bracketing of the reality principle is largely harmless. The more the analysand realises this, the more the constraints typical for the reality principle fall by the wayside.

3) Psychosis. Freud and others interpret this as a condition in which reality-testing (acknowledging feedback and other constraints from reality) is radically impaired. The realistic fulfilment of desires is impeded, frustration mounts, and wishful thinking holds sway.

Above we stated that people engage in wishful thinking because the realistic mode cannot always deliver the satisfaction of desires. This insufficiently brings out the antagonism between the two modes. The realistic mode requires an ongoing monitoring of reality (including society, ourselves, and significant others). If it is only switched on from time to time it is ineffective. Given any desire-say, the wish to become a professional boxer-adopting the realistic mode can reveal to us not only that the desire is unrealistic but also many other highly unpleasant facts-all the desires that we cannot fulfil and sufferings we cannot remedy. Importantly, it confronts us with many injuries to our self-love; our sense of our own excellence and exceptionality.

On the other hand, the wishful thinking mode works well only inasmuch as its mechanisms remain covert. This is hardly surprising. The more clearly I realise that I magnify Jack's failings only so as not to feel inferior to him, the harder I find it to compare myself favourably to Jack because of them.

The realistic mode thus comes at a stiff price: the loss of the illusions of wishful thinking. The wishful thinking mode does not come cheaply, either: it chips away at the conditions to be met if we wish to satisfy desires realistically. In most lives the costs and benefits of each mode shift from moment to moment, changing the attractiveness of each. In practice neither triumphs over the other, so that we occupy a-shifting-position somewhere between these two ideal-typical extremes, taking account of some constraints while ignoring others.

If this were all, neither mode would work well, because of the interference of the other mode. The realistic mode would run aground because the unpleasant truths it needed were denied by the wishful thinking mode, while the wishful thinking mode would be undermined because the realistic mode exploded its illusions. To some extent this is of course exactly what happens. However, wishful thinking also follows strategies in which we can eat our cake and have it; strategies that allow us to avoid unwelcome truths, instead of having to posit untruths in their place. (Explicit untruths will sooner clash with experience and be contradicted by people not sharing the illusion in question).

Firstly, certain areas are designated as sanctuaries in which the reality principle may be bracketed without social sanctions or other negative consequences to the subject. Culture provides forms in which wishes can be fulfilled vicariously, ideally without significantly impeding my ability to deal with reality: jokes, myths, novels, films, TV. Dreaming and telling dreams perhaps serves a similar biological/cultural function.

Such strategies tend to work by assigning wishful thinking and the reality principle to separate domains. Other strategies, however, aim to make these two modes coexist in the same space without hampering each other's operations unduly. In these strategies, forms of representation are chosen that help us to be as unfully aware of their content and its implications as possible, preferably without having to explicitly posit untruths or deny truths.

Before discussing these strategies, however, a subsidiary argument: what is problematic is not the notion that we can lack awareness of our 'mental contents'. It is rather the notion that there could ever be 'mental contents of which we are fully aware'. The far-fetched hypothesis is not that of an unconscious, but rather that of consciousness, as traditionally conceived. It is not clear what it would be for anything to be 'fully known'. If there were contents of consciousness 'inside' consciousness, these would themselves be known incompletely, perspectivally, etc. Consciousness itself can never be fully conscious. Knowledge or consciousness is a question of interrelations: for instance, knowing and understanding the content of a belief sentence is a matter of seeing what consequences it has when combined with other belief sentences.

We therefore initially do not describe our two modes of operation in terms of a plenitude of consciousness or lack of it, but in terms of wanting to know and not wanting to know. In the realistic mode we want to know, regardless of whether this knowledge is pleasant or not, and in wishful thinking we don't, except if it agrees with our desires.

Although we can never be 'fully aware' of anything, there are many ways to be as 'unfully aware' of it as possible, if desired. Metaphors of visibility and invisibility, being out in the open or hidden, tend to govern our conceptions of consciousness and the unconscious. Such metaphors make us forget that things can be represented in such a way that their import is not acknowledged, even if the 'full light of consciousness' is cast upon them. (2) The difference between 'conscious' and 'unconscious' therefore is as much one of 'logic' or semantics, as it is one of psychology (attention or lack of attention). We never 'fully acknowledge' anything, and the 'unconscious' is linked to things having a form allowing them to be as 'unfully' acknowledged as possible, so that their (painful) consequences for our thought will be avoided wherever possible. Let us review some strategies for representing things in such a way that their import is less accessible to us:

1. A thought, memory or wish is verbalised in an inarticulate or euphemistic way, or better: not at all. (Peter calls the violent, sadistic films he loves, "intense". A punitive mother calls herself "firm").

2. It is formulated in a technical or alien language, so that its existential import is harder to grasp, and easier to avoid. ("I have a problem with authority", instead of "I hate and fear my father").

3. Truths about oneself are formulated in non-first person terms. "I" becomes "one", "they", "you", "it", or "she". ("You love only yourself" instead of "I love only myself").

4. One 'doesn't think about it', or 'forgets' it. This can be more relative or more absolute, depending on how easily somebody else's observations can make things accessible to the subject's 'consciousness'.

5. We are of course also free to give versions of reality that satisfy (certain of) our desires without (so obviously) militating against the constraints constituting the reality principle. Depending on our wishes, we describe ourselves as brave or foolhardy, systematic or compulsive, realistic or unimaginative.

To pretend that wish-fulfilment limits itself to predictable forms, as we have done here, is unpsychoanalytic: almost any mechanism used in the reality-seeking mode can also be used for wishful thinking. Talk can be a way to avoid reality, as much as leaving thoughts unarticulated.

There are thus countless ways in which we can avoid a thought or its implications (and what is a thought minus its implications?), without explicitly having to deny it, or assert its negation. We entertain a comforting world view. Unpleasant realities, when acknowledged, are treated as no more than isolated amendments to it. Inasmuch as we acknowledge painful truths, we render them harmless by isolating them, so that they have no consequences for the rest of mental life. The more absolute this isolation, the more it is as if the thought had never been thought.

The primary process is wishful thinking squared. The more the constraints imposed by reality are ignored, the more mental life displays its features. The reality principle involves acknowledging a variety of heterogeneous constraints, which the primary process can disregard separately or simultaneously.

1) Looking at things in a larger context. To acknowledge constraints across-the-board means to look at things in a larger context. To ignore all constraints, on the other hand, means matching a desire with its satisfaction, without considering whether it is compatible with a larger field of facts and desires, over a longer period. A maximum fragmentation-reducing the field of other facts and the time frame to a minimum, and looking at desires individually, rather than as a set-gives the greatest release from the constraints imposed by other desires, the facts and the time frame. Each desire then seeks satisfaction separately, without considering the consequences for other desires. An example: in a dream or in reality, you set fire to your house so as to burn with it your wife's cherished collection of letters from her childhood sweethearts.

2) Hallucination. In the extreme case, no constraints are acknowledged at all, and the presence of a wish is enough to induce its hallucinated satisfaction. (According to Freud, this is what happens when dreams are simple, undisguised wish-fulfilments).

3) Manipulating language, or: disregarding the constraints placed on the correct use of language. Philosophers like Wittgenstein and Austin have impressed upon us that the words referring to things may be similar, associated or identical without the things themselves being thus related. We err wildly on this score even in our most rational, realistic moments. In wishful thinking such confusions are actively courted, the ambiguities of language exploited to the hilt, and verbal solutions to problems equated to actual solutions. The 'primary process', 'condensation', 'displacement', 'symbolism', and other bizarre manifestations of 'the language of the unconscious' as described by Freud can be seen as extensions of everyday 'indirect' or 'figurative' uses of language. (Allusions, metonymy, metaphor, anagrams, mnemonic devices, etc.).

Our view dispenses with any line pretending to divide the unconscious from the preconscious. (Freud flounders every time he presents them as a dichotomy, rather than a continuum). In our account the ideal-types for the reality-engaging and the reality-fleeing mode of satisfying desires take the place of the Freudian (pre-)conscious and unconscious. In describing 'the unconscious' or 'the primary process' Freud describes a situation in which every constraint on thinking is optional. Where some constraints remain in place, he speaks of a compromise between the primary process and the secondary process. Our model describes this in a different way: in wishful thinking as many constraints are ignored as is needed to imagine a wish as fulfilled. There is thus a continuum between thought showing the features Freud ascribes to the unconscious or the primary process in their pure form and what he ascribes to the preconscious or secondary process in their pure form.

Accepting my model, which pretends to be no more than a crude prototype, is quite compatible with rejecting everything in Freud that goes beyond it. (For instance, Freud's sexocentrism, his idea that memory is indelible, or that the primary process is the mode of an enduring mental agency). However, if my argument appeals to the reader, and she wants to extend or refine it, then the first place to look will be Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition.

Admitting the existence and pervasiveness of something like wishful thinking vastly increases our chances of self-reflexivity. This can be beneficial even if we can never ascertain that something constitutes 'wishful thinking' with the probability and precision typical for facts in, say, engineering or natural science.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) 'Schematic' because many of the features Freud ascribes to the unconscious are not accounted for. Other features are revised or reformulated.

(2) My argument assumes that the mind, whether conscious or unconscious, deals with signs, not with propositions or ideas (which traditionally tended to be conceived of as transparent: they were none other than their meaning or content itself). If an idea or proposition was seen by consciousness, it was also understood. The unconscious was accordingly conceived of in terms of invisible or hidden propositions or ideas.

    (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage