Friday, September 28, 2012

Meaning of unconscious mind

Consciousness by Robert Fludd, 1619
Problem of conscious and unconscious mind isn't new in philosophy – actually it was already known to antique philosophers (the unconsciousness concept was also used in the zombie thought experiment). The unconscious is closely related to the subconscious, the concept which is less controversial and was the main interest of Freud (it’s not true that Freud discovered subconscious/unconscious mind – the term unconscious mind had been already coined by Friedrich von Schelling). The unconscious mind is defined as automatic mental processes which are not available to introspection. I believe that consciousness and unconsciousness are crucial in understanding human’s nature and therefore should not be neglected by modern philosophy.



Friedrich von Schelling
(1775-1854)
You’re wondering what are the examples of unconscious mind (besides philosophical zombies)? Some say that reflexes, phobias or complexes belong to the unconscious. According to Sigmund Freud they also include dreams and even slips of tongue (watch your tongue from now on!). What is really interesting is that – at least according to psychoanalytic theory – dreams are not sensu stricto the unconscious. They are only signs or symptoms of its existence; that is why many psychoanalysts try to understand the symbolic meaning of the dreams in order to get the access to human’s unconsciousness. Another part of the unconscious is subliminal messages. This is quite a controversial issue since there is no agreement whether subliminal stimuli can actually alter the human’s behaviour or not, and if they can, it’s difficult to measure to what extent. What is meant by subliminal messages? These are sensory stimuli which can’t be consciously perceived. Imagine that you’re watching a presentation with a set of beautiful landscape pictures but from time to time a picture of a fearful face flashes; a picture is shown for a really short period of time, so short that you (read your consciousness) are not even able to notice it. Nevertheless a fearful face is seen by your subconscious mind and despite the fact you’re not being aware of the fact, your brain experiences anxiety.

The concept of unconsciousness was often rejected and criticised by many philosophers who claimed that it is invalid. I really like Erich Fromm’s opinion: The term ‘the unconscious’ is actually a mystification […]. There is no such thing as the unconscious; there are only experiences of which we are aware, and others of which we are not aware, that is, of which we are unconscious. If I hate a man because I am afraid of him, and if I am aware of my hate but not of my fear, we may say that my hate is conscious and that my fear is unconscious; still my fear does not lie in that mysterious place: 'the' unconscious.

This reminds me of a quite well known anecdote (I’m sure it has plenty of varieties, maybe you know one of them as well) about the discussion between a teacher and a student who has not really understood the concept of the cold and argued that in fact there is no such thing. He said to the teacher that it’s not possible to experience smaller or greater cold – you can experience smaller or bigger heat, you can also experience no heat (absolute zero) but you can't experience the cold itself. It turns out that the cold is in fact the lack of heat. Don’t you think that the same reasoning may be applied to the unconscious mind? Because to my mind we are still unconscious of the unconscious’s nature.



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