What Should We Do with Our Brains? From Cognitive Science to Psychoanalysis

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I am preparing an upcoming workshop on the topic of thought and how we should relate to thought in the modern world. How should we act today? How should we educate today? How should we relate to others today? What is the power of self-consciousness and how can we do a better job of actualizing its potential? In preparing for this workshop myself and my collaborators are reflecting on an introductory text written by philosopher Catherine Malabou entitled What Should We Do With Our Brains? (2008). Thus, I thought I would open up and share with you some of the theoretical connections I make with this work as it relates to my own theoretical work. What I hope to cover in this exercise is an exploration of the place for historical dialectics and the place for psychoanalysis in the modern field of neuroscience and cognitive science. In short, what do historical dialectics and psychoanalysis, concretely, have to offer us in a world where neuroscience and cognitive science appear to dominate the field, relegating both historical dialectics and psychoanalysis to obscurantist pseudo-scientific disciplines destined for historical memory.


In the introductory text “Plasticity and Flexibility — For a Consciousness of the Brain” in What Should We Do with Our Brains? (2008) (1) Catherine Malabou seeks to engage everyone, not just professional scientists, artists, or philosophers, but everyone, in the hopes of stimulating general thought. What does it mean to be self-conscious? What does it mean to be aware of, reflective of, thought itself? What do the powers of awareness or reflection enable us to achieve and how can we best maximize this power for the good of our selves and the good of others? Here Malabou wants us to focus on the key signifiers of “plasticity” and “flexibility” as key signifiers that open up neuroscience to consciousness, and consciousness to neuroscience. Here we get an image of the brain that is not just a static neuroimaging scan (or even a dynamical one); but a neuronal pattern, let’s say, that emerges from a history of being, from a history of thought. The brain is not a static-thing or reified object, but a plastic and flexible substrate upon which or within which thought plays and dances in phenomenal existential realms.

Let’s consider some of Malabou’s central points in this chapter:

1. Historicity of the brain (dynamic, changing, plastic)

The first point Malabou brings to our attention is the fact that brains are historical entities, that they emerge and dynamically evolve; both in terms of evolutionary biological history and in terms of conscious individuated history. In that sense the brain is something that cannot be captured at one moment and then understood as a complete identity. The brain is something that is constantly changing, constantly evolving, constantly “plastic” in the sense that it can be (in neuronal terms) re-wired through our own habits and interactions with the world and others.

2. “Consciousness as Brain”; “Brain as Consciousness”

The second point Malabou brings to our attention is that she wants to discard of the old classic division between scientists and philosophers over the ontological status of thought and the brain. Does consciousness resides “in” the brain? Is consciousness just produced by neuronal mechanisms? For Malabou this totally misses the point of a cognitive science that can approach consciousness. For Malabou, instead, she is looking for a cognitive science that can speak to the general forms of consciousness themselves. How do we, as general forms of consciousness, benefit in our lives from understanding the mechanisms of our brain in concrete practical terms?

3. “Neuronal Man” (still) without “Consciousness”; Work of “Conscious Neuronal Man” as Destiny

This is connected directly to the third point that Malabou asserts which is the fact that “neuronal man” is in a sense a dead object, a reified object, an object without consciousness. We do not yet understand how the neuronal revolutions in science help us to better understand ourselves and our lives. Towards this end, Malabou suggests that it is the job of a future cognitive science to embed itself firmly within the work of “conscious neuronal man” as a self-posited and/or self-presupposed destiny.

(4) Moral Action-Based Neuroscience: What should we do?

Moving from this point Malabou reflects on how or if neuroscience can approach morality and action-based thinking about engaged historical consciousness. Does neuroscience offer us help in terms of what we should do? What we should do practically in the world? What does it mean to be a good person? To live up to the standards of our highest ideals?

(5) Individuation and Universality: “Free Field” of “Neuronal Liberation”

Towards this Malabou suggests that the crucial uniqueness of the field of neuroscience is that the brain as an object is simultaneously universal and individual; simultaneously being irreducibly collective and irreducibly singular. In that sense, although all humans have the same basic brain structure and function, at the same time every human brain is uniquely and plastically constituted by the individuated life choices of every self-consciousness. The brain of an artist and the brain of a scientist are at the same time totally similar and totally different; and that this is where individuation and universality coincide. From this perspective neuroscience and cognitive science should point towards helping us develop tools for the way in which our brains allow for the emergence of a consciousness in-itself that is oriented towards a “free field”; where we can plastically re-wire our brains in a neuronal liberation: in that sense neuroscience is a potentially magical field opening up cognitive transformations that the world has not yet actualized.

(6) Neuronal-social interdependence

However, as a result of this co-overlap between individuation and universality we are also left to consider that this “free field” or consciousness is fundamentally constrained by both its neuronal constitution and its social interdependence. Plasticity is not that you can do anything or be anything. Plasticity occurs within the constraints of our neurological history, our evolutionary history, and the fact that we are socially interdependent; we are in a field of other brains that are dynamic and plastic and also oriented towards their own free field of becoming. This makes the problem of what we should do with our brains all the more challenging and all the more interesting.

Marx and Historical Consciousness

Malabou starts the chapter with a quote from Karl Marx (2):

“Humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it”.

This sets the tone of the introduction for Malabou. She is inviting us to think the radical historicity of the “brain-consciousness” duality that she is aiming to collapse as an evolutionarily constituted and singular destiny-driven entity.

What this quote also points to is a potentially radical connection between neuroscience and historical dialectics, and also neuroscience and psychoanalysis. This is for the simple reason that this quote evokes the fact that historical processes are nothing but the engaged interpretation and action of self-consciousness; and also that this engaged interpretation and action occurs within a mind that is not totally conscious of its desires; and that it cannot predict the effects and consequences of its own interventions.

Indeed, this can be tragically demonstrated with the interpretational and action oriented philosophy that Marx himself introduced into the world, which led to unintended social transformations of a catastrophic order. In that sense the question of What Should We with Our Brains? gains all the more a profound and disturbing dimension.

To the Future!

Let’s start the opening of neuroscience into historical dialectics. Malabou, as a great philosopher of Hegel, is well aware that the mind is historically constituted. Her understanding of this can be found in her path breaking works on Hegel: The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic (1996) (3).

In The Future of Hegel Malabou seeks to revive Hegelian philosophy for the 21st century which sets as a fantastic preamble to her later work on the cognitive sciences. Here her most fundamental claims include the idea that Hegel’s historical dialectical tools which aim to reflectively capture the motion of spirit or mind in history have lost none of their analytical powers for today. In that sense Hegel is often seen as the “last philosopher”, the philosopher who was capable of reflectively understanding the very motion that enables history, and the philosopher who understood the most fundamental tendency of this motion.

In this system we have a philosopher (Hegel) who is capable of combating the dominant philosophical tendencies of our contemporary day which settle around the triad of contingency, otherness, and multiplicity. In contemporary philosophy, what we may call post-modern philosophy, we have the emphasis that all processes in the universe are totally contingent, random, that anything that did happen, could have been otherwise. In this philosophical core there is nothing necessary, and nothing transcendent about our existence.

We thus also have a contemporary philosophical emphasis on otherness, on the otherness of being, on the world before humans, after humans or on the domain that is non-human. In that sense philosophy is reacting against the Hegelian edifice which grounds us within the human world, and instead seeks to build grand metaphysical presuppositions that are totally other to humanity.

Finally, we have philosophy that is aimed at multiplicity, that is grounded fundamentally on ideas that cannot be captured by or reduced to singular principles, theories, unities, axioms, and so forth.

In contrast, Hegel is not the philosopher of contingency-otherness-multiplicity, but instead, even more radical for today then ever, the philosopher of necessity-self-reflection-and-unity. Hegel is the philosopher who sought to understand how notional determination of conceptual beings, how the becoming of self-consciousness, and how the unity of history fundamentally constituted itself through his infamous “positing of the presuppositions”. For Hegel, consciousness could never be understood without first understanding that consciousness, its necessity, self-determination, and unity was primordial to any presuppositions external to consciousness.

What is interesting is that the classical postmodern philosopher, Jacques Derrida, not only wrote the preface to this works, but also emphasized that everyone should read it.


Now for all who have not read Hegel, we can say that the Hegelian philosophy is one that paradoxically engages in a radical closure and a radical openness. The radical closure of Hegelian philosophy is that there can be no more reconciliation outside of the human consciousness in-itself. There is no “metalanguage”, there is no “going outside” of our own circular self-positing and presuppositions. There is no way in which we can get an “objective gaze” of the human mind and the human condition within history. We are stuck within the loop of positing the presuppositions. However, and at the same time, this is the opening on the true radically open dimension of the future. Because there is no going outside we are left with the conclusion that it is our own conscious actions that create and determine the future. All of the answers to the future can be found in our own conscious actions.

Now, in order to understand how Hegel structured his understanding of the movement of spirit in history, one must first contemplate what past Hegelian philosophers have identified well, that Hegelian thought is irreducibly triadic. In that sense the Phenomenology of History (4) itself is fundamentally of a triadic nature, and one will find “thousands of triads” within it. However, the most important triad that we will focus on here is the triad of abstract-negative-concrete.


Take for example, organizing a conference to think about thought itself. How would Hegel understand such motion? First we can say that in order to organize a conference on thought itself, we must start with an abstraction, we must start with a thought as a pure image of such an event. Then, we must set in motion this thought, which Hegel would describe as a negation of given being. In that sense given being, in terms of being given to consciousness, is devoid of such a realization, which is simultaneously the condition for our abstracting the notion of the organization of a conference on thought. However, the first negation is followed by a second negation (a “negation of negation”) where thought concretely realizes the abstract entity of an organization reflecting on the nature of thought.

What Hegel sought to emphasize with this logic of thought is that when we think of “objectivity” we cannot think of a naive scientific objectivity, but an objectivity within which subjectivity must be fundamentally inscribed, the motion of subjectivity and its desires which end up constituting given being. In that sense other consciousness will be “given a being” in which there is an organization focused on the nature of self-consciousness.

Kant and Hegel
Kant to Hegel

Now this leads us to a reflection on fundamental ontology that involves a transition between Kant and Hegel. In the transition between Kant and Hegel we have a transition between the nature of the gap between the noumenal objective world and the phenomenal subjective world. For Kant, as is well known, the noumena correspond to a classical ontology of appearances and true reality. We have the appearances of our world and we have the noumenal in-itself which is forever outside of the understanding of consciousness. Here we have a realm of non-consciousness or non-I that is presupposed to be required to stabilize the appearances of a world. In other words, for Kant, appearances cannot just “stand on their own, there must be something behind them which sustains them.” (5)

In contrast to Kant, Hegel deploys his infamous positing of the presuppositions, and with dramatic effect. For Hegel, there are only the appearances and anything extra that we posit was by definition already something that was put there by a presupposing being of consciousness. In that sense we do not have the dualism of phenomenal appearances and their true noumenal background; but only the domain of self-limited phenomenal appearances which are constituted by an understanding of infinite conceptual depth. In that sense the noumenal in-itself is not a transcendent positivity but in fact, the conceptual presuppositions of a particular historical form of consciousness.

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From Kantian to Hegelian Cognitive Science

This all has relevance to contemporary cognitive science. Although Malabou does not want to approach the question of consciousness and the brain; we here see that the Hegelian position has already resolved it, and it is a resolution with great practical relevance to her own cognitivist project. If we apply Kantian logical to cognitive science we get what is occurring within contemporary cognitive science: namely that an epistemological network of historically constituted phenomenal beings are operating on noumenal presuppositions of an in-itself to thought. That thought is produced by the brain, by neuronal mechanisms, and that if we just understood the mechanics of these neuronal mechanisms we would be able to discover the holy grail, the noumenal in-itself of thought. We would have an objective image of thought.

However, for Hegel, what Kant thought as impossible because of a limitation of our knowledge (i.e. that we just do not have the ability to understand the in-itself of neuronal activity); becomes actually impossible in principle (6). For Hegel, there is no ability to get an objective view of thought because thought is not produced by neuronal mechanisms (a noumenal objectivity); but phenomenal self-limitation. In that sense, for Hegel, cognitive science should be a science that focuses on the very observations of categorization apparatuses, i.e. the very movement of conscious beings that categorize the noumenal world. Thus, in a classical Hegelian way, we have a radical closure that opens us on to an even more radical historical horizon. The question of cognitive science does not become focused on the neuronal structure of the brain; but precisely what Malabou would like: a cognitive science focused on the freedom of observing categorization apparatuses in themselves.

Now we return to Malabou and her reflections on cognitive science. Malabou’s effort is in some sense to accept the contemporary dogma that the neurosciences will replace the old and obscure psychoanalytic practices, reducing our consciousness to chemical processes and neuronal activity. However, it is important to note that in this activity, of the flourishing of the brain sciences, we have not had a similar philosophical flourishing. We do not have a deeper understanding of our selves because of the brain sciences. In that sense can we really assume that the brain sciences are a step forward from psychoanalysis which has always maintained a much more radical approach to historically constituted and fundamentally libidinal subjective entities?

Indeed in Malabou’s own work she emphasizes how enlightenment philosophy organized under scientific rationalism cannot overcome its own phenomenal limitations; namely that its form of objectivity fundamentally undermines the fact that the modern individual is reduced to solitude, loneliness, and isolation. In that sense we should once again revive the psychoanalytic notion of an objectivity on the inside, of an intimate extimate objectivity that is always already what religious sociality is constituted by, under the domain of nothing but its own transcendental presuppositions. In that sense we may wish to revive a psychoanalytically informed Hegelian approach to positing the presuppositions.

Here philosopher Slavoj Žižek offers a precise distinction on the difference between cognitive science and psychoanalysis (7):

“[Today we] replace psychoanalysis with cognitivism. The latter fully naturalizes our mind, reducing it to a phenomenon arising naturally out of evolution — but perhaps [we] proceed too fast here: while cognitivism de-centers the human mind from outside treating it as an effect of objective natural mechanisms, only psychoanalysis de-centers it from within, revealing how the human mind involves not only objective neuronal processes but also “subjective” processes of thinking which are inaccessible to it.”

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To the Drive!

Towards this project, when we ask “What Should We Do with Our Brains?”, a fundamentally ethical question, we may ask not how cognitive science can help psychoanalysis but how psychoanalysis can help the cognitive sciences. In that sense we turn to an ethics of psychoanalysis. In a fundamental triadic structure on subjective motion proposed by Jacques Lacan we have the structure of alienation-separation and drive. In this structure we have the motion of subjectivity that is first constituted by the anonymous symbolic order. In other words, subjectivity first encounters an external imposition from the Mother, from the Father, and later from society at large: that there is a duty for it, that overdetermines it. The subject first experiences this in a stage of alienation; that my subjective desire does not coincide with this imposed duty of the symbolic order.

In the second move we have separation. That subjectivity realizes that in fact the duty imposed by the symbolic order is empty, that even if I followed the duty of the symbolic order, that it does not give me what I really want. That the symbolic order is a fake, that it is an illusion. Lacan referred to this as a redoubling of alienation, forcing the subject to turn inwards onto itself and to constitute its own drive.

Thus, in the third move we have the drive itself. We have a form of subjectivity that must form out of the void of its own desires an absolute principle for action. This absolute principle for action, for Lacan, must thus be constituted outside of the symbolic order of simple pleasures and profit; or the contemporary sphere of the liberal libidinal economy which attracts us to a low level of conscious comforts. For Lacan, this could not be found in a neuronal mechanism but in a fundamental choice which sets forth the repetition of a drive.

And this brings us once again back to the way in which Malabou ends the opening chapter. Malabou opens with Marx and then ends with her own presupposition that what we should do with our brain is something that “does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism.” (8) In that sense what psychoanalysis discovers in the fundamental ethics of the drive already offers us the ethics of a future cognitive science. That we cannot objectivize the brain, but rather we must, as Malabou would say, recognize how plastic our brain really is, and through enormous subjective effort ignite the self-motion that constitutes the given being of the world for others which will open up a radical future that can actualize a spirit beyond the spirit of capital. In this drive we should always remember that the future cannot be predicted, that we do not see ourselves, and that we do not yet understand, like Marx did not understand, what will be the consequences of our actions. History is to be determined by nothing outside of our notions.

This thus concludes my reflections on thought. As I mentioned I am part of an upcoming workshop that is preparing to reflect on the nature of thought itself. How should we act today? How should we educate today? How should we relate to others today? What is the power of self-consciousness and how can we do a better job of actualizing its potential? In sharing my thoughts on our opening course material I hope that I was able to convey my view on the place for historical dialectics and the place for psychoanalysis in the modern field of neuroscience and cognitive science.

In short, what do historical dialectics and psychoanalysis, concretely, have to offer us in a world where neuroscience and cognitive science appear to dominate the field, relegating both historical dialectics and psychoanalysis to obscurantist pseudo-scientific disciplines destined for historical memory? In that quest I put Malabou’s own work into conversation with Hegelian philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis in order to point to the radical nature of self-consciousness as something fundamentally phenomenally self-limited.  In this way self-consciousness is only reducible to its own presuppositions; and thus something that can only figure out what to do with its brain by turning inside and forming its own absolute higher principle for action.  This higher principle for action cannot be found either in the brain, or in the symbolic order.

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Works Cited:

(1) Malabou, C. 2008. Introduction: Plasticity and Flexibility — For a Consciousness of the Brain. In: What Should We Do with Our Brains? Fordham.

(2) ibid. p. 1.

(3) Malabou, C. 1996. The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic. Routledge.

(4) Hegel, G.W.F. 1998. Phenomenology of Spirit. Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

(5) Žižek, S. 2012. Parataxis: Figures of the Dialectical Process. In: Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. p. 281.

(6) ibid. p. 282.

(7) Žižek, S. 2012. The Ontology of Quantum Physics. In: Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. p. 954-955.

(8) Malabou, C. 2008. Introduction: Plasticity and Flexibility — For a Consciousness of the Brain. In: What Should We Do with Our Brains? Fordham. p. 12.


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