I recently had the opportunity to organize an online course focused on understanding the Freudian unconscious in the context of modern philosophy. This was an opportunity to return to the original documents published by Freud on the discovery of the unconscious, and also see the way in which this discovery is interpreted by speculative theorists of historical mind.
Now I feel inspired to transform this course into both a blog series and a book. In this blog “Return to Freud” I will be trying to unpack in as short and simple a language as possible some of the deeper concepts I am trying to develop in the book-length version of the course material. In this first post I want to start with what I think are the basics to the discovery of the unconscious: contradiction and causality.
Throughout my intellectual career I have always been determined to eliminate contradiction by intensely applying reasonable analysis to problems in order to get a clear and consistent picture of reality. This is in fact one of the main principles of classical philosophy and it has motivated most if not all intellectuals throughout history. Indeed, the idea that contradiction is something to be eliminated and destroyed is the ground of what we think of as a philosophically rigorous argument.
Let us take the classical logic structures that governed the transition from what we normally think of as pre-modern and modern knowing. In the pre-modern world many intellectuals thought that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that all living forms on the Earth had existed in their present forms since the first creation by God. This picture of the world was in fact a logical proposition for a coherent and consistent ontology of being.
Of course, the more we observed the world the more patterns or forms of being started to poke holes in this picture. We discovered that there were bodies that orbited other bodies that were not the Earth. We discovered that past living bodies appeared differently than present living bodies. The only logical conclusion could be that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and that living forms had changed across time.
In other words, what was starting to become the modern scientific mind had come into being through the identification of contradictions in the religious picture of the world. The idea that the Earth was in the center of the universe could not be true if there were planetary bodies that did not orbit the Earth. Those planetary bodies orbited in relationship to a different center which was not the Earth. The idea that living forms had always existed in their present form could not be true if there were past living forms that looked distinctly different. Those past living forms must have died out or changed across time.
Here we are witness to the birth of the modern scientific mind driven by the desire to eliminate and destroy the contradiction. The old logical proposition of the geocentric universe and eternal living forms was wrong. The new logical proposition of the heliocentric universe and the evolving living forms was right. The movement through a negation of the old contradictory picture to the new clear picture is perceived to be progress vis-a-vis the becoming of truth of our picture of reality.
When I think back on my own maturation as an intellectual mind these two contradictions between the geocentric and heliocentric picture; and between the static and evolving living forms picture; were major drivers in my sharpening my own arguments and skills as a modern scientific thinker. I would always use the contradictions inherent between the two pictures to advance the argument for the modern scientific picture over the pre-modern religious picture.
However, when it comes to the discovery of the unconscious there is something slightly different at work in regards the nature of contradiction. Freud discovered through what is now known as “analytic experience” that contradiction in the form of a formal gap between subjective identities fundamentally structures historical self-consciousness. Freud discovered this by taking seriously the speech of subjectivity in the middle of emotional crisis or breakdown.
What this means is that our psychical identities as a totality hold fundamentally contradictory truths at the same time almost as if the solar system were geocentric and heliocentric or if the life history was both eternal and evolutionary. These truths are in some sense in an eternal war within our minds for supremacy and dominance. Thus what we present to the world as a clear and consistent picture of our self is in fact founded on repression of a fundamental truth about our self which becomes inadmissible to normal functioning consciousness (our egos).
In this sense one of the first principles of psychoanalysis is that one has to work with contradiction as opposed to eliminating contradiction. If one simply attempts to eliminate contradiction then one is engaging in a simplification via repression which does not ultimately solve the core issue of the problem. From this idea psychoanalysis sits with contradiction, attempts to understand how two truths can co-exist at the same time even though they are fundamentally in opposition to each other. What results from putting these contradictions to work is not the elimination of all contradiction, but a productive transformation that may involve the dissolution of both contradictory propositions, and the birth of something other.
When one thinks in this way it becomes quite tempting to suggest that this logic of contradiction could be applied to the war between science and religion. If we enter into a mode of pure reason which sees contradiction as the enemy to be eliminated and destroyed, as opposed to an ally to be worked with as a productive mechanism to birth something new, then perhaps we too quickly dismiss the other (in this case religion) in favour of a new ideology (in this case science) which may have its own contradictory gaps and cracks (in this case the problematic experience of subjectivity).
Now when I think back on my maturation as an intellectual I also find that I rested on the principle of materialist causality to form an explanation of the world. This idea indeed structures much of scientific inquiry and rests on the idea that everything present in being is determined by a past cause of a material nature. From this idea we get the power to explain the existence of our civilization, the diversity of life, and the cosmic patterns that can be observed throughout our entire universe. There is nothing in being which is not connected via the principle of causality.
We can again use the examples of the heliocentric picture of the universe and the evolutionary picture of the universe as the product of the principle of causality. When we think about the heliocentric picture of the universe we are thinking about a picture that is governed by materialist causality. In this picture the Sun sits in the center of the solar system and all of the planets are orbiting around its center of gravity. The Sun in the form of its material density is the cause of the warping of spacetime, and the planets in the form of their orbital motion are the effect of this material cause.
When we think about the evolutionary picture of the universe we again have to put to work the principle of causality. In this picture the present living forms are connected to all past living forms by a common genetic ancestry that stretches back to the origin of life itself. The past living forms in terms of their differential survival and reproduction are the cause of the existence of the present living forms, and the present living forms are consequently the effect of this materialist selection history.
From this understanding we can trace back through principles of cause and effect a linear chain that takes us back to the first cause in the form of the big bang (which still remains in-itself without explanation). Nevertheless we get a clear and consistent picture of smaller material entities entering into relation or bonds with each other in order to form larger material entities and thus becoming the building blocks for the complexity we see around us today. From atoms to elements to life forms to human beings to civilization itself. There is one big continuous and interconnected causal chain of being.
However, when it comes to the nature of the unconscious there is something different in the nature of causality. Through the analytic experience Freud discovered that there appeared to be a type of gap in being where subjectivity speaks reflectively about its problematic experience. What happens in this gap is not a past material cause leading to a present material effect. Instead what happens in this gap is that a present material effect starts to become its own cause in the form of subjective speech or narrativization. This cause retroactively changes the material past through the development of a new virtual frame of reference.
In other words, what psychoanalytic experience discovered was that cause and effect can be inverted. What then starts to dominate the production of psychoanalytic knowledge is a type of circular or retroactive causality where the the present can effect the past, and the level of mental ideation can change materiality. This means that what is produced through a causal chain as an effect can gain its own causality in the form of the subject; and what is thought and spoken by the subject in the present can change the framing of the past in a way that has real material consequences.
This is again very interesting to think in terms of the classical scientific picture of reality (which does not include an understanding of subjectivity). When we think about one interconnected continuous chain of being that starts with the big bang and then gradually complexifies via material processes of cause and effect from the perspective of circular causality and mental narrativization, we have to ask our self about the very phenomena of subjectivities generating such a theory in the first place. What we have to ask is what is the nature of the gap in being that caused the emergence of this narrative of the past? What is the material efficacy of this virtual framing?
To be specific in order for rational self-conscious to develop a coherent and consistent narrative of the past via causal mechanisms there must be a type of discontinuity in being or a gap in being that needed to be filled by an explanation of the understanding: why are we here? Does the cosmic narrative of complexity help us answer this “why?” on the level of general problematic subjective experience? Furthermore, when we think about the modern mind telling itself the story of the big bang and the complexity of the universe we have to think about the causal power of this narrative. What is attempting to organize itself through the narrativization of this story of a fall from the primordial origin of the cosmos?
In short, and to conclude, psychoanalysis points us in the direction of these questions about holding contradiction as opposed to eliminating it; and about circular causality and mental narrativization. When we think from the perspective of contradictory identities, when we think from the perspective of identities that can cause a change in the past from renarrativizing material events, we are talking essentially about the nature of the unconscious. Such phenomena is the ground and the center of the psychoanalytic experience where contradictory truths battle in relationship to the problematic experience of the subject; and where an effect of materiality becomes a cause in the form of the development of subjective self-narrativization.
From the Freudian perspective the nature of this unconscious structures our experience of reality and cannot be closed by any master discourse. From the Freudian perspective this area of subjective speech as a reason and a truth which is in-and-for itself, about the why of existence and the reconciliation of materiality. As soon as we close this gap with a rational discourse that would like to close up problematic experience we enter the ideological domain where a circle closes in on itself. In this way every historical ideological discourse eventually destroys itself from the immanence of its own contradictory essence which fails to approach the nature of problematic experience as such. However, in the psychoanalytic universe problematic experience as such is allowed to speak without a premature repression or censorship by reason. Instead the reason of the problematic experience is itself given the privilege to voice itself.