The myth of the unconscious and why it may be useful

Some thoughts inspired by this blog post:
Not sure where to post this, since it seems to cut across several sections.

I think that calling the unconscious a myth is best unpacked into a positive and a negative thesis, though these are obviously my readings of them. The, perhaps more obvious, negative thesis being something along the lines that the unconscious is not some sort of actual realm of entities that stand in a causal relation to our actions and feelings. The positive thesis that I think can be discerned in the full post is that talking of unconscious desires and the like is a way of establishing meaning where none was before. What we do when citing desires, motivations and the like as reasons for our feelings and actions is giving meaning to the latter, we make them understandable to others, and also to ourselves. I think, then, that the unconscious might have a role to play in understanding delusions.

Although sometimes, we might feel quite comfortable with leaving delusions not understood, as we might feel quite comfortable with leaving any action or belief not accounted for, ending our justifications for it with something along “I just acted that way”, or “this is just how I see things”. And sometimes this may be enough - particularly when the beliefs or actions are rather innocent, uncontroversial etc., I am inclined to think.

But sometimes we may feel an urge to do make ourselves understood, maybe even especially when we have had experienced controversial, bizarre delusions that have left a big impression on us. To me it seems that as far as I was aware of it, my delusions pretty much arose out of nothing. That is not to say I think they do not have a cause, rather, they didn’t seem to me to arise out of any explicit inference I made - I rather quite suddenly started seeing things in such a way. As hostile, as unreal, as telepathy. I could barely account for seeing things like that, in a non-circular manner that is. I do not think this is quite particular to delusions: we may typically find ourselves believing ordinary things without having explicitly inferred them from other beliefs. But we could make such an inference when pressed for it. All too often we only give our reasons for thinking or acting such and such in retrospect.

(There is an element of acceptance here. If one can account for one’s beliefs and actions, if one can make oneself understood that is, one can be accepted by others if the reasons cited are good reasons. And this doesn’t have to mean that they are shared by interlocutors. There is such a thing as “I understand you, but I see things differently” and this is still a form of being accepted.)

How, then, can the unconscious be useful? I think we can conjure up unconscious motives and desires to make understandable some of our delusions. This is to retrospectively account for our delusions that were previously left unaccounted for. Motives and desires can sometimes form good reasons for seeing things such and such. Not so much to make it true that things are that way, but rather to make one’s seeing them as such understandable by others. We might not have had these motives and desires underlying our delusions at the time, but we can, as we all too often do, conjure them up in retrospect as reasons to account for our delusional thinking, positing that they must have been unconscious at the time. This is to come to an understanding of the delusion, merely one way of accounting for it. Just as any ordinary belief may be made understood in different ways, different reasons may be acceptably cited to justify seeing things a particular way, so delusions may also be made understood in different ways, when appealing to unconscious motives and desires. The unconscious, then, becomes not so much an actual realm waiting to be revealed by anyone - rather it is the potentiality for understanding, and making oneself understood.

There may be something to gain from all this. For to come to an understanding of one’s beliefs and actions that goes beyond “this is just how I see things” may be able to open up possibilities for changing how one sees things. This relates to my experience of what is sometimes called motivated delusion, see this post:

If one is able to cite reasons for a particular way of seeing things or a particular way of acting, reasons that may include desires and motivations, some possibilities open up. For, in the case of having subscribed to motives and desires underlying ones actions or beliefs, one may start to think of other ways of satisfying these. This is certainly how I got out of my own delusion. It has helped me to create reasons for holding my delusion that troubled me. That is, it has been helpful to to try and understand it. For it opened up a new way of seeing things that better satisfied my motives and desires. But these had to be subscribed to first.

I’ve always felt that modern students of psychology have made too much of the unconscious. Granted, there are usually a number of implicit reasons for why have delusions, but I think we get lost in a maze when we try to go deeper into the oedipal and electra complexes. These bastions of the unconscious might have a beginning influence on a complex, but they weaken as time between childhood and adulthood passes. It might titillate students of psychology to say that a man wants a Porsche because he can’t resist the impulses of his id, but it is more useful to say he wants it as a status symbol. The boundries between the Freudian divisions of the psyche can become confused. No one has an innate desire for a Porsche in the same way he desires his mother’s breast. We have no basic unconscious need for a Porsche other than as a means to acquire the end of our id’s impulses, those being to get sex. One could more accurately say a man wants a Porsche because that is what has been established in his super ego. Either way, we are lost in a maze when we ascribe a desire for a Porsche to either of these psychological constructs. Therefore, the most useful way to view the unconscious is as underlying implications of certain beliefs and actions. A man buys a Porsche because his neighbor has a Mercedes Benz, because he wants a trophy wife, or in a futile attempt to stave off the inevitable decline of age, and so on. We can even go deeper and say the man feels threatened by his neighbors Mercedes, but we get lost when we say he wants it in substitution for his mother’s breast, of some such other theory of the unconscious. Freud made too much of the unconscious, just as he made too much of our desire for sex. We need to look in other places as explanations for our beliefs and actions.

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