Philosophers and psychologists as far back as 3500 BC have extensively studied the inexplicable concept of human behavior. Despite the progression made in the field of psychology over thousands of years, there is still no definitive, irrefutable claim to the cause of human behavior. One of the more notable claims, however, is Freud’s theory of the unconscious. In his essay, The Structure of the Unconscious, Freud trifurcates the mind into the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious.
Freud argues that the conscious and the preconscious are both accessible to human awareness, while the unconscious is essentially a repository for feelings, thoughts, urges and emotions that the conscious mind wants to keep repressed from our cognizance. Despite this, Freud maintains that the unconscious mind is still a primary source of human behavior, even though we are unaware of its underlying influence. While his contention is logical, there have been many challenges to it by a plethora of psychologists and philosophers alike.
Two of the most distinguished contentions are put forth by John Searle and William James on the basis of epiphenomenalism and habituation respectively. Freud’s unconscious stems from the belief that, although human beings are seen as rational creatures, we do have instinctual, animalistic desires exemplified through libido, sex drive, and tendencies toward addiction and violence. While these are supposedly all present in our minds, they aren’t things that we act on outright because of the social code that influences our consciousness.
Freud believes that the unconscious mind, the lowest layer of the mind, is a repository for these desires and, subsequently, a primary source of human behavior (Freud, 1). Although most people want to let the rational part of their soul dominate, it is normal for these brutish inclinations to remain present in the mind. One of the main points of Freud’s theory is his structure of the mind. With this, he divides the mind into 3 main components of psyche: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious.
Freud defines the conscious as consisting of everything inside of our incumbent awareness. This allows rationality and includes sensations, perceptions, memories and feeling within our present cognizance. The preconscious is closely related to the conscious mind in that it consists of that which we aren’t currently thinking of but which we can easily recall into our present awareness. (Freud, 1) Freud metaphorically tied his definition of consciousness to the tip of an iceberg. This, then, would leave the rest of the iceberg as a representation of the unconscious mind.
Freud believed that the bulk of the mind consisted of the unconscious and his emphasis on it suggests that he believed it to be more vital in affecting our behavior than the conscious and preconscious. Freud then trifurcates the mind once more into the id, the ego, and the superego. Freud defines the id as “…a chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement,” which is highly present in our unconscious. He follows this by explaining that the superego is a moral and ethical restraint similar to one’s conscience and that the ego is the balance between the two.
The ego is often associated with self-awareness as it allows us to be aware of other’s needs as well as our own. Freud believed that psychic health is defined by a dominant ego, but that it’s efforts to protect our psyche from traumatic thoughts and impulses had the potential to be harmful to our psyche in the form of repression. Freud introduced his theory of repression in Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis where he documented his struggles in getting his patients to recall past memories.
This led him to the conclusion that “there was some force that prevented them from becoming conscious and compelled them to remain unconscious (28). ” Freud identified this repression as a defense mechanism, or a way to safeguard our conscious and self-image from stress-inducing inclinations of the id. Ultimately, repression refers to the ego’s endeavors to subliminally keep disturbing thoughts and impulses out of our consciousness and retain them in the unconscious mind, where they can be buried and hidden.
This is believed to be because the realization of the id’s desires has the potential to cause psychological harm. Since this is all happening unconsciously, we are not aware that it’s taking place. Therefore, repression can be both a protective function in that it keeps us within acceptable social bounds as well as a harmful mechanism that can result in psychological dysfunction if done excessively (Freud, 144-46). Perhaps one of the most extensive critiques of Freud’s theory of the unconscious is John Searle’s epiphenomenalist argument in The Rediscovery of the Mind.
In his book, Searle offers two primary arguments for the implausibility of the unconscious: the first being that all thoughts are accessible to our consciousness, exemplified through the very argument and acknowledgment of the unconscious, and the second being the mind-body philosophy that all mental processes are caused by a physiological instigator. Both of Searle’s arguments are rooted in logic whereas Freud’s argument is rooted in observation and a successive hypothesis, however neither theory has been definitively proven.
Searle’s first argument suggests “The notion of an unconscious mental state implies accessibility to consciousness. (Searle, 152)” With this, he is essentially arguing that the idea of the unconscious being inaccessible to human awareness is self-contradictory in that it requires human awareness to conceive the unconscious in the first place. Searle believes that all thoughts have the potential to become conscious given the right circumstance.
He attains that the desires and sensations that Freud deemed “unconscious” are better defined as “repressed consciousness” because a class of “deep unconscious mental intentional phenomena” that are isolated from the consciousness does not exist (Searle, 173). With this, he is not refuting the idea that unconscious processes form the basis of a conscious life. Rather, he is redefining the unconscious as processes that are not directly related to thinking (and action). This would include neurophysiological processes such as neural impulses and synaptic activity.
On my account, talk of the unconscious mind is simply talk of the causal capacities of neurophysiology to cause conscious states and conscious behavior (Searle, 168). ” Here, Searle contends that consciousness is real, but that it is caused by biological, neurological, and physical processes. He is categorizing Freud’s idea of the unconscious with the conscious and replacing the foundation with a physiological explanation. His epiphenomenalist views are incompatible with the Freudian claim that cognitive occurrences are causally efficacious.
This argument also contributes to Searle’s refutation of the unconscious. He asserts that it is implausible that our behavior is influenced by an unconscious mental state because all mental events are caused by some physiological process. This suggests that Searle believes that human behavior is instead a result of neurophysiological impulses (Searle, 169). Although Searle’s epiphenomenalist argument that all mental processes are caused by neurophysiological impulses is correct, his dismissal of Freud’s theory can be seen as rash in its disregard of the preconscious.