The Phenomenological Dignity of the Unconscious
Working thorough Freud’s infamous Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, one cannot fail to recognize a profound ambiguity within both Freud’s concept of the unconscious and its related contents, the presence of two minds–two Freuds. The unconscious, it seems, rests upon an unsure footing, tipping between the irrational, non-objectifible realm of affectivity, and the realm of consciousness: the rational, the conceptual, the objectifiable.
It must first be recognized that psychoanalysis always works with two distinct forms of evidence: the conscious and the unconscious. Moreover, the latter is not to be subsumed under the former, but retains its own evidential dignity. As Freud expicitly states:
“I handle unconscious ideas, unconscious trains of thought, and unconscious emotional tendencies as though they were no less valid and unimpeachable phsychological data than conscious ones.” (p. 134)
Yet, what is the precise nature of “unconscious ideas”? Is it even possible to designate the unconscious as a “train of thought” without sacrificing the clear phenomenological distinction between these two realms? It is precisely this conflation of the conscious and the unconscious that manifests itself throughout Dora. Our “first” Freud explicitly proposes the absorption of the unconscious into the conscious, marking this phenomenological disingenuity as the principal role of psychoanalysis.
“Dreams in general can be interpreted, and that after the work of interpretation has been completed they can be replaced by perfectly correctly constructed thoughts which find a recognizable position in the texture of the mind.” (p. 29)
“The practical aim of the treatment is to remove all possible symptoms and to replace them by conscious thoughts.” (p. 32)
“The technique of psychoanalysis enables us first of all to infer the unconscious phantasies from the symptoms and then to enable the patient to become conscious of them.” (p. 148)
The question must again be repeated. Is such a transubstantiation of unconscious material into conscious forms possible without a loss of the original material in its entirety?
If we might consider the second strand of Freud’s thought, one that does not propose the subsumption of the unconscious under the conscious, than we might find a psychoanalytic theory which retains the phenomenological dignity of the unconscious as illogical (or perhaps pre-logical), a theory which does not reduce the unconscious to mere messenger of the conscious as signifier of a conscious signified, but allows the unconscious to retain its own effectivity.
At many points, Freud moves in precisely this direction. Refusing the critiques of hysteria often proposed by laymen, Freud writes:
“People who speak of the patients in this way are right except upon a single point: they overlook the psychological distinction between what is conscious and what is unconscious.” (p. 62)
Yet, is this not precisely what Freud himself has proposed as the mission of psychoanalysis? In his effort to reduce the unconscious to the conscious, it is precisely the phenomenological difference, the “psychological distinction,” that he must overcome (or overlook). Instead of supporting such an “overlooking”–even if disguised as a “replacement”–the maintenance of phenomenological dignity requires that we side with our “second” Freud, the Freud which recognizes the irreducibility of unconscious material, the Freud which wrote:
“It cannot be resolved by any effort of thought, either because it itself reaches with its root down into unconscious, repressed material, or because another unconscious thought lies concealed behind it.” (p. 72)
As long as the unconscious is recognized as a distinct psychic realm, it must be treated as such. Its contents must not be relegated to a secondary role, images of the principal mind, consciousness. Instead, psychoanalysis must side with Lacan who recognizes that the unconscious does not follow the logic of consciousness, it is not reducible to consciousness. Like Michel Henry’s affectivity, the unconscious is the realm of where life is lived, and life does not play by logic’s rules.