“There is no such thing as philosophy free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination” (Daniel Dennett 1995)

In his ‘Freudian Unconscious and Cognitive Neuroscience’ Vesa Talvitie contrasted two different conceptions of the unconscious. He called them the dry unconscious which he traced to Aristotle via Leibniz and is studied today in cognitive neuroscience, and the wet unconscious which he traced to Plato via Schopenhauer and Freud and Jung. Talvitie correctly noted that the unconscious been massively studied and explicated by philosophers over the last 2000 years. Yet despite the fact that philosophy has clearly had a significant influence on psychoanalysis, Freud was dismissive of philosophy and some current analysts think that philosophy is actually harmful for psychoanalysts to study. Donald Meltzer has explicitly argued that the study of philosophy is bad for practicing psychoanalysts. But as Daniel Dennett admirably put it, there is no such thing as philosophy free science, just science which uncritically takes on board philosophical baggage without examining it. Over the last 50 years or so, some psychoanalysts have argued that despite the brilliant clinical insights of Freud, his theory of the mind was infected with harmful Cartesian assumptions about the nature of the mind. Psychoanalysts like Stolorow and Cavell have used the arguments of Heidegger, and the later Wittgenstein and Davidson to repair the conceptual foundations of psychoanalysis. While on the other side of things psychoanalysts like Matte Blanco have used the mathematical logic of philosophers like Russell and Frege, and the early Wittgenstein (and mathematicians like Cantor) to try and make psychoanalysis more rigorous.

Matte Blanco was influenced by Bertrand Russell’s views on Logic, in particular Russell and Whitehead’s ‘Principia Mathematica’, and applied them to psychoanalytic observations. He attempted to explicate the workings of unconscious logic using the set theory. His main insight was that the logic of the unconscious as described by Freud has similar properties to the infinite that Cantor discovered. Thus in unconscious fantasies parts are often considered equal to wholes, and when we explicate infinity similar things happen, with an infinite series you can map the prime numbers on to the natural numbers, and despite one series being a part of the other they both add up to an infinite series. Blanco explicates the unconscious in terms of the principle of symmetry and the principle of generalisation and shows how these features can make sense of otherwise inexplicable behaviour. I won’t go into this in too much detail here other than to say he thinks that he explicates the unconscious interms of symmetrical logic and consciousness interms of asymmetrical logic.

Blanco’s theory of emotion is derived from a direct phenomenological analysis of our experience of emotion. He starts with an assumption which influences the rest of his analysis of emotion throughout his text. Firstly he treats propositional attitudes as something that is caused by brain but as something that is not identical to any particular brain-state. He maintains that he is not supporting any kind of mind/body dualism. Rather he is just noting that our propositional attitudes are not obviously identical with our brain states. Now Blanco is correct that his view doesn’t commit him to substance dualism, but it does seem to commit him to form of property dualism. Though strictly speaking he doesn’t argue that the propositional attitudes won’t reduce to brain states he merely states that it isn’t obvious that they will, but that future brain science may refute his conjecture. He was writing ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ in 1975 around the same time that Fodor was writing ‘The Language of Thought’ and Dennett was writing ‘Then Intentional Stance’, and eliminative materialism had yet to surface. So Blanco could be forgiven for not having this worked out in any detail.

Somewhat surprisingly, while he argues that propositional attitudes emerged from the brain but may not be identical with the brain, he argues that sensation-feeling is obviously a bodily state. Nowadays, with Chalmers hard problem of consciousness, the relation between raw feels and the brain/body is dubbed the hard problem of philosophy which some theorists think we will never solve. Blanco notes:

It will be seen that, if one starts from the phenomenological point of view, the subject unfolds with the help of logical notions which are at the heart of psychoanalytic conceptions. The ensemble is, therefore, phenomenological-psychoanalytical-logical…But where emotion differs from it is in the fact that it not only leans, so to speak, on bodily events (if we wish to be more Unitarian, we would say: it is not only an integral part of a psycho-physical event), but in its very nature must be viewed as a psycho-physical phenomenon. An example may illustrate what I mean. If I am afraid, my heart may beat faster than usual and I may become pale. Faster pulse and paleness are not the physical substratum of the emotion of fear in the same way as some brain metabolism may be the substratum of thinking. They are more than that: they are integral aspects of the phenomenon called fear. Similarly, tense muscles may be considered integral aspects of the emotion that is called expectation…We feel them to be such directly and refer to the physical aspects of them as an integral part of the emotion, whereas this is not the case with thinking…To give an example: we are now more fully aware of the influence of emotion on thinking. We know that people see the world according to the emotions we experience; if they are under the influence of paranoid fears they will tend to see people as persecutors; if they have repressed sexual wishes they will find sexuality where others would not discover it; and so on” (ibid p. 217-219)


Blanco makes a good point that bodily sensations are very closely connected to bodily processes but the exact feeling of pain or happiness does seem to be obviously identical with any physical process in the body. Here I am not accepting any intractable hard problem there are various ways of attacking the hard problem e.g. Galen Strawson’s approach or Dan Dennett’s approach. My point is merely that contrary to what Blanco claims the emotions don’t seem to be any more identical to bodily/brain states than the propositional attitudes are from an intuitive point of view. Now as we know, intuitions are not a great guide to ontology so the relative obviousness or non-obviousness of the supposed identity is not that important from a pure naturalist perspective. But since Blanco’s emotional theory is derived from a close phenomenological analysis of our experience of emotion if his analysis of emotions doesn’t correspond with other people’s experience of emotions then he faces a problem that needs to be addressed.

Blanco’s analysis of emotion deserves credit he anticipates the work of Damasio in breaking from tradition and not separating emotion from thinking. To some degree he thinks sensation-emotion is primary but he argues that all thinking is intertwined with emotion and that intense emotion is driven by propositional thought. His work was heavily influenced by the philosophical work of Bertrand Russell’s ‘Analysis of Mind’ and William James’s papers on Consciousness. Blanco’s phenomenological analysis of emotion lead him to a position so similar to Sartre’s theory of emotion that Blanco actually devoted an appendix of his ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ to discussing how both theorists arrived at such similar views as each other independently. Clearly Blanco was influenced by philosophers such as James and Russell, and he used similar techniques as Sartre, to arrive at his theory of emotions. A lot of philosophers like Wittgenstein, and Popper have been dismissive of psychoanalysis. While Freud and a variety of different psychoanalysts have been dismissive of philosophy, nonetheless the two subjects seem to have offered key insights to each other. This can be seen further if we analyse the work of Marcia Cavell.

Marcia Cavell was influenced by the work of Donald Davidson in particular his emphasis on triangulation, and paradoxes of irrationality. Her emphasis on procedural knowledge, implicit memory and knowing-how (as opposed to knowing-that), being prior to explicit knowledge is consistent with the views of Heidegger and Stolorow. She says for example:

Children do not learn that oranges exist, that beds exist. They learn to peal oranges, to lie in beds. Attention to the ways language is actually used in daily life will free us from the temptation to hypostatize language and meanings, as Plato did in positing a realm of abstract, immutable Forms. There are not meanings, but people meaning things by what they do” (Cavell: Becoming a Subject p 64)

By drawing on the work social scientists like Margret Mead and philosophers like Grice and the later Wittgenstein Cavell notes that ‘selves’ emerge through social interaction with peers about a shared world of experience. She hammers home the point by discussing the work of Donald Davidson. Davidson in a series of papers argued that a necessary condition of thought was a self, other and a shared object of experience.

“To believe that p is to hold that p is true. Of course you can know that it might be false, can be doubtful of its truth, and so on; the point is that the concepts of belief and truth, evidence and reason, are necessarily linked…So if you have a belief of the propositional sort…you must have a grasp of how you THINK things are, and how they truly are, between right and wrong, correct and incorrect, true and false, since belief is by definition, a state of mind about the world; it is the sort of thing that can be true or false (even though one may never know in a particular case which it is), and for which one adduces evidence and reason. (ibid p. 67)

For Davidson (and the later Wittgenstein) we can only discover the difference between something being true and something being false if we have a self, another and a shared object of experience which we can make claims about truly or falsely. Robert Stolorow speaks of post-Cartesian philosophy and uses Heidegger as a philosopher who more than most has helped us escape from the myth of the isolated mind. As we can see though Cavell using the work of Donald Davidson and Wittgenstein manages to avoid a lapse in to Cartesianism. Both guys end up with the same result but using different strategy. But there are differences Stolorow’s emphasis on procedural knowledge, is largely consistent with Cavell. But Stolorow’s focus on anxiety, and death, etc is far removed from Cavell’s concerns. Likewise when Cavell discusses the nature of irrationality she borrows from and improves on Davidson’s logical arguments (by considering developmental evidence), she is arguing in a manner alien to the likes of Stolorow. Nonetheless I think there are a lot of similarities to the psychoanalytic work of Stolorow and Cavell which can be traced to their philosophical influences Davidson, The later Wittgenstein and The early Heidegger. Blanco as we have already seen was heavily influenced by philosophers like Russell and James. So clearly philosophy has played a key role in influencing Freud’s development of the unconscious and psychoanalysts influenced by philosophers are busy trying to make psychoanalysis more rigorous using mathematical methods invented by philosophers, and to free psychoanalysis from hidden Cartesian assumptions through detailed phenomenological analysis. So philosophy and psychoanalysis while sometimes critical of each other can be mutually enriching fields.

A former teacher of mine Ross Skelton is a logician, a psychoanalyst and a philosopher. He has written papers on Blanco and has forty years of clinical practice behind him. When discussing the influence of philosophy on psychoanalysis with me noted that while people like Blanco, Stolorow and Cavell have done some interesting theoretical work their theories have had little impact on clinical practice. So one could argue that despite what I am claiming philosophy has had little practical influence on psychoanalysis.[1] It could be further claimed that like the way engineers can rely on Newtonian physics and ignore the niceties of Relativity Theory when dealing with terrestrial objects psychoanalysts can ignore the philosophical debates about Cartesian theories embodied cognition etc. This approach is fine as far as it goes as long as the analogy is followed through. Engineers don’t deny that relativity theory is true they merely abstract away from it for some purposes in order to simplify calculations. If psychoanalysts are doing similar things then there is no problem. But it should be noted that in certain circumstances the effects of relativity cannot be ignored. Likewise I would argue that the mathematical modelling done by Blanco and the emphasis of embodiment and phenomenology cannot be ignored in all circumstances and psychoanalysts would be well advised to use as many tools at their disposal as possible.

At the start of this blog-post I noted that Vesa Talvitie made a distinction between the dry unconscious of cognitive science and the wet instinctive unconscious studied by psychoanalysis. In my next blog I will discuss the relation between the cognitive unconscious and the psychoanalytic unconscious. I will try to bring the two unconsciousness together with the work of Deacon, and the idea of Selfish Neurons, showing that if we start from Deacon’s position of creatures fighting off the second law of thermodynamics the cognitive unconscious will be seen to be less dry and mechanical. I will show that there is less of a schism between psychoanalysis and cognitive science than some people think. Dennett notes the distinctions between theorists of a different mind set:

“There are no entirely apt labels for the opposing sides of this gulf, since the ongoing controversy turns every battle cry into a derogatory term for the other side. Reductionism, fie! Holism, fie! “Enlightenment” versus “Romanticism” is pretty close, as the reader can judge by considering what the following team players have in common; on the Enlightenment side: Darwin, Turing, Minsky, Dawkins, both Crick and Edelman (in spite of their antagonisms), Tibor Ga´nti, E. O. Wilson, Steven Weinberg, Paul and Patricia Churchland, and both Raymond Kurzweil and me (in spite of our antagonisms). On the Romantic side are arrayed Romanes and Baldwin, Kropotkin, Stephen Jay Gould, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Stuart Kauffman, Roger Penrose, Ilya Prigogine, Rupert Sheldrake, and the philosophers John Haugeland, Evan Thompson, Alicia Juarrero, John Searle, and—off the map, now— Jerry Fodor and Thomas Nagel. Many have been inoculated against the other side by the excesses of some of the participants. Can anybody knit up “the Cartesian wound that severed mind from body at the birth of modern science” (p. 544)? Deacon, defending the Romantic side, makes some real progress largely because he understands and appreciates both sides so well. He is a good evolutionist and cognitive scientist with insightful interpretations of the strengths and triumphs of evolutionary and computational thinking, and he is trenchant in his criticisms of Romantic lapses into mystery.” (Dennett ‘Aching Voids and Making Voids’)

I will try to bridge some of these divides between psychoanalysis and cognitive science which are mirrored in the Dennett quote above. Not by treating all approaches as equal but by adopting the approach of a vulture and adopting what is useful in each theory and discarding what is not.

[1] Skelton does allow that Lacan’s use of Hegel has had an actual practical influence on clinical practice. But I won’t discuss Lacan’s work here as I have done so in other blog-posts see my ‘Lacan and Cognitive Science’

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