Unconscious Logic and the Myth of the Given

Matte Blanco was a psychoanalyst who attempted to formalise Freud’s theory of the unconscious using the formal logic of Russell and Whitehead. Freud famously argued that the majority of our mental states are governed by unconscious ideas and feelings. Based on his clinical work Freud argued that our unconscious mind had the following five characteristics. (1) Absence of mutual contradiction between the presentations of its various impulses, (2) Displacement, (3) Condensation, (4) Absence of Time (5) Replacement of external by psychic reality (‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ pp. 36-37). Freud noted that unconscious thinking that followed the logic of the above five principles would obviously differ dramatically from ordinary Aristotelian Logic. However he never managed to make explicit precisely how the logic of the unconscious actually worked from a formal point of view. Blanco argued that using two basic principles he could model the alternative logical principles that governed the unconscious.
The first principle that Blanco used was called The Principle of Generalization, and the second was called The principle of Symmetry. Blanco sensibly conceived of the mind as a classificatory system, which was constantly at work organising experience into different categories. This conception of the mind is pretty standard and most psychologists would accept that categorisation is an essential feature of the human (and non-human animal) minds. However, Blanco argued that at an unconscious level we categorise in strange ways that don’t fit with standard conscious ways of categorising our experiences. Blanco called this aspect of categorisation the principle of generalisation. Basically the idea is that our unconscious mind is driven to generalize to more and more abstract sets. Blanco notes that the unconscious mind treats a particular thing as though it were a member of a particular set which contains other members, it treats this set as a subset of a more general set, and treats this more general set as a subset of a still more general set and so on (Blanco ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets p. 38)
A concrete example of the above would be treating the furry thing sitting beside me as a member of the set of dogs, and the set of dogs as a subset of the more general set of mammals, and treating mammals as a subset of the more general set of animals etc. Now categorising things according to these principles seems to be just a standard way we consciously order the data of our experiences. But Blanco argues humans typically use these generalisations unconsciously and hence are not aware of the type of categories we are placing in that we are interacting with. Not all generalizations will carve nature at the joints in the way that the above example of the set of dogs does, and our childhood experiences will ensure that we use strange generalizations on an unconscious level.
Blanco supplements his principle of generalisation with a further clause. He argues that when the unconscious mind is engaging in generalisation it operates in a strange way. When the mind is generalising it prefers propositional functions which in one aspect bring about increasing generality, and in another aspect keep particular characteristics of the individual thing to which they started (ibid p.38).
Blanco’s second principle is his principle of symmetry where he argues that an unconscious level the mind treats the converse of any relation as identical with the relation (ibid p. 38). So while the conscious mind treats a relation such as ‘John is the father of Peter’ as an asymmetrical relation, at an unconscious level the mind selectively treats this relation as symmetrical. Thus at an unconscious level the mind would think that because ‘John is the father of Peter’ then ‘Peter is the father of John’. Blanco justifies modelling the unconscious mind this way because he thinks it can explain otherwise inexplicable facts about the behaviour of schizophrenics, neurotics, of dream experiences etc. As a psychoanalyst Blanco was obviously a keen follower of Freud and was trying to explain similar clinical data. However Blanco believed that he had achieved a nice tidying up of Freud’s explication because Blanco’s two principles could explain Freud’s conception of the unconscious in a simpler and clearer manner than Freud managed.
In a 1984 paper ‘Understanding Matte Blanco’ the logician, philosopher and psychoanalyst Ross Skelton criticised Blanco’s conception of the unconscious on formal grounds. Skelton argued that Blanco’s conception of the unconscious resulted in a state of affairs where the unconscious accepted contradictory facts as both being true. Skelton demonstrated that it would be impossible to model the unconscious in this way since in a system that accepted true contradictions anything could be proven. Since Skelton wrote his criticism there has been some brilliant work done by Graham Priest which takes some of the sting out of Skelton’s objection. However, I will not here discuss the formal way to reply to Skelton’s criticism. Here I want to focus on a curious aspect of the Blanco’s reply to Skelton.
Blanco acknowledged the logical point that Skelton made and the difficulties it posed but he then made two extremely strange replies to Skelton. Firstly he noted the following:
“Incidentally, though Ross Skelton explicitly directs his criticisms to me, it can, in my opinion, be said that his remarks could apply with equal right to Freud and to the unconscious. In order to be unambiguous I think he should establish whether he thinks that it is my formulation that is not a true reflection of Freud’s discoveries, and give the reasons for this.” (Matte Blanco: Understanding Matte Blanco)
I cannot speak for Skelton but personally I think that Blanco manages to brilliantly summarise Freud’s views and manages to capture the logic of Freud’s views on the unconscious accurately. Blanco though wonders incredulously whether Skelton thinks that Freud is wrong about the nature of the unconscious. Blanco seems to think that if Skelton’s arguments carried through to Freud as much as they did to Blanco that this would undermine Skelton’s argument. Blanco’s bringing in Freud seems to play no role other than an appeal to the authority of Freud. But I see no reason why this authority should be bowed too. If Skelton’s arguments go through against Freud, then they go through, there is no reason to not follow the logic where it leads simply because of who Freud was.
Blanco then offers another criticism of Skelton’s argument. He notes the following:
“I understand that this is very strange, and, therefore, hard for a logician to swallow. But, in my opinion, it reflects very faithfully the behaviour of the unconscious and Freud’s description of it. All the characteristics of the unconscious described by Freud are bi-logical structures…I must add that I do not believe that he is criticizing the unconscious for daring to neglect the rules of logic…As just said, I exclude that he wishes to criticize the unconscious. But if there is anybody who does not respect the laws of logic he is not Freud nor myself but precisely the unconscious. If such is the case, as Freud is sure it is and I am convinced by him, then one would ask (to put it with the words of a well-known song): ‘what should we do with the drunken sailor?” (Matte Blanco ‘Understanding Matte Blanco’)
Above we can see Blanco treat Freud’s conception of the unconscious as a thing that exists and has been observed. Skelton is arguing that you cannot construct a model of the unconscious using the logical principles Blanco proposes. Blanco’s incredulous reply is that the unconscious exists and is directly observed, if it doesn’t conform to the stringent ideals of the logician then so much the worse for the logician.
In his book on Blanco ‘Unconscious Logic’, Eric Rayner summarised Blanco’s argument as follows:
“Negation and its absence are both at the very core of any bi-logical thought. A serious difficulty appears to arise here. It is obvious that valid inference depends upon the logical consistency inherent in ordinary conscious level, traditional two valued logic. It has already been said that the essence of two-valuedness is that things which ‘are so’ and not ‘not so’ at the same time. Here the non-contradiction ‘If A then Not A’ is crucial. However, if Matte Blanco is proposing a system where this principle of contradiction can be absent, then surely everything and nothing can be explained by it and the theory is useless. This has been skilfully argued by Skelton (1984). Matte Blanco (1984) argued back that he was sorry; he did not invent the way the unconscious levels of the mind work. ( Eric Rayner ‘Unconscious Logic p. 46)
Rayner explicates Blanco’s reply as if the unconscious was an a-theoretical entity which was discovered and its nature is what it is, whether it conforms to our logic or not.
Blanco’s reply can be explicated using a concrete analogy. Blanco and Freud are like brave explorers who discovered the duckbilled-platypus, but who are confronted by theorists like Skelton who deny that the platypus exists. Blanco just needs to reply to the silly theorist by pointing at the platypus and thereby showing the errant theorist that reality is more complex than his a priori intuitions imagined.
However, the problem with the above image is that we don’t directly see the unconscious it is rather a theoretical construct we use to explain the behaviour of humans. Blanco seems to think otherwise:
“At this point I invite the reader to reflect on two points: the first is that the principle of symmetry is a logical way of describing and of arriving at the absence of negation which Freud observed directly in his study of patients and of dreams…” (Matte Blanco ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’ p. 50)
Above you can see Blanco speak of Freud “directly observe” the unconscious ( Blanco even italicized ‘directly’ for emphasis). However as Blanco was well aware Freud never observed the unconscious, rather he inferred its existence. In his 1915 paper ‘The Unconscious’ Freud argued that it was necessary to postulate the existence of the unconscious to explain otherwise inexplicable facts. Freud used the postulation of the unconscious to explain the nature of parapraxes, jokes, dreams etc. He argued that the best way to explain these behaviours was to postulate the unconscious. Freud made the following point “A gain in meaning is a perfectly justifiable ground for going beyond direct experience” ( Freud ‘The Unconscious’ p. 159). Freud was working in Vienna where the positivist Mach was treated like a God, where logical positivism was on the brink of springing forth. But Freud never went along with the widely held prejudice of the Vienna of his time against theoretical postulates. His unconscious was precisely such a postulate, and one that bore some interesting fruit.
So we can see that Blanco’s reply to Skelton was a nonsense. The Unconscious was a theoretical model to explain human behaviour, and Skelton’s argument proposed that such a model couldn’t be constructed in a meaningful manner . Blanco’s pretence that the unconscious had already been directly observed was a bluff, the fact is that he had a model and he didn’t know how to complete it. So the question begging assumption that his model of the unconscious had already been discovered was a way of pretending that the technical criticisms he was facing were irrelevant.
The above criticism seems a bit harsh on Blanco. However I don’t mean it to be interpreted in that way. Blanco was a brilliant theorist and psychoanalyst. His work was groundbreaking. When I argue he was bluffing I don’t necessarily mean that he was doing this at a conscious level. He may not have been aware of what drove his rhetorical stance.
Furthermore there is a sense in which Blanco had a point in his criticism of Skelton’s argument. Research in quantum mechanics has put pressure on our intuitive understanding of the law of non-contradiction. At one point Kant believed that we knew a priori that space operated according to the principles of Euclidean Geometry. However both empirical and theoretical research showed that non-Euclidean Geometries are better ways to model space. So Blanco wasn’t being absurd in thinking that the discoveries being made through the theoretical postulate of the unconscious shouldn’t just cave to a logical argument. The incredible predictive capacity of quantum mechanics forced philosophers to try to develop different logical models to explain the data. Likewise Blanco could have argued that the gain in understanding by adopting a psychoanalytic perspective should make us consider developing a different logical system to model the unconscious mind.
Skelton’s argument indicated that Blanco’s model didn’t seem up to the job. But today there exist more flexible logics which seem up to the task. It will be interesting to see if these models are more successful in accounting for the clinical data than Blanco’s model was.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s