Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Psychology

Did (I D)o That?

Scott Eric Kaufman’s Acephalous blog has been hosting an interesting discussion about intentionality and the unconscious. The immediate provocation for the thread was a particularly unfortunate slip of the tongue by talk show host David Lenihan, who, apparently inadvertantly, used a racial epithet in an on-air discussion of Condoleeza Rice.

The discussion at Acephalous revolves, among other things, around the issue of to what degree a mistake like this should be considered a “Freudian slip” – that is, a slip of the tongue that signifies something meaningful about the speaker – in this case, latent racism.

Several complex issues range through this kind of debate for me. The first is the empirical status of Freudian theory – the question of how difficult it is for any interpretive theory (not just psychoanalysis) to extricate itself from problems of confirmation bias – of examining only those slips of the tongue, for example, that produce meaningful words that are potentially subject to interpretation, while overlooking the various stutterings and mis-steps that don’t appear to produce meaning. The second is the contested issue of whether psychoanalytic approaches have taken seriously the question of what evidence would be required to falsify or force a rethink of core concepts within the theory.

Yet these sorts of empirical questions, which have entered into other discussions of psychoanalytic theory at Acephalous in the past, were not really the core issue at stake in this particular debate. Rather, the major issue seemed to be the way in which the folk appropriation of psychoanalytic theory so often leads to something like a notion of “unconscious intentionality” – so that, once you believe, for example, that this slip of the tongue must be meaningful, and then conclude that the slip must signify a transgressive desire like unconscious racism, you then also judge the person for these unconscious impulses, as if the conscious mind must somehow have been complicit all along, for such unsavoury unconscious impulses to exist.

I tend to think of this issue by analogy with work I do on social structuration. I am interested in broad, pervasive patterns of historical change – in forms of perception, thought and practice that tend to span geographical regions, disciplinary boundaries, and fields of practical activity.

One common way of explaining the existence of patterns of historical change is to invoke a kind of conspiracy theory: to say, in effect, that “natural” or “unconscious” change ought to be random in character, so the existence of a meaningful pattern implies intentionality. Meaningful historical patterns then come to be taken as evidence that, somewhere in the background, some group of persons must be making conscious, deliberate choices to cause the world to become as it is. This mode of reasoning in the social sciences is of course analogous to the concept of Intelligent Design in the natural sciences – both approaches assume that complex patterns cannot arise in the absence of intention. Where Intelligent Design is marginalised in the natural sciences, however, variants of conspiracy theory can often be quite central to some social scientific traditions, in explicit or tacit forms.

I favour an alternative, which focusses on historical patterns as the unintentional consequences of actions that, even if they are consciously undertaken, are intended to produce very different results than what they actually effect. The interesting historical problem then becomes understanding why it should be the case that a non-random pattern should arise, if no one consciously intends to bring that pattern into being.

When examining the social realm, once we conclude that patterns are likely generated without conscious intent, it is fairly clear that there is no “place” where these unconscious social processes reside, other than in the myriad actions of the individuals who inadvertantly reproduce such patterns. When we look at nonconscious patterns that arise from the human mind, we are less sure – and, perhaps as a result, retroject notions of intentionality that could only ever be appropriately applied to conscious behaviour, into a nonconscious realm to which it doesn’t apply.

Ironically, I don’t see Freud as having this particular problem – I think he was quite clear, in his descriptions of the unruly, contradictory, fragmented id, that the logic of the conscious realm should not be applied to nonconscious actions – and, in fact, extrapolated that much suffering resulted precisely from guilt inappropriately experienced in relation to unconscious impulses. It is an interesting question whether, in still maintaining that unconscious impulses could be interpreted – that unconscious behaviours have meaning – Freud might inadvertantly have slipped a bit of the logic of the conscious world back into his analysis of the unconscious. But I won’t make any strong claims on this issue without thinking it through far more thoroughly than I have here…

Regardless, in percolating through popular culture, psychoanalytic concepts have retained the Freudian notion that unconscious desires are meaningful – but taken the unconscious as the cipher for the “true” person, such that inadvertant and unintentional acts are taken to be more fundamental, in some ways, than acts that are consciously chosen. In this respect, folk psychoanalytic categories join up with a phenomenon I blogged about a couple of weeks ago: the tendency, within the liberal economic and political tradition, to regard order that arises spontaneously as more “natural” than order that arises from conscious planning. This suspicion of consciousness is apparently an interesting red thread uniting many otherwise contradictory philosophies…

I’m not sure where this leaves me in terms of the issues discussed in the Acephalous thread. It does, though, sound a precautionary note on the need for theory (social and psychological) to take seriously both the reality of conscious intentions and the potential for non-conscious patterns, rather than reducing one of these phenomena to the level of appearance, in some sort of essence-appearance dichotomy.