The Unconscious

"Mask Still Life III" Emil Nolde, 1911

“Mask Still Life III” Emil Nolde, 1911

The Unconscious

It’s Da King. Not Elvis. The Unconscious is the biggest thing around. Everything – everything you can mention – is under its iron heel. What sorts of things can you “mention”?

Well, patriarchy, sexism, ageism – you know — viewing the other as The Other.

But aren’t each of these specific and separate types of unfair dominance? What’s “The Unconscious” got to do with any of them, separately or together?

As a matter of fact, the Freudian postulate of unconscious motivation has been stretched to cover the social landscape. Without trying to track the genealogy of this intellectual development, it has been assumed that every outbreak of injustice has bent to the will of — executed the command of — The Unconscious. Though it works under different aliases (“false consciousness,” “social construction of reality”), in all that is hegemonic, the Unconscious is now widely taken to be

The Grand Hegemon.

In the great machine painting of history, the giant canvass where all the struggle of the human race is played out, IT is considered the sole actor, the only impetus, the exclusive desirer. Persons appear to have varied motives for what they do. But this is widely considered to be self-deception. The Unconscious is not a person and IT has the same motive – the acquisition of power and pleasure – no matter how the surface differences of situation and character might look.

I’ve just completed a book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, that discloses a significant chapter in the story of my life. Of course nowadays, the common assumption is still that no one can tell her own story, because the real story of me or you is “unconscious.”

That means, we can’t know ourselves. If somebody wanted, for whatever reason, to take one’s power away, how convenient such a doctrine would be! In Confessions, I give this description of the hypothetical (and preposterous) characteristics of The Unconscious.

“This unconscious is supposed to be incorrigible – while it freeloads off the groaning banquet table of the world. With appetites inexhaustible, it is never fed up. No memory traces of failure or anticipations of mortality are believed to slow it down. It seems wonderfully unaware of the multitudinous devices by which we cheat ourselves in exactly the same coin that we have cheated others. It oversees the wide field of its appetites with utter sangfroid, at the same time equipping consciousness with the rationales, the masks, and other concealing/revealing devices that hide its careening, phoenix flight across the world. Incessantly interrupting the pagan revels of its delusive Arcady, it gets on the other line to give shrewd, tight-lipped, superconscious instructions to consciousness, its double agent in the real world. Clever devil, that unconscious.”

Since he’s so important, the Unconscious, (I assume a guy that shrewd and powerful must be a “he”), I went to call on Da King. Maybe, I thought pleasantly, I could smoke him out. We could discuss his weird Hegemony. I could find him something better to do – like, get a life!

No use.

A waste of time.

As usual, there was nobody home.

Look, how can I put this plainly? If you go to find The Unconscious, you won’t find him, because there is no single, generic, species-wide “unconscious.” It’s not that everything of concern to us enters our awareness. It’s rather that each one of us has a different fabric of awareness and unawareness. My 95-year-old father-in-law can’t hear what I still hear easily. I can’t appreciatively hear classical music – unless I am so deeply affected by grief that my defenses against it collapse. Only then can I hear (in the sense of take in) how wonderfully beautiful such music is. Normally, I find it too invasive and prefer country gospel. Go figure.

There is no empirical warrant for the hypothesis of darkly significant, generic content to The Unconscious. Ladies, you don’t – as a sex – have penis envy. Fellas, you don’t ordinarily yearn to murder your father and make love with your mother. The relevant studies show no correlation between powerful conscience in sons and frighteningly domineering (“castrating”) fathers. Freudian psychoanalysis has no better cure rate than other forms of therapy – including scheduling 4 o’clock weekly tea with an understanding woman friend. Nor is it true that some third party with a license in psychoanalysis is the expert on you or me.

About me, I am the expert.

About you, you are the expert.

It’s not that I won’t take advice. I’m sincerely grateful for objective views, provided they don’t shock and disgust me to the point where they effectively disempower me.

Life is exciting and dramatic because we have purposes. Purposes are the reasons we do things. They are what we consciously aim at. When our purposes make contact with the real world, a new landscape emerges, with one hue and texture if we have succeeded, and a different tone and surface if we have failed. In either case, we can figure out where we go from there.   The unfoldings of our efforts continue over time and space – over the landscapes of our lives – and they are our stories. We have – we live – stories. We can’t help it. We do it continuously, deliberately, with defeats and victories and morals drawn.

But isn’t The Darkly Significant Unconscious a player — unconsciously – in all that we do? Nah. Let me give you an example of something that many of us do every day that has some automatic – but no (darkly significant) unconscious – features:


Look how few accidents happen, compared to the number of people who drive every day! Look how intelligently, adroitly and ethically most people in our part of the world drive, most of the time! With rare exceptions, when we get behind the wheel, we know where we want to go. We drive with conscious purpose. We know how to get there, or else – if we don’t know – we find out. We read a map, consult our GPS, or ask somebody. If we get lost, we get ourselves found again.

Real life is like that.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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