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Addendum B - The Preconscious and
Unconscious in Freud [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

Freud conceived of consciousness as a spotlight. He intended a fundamental distinction between that which, for a particular individual at a given time, is in consciousness and that which is not. He had little more to offer on the subject of consciousness per se. Yet he was not content to speak merely of that-which-is- not-in-consciousness; he wanted to speak of AN unconscious consisting of contents or processes. And he furthermore wanted to describe these contents or processes as 'mental' (in contrast to merely physical or physiological ones). In this section we shall present the view that in positing the existence of an unconscious Freud was compensating for the deficiencies of the spotlight model of consciousness he tacitly assumed. We take the position that the attentive model, by describing consciousness in terms of a distinction which is absent in the spotlight model, the distinction between object of attention and subsidiary awareness, precludes the necessity of appealing, as Freud does, to the existence of an unconscious (operating outside the limits of consciousness yet possessing 'mental' attributes) for the purpose of explaining certain psychological phenomena. At the same time, adopting this position does not

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involve dispensing with the concept of the unconscious altogether, as Freud feared it did.

We are suggesting that the essentials of Freud's model of mind can be restated in terms of a model of consciousness, the attentive model. Let us proceed, then, by asking if the distinction between 'the conscious' and 'the unconscious', as Freud uses these terms, can be reformulated in terms of the concepts 'object of attention' and 'subsidiary awareness'.

The decisive confrontation between the attentive model of consciousness and Freud's theory of the unconscious comes in a footnote to The Ego and the Id. It contains the remark which at once allows us to identify the view of consciousness Freud is attacking with the one of which the attentive model is an explication. "Further", he adds, "to include 'what is unnoticeable' under the concept of 'what is conscious' is simply to play havoc with the one and only piece of direct and certain knowledge that we have about the mind." But this is precisely what the attentive model does when it includes what is felt subsidiarily under the concept of 'what is conscious'. It is necessary to quote the whole footnote which reads like a review of Freud of, essentially, the attentive model of consciousness. However, we maintain, it reads like a review of a position in which the reviewer does not have the benefit of a complete explication. Thus from the perspective of such an explication a decisive rejoinder to Freud's argument can be offered, a rejoinder therefore which Freud necessarily failed to consider. It concerns the move made in Freud's argument from 'what is unnoticed' to 'what is unnoticeable'. These moves should be given close attention when reading the passage.

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A new turn taken by criticisms of the unconscious deserves consideration at this point. Some investigators, who do not refuse to recognize the facts of psycho-analysis but who are unwilling to accept the unconscious, find a way out of the difficulty in the fact, which no one contests, that in consciousness (regarded as a phenomenon) it is possible to distinguish a great variety of gradations in intensity or clarity. Just as there are processes which are very vividly, glaringly, and tangibly conscious, so we also experience others which are only faintly, hardly even noticeably conscious; those that are most faintly conscious are, it is argued, the ones to which psycho-analysis wishes to apply the unsuitable name 'unconscious'. These too, however (the argument proceeds), are conscious or 'in consciousness', and can be made fully and intensely conscious if sufficient attention is paid to them.

In so far as it is possible to influence by arguments the decision of a question of this kind which depends either on convention or on emotional facts, we make the following comments. The reference to gradations of clarity in consciousness is in no way conclusive and has no more evidential value than such analogous statements as: 'There are so very many gradations in illumination -- from the most glaring and dazzling light to the dimmest glimmer -- therefore there is n such thing as darkness at all'; or, 'There are varying degrees of vitality, therefore there is no such thing as death.' Such statements may in a certain way have a meaning, but for practical purposes they are worthless. This will be seen if one tries to draw particular conclusions from them, such as, 'there is therefore no need to strike a light', or 'therefore all organisms are immortal.' Further, to include 'what is unnoticeable' under the concept of 'what is conscious' is simply to play havoc with the one and only piece of direct and certain knowledge that we have about the mind. And after all, a consciousness of which one knows nothing seems to me a good deal more absurd than something mental that is unconscious. Finally, this attempt to equate what is unnoticed with what is unconscious is obviously made without taking into account the dynamic conditions involved, which were the decisive factors in forming the psycho-analytic view. For it ignores two facts: first, that it is exceedingly difficult and requires very great effort to concentrate enough attention on something unnoticed of this kind; and secondly, that when this has been achieved the thought which was previously unnoticed is not recognized by consciousness, but often seems entirely alien and opposed to it and is promptly disavowed by it. Thus, seeking refuge from the unconscious in what is scarcely noticed or unnoticed is after all only a derivative of the preconceived belief which regards the identity of the psychical and the conscious as settled once and for all. 105

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Let us then take up the argument with the remark we picked out before quoting the full passage and notice that in making that remark Freud opted for a spotlight model of consciousness. For he implies that if 'what is unnoticeable' cannot be included under the concept of 'what is conscious' then only 'what is noticed' can be so included. In other words, he took the view that only what is noticed is conscious. Just as an object either is or is not in the spotlight, so a content either is or is not conscious.

Having adopted the spotlight model Freud was forced to conclude that if whatever is conscious is noticed then whatever is not noticed is unconscious. But here he came upon two possibilities. Something may just happen to be unnoticed and be easily capable of becoming conscious by having attention turned to it, and something may be unnoticed and very difficult if not impossible to notice. In other words, a distinction must be made between 'what is unnoticed' and 'what is unnoticeable'. This Freud recognized, and he made it quite clear that the case he was really interested in was the case of something being not only unnoticed but unnoticeable. He wished to reserve his concept of the unconscious to refer to 'what is unnoticeable' as distinct from what is merely unnoticed. He made the distinction by describing the case of 'what is unnoticed' as a case of what is unconscious in the descriptive sense and the case of 'what is unnoticeable' as a case of what is unconscious in the dynamic sense. He created the ter 'preconscious' to refer to what is merely unnoticed or unconscious only in the descriptive sense and reserved the term 'unconscious' for what is unnoticeable or unconscious in the dynamic sense - the unconscious proper, as he puts it. 106 In our terms we can understand Freud to be making the point that a distinction

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must be made between that which is unconscious in the sense in which 'unconscious' would mean 'not an object of attention' and the sense in which 'unconscious' would mean 'not easily capable of becoming an object of attention'. As Freud himself says of the latter, the dynamically unconscious, " is exceedingly difficult and requires very great effort to concentrate enough attention on something unnoticed of this kind."

Freud's final move against the view of consciousness of his nameless opponents (who, and as we shall see in a later section, can be identified as Myers, Wundt, and James) is to argue that their identification of 'what is unnoticed' with 'what is unnoticed-yet-in-consciousness' leaves them with no way of distinguishing between 'what is unnoticed' and 'what is unnoticeable' - between the preconscious and the unconscious - since both are equally describable as 'what is unnoticed-yet-in- consciousness'. Hence the point of the final remark of the footnote in which Freud rejects the identification of the unconscious proper with 'what is scarcely noticed or unnoticed'.

Let us now consider the rejoinder to Freud's argument which the attentive model makes available. We construe Freud's references to 'what is unnoticed' as references to subsidiary awareness, since subsidiary awareness is a concept of 'what is unnoticed-yet-in-consciousness'. And we suggest that not only references to 'what is unnoticed' but also references to 'what is unnoticeable' are to be understood to be references to components of subsidiary awareness. The distinction between 'what is unnoticed' and 'what is unnoticeable' is then understood to be a distinction between components of subsidiary awareness. The one type of component is one which is unnoticed but easily capable of becoming noticed. The other is one which is

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unnoticed but not easily capable of becoming noticed. That is to say, the reference to 'what is unnoticeable' is interpreted as a reference to 'what is habitually unnoticed'. Thus, whether we are talking about the one type or the other, in either case we are referring to subsidiary awareness. If we now remember that on the attentive model components of subsidiary awareness are ascribed a contexting function for objects of attention, Freud's distinction between 'unnoticed' and 'unnoticeable' becomes a distinction between a contexting component of subsidiary awareness which can be made an object of attention by the subject, and a contexting component which cannot, or only with extreme difficulty. On this interpretation Freud's unconscious proper becomes the class of habitually unnoticed contexting components of subsidiary awareness. On this interpretation the class of 'what is unnoticeable' is a subclass of 'what is unnoticed', and the Freudian concept of the unconscious serves to identify the subclass of habitually unnoticed contexting components of subsidiary awareness.

It is important to mention that the attentive model of consciousness justifies the continued use of the concept of the unconscious proper, since it gives it an interpretation according to which references to the unconscious are construed as references to an extremely important feature of subsidiary awareness; namely, the fact that there are habitually unnoticed contexting components of subsidiary awareness. This has to be said, because by implication Freud may be read as fearing that the view explicated by the attentive model seeks to eliminate the concept of the unconscious altogether. To the contrary, the attentive model supplies us with a theoretical conception of

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the unconscious proper, and relates it to the preconscious in a way that avoids treating it as operating outside the limits of consciousness and yet as possessing 'mental attributes'.

Freud's footnote contains one further point which we have left outstanding. It concerns what happens when (under analysis) 'what is unnoticeable' (unconscious) is brought to attention as 'what is noticed'. We defer coverage of this point until a later section, since our treatment depends upon material which has to be introduced before a satisfactory statement of so complex a theory can be articulated. Until we return to this point the present rejoinder to Freud should be treated as provisional.

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105. S. Freud, "The ego and the id." In J. Strachey (ed.), Standard edition, vol. 19 (London:Hogarth Press,1961), p.16 note.
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106. Ibid., p.15.
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