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Thompson, M.G. (2001). Is the Unconscious Really all that Unconscious?: The Role of Being and Experience in the Psychoanalytic Encounter. Contemp. Psychoanal., 37(4):571-612.

(2001). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 37(4):571-612

Is the Unconscious Really all that Unconscious?: The Role of Being and Experience in the Psychoanalytic Encounter

M. Guy Thompson, Ph.D.

There is Little Question in the minds of every psychoanalytic practitioner that Freud's conception of the unconscious is the pivot around which psychoanalysis orbits, even if the particulars as to what the unconscious comprises have been debated by every psychoanalytic school that has followed in his wake. Yet despite the controversial nature of this concept, there is a pervasive agreement among analysts that whatever the unconscious is, it is certainly not a form of consciousness. That being said, this is precisely the dilemma that philosophers have found most troubling about the psychoanalytic conception of the unconscious and the reason why so many have questioned its efficacy. In a recent book, Grotstein (1999) addressed a fundamental and as yet unresolved difficulty in prevailing conceptions of the unconscious, which follows when we attempt to assign the very core of our being to a hypothesized unconscious agent that we can never know directly, and whose existence we must infer and, hence, believe to be so, as an article of faith. Grotstein concluded that we are still, after one hundred years of trying, unable to account for this persistent yet obstinate contradiction: that the unconscious knows all, but is “known” by no one.

Like many, I have been haunted by this anomaly over the course of my analytic career. For the purposes of this essay, however, my concern is not a theoretical one, but one of approaching the problem phenomenologically, which is to say from the perspective of the psychoanalyst's lived experience—what has been depicted by the interpersonal school as an experience-near paradigm. Therefore, I do not intend to offer a new theory about the nature of the unconscious, but rather to explore


* An earlier version was presented as the Presidential Address at the Eleventh Annual Interdisciplinary Conference of the International Federation for Psychoanalytic Education, Chicago, November 4, 2000.

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