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Rosenthal, D.M. (1997). Commentaries. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 45:740-746.

(1997). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45:740-746


David M. Rosenthal

The recognition in psychoanalysis and cognitive psychology of scientific reasons to posit mental states that are not conscious marks a watershed in our understanding of the mind. Partly, this is because such posits greatly extend our ability to explain both behavior and conscious mental functioning.

But there is another reason, equally important. We distinguish among thoughts, feelings, and sensations by virtue of their characteristic representational properties. In particular, we describe thoughts and emotions in terms of the things they are about and how they represent those things. And we characterize sensations by reference to their qualitative properties and the things those properties represent.

Many mental states are conscious states—that is, we have access to them that appears immediate and spontaneous. Focusing on the conscious cases led traditional theorists to assume that only conscious states can have the representational properties characteristic of mental states. It is notoriously difficult, however, to give any informative account of these representational properties if they are seen as necessarily involving consciousness. By contrast, it is relatively straightforward to explain those properties when they are conceived of as occurring independently of consciousness. There is nothing inherently problematic about representational properties once consciousness is detached.

Recognizing that thoughts, feelings, and sensations often occur without being conscious is therefore the first step to understanding their nature.

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