|Levenson, E. (2001). The Enigma of the Unconscious. Contemp. Psychoanal., 37:239-252.|
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(2001). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 37(2):239-252
The Enigma of the Unconscious
Marshall Mcluhan said, “We don't know who discovered water, but we do know it wasn't a fish.” That's the side of psychoanalysis I wish to consider—not the analyst in pursuit of immutable, timeless Truth, but the analyst immersed in his or her world and changed by it. The consequence may be, not that we will do therapy differently, but that we might conceptualize what we do differently, and perhaps even become aware of doing things that heretofore operated entirely outside of our awareness.
Psychoanalysts, it has been said, suffer from “physics envy.” We would dearly like to be scientific, to promulgate timeless principles and truths. We have never been happy with the idea that our vaunted theoretical insights reflect larger sociocultural shifts that are part of what Kuhn (1962) called the paradigm of the times. In Zen, they say to see the fish one must look at the water. We are not sui generis, but are carried along by the river of change, and that change is clearly in the direction of a new interest in the nature of consciousness, an interest far more ubiquitous than that of psychoanalysis alone. As McGinn (1999a) put it, “I believe myself that the new interest in consciousness represents the next big phase in human thought about the natural world, as large as the determination to understand the physical world that gathered force in the seventeenth century” (p. 46).
For psychoanalysts, the twentieth century began with Freud's construct of the “dynamic” unconscious and ended with the emergence of a radically different concept, the “enabling” unconscious of contemporary cognitive science. This is part of a more pervasive paradigmatic shift that encompasses, not just “The Unconscious,” but changing perceptions of consciousness itself, with its roots in the mind-brain dichotomy—the very relationship of thought to its organic substratum, the brain. Consciousness, previously dismissed as the “ghost in the machine,” a discredited
* This was first read on November 4, 2000, in slightly different form, to the Suffix Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.
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