The 2022 Isaiah Berlin Lecture (Week 6, MT22)

beatrice longuenesse

Freud was far from the first to defend the view that many of our mental states and mental activities are not conscious. This is a view Freud shares with quite a few early modern and modern philosophers, including Kant.

Nevertheless, Freud is right to claim that his concept of “the unconscious” is radically new. The goal of this Lecture 3 is to clarify what makes it novel. It is also to answer the question: If Freud’s concept of what, in our mental life, is unconscious, puts him at a distance from Kant’s, how is acknowledging this distance compatible with claiming that Freud’s and Kant’s respective views of the structure of mental life are similar?

What Freud means by “consciousness,” as a property of mental states, is what we call phenomenal consciousness: the qualitative presence, for the subject of a mental state, of that mental state and its content. A representation that is not conscious is, in the broadest sense, a representation that lacks this phenomenal character. But Freud’s originality lies in his investigation of a narrower subset of representations that lack the quality of being conscious, namely, those that lack that quality because, according to Freud, they are repressed. I investigate Freud’s concept of repression and argue that it must be understood in light of its relation to three fundamental aspects of mental life: memory, biological/psychological drives (for instance, hunger, aggression or lust), and affective states (pleasure or pain). I argue that what is fundamental in Freud’s concept of “the unconscious” is not so much whether representational states have or lack the quality of phenomenal consciousness. Rather it is how, unbeknownst to us, drives and affects interfere with the rational organization of our memories and their function in cognition and volition.

That interference is especially salient when, after considering (in lecture 1), the parallel between Freud’s “ego” and Kant’s unity of apperception, we consider another important aspect of the parallel between Kant’s and Freud’s respective views of the mind: Kant’s “categorical imperative” of morality, on the one hand; and Freud’s “super-ego,” on the other. Or what Bernard Williams called the “morality system.” This is the topic for the next lecture.