Wishful thinking and the unconscious

  • Andries Gouws Philosophy Programme University of Natal Durban 4041 South Africa


This paper gives a sketch for a reconstruction of the Freudian unconscious, and an argument for its existence. The strategy followed attempts to side-step the extended debates about the validity of Freud\'s methods and conclusions, by basing itself on the desire/belief schema for understanding and explaining human behaviour – a schema neither folk psychology nor scientific psychology can do without. People are argued to have, as ideal types, two fundamental modes of fulfilling their desires: engaging with reality, and wishful thinking. The first mode tries to acknowledge the constraints reality imposes on the satisfaction of desires, while the second mode tries to ignore, deny or disguise these constraints, inasmuch as they threaten to make such satisfaction impossible or unfeasible. Crucially, wishful thinking can be used so as to ignore or deny any desire that is incompatible with other strong desires. Thus we end up unaware of the existence or nature of some of our desires, of the fact that they are in flu enc ing our thought and be hav iour, and of the process our own mind has used to thwart awareness of them. Once we acknowledge this possibility, we are already seriously entertaining the possibility of the Freudian unconscious, or something fairly close to it. The more aware the subject is that her wishful thinking is just that, the less effective it becomes. Wishful thinking thus requires an unconscious; it is inimical to a clear, complete and unambiguous acknowledgement of its own status. Next, various aspects of my account (and Freud\'s) that allow a conception of the unconscious in non-Cartesian terms are emphasised: the unconscious is largely constituted by semantic phenomena of a particular type: forms of representation which would conceal their meaning even if the full light of \'attention\', Cartesian \'consciousness\' or \'introspection\' were cast upon them. If wishful thinking is an integral part of mental life, philosophers and others wishing to “educate humanity” will have to proceed differently from what would have been appropriate had rational thought and action been the only available option for satisfying desires. Mankind cannot bear too much reality – T.S. Eliot S. Afr. J. Philos. Vol.22(4) 2003: 361-377

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