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Unconscious Reasons
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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 12.1 (2005) 55-57

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Unconscious Reasons

reason-explanation, consciousness, purpose

It is argued that Church's puzzlement over the idea that we can have reasons that we do not know about is itself puzzling. In daily life, we find no difficulty in understanding this idea. The problems arise only when we try to give a theoretically satisfactory account of the notion of "the unconscious" in the context of a Cartesian picture of the "mind" as synonymous with "consciousness." We need to see the difference between the rational/non-rational distinction and that between the conscious and the unconscious. We (and other animals) act for reasons, not because we have something called "consciousness," but because we have purposes: we are animals, not machines.

Jennifer Church finds "something deeply puzzling" about the idea that we can have reasons that we do not know about. I find this puzzlement very surprising, as, I think, would many others. Most of our reasons for doing what we do are not, and could not be, consciously entertained, and we did not need to wait for Freud before we were aware that some of our reasons for acting are so deeply hidden that we need help from others to uncover them. Freud himself is supposed to have said about the unconscious (I'm afraid I can't give the reference for this quotation, which was dredged up from memory), "Das haben die Dichter immer gekannt"—that was always known by the poets.

Because human beings are not machines, whose movements can be given a complete causal explanation in terms of the laws of physics, a reason-explanation for most of the ways they behave is called for. That is, they have reasons for doing what they do. If they had to "consciously think through," in Church's words, all of their reasons for acting, they would never get down to doing anything: before they did anything, they would have to think through their reasons for doing it; and, because thinking through is also an action for which they have reasons, they would have to think through their reasons for thinking through, and so on ad infinitum. I owe this point to Gilbert Ryle, and may as well give one of his typical examples (slightly adapted) to illustrate it. The good tennis player acts intelligently: she has reasons for the movements she makes, but of necessity she does not think through these reasons, otherwise the game of tennis would never get started, let alone finished. Indeed, she may well be unable to explain in words, even afterward, why she moves her racket this way or that.

As for the "Freudian" sorts of examples, we are all familiar, both from literature and from life, with the phenomena of self-deception, or of simple lack of self-knowledge. Someone, for instance, believes himself to be motivated by the highest moral principle when he gives money to the beggar in the shop doorway: but perhaps his real reason is a desire to cultivate a certain image of himself, or to be seen by others to be doing the right thing, or a fear that the beggar might embarrass [End Page 55] him in some way if he does not give him something substantial. I am not suggesting that people always deceive themselves in this way, only that the situation described is perfectly intelligible to everyone and so not at all puzzling. Nor is it in the slightest degree unintelligible that people should sometimes act without being able to say why: "I did it on impulse," they say, or "I acted instinctively"—which is just another way of saying "I just don't know why I acted as I did."

Church herself accepts that our explanations of behavior are "now replete with appeals to unconscious beliefs and desires": but why only "now"—haven't they always been? And if we resort to such appeals so commonly, if indeed, as Searle says, their explanatory power is so great, then that seems to imply that we understand perfectly well what...