One hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud projected a bold program for a scientific psychology that would be firmly based in neurophysiology. One of the advantages that Freud saw in such a naturalistic approach was that it could show how mental processes could occur independently of consciousness. At the beginning of the "project," he wrote that "the neuronal processes are in the first instance to be regarded as unconscious [unbewusst] and are to be inferred like other natural things." But although Freud was a trained neurologist, the neurology of his day was inadequate to the audacity of his vision of a scientific psychology, and he was drawn towards an increasingly clinical conception of the unconscious mind. It is only at present that we can even envision the possibility of achieving Freud's dream: a notion of the unconscious that is clinically formulated and neurophysiologically grounded. Are we now in a position to realize Freud's youthful "Project for a Scientific Psychology"?

We will argue that the project is still viable, but is liable to be aborted if researchers do not distinguish clearly between the neurological unconscious, the cognitive unconscious, and the psychodynamic unconscious. We will briefly survey the boundaries of the neurological unconscious and the cognitive unconscious in order to show why the psychodynamic unconscious is not properly reducible to either, because it is an essentially hermeneutic concept, an artifact of the processes of interpretation whereby human beings knit their experiences together into networks of meaning. No doubt these interpretative relationships are realized by neurological processes and interact with cognition. But the dynamics of meaning-relations revealed in psychotherapy must not be confused with either the causal relations to be sought in neurophysiology, nor the relatively simple and low-level processing characteristic of the cognitive unconscious, nor the unconscious protocols or grammatical rules that cognitive scientists postulate to account for language and other sophisticated symbolic capacities. The symbols the psychiatrist seeks to decipher do not form a logically ordered, rule-governed system such as might suit a grammarian or a computational theory of mind, but an unruly crowd of interacting meanings more typically organized according to the principles of primary process thinking. An account of the unconscious that emphasizes the unruly character of the primary process opens inviting vistas into contemporary cognitive science and neurophysiology.


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pp. 123-134
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