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  • Searle and the “Deep Unconscious”
  • Eric Gillett (bio)

The philosopher, John Searle (1992, 1990), has challenged some of the most basic tenets of cognitive psychology, especially the notion of a “deep unconscious” defined as mental processes that are in principle inaccessible to consciousness. In previous papers I have argued for a broad concept of the unconscious which includes in addition to mental contents accessible to consciousness under appropriate conditions mental processes that can never become conscious under any conditions. The core of my answer to Searle derives from Millikan’s (1984) theory of proper functions which provides a definition of intentionality independent of consciousness.


unconscious, mental

In a series of papers, I have advocated a broad concept of the unconscious defined as everything mental which is not currently conscious (Gillett 1995, 1994, 1993, 1992, 1988, 1987a, 1987b). Included in this broad concept are several different kinds of unconscious corresponding to different reasons why something mental is not conscious. Within the broad concept of the unconscious lies a fundamental distinction between mental entities which are capable of becoming conscious under some conditions versus those which are incapable of becoming conscious under any conditions. It is the latter category that Searle refers to as the “deep unconscious,” and one of his major philosophical claims is that no such unconscious exists. The purpose of this paper is to refute Searle’s claim.

In an exchange between Searle and his critics (1990), many arguments are leveled at his thesis. It is impossible to do justice to all these arguments and Searle’s attempt to answer them in the space of a short paper, so I hope that the interested reader will turn to my references for a more complete understanding.

One reason in favor of a broad concept of the unconscious is that it corresponds to how the term is actually used both in psychoanalysis and cognitive psychology, thus facilitating the integration of these two disciplines. It is difficult to change established usage, and defining a term at variance with its common meaning leads to confusion. Although scientists sometimes assign technical meanings to terms that are different from their usual meanings, such a practice requires justification in each case. In previous papers I have borrowed the term “nonexperiential” from Sandler and Joffe (1969) to refer to what Searle calls the “deep unconscious.” Terminology is arbitrary and a matter of convention, but some terminologies are clearer than others.

The first section discusses the distinction between the shallow versus the deep unconscious and its clinical significance. The second section introduces Searle’s argument against the deep unconscious. Much of Searle’s reasoning is presented in the third section where I argue for the existence of the deep unconscious, attempting to refute Searle. [End Page 191]

The Shallow versus the Deep Unconscious

Regardless of what labels are chosen, there is a fundamental difference between those entities and processes capable of becoming conscious and those that are not. Several psychoanalysts have recognized the importance of this distinction. Wallerstein (1983, 1967) draws a distinction between defense mechanisms as hypothetical constructs versus defense contents and behaviors. He claims that defense contents can be either conscious or unconscious but that defense mechanisms can be neither because as hypothetical constructs they do not exist. Sandler and Joffe (1969) draw a similar distinction between what they call the “experiential” realm and the “nonexperiential.” The experiential includes mental contents which can be conscious or unconscious. The nonexperiential includes defense mechanisms, instinctual drives, structures, and energies which can never become conscious under any conditions. They agree with Wallerstein in recommending that the nonexperiential be excluded from the concept of the unconscious. Wakefield (1990) presents arguments that instinctual drives should not be regarded as unconscious, which I attempt to answer (Gillett 1992).

To support my contention that the nonexperiential should be included in the concept of the unconscious, I have attempted to refute the arguments of these authors in the series of papers mentioned above. The experiential realm of the unconscious is equivalent to Freud’s “descriptive unconscious,” which includes preconscious and dynamically unconscious contents. Preconscious contents are those that can become conscious by a minimal act of will, and dynamically unconscious contents are...

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