Monday, October 27, 2008

Lonergan and Freud: the Unconscious and Intersubjectivity

Every philosophical system requires a hermeneutic, a way of understanding and sharing premises and ideas. Lonergan’s system is no exception. Inter-communication requires a communicable language or system, a shared language of ideas and theorems. Lonergan’s dialectic allows for just such a sharing (or hermeneutic); a shared system of ideas that encourages a dialectic understanding. For Lonergan the notion of insight has a specific meaning and use; a normative (prescriptive) model couched not only in the concept of insight, but in intersubjectivity, a shared language of dialectic; a hermeneutic.

Freud’s model of the psyche (topography of inner-life) also has a hermeneutic, a hermeneutic of conflict and homogeneity (or stasis), a lessening of tension through abreaction and catharsis. Freud’s model stresses the importance of the unconscious as a constituent part of the tripartite model of the psyche: Ego, Id and Super-ego. Lonergan’s four-level dialectic and Freud’s unconscious both work within intersubjectivity. Lonergan’s use of the unconscious seems to differ from Freud’s, and if this is so, then Lonergan’s four-level system does not account for the unconscious in a true Freudian manner.

Lonergan uses the term scotosis to explain the blind spots in the transcendent insight experience.

Let us name such an aberration of understanding a scotosis, and let us call the resultant blind spot a scotoma. Fundamentally, the scotosis is an unconscious process. It arises, no in conscious acts, but in the censorship that governs the emergence of psychic contents. Nonetheless, the whole process is not hidden from us, for the mere spontaneous exclusion of unwanted insights is not equal to the total range of eventualities.[1]

He uses the term in conjunction with the notion of a censor or censorship; suggesting that scotosis creates an impasse or blockage where and when insights are concerned. He appears to appropriate the psychoanalytic concept of repression as a function of scotosis, a looking away from or censoring of unwanted thoughts that may or may not lead to an insight. In this manner the function of repression, or scotosis, is to censor or block access and or transcendence to insights, principally insights that are unwanted. It is unclear whether these scotosis’ are volitional or simply a function of the transcendent working-through experience. In the Freudian dynamic repression serves a similar but different function, it holds-back or prevents memories and thoughts from gaining access to conscious thought.

Now let us call ‘conscious’ the conception which is present to our consciousness and of which we are aware, and let this be the only meaning of the term ‘conscious’. As for latent conceptions, if we have any reason to suppose that they exist in the mind—as we had in the case of memory—let them be denoted by the term ‘unconscious’. Thus an unconscious conception is one of which we are not aware, but the existence of which we are nevertheless ready to admit on account of other proofs and signs.

In Lonergan’s dynamic (or dialectic) they seem to act as diversions or blocks to the transcendent working-through process. In this manner they appear to be a function of consciousness not unconscious.

Repression and scotosis are functions of the censor, not unconscious mechanisms in the Freudian sense of repression and the unconscious. In the analytic setting the analysand expresses his or her unconscious in and through free-association and transference. Both the analysand and the analyst are operating at an unconscious level; it is the work of the analyst to allow for a safe therapeutic environment that allows for the transference of emotional energy onto the analyst as transferential object. The analyst uses his or her unconscious to interpret and translate the analysand’s unconscious, and in so doing develops what is referred to as a therapeutic alliance between analysand and analyst. This alliance allows for a shared intersubjectivity on an unconscious level, an unconscious alliance or therapeutic dialectic.

Lonergan does not seem to be referring to the Freudian dialectic when he uses the terms repression and censor, but rather to an epistemological function of the four-levels of insight. The scotosis serves to block or prevent insights, creating a blind spot in cognition. The Freudian unconscious is a storehouse of repressed and or censored memories and or thoughts that manifest themselves as symptomology. Lonergan’s blind spots create a negation or repression of the General Empirical Method (GEM). In this manner it might be suggested Lonergan sees the unconscious as a negative process as it interferes or blocks the transcendental method (or has little if anything to offer it). The Freudian model of the unconscious is timeless, meaning it has neither a past nor future but is always situated in the present moment, the moment of the analysis or interpretation. Lonergan’s GEM is a temporal process, requiring a systematic dialectic that moves in a vertical projection. In this manner there is an inherent teleology to Lonergan’s dialectic. Lonergan says the following about scotosis,

Contrary insights do emerge. But they may be accepted as correct, only to suffer the eclipse that the bias brings about by excluding the relevant further questions. Again, they may be rejected as incorrect, as mere bright ideas without a solid foundation in fact; and this reject tends to be connected with rationalization of the scotosis and with an effort to accumulate evidence in its favour. Again, consideration of the contrary insight may not reach the level of reflective and critical consciousness; it may occur only to be brushed aside in an emotional reaction of disgust, pride, dread, horror, revulsion. Again, there are the inverse phenomena. Insights that expand the scotosis can appear to lack plausibility; they will be subjected to scrutiny; and as the subject shifts to and from his sounder viewpoint, they will oscillate wildly between an appearance of nonsense and an appearance of truth. Thus, in a variety of manners, the scotosis can remain fundamentally unconscious yet suffer the attacks and crises that generate in the mind a mist of obscurity and bewilderment, of suspicion and reassurance, of doubt and rationalization, of insecurity and disquiet.[3]

What we see here is a suspicion of the unconscious, its content and the unconscious process. The scotosis, as Lonergan says, can remain fundamentally unconscious yet still have an effect or affect on consciousness. These crises, as Lonergan refers to them, are the troubling and repressed thoughts and memories (and in some sense insights) in the unconscious that are trying to obtain access to consciousness. In the Freudian dynamic these are manifested as symptoms and unwanted thoughts and feelings. Unlike Lonergan’s unconscious the Freudian dynamic sees the act of repression and censoring as clues or traces of greater unresolved conflict; and the interpretation and unravelling of these allow for an abreaction or catharsis of negative psychic tension. Freud works towards a stasis or lessening of tension, Lonergan towards a systematic dialectic that leads to insights. If these scotosis’ cause an impasse or block to the four-level dialectic, they are seen as impediments to insight not enhancements. The censor in the Freudian dynamic is used as a tool to further exploration, as are repression and symptomology. In Lonergan anything that has the propensity to impede or sully the insight process is to be discarded, as they are challenges to the dialectic of the GEM. Lonergan goes on to say that,

The scotosis is an aberration, not only of the understanding, but also of the censorship. Just as wanting an insight penetrates below the surface to bring forth schematic images that give rise to the insight, so not wanting an insight has the opposite effect of repressing from consciousness a scheme that would suggest the insight. Now this aberration of the censorship is inverse to it. Primarily, the censorship is constructive, it selects and arranges materials that emerge in consciousness in a perspective that gives rise to an insight; this positive activity has by implication a negative aspect, for other materials are left behind, and other perspectives are not brought to light; still, this negative aspect of positive activity does not introduce any arrangement or perspective into the unconscious demand functions of neural patterns and processes.[4]

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what Lonergan is referring to here, whether he means that the unconscious enhances or provides for insights, or whether it impedes or muddles them. If it provides for them, then it has a positive non-aberrant effect on consciousness; if it impedes or muddles them, it has a negative effect on not only perspective, but how one gains and collects insights. He seems to be using censor as a selector, a systemic that weeds out unwanted or aberrant aspects, perspectives and thoughts that lead to insights.

In Freud the job of the censor is to prevent or displace unwanted thoughts and memories from gaining access to preconscious or conscious thought. It maintains a stasis of psychic energy and tension, and the lessening or enhancing of tension or energy should it find access to preconscious or conscious thought. In On Metapsychology Freud writes,

…we may say in general that a psychical act goes through two phases as regards its state, between which is interposed a kind of testing (censorship). In the first phase the psychical act is unconscious and belongs to the system Ucs., if, on testing, it is rejected by the censorship, it is not allowed to pass into the second phase; it is then said to be ‘repressed’ and must remain unconscious. If, however, it passes this testing, it enters the second phase and thenceforth belongs to the second system, which we will call the system Cs.[5]

Freud’s unconscious functions at a different level and with a different process than Lonergan’s use of the term or function unconscious. Censorship for Lonergan is a conscious process that inhibits or rejects those thoughts or perspectives that would not lead to or add to insight; Freud’s censorship is less an epistemic tool than a psychical one; meaning, it functions to prevent anxiety and displeasure, not as a means to insight in the manner in which Lonergan uses the term insight in his General Epistemological Method (GEM).

Both Freud and Lonergan, however, have an intersubjectivity in mind, a sharing of inner-thoughts, and in Lonergan’s sense, the conception and sharing of insights. Freud’s system is topographical, it is a process that operates in psychical activity; Lonergan’s system is epistemic, operating at and on the four-levels of insight: (1) experience, (2) understanding, (3) judgment, and (4) decision. If we look back to the analytic process we see that both the analysand and the analyst are functioning or operating on an unconscious level; in Lonergan this type of intersubjectivity would be impossible, aberrant at best. Interpretation in Freudian psychoanalysis is all but missing in Lonergan’s method, as it creates a dissonance or an aberration in thinking. It is easy to underline the mathematical/economic influence in Lonergan’s method, a systematic, orderly functional dialectic.

So we have come to see how Lonergan’s scotosis and notions of repression and the unconscious differ from the traditional Freudian models. Lonergan is concerned with a methodological line of thinking, the four-levels of the GEM that lead one or draw one to insights; Freud is concerned with the lessening of psychical tension and the abreaction or catharsis of unwanted or conflicting tension. Both seek out a release, in Lonergan that release comes by way of insight, in Freud in the lessening or resolution of psychical conflict and tension. Lonergan seeks out knowledge, Freud psychical homeostasis. Lonergan’s intentionality, or intending to reality, is a basic human activity. His four-level method allows for an intentionality that works through (1) experience, (2) understanding, (3) judgment, and (4) decision. Freud’s tripartite model of the psyche, though not intentional in the way Lonergan’s is, has an intending as a functional element or process of its dialectic, the release of tension and conflict.

With unrepressed derivatives of the unconscious the fate of a particular idea is often decided by the degree of its activity or catharsis. It is an everyday occurrence that such a derivative remains unrepressed as long as it represents only a small amount of energy, although its content would be calculated to give rise to a conflict with what is dominant in consciousness. The qualitative factor proves decisive for this conflict: as soon as the basically obnoxious idea exceeds a certain degree of strength, the conflict becomes a real one, and it is precisely this activation that leads to repression. So that, where repression is concerned an increase of energic cathexis operates in the same sense as an approach to the unconscious, while a decrease of that cathexis operates in the same sense as remoteness from the unconscious or distortion. We see that the repressive trends may find a substitute for repression in a weakening of what is distasteful.[6]

Freud’s model of repression concerns conflict, and the resolution or discharge of tension and or distasteful psychical energy. Lonergan’s repression is epistemic, not psychical. In Understanding and Being Lonergan writes,

Human communication is a process that stands on a series of levels. Suppose you are seated in your room working and someone comes in. There is a change in you by the mere fact that someone has entered, and the change differs with the person who enters. There is an intersubjectivity that is basically on the sensitive level, and it is perhaps most intense in mother and child. There is a sensitive basis for communication by the mere fact of the presence of another, and still more so by the presence of another who is known and is the object of affection, and so on.[7]

The notion of intersubjectivity, or human communication, implies a series of standoffs to understanding and the communication of ideas, feelings and meaning. Lacan’s famous (or infamous) proclamation that we never say what we mean merits consideration. I will not go into a Lacanian exegesis here, as that would cause too much confusion and raise far too many questions, especially ones of authenticity, but suffice it to say that intersubjectivity has both a conscious and unconscious process and engagement. This also raises queries as to the level at which, and place, that intersubjectivity occurs. It would seem that Lonergan would not allow for or acknowledge an unconscious intersubjectivity like we find in Freud, as it would place impediments on his four-level dialectic. The Freudian dialect, however, allows for and encourages intersubjectivity at an unconscious level; in fact this is the basis on which psychoanalytic practice is founded. Insights at an unconscious level, of course, require a conscious interpretation and translation; however they begin they’re formation at the level of unconscious ideation where they go through a series of displacements, changes, attachments and reattachments. Laplanche and Pontalis, in The Language of Psychoanalysis, refer to interpretation as,

Procedure which, by means of analytic investigation, brings out the latent meaning in what the subject says or does. Interpretation reveals the modes of the defensive conflict and its ultimate aim is to identify the wish that is expressed by every product of the unconscious.[8]

I introduce this as a means to a better understand of the notion of an unconscious intersubjectivity. If we allow for interpretation, translation of thoughts, feelings, etc., we are in a better position to grasp the Freudian dynamic of unconscious intersubjectivity. This addresses the notion of a hermeneutic that each philosophical system has as a function of its dialectic. Lonergan’s systematic is no different, as it requires a hermeneutic that is present at each of the four-levels of insight. By the mere fact that intersubjectivity occurs between two subjects (as Lonergan points out in the aforementioned quote) each with they’re own history and subjectivity, a hermeneutic or translation is always part of or at work in intersubjective communication.

What I am suggestion is that much of what goes on intersubjectively between two subjects is carried out at the unconscious level, thereby pressing the issue of miscommunication and not saying what we mean. I think that had Lonergan paid more attention to this his four-level dialect would have included a Freudian notion of the unconscious. His inclusion of scotosis and repression are but hints of a far deeper Freudian dynamic. As it stands Lonergan uses the concepts unconscious, repression and scotosis epistemologically, not psychically. Lonergan’s method is epistemic, including a horizon and a purposeful dialect.

In concluding I would like to draw our attention to Lonergan’s understanding of the unconscious in Method In Theology. On page 34, endnote 6, Lonergan says the following,

This twilight of what is conscious but not objectified seems to be the meaning of what some psychiatrists call the unconscious.[9]

He is referring to feelings that remain hidden or concealed in the unconscious. Lonergan goes on to say that these feelings, or affects, are not cognizant, meaning they are in the twilight of consciousness. They only become conscious feelings and affectations when they are made cognizant or brought forth into consciousness; and in keeping with his transcendental method, as tools for deliberation, meaning inflections of the movement to insight. Lonergan sees these hidden or twilight feelings as obstacles to understanding and insight. They push one away from understanding and insight. Lonergan goes on to say,

On the other hand, not to take cognizance of them is to leave them in the twilight of what is conscious but not objectified. In the long run there results a conflict between the self as conscious and, on the other hand, the self as objectified. This alienation from oneself leads to the adoption of misguided remedies, and they in their turn still further mistakes until, in desperation, the neurotic turns to the analyst or counsellor.[10]

It is interesting to note that Lonergan is willing to concede the existence of the unconscious, even though he seems to be referring more to the preconscious than the unconscious, but in a way that discards the importance of it for insight, understanding and intersubjectivity. If Lonergan had been less inhibited to see the unconscious in a more psychoanalytic way, his method (GEM) would have and or offer far more reaching ends.
[1] Lonergan, Bernard, Insight, Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1992, p.215
[2] Freud, Sigmund, On Metapsychology, London: Penguin, 1976, pp.50-51

[3]Lonergan, Bernard, Insight, Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1992, p.215
[4] Lonergan, Bernard, Insight, Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp.215-16

[5] Freud, Sigmund, On Metapsychology, London: Penguin, 1976, p.175
[5] Freud, Sigmund, On Metapsychology, London: Penguin, 1976, p.151-52

[7] Lonergan, Bernard, Understanding and Being, Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1990, p.89
[8] Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, New York: Norton, 1973, p.227
[9] Lonergan, Bernard, Method In Theology, Toronto: the University of Toronto Press, 1973, p.34
[10] Ibid, p.34


Freud, Sigmund, On Metapsychology, London: Penguin, 1976

Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, New York: Norton, 1973

Lonergan, Bernard, Insight, Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1992

Lonergan, Bernard, Method In Theology, Toronto: the University of Toronto Press, 1973

Lonergan, Bernard, Understanding and Being, Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1990

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"Poetry is the short-circuiting of meaning between words, the impetuous regeneration of primordial myth". Bruno Schulz