Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Kant and the Freudian Unconscious

Then it struck him that some reckless murderous power was drawing him on, forcing him, while he yet remained passionately aware of the all too possible consequences and somehow as innocently unconscious, to do without precaution or conscience what he would never be able to undo or gainsay[1]
--Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano--


Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason points us in the direction of pure thought through synthesis. As Kant did not have the luxury, or present-at-hand
[2] of psychoanalytic metapsychology, he saw no place for the unconscious in his epistemic system. Freud’s unconscious might very well have something to tell us about Kant’s Critique; drawing attention not only to the dissimilarities, but similarities between the two.

Noumenon refers to the thing in itself, that which cannot be known through reason alone. In the Freudian dynamic the unconscious plays a similar role or function; it is that part of the psychic life which can only be known through symptomology or interpretation (the interpretive act following the symptomatic, i.e. the reconstruction or translation of unconscious images, rebus and so forth into conscious thought). Outside of these, interpretation and symptom, the unconscious is unknowable. As with Freud the Kantian noumenon cannot be apprehended through pure reason, and as such cannot be put into words (as risky as this may sound, words cannot be attributed to an objectless thing, for to do so would be to give the objectless thing objectivity, thereby changing the thing in itself to a knowable or identifiable thing, which the noumenon clearly is not). Both the Freudian and Kantian systems are linguistically constrained; they cannot be spoken of outside of their reference or representation. In one of Samuel Beckett’s lesser known novels, The Unnamable
[3], the third in the trilogy Malloy and Malone Dies, the protagonist speaks in a disjointed monologue from the perspective of an unnamed narrator. As the narrator is indeterminate (unknown or with out ‘name’) he is unknowable. In this manner Freud’s unconscious and Kant’s noumenon are unnamable, they are things in themselves, and as such known only through their representation or translation. Unlike the unconscious the noumenon is not a symptom of a hidden or repressed wish, image, memory etc., but rather that which we cannot have direct knowledge or awareness of. In showing the difference between the two, the unconscious and the noumenon, we are drawn closer to their similarities. As suggested earlier, I will attempt to show the similarities between Freud’s unconscious and Kant’s noumenon, and in so doing endeavor to place the unconscious within Kant’s epistemic system.

It is known that Freud read Kant, although to what extent and how much Kant influenced his work is not well documented. In On Metapsychology Freud refers to Kant’s categorical imperative in discussing the influence of the super ego on the formation of the ego and the Oedipal Complex,

The super-ego retained essential features of the introjected person [parents] – their strength, their severity, their inclination to supervise and punish. As I have shown elsewhere, it is easily conceivable that, thanks to the defusion of instinct which occurs along with this introduction into the ego, the severity was increased. The super-ego---the conscious at work in the ego---may then become harsh, cruel and inexorable against the ego which is in its charge. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is thus the direct heir of the Oedipus Complex.
[4]

Kant’s categorical imperative and Freud’s ego states, principally the Oedipal Complex, share certain similarities: Freud’s notion of the unconscious as a storehouse of repressed memories, accessible through free-association and interpretation, and Kant’s noumenon, or thing in itself, cannot be known outside their appearance or representation (even as inner sensibility). Both noumenon and the unconscious are atemporal, a priori in the Kantian system and timeless, referring to the now or moment of interpretation, in the Freudian dynamic, they are lacking in spatiality. A memory, be it conscious or interpreted, has no spatial form; it is always in the present, the now. Noumenon, thing in itself, follows the same rule, albeit without the requirement of interpretation as in the psychodynamic method.

In the Transcendental Logic, (Phenomena and Noumena), Kant posits the difference between phenomena and noumena,

Appearances, insofar as they are thought as objects according to the unity of the categories, are called phenomena. But if I assume things that are objects merely of the understanding and that, as such, can nonetheless be given to an intuition---even if not sensible intuition (but hence coram intuitu intellectuali)---then such things would be called noumena (intelligibilia).
[5]

Kant here divides the world into a world of sense and a world of understanding (mundus sensibilis et intelligibilis). The world of sense requires the concepts for understanding; the noumenal world does not, as noumenal objects are objects of the understanding, and as such non-spatial. Phenomena are bound by temporal and spatial coordinates; the noumenal are atemporal (though they are of inner sense, and time, as Kant says, is a priori) as they have no external object of reference or presentation. In the Freudian dynamic we have experiential phenomena, felt and experienced in time and space, and non-spatial phenomena, unconscious and preconscious. An unconscious thought or memory is accessible first to preconscious, then through interpretation conscious thought. The original event or happening occurs in the sensible world, the unconscious thought and or memory, like the noumenal world, is atemporal and subject to the vicissitudes of repression, displacement and interpretation; it has no spatial determination.

In his book On Metapsychology Freud explains the unconscious and how it is arrived at,

How are we to arrive at a knowledge of the unconscious? It is of course only as something conscious that we know it, after it has undergone transformations or translation into something conscious…[we] can go further and argue, in support of there being an unconscious psychical state, that at any give moment consciousness includes only a small content, so that the greater part of what we call conscious knowledge must in any case be for very considerable periods of time in a state of latency, that is to say, of being psychically unconscious. When all our latent memories are taken into consideration it becomes totally incomprehensible how the existence of the unconscious can be denied.
[6]

Here Freud shows us that much of what we take to be conscious, in the now, might very well have been latent or stored in the unconscious before reaching conscious thought. In this way the conscious and the unconscious are found together; the repressed or latent memory finding its way into consciousness through an act of cognition. Noumenon, or thing in itself is a priori, and as such an interior or rule-governed synthesis. Time does not exist (or is apprehensible) in the world of phenomena, but is attributed to phenomena through synthesis. Freud’s unconscious is timeless, a interior process or cognizant; the contents of the unconscious are situated in the present, the moment of explication or translation. In this manner Kant’s noumenon and Freud’s unconscious are indeterminate. As we cannot have direct knowledge of the indeterminate, this is true for both Kant’s noumenon and Freud’s unconscious, it stands to reason (though reason has little to do with it) that things, objects, memories and phenomena are unknowable as things in themselves (unless divine nature is attributed to the thing in itself).

The senses, according to Kant, present things to us as they appear in the world of senses; the noumenon in the world of the intellect. The following quote outlines the possibility of an intelligible nonsensible world,

For if the senses present something to us merely as it appears, then surely this something must also in itself be a thing, and an object of a nonsensible intuition, i.e. an object of understanding, That is, a cognition must then be possible in which no sensibility is to be found, and which alone has reality that is objective absolutely---i.e., a cognition whereby objects are presented to us as they are while being cognized in our understanding’s empirical use only as they appear. Hence there would be, besides the empirical use of the categories (which is limited to sensible conditions), also a pure and yet objectively valid use of them; and we could not assert what we have alleged thus far, viz., that our pure cognitions of understanding are nothing more at all than principles of the exposition of appearance which even a priori deal with no more than the formal possibility of experience. For a wholly different realm would here lie open before us; a world, as it were, thought (perhaps even intuited) in the intellect---a world that could engage our pure understanding not less, but indeed much more nobly.
[7]

The noble intellect, or in the Freudian dynamic the super-ego; the origin of moral and ethical prohibition and acquiescence. Once the super-ego is interiorized (parental rules, societal laws and so forth) the ego is forced to obey the super-ego’s commands lest it be subject to neurosis and ego-dissolution. For Kant the thing in itself, noumenon, serves a similar portend, it allows for the Categorical Imperative in his moral system. Kant’s moral system is not based on sensible things, empirical phenomena, but on the noumenal. Again we can see the similarities between Freud’s super-ego and Kant’s noumenon; both are nonsensible yet objectively valid in the Kantian sense (see quote above). The difference between pure understanding and sensible intuition, arrived at or synthesized through the categories, seems to lie in the intellect’s ability to exteriorize an interior object of cognition, the thing in itself. That which is presented to pure understanding, though not an outer appearance, seems to have an empirical objectivity or exposition of appearance. As with Freud’s inner-world of the psyche, projection, transference, etc., Kant’s pure understanding can be exteriorized, “…an object of a nonsensible intuition”.
[8]

In his paper Kant and Freud
[9] Andrew Brook discusses the similarities between Kant’s philosophical system and Freud’s psychoanalytic method, underlining the tripartite model in Kant’s epistemology and Freudian psychodynamics. Brook compares Kant’s noumenon with Freud’s unconscious, drawing our attention to Kant’s influence on Freud’s model of the unconscious.

Earlier we said that, for Kant, all we can be directly aware of are states of our own mind, what he called phenomena. What about everything else? Indeed, is there anything else? For Kant there is. He called it the ‘ding an sich’ or the noumenal. ‘Noumenal’ just means ‘unknowable’. Kant held that we cannot know things as there are, just things as they appear to us. Unknowable ‘ding an sich’ underlie two vital aspects of mind. The source of our intuitions, intuitions both of inner sense (of our own psyche and soma) and of outer sense (of the external world), are unknowable. And the mind as it is, the thing that works intuitions up into experiences, is also unknowable. We know of the mind only as it appears to us in inner sense, not as it is. Thus, both the source of intuitions and actual nature of the apparatus that works them up into conscious experiences must remain forever beyond experience (in Freud’s terms, unconscious). Though they produce experience, they can never themselves be experienced. (According to Beck, Herbart held the same view (Beck 1967a, p 305).) This view of Kant’s made a profound impression on Freud.
[10]


As with Freud Kant held that we cannot know things as they are, only as they appear to us, including knowledge of oneself. Outer and inner sense is known through appearance and representation. In this way we cannot have direct knowledge of our inner self, our mind, or the apparatus’ of reason and thought. In Freud unconscious content is unknowable outside of its interpretation; for Kant the noumenal is unknowable, it is insensible. According to Kant the noumenal is the source of the contents of inner sense and outer sense, inner sense being our awareness of our own psyche and soma.
[11] Freud did not share Kant’s view about awareness of our inner world, however he did agree with Kant’s idea about a noumenal outer world, or noumenal unconscious, and the limits of knowability. In this manner Kant held the view that the sources of inner sense are as vague to consciousness as are the sources of outer sense. Kant argued that both the internal and the external world as they are in themselves are unknowable, all we can have is awareness of how they appear to us. Kant and Freud both agreed that we cannot know the psyche, or inner world as it really is. If all we can know are representations of ‘things’ or appearances, then direct knowledge of oneself (the inner world) is impossible.

Kant believed that the source of both empirical self-consciousness and consciousness of oneself and one’s inner sense belong to inner sense (time and space being inner). We do not have direct awareness or knowledge of inner sense, or self, but rather consciousness of what we do or the synthesis that gives way to thought. The self, if known at all, is known through the action of thinking, not thought itself. The noumenal, or thing in itself, much like the unconscious is not directly known. As suggested earlier, if all we have knowledge of is appearance and representation, then the ‘self’, too, is known indirectly. It appears that for Kant the action or office of thinking is all we have awareness of; we have no direct knowledge of the mind. Much like Freud’s notion of the unconscious, inner sense or awareness of oneself is known through its operation, not as it is in itself. I have access to the unconscious, not directly, but through symptoms and behaviour which are then interpreted and given meaning or sense.

Let us take a look at Kant’s notion of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ noumenon. As the noumenal is neither spatial or temporal, timeless in the Freudian sense, it cannot be known through the categories. Kant says,

If by abstracting from our way of intuiting a thing, we mean by noumenon a thing insofar as it is not an object of our sensible intuition, then this is a noumenon in the negative meaning of the term. But if by noumenon we mean an object of nonsensible intuition and hence assume a special kind of intuition, viz., an intellectual one---which, however, is not ours and into the possibility of which we also have no insight---then that would be the noumenon in the positive meaning of the term.
[12]

Kant continues with the following,

Now the doctrine of sensibility is simultaneously the doctrine of noumenon in the negative meaning of the term, i.e., it is the doctrine of things that the understanding must think without this reference to our kind of intuition, and hence must think not merely as appearances but as things in themselves. But the understanding, in thus separating {things from our intuition}, simultaneously comprehends that in considering them in this way it cannot make any use of the categories. For the categories have significance only in reference to the unity of intuitions in space and time; and hence, by the same token, they can a priori determine this same unity though universal combination concepts only because space and time are merely ideal. Where this unity of time cannot be found, and hence in the case of the noumenon, there the entire use of the categories---indeed, even all their signification---cease completely, because we then have no insight even into the possibility of the things that are to correspond to the categories…
[13]

In order to have intuition of the noumenal Kant proposes an ‘intellectual intuition’ which “lies absolutely outside our cognitive powers”.
[14] This is interesting, in that we can only know things as appearances, yet noumenon, which cannot be known through the categories is known through an ‘intellectual intuition’. In this manner one might suggest that the noumenon, like the unconscious, if known at all, is know through its action on the mind, not as a determinate thing, but as a pure inner sensibility. And if, indeed, it is a pure sensibility (reason), then it can never be discounted or verified. Also, Kant proposes that “…the doctrine of sensibility is simultaneously the doctrine of noumenon in the negative meaning…”[15] suggesting that ‘all’ understanding has an underling or simultaneous ‘noumenal’ meaning or conscription. In this we might recognize a similarity with the Freudian unconscious. But let us first look at what Strawson (The Bounds of Sense, 1966) has to say about noumenon and the antimonies,

What Kant in effect suggests, in offering a new kind of solution for these antimonies, is that reason is looking for its quarry in the wrong place. Behind this suggestion there lies once more the transcendental idealist doctrine that things in space and time are only appearances. But a quite different aspect of this doctrine is now to the fore: not simply the fact that things in space and time are mere appearances but the fact that, as appearances, they must have a noumenal ground.
[16]

Now what Freud says about the nature of the unconscious in relation to the preconscious Pcs
[17],

It would nevertheless be wrong to imagine that the Ucs. remains at rest while the whole work of the mind is performed by the Pcs. ---that the Ucs. is something finished with, a vestigial organ, a residuum from the process of development. It is wrong also to suppose that communication between the two systems is confined to the act of repression, with the Pcs. casting everything that seems disturbing to it into the abyss of the Ucs. On the contrary, the Ucs. is alive and capable of development and maintains a number of other relations with the Pcs., among them that of co-operation. In brief, it must be said that the Ucs. is continued into what we know as derivatives, that it is accessible to the impressions of life, that it constantly influences the Pcs., and is even, for its part, subjected to influences from the Pcs.
[18]

Herein perhaps the unconscious and the noumenal play similar roles; both effect and are somehow conjoined with thought and affectation: for Freud in the preconscious and conscious, and for Kant in appearance and reason. If we accept that the unconscious, though unknowable in itself, is at play in preconscious and conscious thought, effecting how we see, perceive and engage with the outer world, and that Kant’s noumenon, though unknowable as the thing in itself, is found in all cognitive action, the similarities between the two appears likely if not at altogether possible.

Freud believed that the unconscious effects all we do; it runs behind or beneath thought and behaviour. In a way the unconscious brings to light, through interpretation, the inner workings of the mind or psyche. It anchors that which we feel, through symptomology and behaviour (be they neurotic or simply unwanted), yet have no conscious apprehension of. In Kant perhaps the noumenal plays a similar, albeit intellectual role; anchoring appearance as the thing in itself. Although we cannot have direct knowledge of the noumenal, it does have its place in how we understand and engage in the outer world of sensibility. In this manner the outer and inner appear to be sequential or simultaneous.

Now had Freud preceded Kant, and assuming that Kant would have read Freud (let us attributed to Freud the importance that was, and is attributed to Kant), how might Kant’s system have looked? If we place the unconscious in the noumenal and ascribe to it a formal condition, say a storehouse of information, allowing for the unknown to be known by way of preconscious and conscious activity, how might our understanding of the outer and inner change? In this manner, and taking into consideration the image-laden or memory-based content of the unconscious, conscious activity, or awareness, might very well be the result of the unity of past images and thoughts (memory) and immediate apprehension or sensibility.

Now if we accept that unconscious activity is unknowable, in the sense that we are not aware of ‘it’ or how it impacts or effects consciousness, but rather have feelings or symptoms, desirable or unwanted, manifest in our thoughts and behaviour, how would we know (or be aware of) which was a conscious sensibility and which an unconscious sensibility? I suppose we could interpret behaviour and or symptoms and come to a fitting or suitable presentation or understanding (why I’m frightened by the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, looking back on the fear or trauma I might have experienced on first seeing the movie, the repression of that fear and trauma, and its continued effect on my current behaviour, fear of flying monkeys). Or we might claim that we can never, for certain, know if what I am having or experiencing is a purely conscious or immediate thought or one influenced by the unconscious. If we accept the latter, then we must, in toto, accept the likelihood of the existence of the unconscious.

I am not suggesting that Kant’s noumenon and Freud’s unconscious function in exactly the same way, but rather that they share similar attributes. Both, as we have seen, are unknowable, as in the ‘thing in itself’, neither are based on appearance, the outer sensible world, yet both have an inner sensibility that somehow expresses an outer sensibility. Our awareness of self, the ‘I’, is only an awareness of the appearance of the self as understood in conjunction with the outer world of appearances; we never have an understanding of the self as thing in itself, the Cartesian ‘I’. Freud believed that much of what we do and think is in someway effected by the unconscious. It is not until a problem arises, an unwanted feeling, behaviour or thought, that we feel the need to know the unknowable; and in coming to ‘see’ what is behind how we feel, think and behave, are better equipped to deal with the immediate world of appearances and sensibilities.

The unconscious---in the purely psychoanalytic sense---would create a rift or disunity in Kant’s system; the unconscious not fitting well into a transcendental philosophical system. It would be difficult, if not altogether impossible to synthesizing the unconscious into a unified model of perception and or understanding. As the unconscious is know only through interpretation, the possibility of differing or competing interpretations is likely. Kant’s system would not condone such disunity, finding the plasticity of the unconscious a wrench in a unified concept of understanding.

In conclusion we might say, yes, there are apparent similarities between Kant’s noumenon and Freud’s unconscious; however, as Kant was not interested in a psychological rendering or commission of the understanding, Freud’s unconscious, though of interest to those who find philosophical or analytic pedagogy unsatisfying, does not satisfy a purely critical method of philosophical investigation. The following quote from Freud’s Instincts And Their Vicissitudes seems a fitting way to conclude this paper.

We have often heard it maintained that science should be built up on clear and sharply defined basic concepts. In actual face no science, not even the most exact, begins with such definitions. The true beginning of scientific activity consists rather in describing phenomena and then in proceeding to group, classify and correlate them. Even at the stage of description it is not possible to avoid applying certain abstract ideas to the material in hand, ideas derived from somewhere or other but certainly not from the new observations alone. Such ideas---which will later become the basic concepts of the sciences---are still more indispensible as the material is further worked over. They must at first process some degree of indefiniteness; there can be no question of any clear delimitation of their content. So long as they remain in this condition, we come to an understanding about their meaning by making repeated references to the material of observation from which they appear to have been derived, but upon which, in fact, they have been imposed.
[19]


[1] Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano, New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1965, p.348
2 Heidegger’s concept of ‘present-at-hand’, merely looking at or observing something, concerned only with the bare facts of a thing or a concept, as they are present and in order to theorize about.
3 Samuel Beckett, Three novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The unnamable, New York, Grove Press, 1965
4 Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology, London: Penguin Books, 1991, p.422
[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996 p.312
[6] Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology, London: Penguin Books, 1991, p.p. 167-68
[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996 p.313
[8] Ibid, p.313
[9] Andrew Brook, Kant and Freud, In M. Cheung and Colin Feltman, eds. Psychoanalytic knowledge. Palgrave Publishers Ltd. (Macmillan), 2003
[10] Ibid, p.14
[11] Ibid, p.15
[12] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996 p.317
[13] Ibid, p.317
[14] Ibid, p.318
[15] Ibid, p.318
[16] P.F. Strawson, The Bounds of Sense, London: Methuen, 1966, p.211
[17] The preconscious (das Vorbewusste), contents of the mind accessible to consciousness but not in awareness at the moment; i.e., what is descriptively unconscious but not blocked from access by repression or other psychological defenses.
[18] Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology, London: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 194
[19] Ibid 1991, p.113

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