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Unconscious knowing and other essays in psycho-philosophical analysisReview - Unconscious knowing and other essays in psycho-philosophical analysis
by Linda Brakel
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Daria Dibitonto, Ph.D.
Jun 28th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 26)

As the title states, the book Unconscious Knowing and Other Essays in Psycho-Philosophical Analysis is an original collection of interdisciplinary essays, involving psychoanalytic theory and philosophy of mind, action and science. The aims of the book are very ambitious: to solve the puzzles presented -- unconscious knowledge, vagueness and a-rationality, agency and the placebo effect -- by using concepts and tools both from philosophy and psychoanalysis; to establish that these interdisciplinary investigations provide an «intellectual excitement», fuelled by the possible convergent solutions enhancing the theoretical aspects of both disciplines. If it is not due to a review, but to scientific debate and its outcomes, to decide whether or not the aims of the book are achieved, and to what extent, it is most certainly noticeable that they are seriously and methodically pursued, even though the methods adopted are not homogeneous. Let us see how.

After a clear and helpful introduction, the second chapter is on unconscious knowing. The psychoanalytic evidence that unconscious knowledge exists -- its clinical backbone in this chapter being negative hallucination, that is to say the active erasure of a perception -- leads the author to support the radical epistemic view that knowledge, rather than belief, is the most fundamental and foundational mental state. Brakel proceeds with accuracy from a psychoanalytic case presentation of an agent that has knowledge but no belief about what he knows, through the philosophical and epistemological analysis of the differences and similarities between knowledge and belief, to the cognitive and neuropsychological research that raises epistemological questions about first- and second-order-knowledge and belief (second order means both knowing that and what you know, both believing that and what you believe): she comes to several cases demonstrating that one can indeed know without knowing that one knows, and she refers to unconscious knowledge to explain how this is possible. With such clinical evidence, the thesis that psychoanalytic theory brings new possible understandings in the epistemological debate is convincing. Less supported, therefore less convincing, is the remark at chapter conclusion: the radical philosophical view that knowledge is the fundamental epistemological mental state should point to a new understanding of psychoanalytic endeavour and could  «help the analyst go beyond making the unconscious conscious toward making what must be kept un-knowable ultimately known» (page 48). Nonetheless, that is what the entire Freudian theory has already largely analyzed.

Both the third and fourth chapter compare an epistemological problem with a concept that, in the author’s perspective, can be assimilated to psychoanalytic theory. In the third chapter, the epistemological problem considered is vagueness and the concept assimilated to the psychoanalytic theory is a-rationality, with which the author intends what Freud named primary process. A-rationality is also that what is not subjected to the basic principles of everyday logic (law of non-contradiction and of the excluded middle), what is not submitted to reality testing and that, on the contrary, proceeds mainly through displacement and condensation, both operating on the basis of associative connections. The thesis of the chapter are the following: similarity relations are basically important both for vagueness and a-rationality; as the attempts of philosophers dealing with the puzzle of vagueness often yield higher order vagueness, the same occurs when hyper-rational moves reveal underlying a-rationality; a-rationality infuses almost any attempt to make the contradictions that follows to vagueness more rational and precise. That leads Brakel to take an ontological position close to that of Lewis and Heller, where the non-vague world is populated by unusual combinations rationally ignored and "a-rational objects" are known as possible objects.

The fourth chapter is about agency as me-ness in action. Agency is the concept assumed as useful in psychoanalytic theory, whereas the treated epistemological problem can be resumed in this question: when I care about my own survival, just what is that constitutes the me whose survival I want so much? The first part of the chapter aims to show, through the description of both psychoanalytic cases and other phenomena such as dreams and plays, how the difficulties of integrating diverse and sometimes conflicting drives and desires in a coherent sense of self can be grouped into a type of problem best understood as a problem of agency. The second part offers accounts of several philosophical views on the desire of self-survival, proposing that it is one’s agency that is at stake. So, at the end of the chapter, a problematic, but well discussed, view of agency arises, which is 1) singular, 2) consists of our most important desires essentially linked to action, 3) implies intentional action, 4) features in all animals, even single-cell individuals.

Chapter 5 presents another proceedings and another outcome: psychoanalytic theory can help explain the phenomenon of placebo effects through understanding conditioning, transference and implicit expectations. The basic psychological mechanisms that underlie the placebo effect, indeed, are ascribable to the same primary process that underlies transference and conditioning: condensation and displacement can help explain this apparently enigmatic phenomenon. Chapter 6 concludes the book with an analysis of the various explanation types of the topics examined in the previous chapters. We wish to point out the new type of explanation - "inference to an explanation" - proposed by the author herself.

In conclusion we can draw a balance of this innovative book. Firstly, multiple outcomes enable appreciating the wide range of explanations an interdisciplinary approach can give scholars of both psychoanalytic theory and philosophy of mind. Secondly, richness and multiplicity themselves underscore the need to systematically analyze the different methodological perspectives adopted, not only to define a prototype for future research in such a promising area, but also to analyze how deeply both the disciplines are questioned by their interactions.


© 2011 Daria Dibitonto


Daria Dibitonto, PhD in Philosophy, Post-Doc at the Department of Humanities, Avogadro University of East-Piedmont (Italy). Her books and main papers are about the theology of hope of Jürgen Moltmann and the theory of desire in the philosophy of Ernst Bloch. From 2006 she researches also in the mental health field and carries out a philosophical practice in the Mental Health Department of ASL Turin 5 (Public Medical Service of the Turin Province, Italy).


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