How should we understand the psychoanalytic unconscious?

In Richard G. T. Gipps & Michael Lacewing (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 407-432 (2019)
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Abstract

I review the debate between ‘realist’ and ‘constructivist’ understandings of the psychoanalytic unconscious. To oversimplify, realists hold that unconscious mental states exist in the analysand’s mind fully formed and with determinate intentional content, independent of consciousness, and these are discovered in analysis. Constructivists (including relationalists and intersubjectivists) hold that the unconscious meaning of clinical material does not exist ‘pre-organised’ in the analysand’s mind, but is constructed, not discovered, through the analytic relationship. I argue that the debate is multiply confused. For example, different meanings of ‘psychoanalysis’ and ‘constructivism’ are at play, and a number of central arguments rest on misunderstandings of complex philosophical positions concerning the status of science and the nature of human knowledge. Once these confusions are removed, an understanding of the psychoanalytic unconscious that retains the strengths of both realism and constructivism presents itself.

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Michael Lacewing
University College London

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