Itay Shani

Unconscious Consciousness: Re-examining a Forlorn Hypothesis in the Metaphysics of Mind

“Herein lies the great mistake of the Cartesians, that they took no account of perceptions which are not apperceived.” Leibniz, Monadology 14. In the second chapter of his book Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint Franz Brentano examines the hypothesis of unconscious consciousness. According to this hypothesis, certain mental acts are both conscious and unconscious at the same time. They are conscious in the sense that, like all other mental acts according to Brentano, they are conscious of an object; but they are unconscious in the sense that they are not themselves objects of consciousness, which is to say that they remain below the surface of the psychological subject’s stream of awareness. Brentano considers several arguments in favor of this hypothesis yet, ultimately, he rejects all of them. I will argue that one of the avenues which Brentano dismisses is defensible, and moreover that the hypothesis of unconscious consciousness is not only legitimate but also an attractive one, with interesting potential applications in contemporary philosophy of mind.

To a considerable degree, the idea of unconscious consciousness can be traced to the tradition of absolute idealism and to related views. One finds the germs of this idea in Spinoza and Leibniz, in Schelling and Hegel, and in Pierce and Whitehead, as well as in Neo-Platonism and in much of the philosophical heritage of the Far East. Although many of these thinkers (e.g., Spinoza, Schelling, Pierce, and Whitehead) considered their philosophical projects and the idea of unconscious consciousness in particular as consonant with what, in retrospect, we may describe as naturalism, most naturalists today would look at the concept of unconscious consciousness with suspicion. We have been accustomed to see the distinction conscious-unconscious as a stark dichotomy of mutually exclusive oppositions; and we have been accustomed to believe that nature as such, that is, nature in its most aboriginal state or form, is completely devoid of consciousness. These two mental habits conspire to preclude the hypothesis of unconscious consciousness. Yet although old habits die slowly, I shall argue that the time may be ripe for a change of attitude, and in particular that such a change of attitude may be called for in the context of the debate concerning the emergence of consciousness. No sensible philosopher would deny the reality of a developmental evolution of consciousness. Sophisticated consciousness, such as the one we humans enjoy, appear at a certain point in time and it presupposes a long series of antecedents constituted of more basic forms of consciousness. It follows that such consciousness is an emergent phenomenon: it did not exist in the remote past, but it exists now. There is, however, a significant disagreement concerning the nature of such emergence (see de Quincy 2002, Strawson 2006). Supporters of physicalism advocate radical emergence, namely, the idea that the most basic level of physical existence is utterly insentient, and therefore that consciousness emerges as a wholly unprecedented ontological novelty. The alternative to radical emergence is mild emergence, according to which all levels of organization in nature contain stratified manifestations of consciousness in such a way that there is no particular stage at which radical emergence is called for – from the very bottom and all the way up, what we have is simply a gradual ascent from rudimentary forms of consciousness towards more articulated and more sophisticated forms of consciousness. This latter direction is endorsed by present-day supporters of panpsychism (e.g., Griffin 1998, Hartshorn 1977, Strawon 2006) and it seems to be consistent with pantheism and absolute idealism as well. In my talk, I shall argue that the idea of radical emergence leads to an explanatory impasse and more particularly that such an impasse is symptomatic of any attempt to explain the emergence of consciousness as a function of certain epistemic liaisons between mental states. In other words, access consciousness does not beget phenomenal consciousness. This being the case, it is possible that the way out of the tangle involves the hypothesis that the complex epistemic liaisons characteristic of human consciousness (and, to various degrees, of the conscious lives of other advanced animals) do not generate consciousness out of an insentient ontological background but rather, that they constitute conscious consciousness – a consciousness which familiarizes itself with the fact of its own existence. Such consciousness presupposes the existence of an unconscious consciousness which, I venture, may well be a general attribute of nature, on all levels of organization. I will argue that this hypothesis fits well with perrenial spiritual traditions worldwide on the one hand, and with some influential contemporary neurobiologically-based theories of consciousness on the other hand. Unconscious consciousness is well-poised to be considered an attractive hypothesis worthy of serious pondering.