Richard Gipps gave an intriguing paper called ‘Ur’. I see that he has put the notes for it on his blog so I’ll just borrow a couple of quotes to support the strand that struck me most. The presentation and the blog entry have rather more going on, as well as this strand, including an interesting diagnosis of the various motivations for the position he opposes. (I’m also going to construe the blog entry and the talk as the same abstract entity.)
The question addressed runs thus:
Posits and Poiesis: Is the core understanding of psychoanalysis a scientific model? Do our articulations of the being of the unconscious amount to inferential posits, explanatory of human thought and action? Is their role fundamentally one of explanation, or is it one which provides us with a new form of comprehension revelatory of a new dimension of our existence?
On Richard’s view it is a mistake to offer a justification for the existence of the unconscious. With the assumption that such a justification needs to be offered, it is offered via inference to the best explanation.
Thus Freud on the unconscious: we need to posit unconscious desires, emotions and motivations, he says, to make sense of the observable phenomena of dreams, slips, suggestion effects, and symptoms. It is the best explanation we have of such phenomena.
Such a need starts from an assumption that it is possible to grasp the concept of the unconscious and then ask whether that concept is instanced in the world. This is akin to the idea that one might understand the concept of the Loch Ness Monster, understand what it would be, and can then question whether such a monster exists (put aside Kripkean worries about unicorns). The previous quote continues directly:
The separability of essence and existence, this ‘logical gap’, allows us to stand back from and put a question to nature without it having already been answered; the resultant answer will then be the central understanding of 'psychoanalysis'.
Presupposing that the unconscious is like the Loch Ness Monster, it stands in need of a positive answer to the questin of whether it is instanciated and inference to the best explanation is the route. But, Richard suggests, this is a mistake.
By contrast with this I urge that the central understanding of the unconscious etc., is not an answer to an already articulable question, but rather a revelation which affords us the possibility of asking new questions.
One reason that the former strategy fails is that the explanatory gain cannot be neutrally described. The world available with the description of the unconscious is richer than that before and cannot simply be presented backwards into the previous, impoverished terms. Further, the supporting evidence offered for inference to the best explanation suggests a misunderstanding of its own status.
[P]sychoanalysis gets offered as a ‘theory of how the mind works’. It is said that its concepts ‘pick out patterns’ in human behaviour. It supposedly helps us to 'understand' what couldn't otherwise be understood. However these truths are, I believe, actually disguised truisms, and so the philosophical discussion therefore too readily runs the risk of an unwarranted ‘smugness’ (this again is the 'narcissism' I mentioned above). The truth of the propositions gets proffered as having a justificatory significance for the psychoanalytic endeavour. However psychoanalysis simultaneously adjusts our understanding not only of the explanans but also of the explananda. What is meant by mental, what now counts as an understanding, what a pattern amounts to here, and what now is to count as intentional behaviour, all subtly change in their meanings. Thus it won’t do to say that the extensions of folk psychology offered by psychoanalysis can be warranted in terms of their explanatory payback, since psychoanalysis is also extending our sense of what here counts as legitimate explanation. Psychoanalysis articulates new experiential gestalts, new objects, and new modes of comprehension.
As I understood the argument, it might be akin to the following contrast. We can grasp the concept of the Loch Ness Monster in such a way that we are prepared for uses of either of the following form:
1: Scientists have today confirmed the Loch Ness Monster exists!
2: Scientists today confirm, after an exhaustive search, that the Loch Ness Monster does not exist.
By contrast our grasp of the concept of animal
not prepare us for a sentence like:
3: Scientists today confirm, after an exhaustive search, that animals do not exist.
And I guess, and in accord with much discussion of OnCertainty, we are not prepared for the converse:
4: Animals exist! Scientists confirm.
By saying ‘we are not prepared’ I mean: much additional contextualisation would be needed for us to know what to do with either of these sentences, though such additional contextualisation may not be impossible (again, modulo Kripke on unicorns).
The former pair show the gap that Richard calls that between essence and existence. The latter closes that gap. All of that seems fine to me. But I would want to account for this distinction by suggesting that the closest we can come to 4 would be something implicit in the expression of a rule governing the explanation of the meaning of ‘animal’. Perhaps Little Ludwig might say to me, after a happy day of me pointing out sheep and cows and cats and dogs, but not birds or fish, as example animals “Ah, so there are lots of animals” and hence there are animals.
But Richard is sceptical of this as already too close to the version of truth as adequation:
It’s tempting to articulate the above critique of a representational conception of central psychoanalytical truth claims simply by using a Wittgensteinian discourse of language games, rules, framework propositions, etc. Charles Elder does this and suggests at times that psychoanalysis offers us new ways of describing what we already know. The trouble with this way of trying to spell out the inadequacies of the view of core analytical concepts as posits is, it seems to me, that it ends up reinstating a dualism of ‘not always the facts, but rather sometimes how we describe the facts’. It supposes, one could say, that either we have to do with representations of what is or with rules of representation; in both cases we are firmly in the representation game. There is something right, as I see it, in the impulse to resist the urge to assume it is intelligible to ask ‘but are dreams really wish fulfillments?’ or ‘are symptoms really compromise formations?’ But this, I want to suggest, is not because we meet here with rules for representing what we otherwise know, but rather because we have to do with a more founding notion of truth as an unconcealment in which there is, as such, no room for adequation - i.e. no room for the question ‘does what is said correspond to what actually obtains?’
I would like to domesticate the analogies and disanalogies (connecting animals and the unconscious and disconnecting the unconscious from a kind of posit) within a kind of understated natural ontological attitude in which, for example, truth is a simple univocal notion given by a minimal disquotational approach. I can imagine that dividing truth into a more fundamental revealing notion and something that governs truth as disquotation would be sufficient for the distinction Richard wants but I’m not sure it is necessary. One potential line of reapprochement was a conversation, on the way to lunch, that the same sort of factors that govern ‘animals’ might also cover ‘sacrifice’. I tend to suggest that a way to grasp what the latter words means would be to steep oneself in the Tarkovsky film of that name. To grasp the rule for that word, though, requires a profound change in one’s own character. Rules for the use of words, for the articulation of concepts, may require profound change, opening one’s eyes to new tracts of the space of reasons. (Richard has responded to this worry here.)
One small point from the final paper: ‘The Unsayable in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: Some Notes on Wittgenstein and Bion’ by Prof. Victor Krebs connected back to this. In a dense and wide ranging paper, Victor stressed the idea that the standing possibility of saying more when one tries to express something or describe something merited the name ‘unsayable’. The non-linguistic world provided a ground for saying things – for example, descriptions of it – and its very inexhaustibility suggested that it was unsayable. This might have resonance with Richard’s more profound sense of truth: a kind of ontological ground for mere judgement. But I’m not sure. (I asked Victor if it would matter if we swapped the word ‘sayable’ for the constantly articulable or describable or sayable features of the world rather than ‘unsayable’, in a spirit of glass half full rather than a spooky glass half empty. He looked at me sadly and said it might not matter but that would be to try to deflate what he wanted to say.)