Welsh, T. (2002) The Retentional and the Repressed: Does Freud’s Concept of the Unconscious Threaten Husserlian Phenomenology? Springer. 25 (2) 165 – 183.
In this journal article, Welsh investigates the ‘unconscious’ in Husserlian phenomenology, alongside claims in the Freudian ‘unconscious’ of psychoanalytic thought, explaining that Husserl’s thinking does not account for the Freudian unconscious. The phenomenological unconscious, Welsh argues, only equates to the psychoanalytic pre-conscious, which can be accessed by the conscious mind. The Husserlian unconscious, Welsh explains, can be ‘activated’ by triggers in real-time consciousness. This blog post will outline Welsh’s standpoint on both the perspectives of Husserl and Freud, from point of view that is situated in the discipline of philosophy. It will explain Welsh’s statement that, although Husserl and Freud both studied under the teachings of Brentano, the two thinkers pursued different directions of thought. This blog post will largely explore Welsh’s views on Husserl’s thought, and it will briefly, towards the end of the post, discuss the aspects of Freudian thought that Welsh poses as important.
Firstly, Welsh articulates her reasons for making the psychoanalytic link with phenomenology: Welsh argues that phenomonology can “philosophically ground psychoanalysis” (Welsh 2002, p. 165). Additionally, Welsh references Zahavi, who “notes that it is a misunderstanding to assume that phenomenology cannot investigate the unconscious” (Welsh 2002, p. 165). Phenomenology, indeed, investigates consciousness with a range of of intentions. Zahavi writes “the moment phenomenology moves beyond an investigation of object-manifestation and act-intentionality, it enters a realm that has traditionally been called the unconscious” (Zahavi 1999, p. 207). Semantics aside, there are aspects of the mind that are not always conscious and accessible, and phenomenology “is capable of handling unconscious as well as conscious aspects of physical life” (Welsh 2002, p. 166). To provide enlightenment for the issue, Welsh discusses the thought of Husserl’s teacher, Brentano, who did not consider the concept of an “unconscious consciousness” to be a complete contradiction. Rather, it is a consciousness that is “indirectly inferable” (Welsh 2002, p.167). In other words, it is possible grasp the unconscious deductively from experience. However, Brentano’s unconscious consciousness becomes problematic, as it is possible to confuse the distinction between that which is unconscious and that which is merely “unclear and indistinct” (Welsh 2002, p.167). Brentano’s thinking, Welsh points out, is evident in Husserlian theory, which is “largely unconcerned with the idea of unconscious mental states,” but that, ultimately, “the lion’s share of Husserl’s corpus is concerned with aspects of physical life that are, strictly speaking, unconscious” (Welsh 2002, p. 168).
The first objective of Welsh’s article is to describe Husserl’s ‘Passive Synthesis’, which depicts a complex positioning of the unconscious. Husserl, Welsh explains, states that there is an “unintentional reservoir of past intentions”, which can be activated through consciousness in order to “come to life” (Welsh 2002, p. 166). Welsh points out that in ‘Passive Synthesis’, Husserl describes a “zone which is characterised as non living and deeply unconscious, not just indirectly unconscious” and argues that “Husserl characterises this sphere of retentions as unconscious in a deep sense”. These ‘retentions’ of experiences are dormant: they “are not active in any sense, and “they have no purpose or intentionality” (Welsh 2002, p.169-170). But although they are not living, they both influence and constitute the present when they have been awoken. For a retention to exist in this zone, Welsh explains, Husserl states that they “first must be born as part of the living present” (Welsh 2002, p.170). Welsh discusses Husserl’s concept of ‘retention’ in some depth, explaining it considers “how association awakens the non-living sphere”, that the “streaming now awakens the past with association” and because of this “not only does the present, streaming, now have its own retentions, but it also forms associations with deeper retentions” (Welsh 2002, p. 171). To put it simply, association, according to Husserl, causes chains of associations wherein the past competes with the present. To illustrate Husserl’s concept of retention, Welsh introduces the example of listening to music:
“When hearing a short melody, one is at any single moment only hearing certain sounds. However, one hears a melody, not just a meaningless succession of sounds. Thus, one is able to passively retain the past notes and expect future ones. The retention of the past notes is not conscious, or even explicit, but it aids in making the melody comprehensible as a melody. Without such a passive element in consciousness, much of every day life would be void of meaning” (Welsh 2002, p. 169).
From this point of view, it is possible to acknowledge that there are, indeed, different levels of consciousness where material is stored remotely from real-time consciousness. However, Welsh discusses Husserl’s past retentions, and she considers could be objected to with the suggestion that “retention is just another word for memory” (Welsh 2002, p. 169). It can be argued, though, that memory has retentional properties and in order to create meaning the experience of absorbing this material must have some imprint within these levels of consciousness, that can be accessed again in the future.
Next, Welsh outlines what is described as the ‘Freudian unconscious’, having been enlightened by the Husserlian unconscious. Welsh explains that in psychoanalysis, paradoxically, if a deep unconscious exists the only way in which it can be accessed is through “what it is not, i.e., consciousness”, which is having any knowledge of it at all. (Welsh 2002, p. 172). Welsh acknowledges that the Freudian unconscious, in relation to the Husserlian unconscious, in a difference species, so to speak, in that “in Freudian theory, the reservoir of retentional objects is only the pre-conscious part of the unconscious”. In the words of Welsh, the Freudian unconscious is “unthematic-yet-accessible memory” (Welsh 2002, p.174). To put it another way, “the unconscious in the psychoanalytic sense is constituted by contents inaccessible to consciousness” (Laplanche and Leclaire 1972, p.127). Welsh discusses the relationship of the unconscious and the conscious in context of Freud’s terminology, the ‘id’ (unconscious) and the ‘ego (conscious):
“This unconscious id impels the ego-subject toward objects of pleasure, regardless of whether or not these objects are permitted or obtainable. Neither ‘side’ acknowledges or interacts with the other. The id remains ignorant of reality, and, of course, reality is indifferent to any demands issuing from the individual” (Welsh 2002, p. 175).
This un-dialogue that Freud illustrates is exactly that which cannot be accessed by the conscious mind. What is interesting, is, that human behaviour does suggest that it is controlled by the unconscious. As Welsh explains, “since it is barred entry to conscious life, it cannot ‘understand’ that it is presenting impossible demands upon the ego”. Additionally, she explains that “since the psychoanalytic unconscious is separated from this learning experience, the instinctual representative of primal repression never goes through transformations” (Welsh 2002, p. 176-177). It seems that once the id has been created in the lived moment, it cannot be changed by the conscious mind.