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What Is the Unconscious? A Novel Taxonomy of Psychoanalytic, Psychological, Neuroscientific, and Philosophical Concepts

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The concepts of consciousness and unconscious have been widely debated in neuroscience, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. Thereby, three different lines of thoughts often get confused. One the hand, consciousness is distinguished from the unconscious; this is, for instance, the case in psychoanalysis and more specifically Freud when he distinguishes psychological material and contents in consciousness from the ones remaining preconscious or dynamic unconscious. Current neuroscience and psychology associate the distinction between consciousness and unconscious rather different modes in which the same functions, affective, cognitive, etc. can appear and thus be quasi duplicated. Finally, philosophy associates the distinction between consciousness and unconscious with a principal difference between mind and brain and thus mental and neuronal states. To bridge the gap between these three lines, I here suggest a novel conceptual characterization. I distinguish the principal conscious from the principal unconscious: The principal conscious describes those states that in principle can become conscious and thus have the potential for consciousness independent of whether they are actually conscious, preconscious, or dynamically unconscious, while the principal unconscious refers to the principal impossibility of a state becoming conscious because it may simply be coded in the wrong format. I show that this conceptual distinction between principal conscious and principal unconscious carries important implications for empirical, i.e., neuronal matters and that both concepts may be associated with different neuronal mechanisms. I here refer to the brain’s intrinsic activity, its resting state activity, and how that impacts subsequent stimulus-induced activity as mediated by a particular set of regions in the brain’s midline, the cortical midline structures. Finally, I indicate that this distinction may also be relevant to psychoanalysis and philosophy alike in opening the door to bridge the gap between mind and brain and thus between mental and neuronal states.


  • Consciousness
  • Unconscious
  • Philosophy
  • Cortical midline structures
  • Neuroscience
  • Psychoanalysis

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Fig. 7.1
Fig. 7.2


  1. 1.

    In his later work, he however refrained, at least partially, from exhaustive and exclusive definition of the dynamic unconscious by primary and primitive processes by including more rational processes associated with the ego and superego into the unconscious (see Westen 1999).

  2. 2.

    One could argue that what I here described as “principally unconscious (c)” should rather be regarded as what has been called nonconsciousness (see Strawson 1994; Revonsuo 2006; Searle 2004). Neurophysiological and thus physical processes are considered as nonconscious by these and other authors because they simply have the wrong format to be ever brought into consciousness. Though “principal unconscious (c)” amounts to the same as nonconscious in terms of the result, the difference may not only be terminological. “Principal unconscious (c)” concerns the format or code of a specific material or content (see below), whereas it does not concern the material or content itself. It is this what Searle seems to have in mind when he characterizes physical brain processes as nonconscious: “There are all sorts of things going on in the brain, many of which function crucially in controlling our mental lives but that are not cases of mental phenomena at all. So, for example, the secretion of serotonin at the synaptic cleft is simply not a mental phenomenon. Serotonin is important for several kinds of mental phenomena, and indeed some important drugs, such as Prozac, are used specifically to influence serotonin, but there is no mental reality to the behavior of serotonin as such.” Let us call these sorts of cases the “nonconscious.” There are other examples of the nonconscious that are more problematic. So, for example, when I am totally unconscious, the medulla will still control my breathing. This is why I do not die when I am unconscious or in a sound sleep. But there is no mental reality to the events in the medulla that keep me breathing even when unconscious. I am not unconsciously following the rule “keep breathing”; rather, the medulla is just functioning in a nonmental fashion, in the same way that the stomach functions in a nonmental fashion when I am digesting food” (see also this quote above in Searle (2004), p. 168). Searle seems to refer to the material or content in this quote rather than, as Revonsuo does (see above), to the code or format of a certain material or content. If the material or content itself cannot become conscious as such at all, one may indeed speak of nonconscious. If, however, the material or content cannot be brought into consciousness not because of its specification as such and such material or content but rather because of its format or code, I prefer to speak of “principal unconscious (c)” to distinguish this case from the one of “nonconscious (n)” with (n) standing for narrow sense referring only to the material/content itself but not to its format/code. If, in contrast, the term nonconscious is used in a wide sense, it includes both material/format itself and its code or format as possible underlying reasons for preventing access to consciousness. It seems to me that neither Revonsuo (2006, p. 63) nor Searle (2004, pp. 167–9) distinguish between both cases since both speak of nonconscious in either case. If he would have distinguished both cases, Revonsuo (2006, p. 63) meaning “principal unconscious (c)” rather than nonconscious (see his quote above) would have not stated that he relies on Searle in his account of the unconscious. Though Searle (2004) at first distinguishes between what he calls the “deep unconscious,” as being unconscious in principle, and the nonconscious, he later considers the former as case of the latter. Considering the difference between material/content and code/format, this however remains impossible.

  3. 3.

    In his later work, he however refrained, at least partially, from exhaustive and exclusive definition of the dynamic unconscious by primary and primitive processes by including more rational processes associated with the ego and superego into the unconscious (see Westen 1999).

  4. 4.

    One could, of course, argue that the material/content of the first months or first 2 years of our life may be principally unconscious (c) rather than principally unconscious (a) thus showing the wrong format or code. Though this is at least logically possible, it seems rather unlikely to be the case under natural conditions and thus in our case, since this would presuppose that the format or code of the early material/content is different from the later material/content. The same argument could be applied if one argues that the early material/content remains nonconscious (n); it is not plausible to assume that different types of material/content are used in early and later life.

  5. 5.

    Note that I here apply the same argumentative structure, what I call the “working function” argument, for self-related processing as Freud does with respect to defense mechanisms (see above). This will be further strengthened later when I consider defense mechanisms as manifestations of self-related processing.

  6. 6.

    However, one may also logically imagine the reverse case with self-related processing being suppressed but principally being accessible to consciousness and thus being “repressed unconscious (p)” or even preconscious (p), whereas self-related material or contents may remain principally unconscious (c) or (a) and (m). In this case, however, self-related processing could have no longer the crucial function as I claim in the present book. Such characterization of self-related processing and material would thus presuppose a totally different setup and design of the human mind and brain.

  7. 7.

    See, for example, Searle (2004, pp. 165–78) who follows this way by denying the possibility of “principal unconscious” what he calls “deep unconscious” which he subsumes under nonconscious. He can thus define the unconscious, the repressed unconscious, and the preconscious, in terms of potential consciousness and thus mental states. He calls this the “connection principle” which states that the notion of unconscious is logically connected to the notion of consciousness with an unconscious mental state being “the kind of thing that could be a conscious mental state” (Searle 2004, p. 171).

  8. 8.

    Once one denies the possibility of “principle unconscious” by subsuming it under the nonconscious, the assumption of phenomenal autoepistemic limitation (phenomenal AL) must be considered contradictory. This is so because something, i.e., phenomenal AL, that presupposes the principal absence of a principally possible experience and thus the “principal unconscious” cannot be characterized by the principal absence of a principally impossible experience and thus the nonconscious (n). It seems that the principal absence, as characterizing the “principal unconscious,” is confused with the principal impossibility of experience as reflecting the nonconscious (n). It is true that once one claims for the principal absence of principally impossible experience, one does not even need to consider phenomenal AL. However, this claim does not necessarily imply the impossibility of the first claim, the principal absence of a principally possible experience and thus of the “principal unconscious”. Once however one acknowledges the difference between both claims, one cannot do otherwise than to postulate phenomenal AL as epistemic manifestation of the “principal unconscious.” This demonstrates that phenomenal AL extends the boundaries of the notion of the unconscious by showing new aspects like the “principal unconscious (c) and (a)” and its necessary distinction from the “nonconscious (n).” Most importantly, phenomenal AL makes a redefinition of the concept of mental states necessary. Phenomenal AL as the absence of mental states with respect to one’s brain can only be understood if the concept of mental states becomes detached from the concept of (potential) consciousness. Mental states may then be characterized as a dimension of principally possible experience being independent and separate from its actual absence, as in the unconscious, or its actual presence, as in consciousness. The presence of mental states and their concurrent absence in conscious experience may then be considered the defining feature of the unconscious as it is understood here—the unconscious can thus be regarded as nonconsciously experienced mental states.

  9. 9.

    Philosophy of mind presupposes the unconscious with reference to mental states which captures what I called phenomenal AL. In contrast, cognitive neuroscience refers to psychological states when it speaks of the unconscious. This however does not yet capture what I called physical AL. Physical AL presupposes reference of the unconscious to physical states. Unlike in phenomenal AL, where mental state of one’s brain remain “principally unconscious,” or in cognitive neuroscience, where psychological states are considered unconscious, the case of physical AL implies that physical states remain unconscious. Accordingly, physical AL makes the extension of the unconscious to physical states necessary even if they remain “principally unconscious.”

    If, in contrast, one neglects such extension, the reference of the unconscious to physical states may appear paradox if not contradictory. The unconscious is usually regarded to refer to material or contents that are either psychological or mental, whereas they are supposed to be caused by non-mental and non-psychological material/contents, i.e., the physiological processes. It is generally regarded that the unconscious can only refer to the former but not to the latter which are therefore characterized as nonconscious (see above). The claim that the unconscious, i.e., the “principal unconscious,” may refer to physical states, as it is implied in physical AL, must thus appear contradictory implying confusion between cause and effect.

    What however is neglected are two possible scenarios. One is at least a logical possibility that physiological processes and thus physical states, as caused by other nonconscious (n) remaining physiological processes, may possibly become unconscious by means of some change in material or content. Another one is a natural possibility that the physical material/content is generally suited for the unconscious and the consciousness but that it possesses the “wrong” code or format by itself. In this case physical states can no longer be considered “nonconscious (n)” but rather “principally unconscious (c).” I claim that the latter case, physical states being the “correct” material/content though with the “wrong” code or format, is the case which applies to physical AL. If this is true, the reference of the unconscious can no longer be restricted to mental and psychological states only but should include physical states as well. Accordingly, physical AL stretches the notion of the unconscious beyond its own boundaries by revealing novel references like physical states that make the distinction between “repressed unconscious” and “principle unconscious” necessary for epistemic rather than mere terminological reasons.


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Northoff, G. (2018). What Is the Unconscious? A Novel Taxonomy of Psychoanalytic, Psychological, Neuroscientific, and Philosophical Concepts. In: Boeker, H., Hartwich, P., Northoff, G. (eds) Neuropsychodynamic Psychiatry. Springer, Cham.

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