On Sigmund Freud's Three-Fold Model

    After little break from the daily posts, it's time to resume our psycho-epistemology series. Today, I'm going to talk about Sigmund Freud's model of the mind, and how it gives us a detailed explanation of how evasion works. Before we get started, however, I must explain how his ideas differ from the strawman often attacked by his critics - which include Objectivist intellectuals like Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger.

    Peikoff describes Freud's theory as one in which "the prime mover in human nature is an unperceivable entity with a will and purpose of its own, the unconscious". Essentially, he paints Freud's model as one in which a) there is another entity in one's mind, with a will of its own, called the unconscious b) the unconscious is not perceivable by the conscious mind c) the unconscious has primacy over the conscious mind.

    Every single one of those statements is wrong, and could never have been made by someone who actually read Freud's work.

    His theory divides the content of one's mind into three different groups, based on how easily we can make ourselves aware of that content. The conscious mind encompasses that which we are explicitly aware of, and can easily put into words. It guides conscious, volitional action in a pretty intuitive way: you plan consciously, and you act on your plan.

    The preconscious mind refers to all the information which we are not immediately aware of, but can be brought to mind with little to moderate effort. Unlike conscious mental content, which can easily be put into words, preconscious content can only be vaguely "felt". A great example is when we look for a word that is "in the tip of our tongues", yet making it conscious still requires significant effort. Preconscious thought also guides action directly, as it includes the implicit cognitive and emotional context of our decisions.

    The unconscious mind refers to information that we ultimately know, but have actively suppressed by a process of repeated evasion, and can only become conscious of by a long and strenuous process of introspection. As Ayn Rand pointed out, evasion begets evasion - the longer you maintain a contradiction, the more facts you have to evade, as identifying them would make the contradiction clear. The psychological corollary of this notion is that the longer you maintain an evasion, the harder it becomes to identify, as doing so requires also identifying all the secondary evasions it caused.

    This three-fold model perfectly explains the psycho-epistemology of evasion. Every original idea we have starts at the preconscious level. Before we can fully formulate an idea, we must identify that "there is something worth thinking about, relating to these subjects" - we know that there is something we might want to focus on, before we know what that something is. We can then chose to make that idea conscious, by actively focusing on those subjects, and their relationship. We make ideas fully conscious by explicitly formulating them with concepts and propositions.

    Conceptualization, however, is a volitional process, and we can always choose not to focus on an idea. An evasion is usually not a fully formulated idea that we avoid (although that is also possible), but a preconscious notion that we choose not focus on, based on how it feels like at the preconscious stage. The Freudian unconscious thus does not affect our actions directly, as the "entity" Peikoff talks about. It does so indirectly, to the extent that we choose to evade - the more we automatize the act of not focusing on a preconscious idea because of how it makes us feel, the more our actions will be defined by our pre-conceptual associations, and the emotions they cause - both of which are outside our direct control.

  -  April 22nd, 2020