Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Price Of Intention

"Don't for heaven's sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense." —Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Culture and Value" p.59.
I am sure I have often said and have certainly often heard others say: "I didn't realise until afterwards, what I was trying to do." This post is an attempt to pay close attention to the nonsense buried in this utterance and to tentatively suggest that the associated notion of unconscious striving — of unconscious desire even — is incoherent. It may already be clear that such a view runs contrary to one or two foundational ideas within psychoanalysis, some of which continue to garner significant recognition within the arts. If we shouldn't be afraid of talking nonsense, then we probably shouldn't be afraid of identifying nonsense either.

To realise something after the fact is to have learned something new; to have become aware of something that was previously unclear or inaccessible. The sentence "I didn't realise until afterwards, what I was trying to do." is commonly used as an acknowledgement that our goals are often vague, fragmentary or imprecise and only through the gradual, or sometimes sudden, accumulation of understanding do we become capable of clearly articulating this more developed knowledge. But whilst our goals can be sketchy, a vague intention is not an intention for vague outcome. A sketchy idea for a diagram is rarely a desire for a sketchy diagram.

There is nothing confused or paradoxical about such thoughts. Where the confusion arises is in the suggestion that some part of us, some inner and inaccessible intelligence, seeks to express itself through our actions; that an alleged unconscious or subconscious self is trying to tell us things that may only dawn upon our conscious awareness later. Certainly there are times when we recognise patterns or significances in our past actions. But is this sufficient grounds for the supposition that we are host to unconscious intentions that are striving to articulate themselves? I hope to show that it is not.

Trying, striving, endeavouring, pursuing, envisaging, seeking, aiming etc. are intentional goal orientated behaviours. Without goals there can be no striving  because there can be nothing to strive towards. If we were never capable of communicating an outcome of our actions in any shape or form, then we could not be said to try to achieve something either. "All 'willing' is willing something," as the neurologist Oliver Sacks puts it.

If someone asks us what we are doing and we have no answer, then we cannot be said to be acting purposefully. It is for this reason that goals are fundamentally reliant upon our powers of communication; upon our ability to offer some sort of token, word or gesture that would be acceptable to others as a representation of our intention.

In a 2006 paper, Jack Glaser and John Kihlstrom argue that: "Unconscious Volition Is Not an Oxymoron." They write:
...the unconscious, in addition to being a passive categorizer, evaluator, and semantic processor, has processing goals (for example, accuracy, egalitarianism) of its own, can be vigilant for threats to the attainment of these goals, and will proactively compensate for such threats.
Clearly Glaser and Kihlstrom recognise that volition demands goals, but it is extraordinary that they are prepared to suggest that unconscious behaviour is fundamentally intentional: that it has ulterior motives, even if these are as seemingly benign and basic as accuracy and egalitarianism etc. In its most extreme form, such a view opens the door to any number of unwitting intentions and renders us as nothing more than witnesses to motives beyond our control or ken.

If goals can be pursued without our conscious awareness or control, then we are puppets in a theatre not of our own making, and all we can do is observe our actions like passive audience members in the hope of gleaning some comprehension of the hidden goals that actually drive us. Consciousness never looked more wretched.

The alternative is to reject the notion of unconscious volition altogether and to seek a less extravagant explanation.

When in 1974 Oliver Sacks broke his leg whilst fleeing from a bull, the trauma of the injury left him with a temporary inability to properly sense or move his leg. In essence the episode had rid him of all knowhow in the use of his leg. A closely related condition is sometimes experienced by people who become temporarily blind in response to the traumatic loss of a loved one or some other major upset. These sorts of psychological responses to trauma are known as "Conversion Disorders" and it is interesting to note that the term was first coined by Freud as an alternative to "hysteria" or "hysterical blindness."

In a paper on the subject of conversion disorders, Harvey et al. (2006) point out that: "One difficulty facing research in this field is the complexity of the conceptual issues and variable ways in which terminology has been used." The authors helpfully include a table of definitions and explanations of key terminology and they also explicitly state that conversion disorders are “not intentionally produced” and cannot be feigned. It should be made clear that they do not make any suggestion that conversion disorders are the result of unconscious intention, striving, trying etc.

When overtired drivers are overcome by sleep, their unconscious is not striving to take control. If you attempt to kill yourself by holding your breath, it is not inner volition that will rob you of consciousness before the job is done. These are simply highly evolved autonomic responses that have no goals and do not have to strive, seek or endeavour to impose themselves. They have no more volition than the iris of the eye. No doubt conversion disorders are similarly rooted in complex autonomic processes.

Can we aim for one thing only to find that we were actually aiming for something else? If goals are necessarily communicable, then it follows that we cannot be oblivious of those we are pursuing. We can certainly aim for inappropriate goals or be confused, uncertain or vague about our goals, as I have already mentioned. But I don't think we can be mistaken that the thing we are intent upon is actually the thing we are intent upon. That would come at an extremely high price; the price of intention itself.


Valery said...

What about to rule the unconscious strivings? In creating some intentions and goals appear later, in the beginning they are only unconscious, but I think we can help some new goals to reveal themselves by loading some informations into the brain. Then an unconscious work of the brain will create new goals. ;)

John S said...

Knowledge is impossible without intentions. This is because knowledge involves the intentions of believing and having a justification. Therefore, if we know anything we have intentions.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Valery, I think our habits, dispositions, tendencies and accumulated knowledge all influence the kinds of goals we devise and those we are likely to choose from a range of options. So in that sense there is method in our 'madness' (our non-conscious processing of experience that is). But this 'method' is not a wilful processing but a constitutional readiness to respond to certain causal influences in certain ways. In short it is an acquired but automatic responsiveness.

Jim Hamlyn said...

John, I know what you are getting at but I still think you are restricting yourself to symbol pushing skills and propositional attitudes (symbol pushing attitudes) where more fundamental forms of knowledge are involved that enable the symbol pushing skills to get up and running in the first place. Seeing is not necessarily believing but it is knowing: knowing how to represent in viable ways to other similarly endowed and encultured creatures.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Valery, apologies, I'm not sure that my response to your comment was very clear. A better way of putting it would be to say that we have motives that determine our actions. Whilst we are aware of our goals, we are not always aware of the full extent of our motives. What I want to distance myself from though is any implication that these motives are goal orientated.

Jim Hamlyn said...

In other words, motives are not strivings.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering how certain - almost behaviourist - positions fit into what you've written.

For example, Donald Davidson quotes a Graham Wallis who himself quotes a girl who said: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?”

Davidson then quotes someone saying the following: “I would say that most good painters don't know what they think until they paint it.”

The behaviourist angle is itself pointed out by Davidson when he mentions Gilbert Ryle's position. Davidson writes:

“... [Ryle] stoutly maintained that we know our own minds in exactly the same way we know the minds of others, by observing what we say, do, and paint.”

Interestingly, Davidson concluded by say that “Ryle was wrong”.

I'm not sure, however, if these work towards or against your thesis or even if they're relevant.

At the least, the behaviouralist position, more than anything, seems to radically discount any kind of autonomous unconscious mind. That's not a surprise, behaviourism was said to discount the mind (as a black box) in it entirely. (That's up for debate!)

In any case, it's not just behaviourists who believe that expression is everything. And that, again, works against the unconscious.

In addition, you wouldn't expect to to chain-gang a continental philosopher into this “behaviourist” case against the unconscious. But here's Derrida on the same theme (if using a strange prose-style):

“To write is to know that what has not yet been produced within literality has no other dwelling place, does not await us as prescription in some ‘topos ouranios’, or some divine understanding. Meaning must await being said or written in order to inhabit itself, and in order to become, by differing from itself, what it is: meaning.”

Paul Murphy (using 'Anonymous')

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi Paul and thanks for your comments.

I guess containers — whether black boxes or white cubes — are always awkward receptacles for our philosophical commitments. You are right though to pick up on a whiff of analytical behaviourism in my bloggy thoughts. Behaviourism proper? I hope not. I'd like to think that my approach has a lot more in common with the techniques of conceptual analysis of ordinary language philosophy than the behavioural analysis of behavioural science. Perhaps the following might help to clarify my position:

Philosophical Behaviourism: an Incomplete Project

Anonymous said...

No; all the "behaviourist" positions I quoted above I myself largely endorse. It wasn't meant to be a criticism as such. I suppose the point is that people who don't class themselves as behaviourists have behaviourist elements.

They pick and choose their philosophical positions. When people are pure and zelous Xs – they tend to go wrong. Thus I have *some* sympathy for behaviourism.

“Behaviourism proper? I hope not.”

Same here!

“I'd like to think that my approach has a lot more in common with the techniques of conceptual analysis of ordinary language philosophy than the behavioural analysis of behavioural science.”

That's my position. In fact whenever someone feels the need to class themselves as an X, I'm immediately suspicious. Whether that's a behaviourist, a Wittgensteinian or whatever. Of course it was okay for, say, Quine to be a Quinian because he was Quine. But for others?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Exactly. I owe a huge debt to Donald Brook though, and to that extent I'm Brookian in my approach and have often said so. We all stand on the shoulders of giants I guess, even the Quine's and Wittgenstein's.

Post a Comment