The Mind and the Brain/Book II/Chapter VIII

The Mind and the Brain by Alfred Binet
Book II: Chapter VIII
Definition of the Consciousness—The Separation of the Consciousness from its Object—The Unconscious
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I ask myself whether it is possible, by going further along this road of the separation between the consciousness and its object, to admit that ideas may subsist during the periods when we are not conscious of them. It is the problem of unconsciousness that I am here stating.

One of the most simple processes of reasoning consists in treating ideas in the same manner as we have treated the external objects. We have admitted that the consciousness is a thing superadded to the external objects, like the light which lights up a landscape, but does not constitute it and may be extinguished without destroying it. We continue the same interpretation by saying that ideas prolong their existence while they are not being thought, in the same way and for the same motive that material bodies continue theirs while they are not being perceived. All that it seems permissible to say is that this conception is not unrealisable. Let us now place ourselves at the point of view of the consciousness. We have supposed up to the present the suppression of the consciousness, and have seen that we can still imagine the object continuing to exist. Is the converse possible? Let us suppose that the object is suppressed. Can the consciousness then continue to exist? On this last point it seems that doubt is not possible, and we must answer in the negative. A consciousness without an object, an empty consciousness, in consequence, cannot be conceived; it would be a zero—a pure nothingness; it could not manifest itself. We might admit, in strictness, that such a consciousness might exist virtually as a power which is not exercised, a reserve, a potentiality, or a possibility of being; but we cannot comprehend that this power can realise or actualise itself. There is therefore no actual consciousness without an object.

The problem we have just raised, that of the separability of the elements which compose an act of consciousness, is continued by another problem—that of unconsciousness. It is almost the same problem, for to ask one’s self what becomes of a known thing when we separate from it the consciousness which at first accompanied it, is to ask one’s self in what an unconscious phenomenon consists.

We have, till now, considered the two principal forms of unconsciousness—that in nature and that in thought. The first named unconsciousness does not generally bear that name, but is rather discussed under the name of idealism and realism. Whatever be their names, these two kinds of unconsciousness are conceivable, and the more so that they both belong to physical nature.

If we allow ourselves to be guided by the concept of separability, we shall now find that we have exhausted the whole series of possible problems, for we have examined all the possible separations between the consciousness and its objects; but if we use another concept, that of unconsciousness, we can go further and propound a new problem: can the consciousness become unconscious? But it is proper first to make a few distinctions. It is the rôle of metaphysics to make distinctions.[1]

Unconsciousness presupposes a death of the consciousness; but this death has its degrees, and before complete extinction we may conceive it to undergo many attenuations. There is, first, the diminution of consciousness. Consciousness is a magnitude capable of increase and decrease, like sensation itself. According to the individual, consciousness may have a very large or a very small field, and may embrace at the same time a variable number of objects. I can pay attention to several things at the same time, but when I am tired it becomes more difficult to me. I lose in extension, or, as is still said, the field of consciousness is restricted. It may also lose not only in extent of surface, but in depth. We have all of us observed in our own selves moments of obscure consciousness when we understand dimly, and moments of luminous consciousness which carry one almost to the very bottom of things. It is difficult to consider those in the wrong who admit, with Leibnitz, the existence of small states of consciousness. The lessening of the consciousness is already our means of understanding the unconscious; unconsciousness is the limit of this reduction.[2]

This singular fact has also been noticed, that, in the same individual there may co-exist several kinds of consciousness which do not enter into communication with each other and which are not acquainted with each other. There is a principal consciousness which speaks, and, in addition, accessory kinds of consciousness which do not speak, but reveal their existence by the use of other modes of expression, of which the most frequent is writing.

This doubling or fractionation of the consciousness and personality have often been described in the case of hysterical subjects. They sometimes occur quite spontaneously, but mostly they require a little suggestion and cultivation. In any case, that they are produced in one way or other proves that they are possible, and, for the theory, this possibility is essential. Facts of this kind do not lead to a theory of the unconscious, but they enable us to understand how certain phenomena, unconscious in appearance, are conscious to themselves, because they belong to states of consciousness which have been separated from each other.

A third thesis, more difficult of comprehension than the other two, supposes that the consciousness may be preserved in an unconscious form. This is difficult to admit, because unconsciousness is the negation of consciousness. It is like saying that light can be preserved when darkness is produced, or that an object still exists when, by the hypothesis, it has been radically destroyed. This idea conveys no intelligible meaning, and there is no need to dwell on it.

We have not yet exhausted all the concepts whereby we may get to unconsciousness. Here is another, the last I shall quote, without, however, claiming that it is the last which exists. We might call it the physiological concept, for it is the one which the physiologists employ for choice. It is based upon the observation of the phenomena which are produced in the nervous system during our acts of consciousness; these phenomena precede consciousness as a rule, and condition it. According to a convenient figure which has been long in use, the relations of the physiological phenomenon to the consciousness are represented as follows: the physiological phenomenon consists in an excitement which, at one time, follows a direct and short route from the door by which it enters the nervous system to the door by which it makes its exit. In this case, it works like a simple mechanical phenomenon; but sometimes it makes a longer journey, and takes a circuitous road by which it passes into the higher nerve centres, and it is at the moment when it takes this circuitous road that the phenomenon of consciousness is produced. The use of this figure does not prejudge any important question.

Going further, many contemporary authors do not content themselves with the proposition that the consciousness is conditioned by the nervous phenomenon, but suggest also that it is continually accompanied by it. Every psychical fact of perception, of emotion, or of idea should have, it is supposed, a physiological basis. It would therefore be, taken in its entirety, psycho-physiological. This is called the parallelist theory.

We cannot discuss this here, as we shall meet with it again in the third part of this book. It has the advantage of leading to a very simple definition of unconsciousness. The unconscious is that which is purely physiological. We represent to ourselves the mechanical part of the total phenomenon continuing to produce itself, in the absence of the consciousness, as if this last continued to follow and illuminate it.

Such are the principal conceptions that may be formed of the unconscious. They are probably not the only ones, and our list is not exhaustive.

After having indicated what the unconscious is, we will terminate by pointing out what it is not and what it cannot be.

We think, or at least we have impliedly supposed in the preceding definitions, that the unconscious is only something unknown, which may have been known, or which might become known under certain conditions, and which only differs from the known by the one characteristic of not being actually known. If this notion be correct, one has really not the right to arm this unconsciousness with formidable powers. It has the power of the reality to which it corresponds, but its character of unconsciousness adds nothing to this. It is the same with it as with the science of the future. No scholar will hesitate to admit that that science will be deeper and more refined than that already formed. But it is not from the fact that it is unknown that it will deserve its superiority: it is from the phenomena that it will embrace. To give to that which is unconscious, as we here understand it, an overwhelming superiority over the conscious as such, we must admit that the consciousness is not only a useless luxury, but the dethronement of the forces that it accompanies.

In the next place, I decline to admit that the consciousness itself can become unconscious, and yet continue in some way under an unconscious form. This would be, in my opinion, bringing together two conceptions which contradict each other, and thus denying after having affirmed. From the moment that the consciousness dies, there remains nothing of it, unless it be the conditions of its appearance, conditions which are distinct from itself. Between two moments of consciousness separated by time or by a state of unconsciousness, there does not and cannot exist any link. I feel incapable of imagining of what this link could be composed, unless it were material—that is to say, unless it were supplied from the class of objects. I have already said that the substantialist thesis endeavours to establish a continuity between one consciousness and another separated by time, by supposing a something durable, of which the consciousness would be a property of intermittent manifestation. They would thus explain the interruptions of consciousness as the interruptions in the light of a lamp. When the light is extinguished, the lamp remains in darkness, but is still capable of being lighted. Let us discard this metaphor, which may lead to illusion. The concept of consciousness can furnish no link and no mental state which remains when the consciousness is not made real; if this link exists, it is in the permanence of the material objects and of the nervous organism which allows the return of analogous conditions of matter.

  1. In metaphysics we reason, not on facts, but most often on conceptions. Now just as facts are precise so conceptions are vague in outline. Facts are like crystallised bodies, ideas like liquids and gases. We think we have an idea, and it changes form without our perceiving it. We fancy we recognise one idea, and it is but another, which differs slightly from the preceding one. By means of distinctions we ought to struggle against this flowing away and flight of ideas.
  2. I think I have come across in Aristotle the ingenious idea that the enfeeblement of the consciousness and its disorder may be due to the enfeeblement and disorder of the object. It is a theory which is by no means improbable.