Wednesday, June 08, 2011

How Transparent Are Our Minds?

In a conversation last week, a gay colleague referred to an acquaintance as so deeply closeted that he (the acquaintance) never realized himself that he was gay. It struck me as an interesting thing to say -- a case of purported false consciousness -- and it's rattled around as I've worked this week on an explication of Descartes' writings.

According to Descartes, an evil demon may be fooling me about everything I believe, even controlling the thoughts I have, but I cannot be wrong about two things: first, that I exist, and second, that I know what I am thinking. What I am thinking may be false, but I cannot be wrong when I assert that I am thinking it. Since wanting is a form of thinking, I'll always know what I want and that I want it. On this view, our minds are transparent to us.

Freud most famously contended the opposite, that the conscious mind was but a small bit of the full mind and that beneath the surface lots of activity is happening that leads you to think you want certain things, when in fact you are merely displaying displaced desires, suppressing your true wants and replacing them with something more acceptable. The trained psychoanalyst occupies a special place where he can glimpse elements of it and tell you about it, but many of our true desires remain hidden to ourselves.

Who is closer to right here? Descartes or Freud? Do we know our minds or do we only think we do? Or do we only think that we only think that we do?