Sartre v Freud

I had an interesting exchange with Ian Birchall recently concerning Sartre’s views on the transparency of consciousness. Ian asked me how I reconciled my Sartrean and Freudian sympathies given their diametrically opposed views on this question. Here’s my reply:

The short answer to this question is that I don’t reconcile them: clearly Sartre and Freud have antithetical positions on the existence (or even possibility) of the unconscious.

And this argument crops up again and again in all sorts of other contexts, eg the longrunning argument between Derrida and Lacan on precisely this question: can you know something without knowing that you know it? Lacan says yes, Derrida says no. It even crops up in formal logic, where you get systems that accept the axiom ⬜p → ⬜⬜p (“if I know p then I know that I know p”) and those that do not.

A more subtle answer might be that Sartre and Freud mean different things by “consciousness”. For Freud there is barrier, the repression mechanism, that prevents unconscious knowledge from coming to consciousness. So there are two types of knowledge, the stuff we know and know that we know, which he calls conscious (or preconscious occasionally), and the stuff we know but don’t know that we know because it is actively repressed, the unconscious. For Sartre the latter category is absurd, consciousness is necessarily transparent and therefore always aware on some level of its own activity.

Now the subtle point is this: for Freud the unconscious is not entirely inaccessible to consciousness. If it were, psychoanalysis would be impossible. The wager of the “talking cure”, so to speak, is that with the right kind of interventions from an analyst the repression mechanism can be unlocked and previously unconscious knowledge can come to light. So unconscious knowledge is not in principle inaccessible (quite the opposite in fact), it just plays hard to get.

From this point of view Sartre can be viewed as coming to similar picture from a different angle: Sartre says consciousness is the whole of the psychic system, while Freud uses the term to describe just part of the psyche. And hence “bad faith” in Sartre plays a similar role to“censorship” or “repression” in Freud.

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