The Primacy of the Rational ‘Unconscious’

cancelled dreams

[Essay on the political dangers of denigrating the ‘irrational’by progressive intellectuals. Image by Banksy.]

The Primacy of the Rational ‘Unconscious’ over the Conscious and Rational

At least since the introduction of Calvinist capitalism and Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, the rationalist faith of the new bourgeois male individual, most progressively minded people have also tended to be rationalists in the tradition of the bourgeois Enlightenment, believing in the primacy of the rational intellect and the left brain (the ‘cogito’) over the allegedly murky world of the body/right brain and its instincts, feelings, dreams and desires. The latter was indiscriminately labelled ‘irrational’ and left to the conquered world of the pre-modern ‘primitives’, women, witches, religious superstition, ‘nature’, the lower classes. Enlightenment and Progress became synonymous with rationalism and reductionist science (or scientism).

The 19th century Romantic reaction to this dominant hierarchical binary then sought to defend the excluded and repressed and, later at its right-wing and even fascist worst, glorified the unconscious and ‘nature’ into a cult of the irrational which sought to reject the rational as ‘shallow’, ‘mechanical’ or ‘destructive of organic (hierarchical) community’. The Romantic reaction (cf. today’s deep green ‘primitivists’) in turn has tended to reinforce the rationalism and scientism of most progressively thinking people up to this day.

A pox on both your houses.

I would argue that neither the common people nor artists have ever fully come round to the rationalist viewpoint despite its dominance of the capitalist education system. This is because it is a one-sided, and thus false and potentially oppressive, view of how humans work. Most common people still, for better or for worse, rely more on ‘gut feelings’ for basic decisions than on abstract rationality or cost-benefit analysis. Despite the many attempts since Calvinism, the Catholic Counter-reformation, the Jacobins, Victorian utilitarians, communist bureaucrats and other earnest wowsers and fundamentalists to stamp it out, they also have a continuing and stubborn interest in the ‘irrationalities’ and collective joys of the festive and carnivalesque.

Artists and poets, unless wedded to the bourgeois strictures of shallow realism, have never allowed this artificial and oppressive binary of ‘rationality’ versus ‘irrationality to interfere with the reality of their creative work. This is because, by definition, this work relies heavily upon all that condemned by shallow rationalism and scientism: the unconscious, the right brain, dreams, the communication between the intellectual neo-cortex and the older mammalian and brain-stem parts of the brain and body. All this can also be framed using less scientific notions such as mystery, magic, phantasy and the imagination. Anybody involved in creative work, including scholarly or scientific creativity, knows that both the unconscious and the conscious, right and left brain are needed, that most innovative ideas come from the former while the latter tidies up, analyses, consciously relates and connects, pushes forward into and beyond the boundaries of new cognitive territory.

My political argument is that rationalist and scientistic progressives denigrate and ignore the so-called ‘irrational’ at their own peril. This leaves this whole primary area of human experience to the manipulations of the right and the advertising industry. It could be argued (as Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch did in the thirties) that one reason for fascism’s defeat of the working class movements was its superior connection with, and manipulation of, the so-called ‘irrational’, albeit in the form of highly regimented, hierarchical arranged and designed spectacles that precluded participation and creativity.

The great thing about modern science and rationality is how it tends to constantly reach the boundaries of its own reductionism and discover that reality works in ways that question that very reductionism. What happened in the world of quantum physics may now be happening in neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

It could be ironically argued that modern neuroscience and cognitive science have now even empirically shown that the so-called ‘irrational’ would actually be the unconscious source of rationalist progressives’ very own ideas, morality and rationality. In an apparent blow to naïve theories of rational education, science has now confirmed what most people probably already know: we accept certain ideas or values or even people over others not primarily because of their ‘rational cohesion’ or ‘rational persuasiveness’ (the latter possibly an oxymoron). The latter may come afterwards. Before an idea hits our intellects we have already accepted or rejected it on the basis of our ‘gut feeling’, i.e. our ‘adaptive unconscious’, our ‘intuition’. (Now even reductionist science has provided empirical physical evidence of the truth of ‘gut feeling’: the digestive system actually does have a separate brain or ‘enteric nervous system’ with its own neuronal system; cf. appendix below.) Thus much rational thought may be little but a post-factum rationalisation of ‘gut feelings’. It may be worth trying to occasionally tune into those gut feelings before engaging in rational debate…

I would thus argue that teachers primarily make an impact by their personalities, passions and ways of being, and any intellectual persuasion comes because and top of that primary relationship. It is well known that at job interviews decisions are usually made about applicants not after long ‘rational decision-making’ but in the first few seconds of their entering and speaking. Neuroscience has verified that we acquire much more information ‘by osmosis’, ‘intuitively’, ‘unconsciously’ than we do consciously through our intellects as ‘pure thoughts’. Thus the ‘irrational’, or what we might also call our ‘whole-body knowledge’, is our primary way of being in the world. It is a product of our evolutionary experience: faced by the strange, the unexpected, the new, we have to decide immediately whether to flee or fight, not first sit down and engage in abstract, rational, utilitarian thinking about it.

The logical consequence of all this for any radical activism is that we should not exclusively focus on rational argument. We should be spending at least as much time and energy thinking about our ‘intuitive’ or ‘unconscious’ attractiveness, our ‘vibe’, our aesthetics, our art and poetry and music and symbols, our energy, drive, gestures, postures and rituals, the warmth and fun of our communities etc than we should be about our rational arguments, our pamphlets and tracts. Simply, we should be seeking no privileging of one or the other but rather a creative interplay of left and right brain, the rational and the unconscious. In the political reality of contemporary mass movements this is in fact already the case, for

whatever its shortcomings as a means of social change, protest movements keep reinventing carnival. […] The media often deride the carnival spirit of such protests, as if it were a self-indulgent distraction from the serious political point. But seasoned organizers know that gratification cannot be deferred until after ‘the revolution’. […] People must find, in their movement, the immediate joy of solidarity, if only because, in the face of overwhelming state and corporate power, solidarity is their sole source of strength. (Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets, 259)

I have appended passages form Wikipedia about the neuroscience of the unconscious.


(Wikipedia, Neuroscience of Free Will):

Relevant findings include the pioneering study by Benjamin Libet and its subsequent redesigns; these studies were able to detect activity related to a decision to move, and the activity appears to be occurring briefly before people become conscious of it.[3] Other studies try to predict a human action several seconds early.[4] Taken together, these various findings show that at least some actions – like moving a finger – are initiated unconsciously at first, and enter consciousness afterward.[5] The role of consciousness in decision making is also being clarified: some thinkers have suggested that it mostly serves to cancel certain actions initiated by the unconscious. […]

One significant finding of modern studies is that a person’s brain seems to commit to certain decisions before the person becomes aware of having made them. Researchers have found delays of about half a second (discussed in sections below). With contemporary brain scanning technology, other scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice.[4] These and other findings have led some scientists, like Patrick Haggard, to reject some forms of “free will”. To be clear, no single study would disprove all forms of free will. This is because the term “free will” can encapsulate different hypotheses, each of which must be considered in light of existing empirical evidence.

(Wikipedia, The Unconscious Mind):

Cognitive research has revealed that automatically, and clearly outside of conscious awareness, individuals register and acquire more information than what they can experience through their conscious thoughts. (See Augusto, 2010, for a recent comprehensive survey.)[42]

(Wikipedia, The Adaptive Unconscious):

The adaptive unconscious is a set of mental processes influencing judgment and decision making, in a way that is inaccessible to introspective awareness. This conception of the unconscious mind has emerged in cognitive psychology. It was influenced by, but different from, other views on the unconscious mind such as Sigmund Freud’s.

The adaptive unconscious is distinguished from conscious processing in a number of ways, including being faster, effortless, more focused on the present, and less flexible.

In other theories of the mind, the unconscious is limited to “low-level” activity, such as carrying out goals which have been decided consciously. In contrast, the adaptive unconscious is thought to be involved in “high-level” cognition such as goal-setting as well.

According to Freud, the unconscious mind stored a lot of mental content which needs to be repressed. The term adaptive unconscious reflects the idea that much of what the unconscious does is beneficial to the organism; that its various processes have been streamlined by evolution to quickly evaluate and respond to patterns in an organism’s environment.[1]

Although research suggests that much of our preferences, attitudes and ideas come from the adaptive unconscious, subjects themselves do not realise this: they are “unaware of their own unawareness”.[2] They give verbal explanations of their own mental processes—for example why they chose one thing rather than another—as if they could directly introspect the causes of their ideas and choices

(Wikipedia, The Enteric Nervous System):

The enteric nervous system (ENS) or intrinsic nervous system is one of the main divisions of the autonomic nervous system and consists of a mesh-like system of neurons that governs the function of the gastrointestinal system.[1]

The ENS is capable of autonomous functions[4] such as the coordination of reflexes; although it receives considerable innervation from the autonomic nervous system, it can and does operate independently of the brain and the spinal cord.

The enteric nervous system consists of some one hundred million neurons,[9] one thousandth of the number of neurons in the brain, and essentially equal to the one hundred million neurons in the spinal cord. [10] The enteric nervous system is embedded in the lining of the gastrointestinal system, beginning in the esophagus and extending down to the anus.

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 8, 2014.

13 Responses to “The Primacy of the Rational ‘Unconscious’”

  1. i need to ruminate some more on this…but my gut reaction is, you are what you eat… (:

  2. “Are what you eat”, sounds like Feurbach!. I definitely agree there needs to be space to follow your bliss and reclaim the soul, but when I consider the carnival atmospherics of the global justice movement, the puppets and free food and campouts, and then look at the results- every free trade deal ever proposed eventually gets passed- I wonder about tactics and “fun”.

    I also want to poke a little at the notion of “gut” vs cognito. Your own sentence “The logical consequence of all this…we should not focus on rational argument.” itself points to the paradox/conundrum of needing a system of logic to build arguments while at the same time not pinning hopes on universal Truth claims. Logos is a language, an effective one for certain communicative problems to seek, maybe find solutions, for discourse to happen, yes?

    So again, as in your poetry, there is that unyielding tension…

  3. damn…now i have to read feurbach…you guys are forever increasing my reading list…!
    i have a question about that too…obviously, most of us (iops’ers) are well read…like to read and continue to read…think critically and apply what we learn to the bigger picture…(you’all are vastly more informed about the great philosophers than i…) my question is…if this is a necessary component for changing the world…aren’t we basically fucked?
    i see a trend against reading…and not just with my students…but many teachers too…!
    and when they do read, it’s for work or it’s fluff…not that i never read or watch fluff…i do…it’s an escape…but seems like more people just want to escape and that’s it…
    so…how can they get past tina without reading…?
    and i wasn’t entirely tongue in cheek when i referred to our diets…i don’t know about australia…but in the u.s…the typical diet is about as nutritional as eating cardboard…not to mention the added hormones, antibiotics, industrial farming, pesticides, cafo’s, gmo’s….aaaack…!
    doesn’t seem like good food for gut or brain development…
    i guess what i’m getting at here is, how else can humans be united to want systemic change that transcends what they think is normal or inevitable, besides reading…?
    and then there’s the whole, “i got mine, so what’s your frickin’ problem…?” mentality…the coordinators who believe there should be class divisions…ownership, etc…they won’t even consider alternatives…
    i’m starting to gush…
    dave…i actually like the puppets…they seem to rally and unite folks…if you get separated from your group…you can find them…food unites too…i don’t think anyone is any less serious about the issues…and it does help take the edge off when you’re passing rows of cops in riot gear…
    i doubt it has anything to do with those freaking trade deals passing or not passing anyway….

    • Kristi, I am an admitted theory geek, love pouring over stuff I only start to understand on third reading…totally not the norm, but precisely why I am drawn to other intellectuals like Peter. And you are right, just interrogating obscure texts is not the revolution. In fact, I wouldn’t spend much time on Fuerbach.
      On the other hand, I think there is a necessary role for thinkers and ideas as long as they don’t get unnecessary status in some scholastic hierarchy . I personally am unschooled, never had any higher education and basically have worked as a laborer my whole long life. But ideas are power and we build our ideas on the shoulders of those who have gone before, to the best of our capacity and ability.

      My thing about puppets is just that I feel the need to do an unsparing, critical look at tactics and strategies that have gone before. A real frank assessment. Puppets are just the symbol of an organizing playbook that has been followed for years- and the results? We are losing big time. Maybe we need more focus on diet, maybe something else we haven’t thought of.. but to make the space to do that thinking we have to examine every pre-conceived notion, IMO.

    • Yep, Kristi, totally agree. As mentioned, I think reading is decreasing as medial fluff distractions and short attention spans are increasing, both to the immense benefit of the powers that be. Raises perhaps some interesting questions for critical thinkers and the left… Yep, and the food/nutrition issue as important as the mind nutrition issue, both industrialised into pap, ’empty calories’ says it all: pure quantity, obliteration of quality, just like capitalism’s basic quantitative exchange/money values degrade or obliterate qualitative use values… Food here both similar and different to US methinks. Maybe easier to still get good food here? But most also eat industrial junk food of one form or another. I love puppets too. Bread and Puppet Theatre, such a great outfit it was…

  4. i just finished reading the postings on iops for this same essay…excellent…but wondered why no one brought up the connections between early childhood education and the damage inflicted on young developing brains…

    one of the scientific/empirically based reasons i used to justify homeschooling, (to my skeptical, even hostile relatives), was to avoid the pavlov’s dog equivalent of training a young child before the brain was fully developed…waiting until right and left hemispheres were balanced as a ‘whole brain’, (generally between the ages of 8-12), and consequently, the capacity for “thoughtful” learning…

    it’s been over 20 years, so i’m rusty, but seems i read somewhere that “poly-maths’ are rare/obsolete in modern society…due to our brains not developing out in nature and making cyclical connections…

    i don’t know if this is out dated, or has any bearing on why folks don’t seem to make the connections between capitalism and degrading the environment, etc…but maybe ???

    • Yep, too early intellectualisation in childhood I reckon is a problem too. E.g. helicopter mums pushing stuff on kids too early, achievement achievement, performance performance, grades grades, standardised testing, capitalist competitiveness coming right right through the behaviour and attitudes of your main carer, anxious about future careers and precariousness… At least starting public schooling later at about seven instead of four/five (plus pre-school) as in Germany and elsewhere might help a bit.

  5. > I would argue that neither the common people nor artists have ever …

    As a mathematician, and someone who has never seen a painting as good as a photograph, I gag at this pretentious attitude. What you call “rational” is rarely that. People are so soaked in “faith-based thinking” that they don’t know what is logical and what is not. Because they don’t think logically, their “logical thinking” rarely provides the right answer, and so they don’t rely on it.

    If you put 100 mathematicians in a room and set them a problem, they will all come up with the same answer, and can then build on that to tackle other problems.

    Put 100 artists (theologians, philosophers, politicians) in a room and no matter how long you keep them there, they will have 100 solutions and nothing they all agree on. Some are even proud of that.

    • Dave Kimble,

      I feel you are misconstruing what Peter is saying. He is claiming that the common folk and artists have never fully come round to the rationalist approach and that is regardless of an education soaked in rationalism and a tendency to eschew diverse and alternative creative thought processes and problem solving methods. A rationalism that creates beliefs in some,that many ordinary people do not know what is logical and what is not. I would give the common folk far more credit in their natural abilities to solve problems logically and rationally. But it depends what those problems are, what skills the individual possesses and the level of confidence in those skills. It is the confidence that gets demolished within the education system. Peter, I don’t think, is making a pretentious claim at all. In fact the complete opposite. I further feel that your two examples don’t support your own argument at all.

      Put a hundred jazz musicians in a room and ask them to show how to voice lead through Giant Steps or even just a two five one chord progression and you will get 100 different examples. Some strange and some more conventional. They are not meant to come to an agreement on how to solve the problem. Ask them to solve a difficult math problem (not just a musical one or any kind) and you may see a small proportion make an attempt and even succeed, but most will just put their instruments down and go to the bar.

      Philosophers( though the definition may depend on the historical era and their speciality and background), theologians and artists deal with completely different things than the very specific technical problems mathematicians do. Put 100 mathematicians in a room to deal with a social problem, one dealing with human relations, and you will see, more than likely, some level of disagreement in proportions that reflect other things other than their mathematicianness.

      In the math example you set a problem which I assume would be mathematical. In your second example you do not say what the problem to be solved is, but I am assuming it would not be mathematical. If it is, then it would be a pointless exercise to me.

      What would be interesting among the mathematicians is how each went about solving the problem. As Little Dickie Feynman said, it’s not how you get the right answer, it’s whether you get the right answer. So one could be as creative as one wants in solving a problem, which could involve a more whole body approach mixed with a logical one. The answer however, for some, may come more quickly and in a way that could never be truly explained verbally, but shown and proved mathematically after the fact. An aha moment. Again depending on the nature of the problem and skill level of the mathematician.

      So I can’t see how your two examples prove anything at all.

      Further, many ordinary non mathematicians or logicians are quite capable of building and constructing quite complex structures which would no doubt entail logical and rational thinking. They are also quite capable of solving and working around differences and diverse viewpoints in regards to the far more complex problem solving area of human social relations. While many may not agree with one another, practical considerations and self-managed decision making will often result in being able to accept differences and still move forward for the good of the whole community. Logic would no doubt be involved but probably not play the most vital role, I guess.

      • Perhaps I didn’t make my point clearly enough. I was gagging at the distinction being made between “the common people” and “artists”, not whatever it was that came next – hence the “…” device to omit what came next.

        The distinction, surely, should between “the common people” and “mathematicians”, based on how consistently logically they think. The common people shy away from issues where the answer can be clearly seen as either right or wrong. They prefer instead to talk about the weather, their tastes in music, which football team is best – all issues where everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

        Anyone who tries to answer questions like “the meaning of life” is just wasting their time, yet many do so, for they know they cannot be outed as “unequivocably wrong”. Prestigious careers are made out of such opinions. Artists and musicians talk about “their work” as if it advanced human knowledge, etc.

      • To tell you the truth Dave K, what comes after is pretty important. Your gagging at some perceived pretentious attitude I find to be strange. I am both a commoner and an artist (of some sort at least!)and what Peter is saying is fairly clear to me and unpretentious. And I find your statements, claims or assertions re common folk and logicians like mathematicians, not very informative, nor even ‘true’. Even from a logical perspective. Or just lost within some narrow perspective.Much the same with your last paragraph re meaning of life. Artists and musicians usually leave it to others to talk about their work and many of those who proclaim its immense value, worth and necessity are logicians of all sorts themselves. In fact, without such works, human progress would probably come to a halt. Life, and therefore advances in human knowledge, would be worthless without them. Life most likely unbearable. Even Feynman played the bongos. Goddamn hipster!

  6. Bongo playing should be integral to early childhood education. To Kristi’s point: I am hearing stories about how competitive it is to get three year olds into the BEST programs in NY City. Interviews and selections…crazy.

    But of course, this may be a rational approach towards a technocratic society run by mathematicians. You will find me in the bar with the jazzbos.

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