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In my previous post about the way the mind’s automatic processes get things wrong (and how that point is important to Buddhists), I turned to the experiments of Daniel Kahneman (and Amos Tversky) on false cognition. I claimed that the kind of automaticity they describe is a better explanation of what Freud would have called the unconscious mind, citing the quip that “the unconscious is unconscious not because it’s repressed but because it’s not conscious.”

Some excellent comments from Patrick O’Donnell took me to task for this claim. Patrick is pointing to the importance of the distinction between cognitivist approaches like Kahneman’s on one hand, and a very different kind of modern Western psychology on the other. Freud is by far the best-known practitioner of this other kind of psychology, but I think that it encompasses a wider variety of thinkers including Carl Jung, and very likely going back to Nietzsche.

I treat these thinkers as practising one single kind of psychology with reference to a key comment of Patrick’s. He claims that “cognitive science is studying that which far closer to the surface of conscious awareness (hence its amenability to experiments) and thus, strictly speaking, does not treat the ‘unconscious’ mind.” I think that in this respect Freudian psychoanalysis is best placed within a larger group of psychological approaches that do claim to treat an “unconscious mind” that is much further away from “the surface of conscious awareness”. Kurt Danziger, in his interesting history of American experimental psychology and its vocabulary, uses the term “depth psychology” to describe such approaches – he names Alfred Adler as one of its main protagonists alongside Freud and Jung. That term seems entirely apt to me, in part because Freud himself appears to have used it as self-description (in his “Beyond the pleasure principle” and “The ego and the id”), and in part because of the very nature of what these approaches have in common: that they seek to get beyond “the surface of conscious awareness”, whose opposite must surely be “depth”. So while I acknowledge Patrick’s point that contemporary self-described “depth psychologists tend to frown on Freud, at least in comparison with Jung”, on reflection I think the description of Freud as a “depth psychologist” remains entirely apt.

The name aside, Patrick’s larger point is that Freud claims to be observing something very different than Kahneman &co. do. And I think this point is correct and of high importance – especially in reference to any comparison with Buddhism. For what we are dealing with here, I have realized from my exchange with Patrick, are two quite different kinds of psychological “depth”. In my first comment to Patrick I had said that “the hot motivational structures you describe are pretty widespread – a great deal of Buddhist thought and practice deals with the difficulty of rooting them out when they go down so deep.” His response is worth quoting in full:

habits are hard to break, and not necessarily because they’re unconscious, but because, through praxis (often over many years, beginning in our young adult lives if not earlier), they’ve become so ingrained (much like other things we learn): that they can be broken or changed is evidenced in many parts of life even if not as often as we would hope or like: such changes rarely require anything like psychoanalytic intervention, whereas those habits that are profoundly irrational or conspicuously distort our efforts to live a more or less “rational,” “normal” or “sane” life do strike me as having unconscious sources that require therapy of one kind or another (one, like psychoanalysis, with substantial pedigree).

I claimed that what Buddhists seek to eradicate is “deep” in the sense that it is deeply rooted – hard to root out, hard to eradicate. Psychoanalysts and other depth psychologists, by contrast, are claiming to find phenomena that are deep in quite a different sense: that they are hard to discover. There is an important commonality between the two approaches, which my initial comment had tried to note, in that both reject the Cartesian assumption that the conscious mind is generally in control of itself, master of its own house. That rejection is important because the assumption goes so far beyond Descartes: we tend to think of “belief” in a simplistic sense that identifies it with assenting consciously to propositions, not recognizing the important things in which we do not actually control the things we “believe”. All this was the main point of the original post, on which I don’t see any disagreement between Patrick and myself.

Yet the differences remain. And on this point what strikes me is that, as I understand them, the target of Buddhist practices may be closer to what is identified by Kahneman and Tversky than by Freud. That is: I don’t think Buddhists claim it is hard to know what is wrong with us. It is just hard to get rid of the problem – as Kahneman, I think, also shows. In part, I think, this is because Buddhists are less concerned than depth psychologists with individual difference: we all are suffering from the same delusions, which makes them, at some level, obvious. We might not have been able to figure out that suffering comes from craving until somebody told us that, but once they do, we are able to assent to the proposition without much difficulty. The hard part comes in getting that proposition to take root at a level beyond our fleeting consciousnesses, to be something we feel and act on rather than just articulate. In this respect, it seems to me, Buddhists may be considerably closer to Kahneman than to Freud.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.