chapter  6
21 Pages

‘A Tumbling-Ground for Whimsies’? The History and Contemporary Role of the Conscious/unconscious Contrast


William James argued that the distinction between ‘the unconscious being and the conscious being of the mental state’ was ‘the sovereign means for believing what one likes in psychology, and of turning what might become a science into a tumbling-ground for whimsies’.1 Little over a century later, not only is the distinction between conscious and unconscious mentality taken for granted in psychology and philosophy of mind (pace Searle), but as Robert Van Gulick has observed, the distinction is taken by many thinkers to provide the explanandum for accounts of consciousness and the consciousness of mental states.2 If we are to explain consciousness, then, Van Gulick insists, ‘At a minimum we need to explain the difference between conscious mental states and nonconscious mental states or unconscious mental states or processes’.3 In what follows we shall be primarily concerned with how the distinction between conscious and unconscious mental states is drawn upon by those who seek to explain the conscious status of mental states rather than the related issues of how we should explain the distinction between conscious beings and unconscious ones.