A Philosophical Knot: Un/conscious Agent

Here’s a rather philosophical set of Morning Pages. I’m capping it off with a quote from Wittgenstein to pull out one subtle allusion.

I hear the hum of vents as I sit here in the office this morning and focus. One astounding thing about meditating for me is the regular realization of how much of my experience passes by unnoticed. There is so much sound, smell, sight, sensation that goes by without my conscious processing of it. Perhaps the word “conscious” here leads us in troublesome philosophical directions. The problem with the term, as I stop now and really think about its usage, is that it is attached to the concept of a unified “I” that is the agent of consciousness.

However, if I drive for a while and suddenly realize that “I” wasn’t present for the last few minutes, does this mean that I “unconsciously” drove? This forces the familiar dichotomy of the unconscious as a secondary or, perhaps better said, primary agent behind the actions of the conscious agent. Philosophy then struggles with identity: trying to untangle the relationship between the two–are they separate? One conjoined and twisted Siamese twin?

Yet, we’ve presupposed a uniform whole in this agent (whether the conscious or unconscious one). We’ve presupposed an answer to the question of what/who “I” am in the analysis of an activity, thereby creating our own philosophical knot.


If “I” am a flux of several different multiplicities, assemblages, compilations, etc. coming together in this moment, “conscious” and “unconscious” become much more dynamic and engaged in the activity itself rather than unanalyzed concepts of agency and identity.

115. A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.

118. Where does this investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important? (As it were, all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) But what we are destroying are only houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood.

119. The results of philosophy are the discovery of some plain piece of nonsense and the bumps that the understanding has got by running up against the limits of language. They — these bumps — make us see the value of that discovery.

123. A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about.”

203. Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.

309. What is your aim in philosophy? — To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

–Selections from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte

I’m not trying to tear down “I” or “conscious” as meaningless. I do, however, hope to point toward how these words become laden with confusion and theory. My musings began on how many things are unexperienced in my experience: sounds and sensations simply do not register in the awareness of consciousness (whatever that may be), but some aspect of “me” is aware of them and acts upon them with skill, as per the driving example. The un/conscious “I” does not necessarily need some sort of soul in the driver’s seat, so to speak, a metaphysical subject who lies behind those actions and is aware of them or somehow pseudo-un-aware of them (and the Unconscious rises here as a problem because if it is the awareness in unawareness, the one who drives without being “conscious” as I, so to speak. Is it another soul? Another agent that shares this body?). “I” am some sort of combination of processes happening at once, a part of the world around me, acting and engaged in it. This is described perfectly well with “I drove to work, unaware”. It’s only in delving into those words, looking for some deeper meaning beyond the general meaning expressed in their usage that they become a knot of philosophical conundrums and issues of metaphysics.



Thoughts without a Thinker

The following is another example of the things I write in my Morning Pages. Sometimes, it’s amazing what streams forth when the space and time is offered.

Another morning, three more pages… What to write today?

It’s interesting how many thoughts and feelings flutter in a quiet moment. I suppose the point is that they’re always fluttering by, but usually, we collude; we run along with them, often at breakneck speed. However, if you just sit for a moment and close your eyes, not “thinking”, thoughts will come rushing in of all types. Perhaps, part of the lesson to draw from this is that many (all?) of our thoughts are thoughts without a thinker. The mind whirs along, churning through content, but that doesn’t require an “I” to be there, actively making it happen. You might point and say that these are the products of the Unconscious. However, there are problems with that. Positing the Unconscious is saying that there is an unknown/unknowable puppetmaster behind much of our psychic life. First, the unknown/unknowable problem is one that is never clearly analyzed in the psychology and philosophy I have read. There’s a big difference. If unknown, it’s possible to be known, and we merely have to find the right way to approach it. If so, the mysterious nature, nigh on supernatural, fades precipitously. If unknowable, the Unconscious stands supreme at the same level as the supernatural. It is something that cannot be approached by any epistemological means. You may as well say that God has put these thoughts in your head in this case. It amounts to the same problem–the ineffable. F’ that.

Here’s an alternative–a way out of the fly jar, perhaps. Both of these are taking thought and thinking as having a thinker. It’s almost a grammatical necessity to have an agent at work with these terms. The Unconscious merely becomes agent when the more familiar conscious agent cannot be said to have “thought”, i.e. actively crafted these thoughts. However, what if thoughts arise without an active creator involved? What if they simply pop up and grow from the soil, water, and air, the ecosystem, of the mind? Then, “the unconscious” and thoughts themselves become radically different. Now, the problem is no longer to find the thinker behind the thoughts and unmask him/her/it. Rather, it is to learn to sit with the myriad thoughts in the mind and no longer water the nettles and weeds with collusion, attachment, and reaction.


Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed. –Henepola Gunaratana, as quoted in “Wake up to Your Life” by Ken McLeod

May this help you sit calmly with all of your thoughts–without collusion, attachment, and reaction.