"The conscious in psychoanalysis" By Antonio Alberto Semi

Psychoanalytic ideas and applications 3

International Psychoanalytic Association 2007

124 pp

Review by Don Grant

Semi’s book is not an easy read. I am afraid it is one of those books that you read and end up thinking, am I just dumb of is this really hard to understand. Perhaps this is particularly so with Semi’s book for English speaking analysts, most of whom are not familiar with the detailed study of language and its structures that developed as a major conceptual tool among French speaking analysts. This is not helped by the frequent use of dashes and brackets creating complex sentences which are often difficult to follow. I am not sure whether this is style or translation. Typographical errors add to the confusion e.g. “while ideas constant objects” (pg 83) I think should read “while ideas are constant objects”; “Ed” for “Id” on page 96; “the primary function of “sleep” (pg 106), should read “the primary function of “the dream”; “place” (pg 108) should read “replace” ; “hypostasize” on pg 92 is a very rarely used English word with medical, metaphysical and theological meanings. I am not sure which Semi intends or even if it is the correct word he intended in the context. All of this makes it a book the reader has to work really hard at understanding.

The book is consistent with its title, “The Conscious in Psychoanalysis”, in that it develops a theory of consciousness on the foundation of Freud’s theory of consciousness. Semi explicitly states that he does not intend to discuss the many important neuroscience studies of consciousness which have been undertaken in the last decade or so. Less consistent perhaps, is the failure to discuss other theories within psychoanalysis, with implications for consciousness e.g. Bion’s theory of thinking. The problem with basing everything on Freud’s theory of consciousness is that it is patchy and incomplete, which probably accounts for his famously missing paper, “The Conscious” which he (Freud) refers to in his paper, “The Unconscious”, but which doesn’t exist. Semi draws on two major sources for Freud’s ideas about consciousness. They are “Project for a Scientific Psychology” (1895) and “The Ego and the Id” (1923). Between 1895 and 1923 there were major changes in Freud’s ideas about many things including the role of words in conscious thinking. In the Project Freud saw the neurological link between the sensory language area of the brain and the motor language area as essential to consciousness, which he conceptualized as a motor discharge of a group of neurons he called the omega neurons. By 1923 the neurology had disappeared from Freud’s theorizing at least explicitly, and with it the role of motor discharge from the omega neurons. The role of the word was now to associate a pre-conscious “thing presentation” with a “word presentation” which is a form detectable by the perceptual apparatus which Freud now saw as the seat of consciousness. This new theory was psychological rather than neurological.

In chapter 2 Semi details his view of the mechanism of becoming conscious. He makes a distinction between conscious perceptions and conscious thinking as did the later Freud. However, he sometimes writes in a way that clouds this distinction, as if association with language, or at least the auditory system, is always a necessary condition for becoming conscious. Semi argues to retain the idea of motor involvement in the production of consciousness. He defines a “word presentation” as including both the sensory presentation and the linked motor presentation which would reproduce the same word. He argues that this “complete” word presentation is necessary for conscious thinking. He points out that the acoustic perceptual system is the only perceptual system to have such motor links. From this he concludes (pg 28), “one of the characteristics of the system Cs. is that it only functions at an acoustic level”. This argument involving sensory and motor brain areas, harks back to Freud’s neurological theory in the Project. On the other hand on page 40 he (Semi) says “the processes of thinking that are actually unconscious only gain consciousness if they are transformed into perceptions”. Given that perceptions can be other than auditory this is more in line with Freud’s later psychological theory of consciousness in “The Ego and The Id”. There seems to be some conflict or at least lack of clarity between these two statements. I think much of Semi’s argument could be applied to conscious thinking, if it were clearly distinguished from conscious perception as Freud did in his later writing on consciousness. Perhaps that is what Semi intends but it is not clear enough in this book.

Also, I think there is a problematic mixing of neurological and psychological concepts in Semi’s book. His theory of consciousness incorporates a motor element that harks back to Freud’s first theory of consciousness in the Project. This was a neurological not a psychological theory. Mixing neurological and psychological ideas without specifying which is which does not lead to clarity. Semi acknowledges that the specific domain of psychoanalytic observation and knowledge is the transference-countertransference encounter, but he moves out of that when he theorizes about sensory and motor speech areas. This is neither unusual nor problematic, as psychoanalysis explicitly or implicitly, often does incorporate ideas from other fields (biology, linguistics, infant observation, developmental psychology etc.) in its theorizing. However, since we do incorporate ideas and concepts from outside the transference-countertransference encounter in our theories, it behoves us to keep ourselves reasonably well informed about the status of current knowledge in those fields, in order to articulate psychoanalysis with them in an explicit and rational way that will promote professional and scientific progress for both. Despite having incorporated neurological ideas in his theorizing, Semi then eschews discussion of neuroscience on the grounds that the proper domain of psychoanalysis is the psychological reality of the transference-countertransference encounter. This is a bit like turning a blind eye to the fact that some of the ideas Semi incorporates into his theory, from Freud’s Project, are in fact neurological. They creep back in unnoticed and being unnoticed they are not examined in the light of modern neuroscientific knowledge nor are questions asked about the logical validity of incorporating neurological concepts into a theory which purports to be based on the psychological experiences of the transference-countertransference encounter.

However, consciousness is such a neglected subject in psychoanalysis that any book about it is welcome as a stimulus to give more serious thought to the nature and significance of consciousness, the enhancement of which is, after all, our stated aim with our patients.