Is the Unconscious Real? No!

From Reading A Symptom, by Jacques-Alain Miller.

The Unconscious is a Fundamental Hypothesis:

The unconscious that lacks Being is represented by a hypothesis, an idea, a theory. It lacks Being. It always slips away, eluding our conscious attempts to contain, control, or understand it. The unconscious could be said to ex-sist, could be said to have effects while lacking Being, rather than having effects through Being. Miller states this clearly when he writes:

Is the unconscious real? No it’s not! And that is the easiest answer to give. The unconscious is a hypothesis. [Nonetheless,] This [unconscious] remains a fundamental perspective [in psychoanalysis].

Despite its lack of Being, the unconscious is revealed via fleeting things: dreams, slips, bungled actions, and (of course) the symptom. In psychoanalysis, this revelation is put into words by the analyst and refined via interpretations. An interpretation (when it works) produces insight. Through this process, the process of interpreting speech to produce insight, something of the unconscious comes into Being: The truth of the unconscious.

We Arrive at the Truth of the Unconscious Through Make-Believe:

In other places, Miller calls the the unconscious semblant a make believe. We make believe that the truth of the unconscious exists even though it lacks Being. We act as if this truth is there, even though, at the start of an analysis, and for however long after the start, it lacks Being; it has not been thought, it has not been said, it has not been put into words.

The unconscious, and the truth of the unconscious, has the potential for Being while lacking Being. It ex-sists rather than existing. An analyst is someone who believes in the potential of the truth of the unconscious, eve n though it lacks Being. This is a belief in what is not there but could be there. Even though this truth is not known, it has the potential to become known.

It is through the talking that occurs within the analytic experience that one gives birth to the truth of the unconscious. The truth of the unconscious is born, it comes into Being, through words.

But for this "miracle of birth" to occur, before the truth of the unconscious is given the form of words, we have to make believe –we make or produce the belief– that the truth of the unconscious is there without it Being there. We make believe that the unconscious and its truth exists in "another place," or the "other scene." Without this made belief, I don't know how an analysis could occur.

We Make Believe, or Believe Without Proof:

A psychoanalyst knows the unconscious is not something we can prove, that other folks --such as neuroscientists, the people who practice "evidence-based" kinds of treatments– say the unconscious is a sort of imaginary friend. In Reading A Symptom, Miller agrees with these folks! Yes! The unconscious is make believe! It is "just a theory!" However, just because it is a made-up theoretical construct that lacks Being does not mean that it is useless.

In fact, it is because the unconscious lacks Being, because we can't grasp it, that it can be used as a spark for desire.

Desire, Wanting-to-be, Wanting-to-say-it, & Wanting to Know:

Again, what Miller says about this is very clarifying.

Desire mediates between Being and nothingness. We meet this desire again in psychoanalysis at the level of the analyst’s desire which animates the analytic operation in so far as this desire aims to bring the unconscious into being, to make what is repressed appear, as Freud used to say. Clearly, what is repressed is a want-to-be par excellence. What is repressed has no actual Being, it is not a word that is effectively spoken. What is repressed is a virtual Being in a potential state, regardless of whether it will come to appear or not.
The operation that leads the unconscious to Being is no operation of the Holy Ghost, it is an operation of language. This is the operation that psychoanalysis implements. Language has the function of bringing what doesn’t exist into Being.

The desire of the analyst is the desire to bring something of the unconscious that lacks Being into Being through language by talking and listening and then talking some more.

Another way to describe this desire, the desire of the analyst, would be to say it is a curiosity -a desire to know– about the truth of the unconscious that is acted on in a way that produces speech which is interpreted, and interpreted speech produces insight. Insight is the revealing of the unconscious, it is turning from something that lacks Being and is unknown into kind of knowledge that has Being.

The production of insight transforms the unconscious from something we can't think or speak about at the start of analysis because it lacks Being into something we know and thus can think and speak because it has been brought into Being through language.

This transformation of what is unconscious and lacks Being but has effects on our subjectivity into what we know something about changes how people act. This is called a therapeutic effect.


The unconscious-as-semblant I've tried to describe above is not real. What is real is not something we can turn into a semblant. What is real can't ever be brought into Being.

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