Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind


The first set of facts to be adduced against the common sense view of desire are those studied by psycho-analysis. In all human beings, but most markedly in those suffering from hysteria and certain forms of insanity, we find what are called "unconscious" desires, which are commonly regarded as showing self-deception. Most psycho-analysts pay little attention to the analysis of desire, being interested in discovering by observation what it is that people desire, rather than in discovering what actually constitutes desire. I think the strangeness of what they report would be greatly diminished if it were expressed in the language of a behaviourist theory of desire, rather than in the language of every-day beliefs. The general description of the sort of phenomena that bear on our present question is as follows: A person states that his desires are so-and-so, and that it is these desires that inspire his actions; but the outside observer perceives that his actions are such as to realize quite different ends from those which he avows, and that these different ends are such as he might be expected to desire. Generally they are less virtuous than his professed desires, and are therefore less agreeable to profess than these are. It is accordingly supposed that they really exist as desires for ends, but in a subconscious part of the mind, which the patient refuses to admit into consciousness for fear of having to think ill of himself. There are no doubt many cases to which such a supposition is applicable without obvious artificiality. But the deeper the Freudians delve into the underground regions of instinct, the further they travel from anything resembling conscious desire, and the less possible it becomes to believe that only positive self-deception conceals from us that we really wish for things which are abhorrent to our explicit life.

In the cases in question we have a conflict between the outside observer and the patient's consciousness. The whole tendency of psycho-analysis is to trust the outside observer rather than the testimony of introspection. I believe this tendency to be entirely right, but to demand a re-statement of what constitutes desire, exhibiting it as a causal law of our actions, not as something actually existing in our minds.

But let us first get a clearer statement of the essential characteristic of the phenomena.

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