Schopenhauer and Unconscious Thought

02.22.06 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing,” according to a paper published in the latest issue of Science magazine.

Unconscious thought, defined as “thought or deliberation in the absence of conscious attention directed at the problem,” can sometimes yield superior results, University of Amsterdam psychologists found. And they suggest that the same effect can be “generalize[d] to other types of choices — political, managerial, or otherwise.”

See “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect” by Ap Dijksterhuis, et al, Science, vol. 311, 17 February 2006 (free abstract).

So does that mean that the processes of political deliberation should be restructured to place greater emphasis on intuition and “hunches”? Not exactly.

The strengths and limits of “unconscious thought” were considered by author Sue Halpern in a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” in the New York Review of Books (April 28, 2005).

“Intuition is often understood as an antithesis to analytic decision-making, as something inherently nonanalytic or preanalytic,” Halpern quotes neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg. “But in reality, intuition is the condensation of vast prior analytic experience; it is analysis compressed and crystallized.”

In other words, the productivity of “unconscious thought” is probably dependent upon all of the conscious thought, analysis and experience that precedes it.

(Making a similar point, a favorite teacher once advised that “It is one thing for Aldous Huxley to take LSD,” since Huxley was immensely learned. “It is something else for you to do it.”)

“The possibility of unconscious thought (as well as the term) was explicitly used for the first time by Schopenhauer,” write Dijksterhuis et al in their new Science paper.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was also credited by Freud as a forerunner of psychoanalysis.

“Schopenhauer argued at length, and with a psychological insight which was altogether unprecedented, that empirical evidence points to the conclusion not only that most of our thoughts and feelings are unknown to us but that the reason for this is a process of repression which is itself unconscious,” wrote Bryan Magee in his magnificent “The Philosophy of Schopenhauer” (Oxford, rev. 1997).

In several respects Schopenhauer was an unsavory character. He had a bad case of anti-semitism which earned him a favorable mention in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

But Magee does for Schopenhauer what the late Walter Kaufmann did for Nietzsche several decades ago — he makes him intelligible to the non-specialist reader, as well as interesting and, quite unexpectedly, important.

Magee served briefly in British intelligence (to return to more familiar territory) and wrote a quasi-existentialist spy novel called “To Live in Danger” (1960, long out of print) that is not entirely bad.