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Conference Proceeding

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Paper presented at the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies Conference, University of Lisbon, 2014.


Plotinus is sometimes referred to as “the first philosopher of the unconscious.” In his 1960 essay “Consciousness and Unconsciousness in Plotinus,” Hans Rudolph Schwyzer called Plotinus “the discoverer of the unconscious.” What exactly was Plotinus’ unconscious? In the Enneads, Plotinus asks about soul and intellect: “Why then…do we not consciously grasp them…? For not everything which is in the soul is immediately perceptible” (V.1.12.1–15).[i] In the De anima of Aristotle, “Mind does not think intermittently” (430a10–25).[ii]We cannot remember eternal mind in us, because passive mind is perishable. Is the productive or active intelligence in our mind that of which we are not conscious? Can productive intelligence be compared to unconscious thought? Plotinus suggests that we do not notice the activity of intellect because it is not engaged with objects of sense perception. The intellect must involve an activity prior to awareness. Awareness of intellectual activity only occurs when thinking is reflected as in a mirror, but knowledge in discursive reason, reason transitioning from one object to the next in a temporal sequence, is not self-knowledge. Only in the activity of intellect inaccessible to discursive reason is thinking as the equivalent of being. The intellectual act in mind is only apprehended when it is brought into the image-making power of mind through the logos or linguistic articulation; “we are always intellectually active but do not always apprehend our activity” (IV.3.30.1–17). If the Intellectual is the unconscious, then unconscious reason is superior to conscious reason. The inability of conscious reason to know itself in the illusion of self-consciousness is the premise of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century.

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