Unconscious processing, self-knowledge, and explanation

This post revisits some thoughts I’ve shared an earlier version of here. In articles over the past few years, John Bargh and his colleagues claim that cognitive psychology has operated with a narrow definition of unconscious processing that has led investigators to describe it as “dumb” and “limited”. Bargh prefers a definition of unconscious processing more popular in social psychology – a definition that allows him to claim a much broader, more pervasive, and “smarter” role for unconscious processing in our everyday lives. In particular, I summarize the two definitions used in Bargh’s argument (Bargh & Morsella 2008, p. 1) as the following:

Unconscious processingcog is the processing of stimuli of which one is unaware.

Unconscious processingsoc is processing of which one is unaware, whether or not one is aware of the stimuli.

A helpful characterization of unconscious processingsoc is the question: “To what extent are people aware of and able to report on the true causes of their behavior?” (Nisbett & Wilson 1977). We can read this project as addressing first-person authority about causal trees that link external events to observable behavior.

What does it mean for the processing of a stimulus to be below conscious awareness? In particular, we can wonder, what is that one is aware of when one is aware of a mental process of one’s own? While determining whether unconscious processingcog is going on requires specifying a stimulus to which the question is relative, unconscious processingsoc requires specifying a process to which the question is relative. There may well be troubles with specifying the stimulus, but there seem to be bigger questions about specifying the process.

There are many interesting and complex ways to identify a process for consideration or study. Perhaps the simplest kind of variation to consider is just differences of detail. First, consider the difference between knowing some general law about mental processing and knowing that one has in fact engaging in processing meeting the conditions of application for the law.

Second, consider the difference between knowing that one is processing some stimulus and that a various long list of things have a causal role (cf. the generic observation that causal chains are hard to come by, but causal trees are all around us) and knowing the specific causal role each has and the truth of various counterfactuals for situations in which those causes were absent.

Third, consider the difference between knowing that some kind of processing is going on that will accomplish an end (something like knowing the normative functional or teleological specification of the process, cf. Millikan 1990 on rule-following and biology) and the details of the implementation of that process in the brain (do you know the threshold for firing on that neuron?). We can observe that an extensionally identical process can always be considered under different descriptions; and any process that one is aware of can be decomposed into a description of extensionally identical sub-processes, of which one is unaware.

A bit trickier are variations in descriptions of processes that do not have law-like relationships between each other. For example, there are good arguments for why folk psychological descriptions of processes (e.g. I saw that A, so I believed that B, and, because I desired that C, I told him that D) are not reducible to descriptions of processes in physical or biological terms about the person.1

We are still left with the question: What does it mean to be unaware of the imminent consequences of processing a stimulus?


Anscombe, G. (1969). Intention. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Bargh, J. A., & Morsella, E. (2008). The unconscious mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(1), 73-79.

Davidson, D. (1963). Actions, Reasons, and Causes. Journal of Philosophy, 60(23), 685-700.

Millikan, R. G. (1990). Truth Rules, Hoverflies, and the Kripke-Wittgenstein Paradox. Philosophical Review, 99(3), 323-53.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84(3), 231-259.

Putnam, H. (1975). The Meaning of ‘Meaning’. In K. Gunderson (Ed.), Language, Mind and Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  1. There are likely more examples of this than commonly thought, but the one I am thinking of is the most famous: the weak supervenience of mental (intentional) states on physical states without there being psychophysical laws linking the two (Davidson 1963, Anscombe 1969, Putnam 1975). []

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