One of the most important defining mental features of mental states is that they are directly knowable. Indeed this is at the heart of the mind body problem: the mind is so special because mental states are knowable directly, while everything else we know about the world comes through indirect knowledge.

  • So what then of subconscious mental states? Isn't the concept of a subconscious thought or emotion inherently contradictory?
  • How do theories that deal with the subconscious (such as psychoanalysis) explain this contradiction? How can one define such states or classify them as mental entities if one cannot have direct knowledge of them?

4 Answers 4


The basic premise here is flawed.

If mental states are directly knowable, then why do they need to be investigated? And how can they become more directly apparent by further consideration? We are often in the position of being puzzled by our own reactions. If I am facing a challenging political writer, I may need to think to myself "Why can I not concentrate on this material? Am I threatened by what is being said? Of what, precisely am I afraid?"

How can that process even exist in a world where my mental state is directly known? And if my immediate mental state is not fully directly known, how do I know that the full detail of any mental state is, in fact, directly knowable? It might require so much delving and elaboration that I might never fully know it.

By direct experimentation, any human will easily find that their own mental state is almost always far more nuanced and involved than they are immediately aware of, and may easily be more complex than they are capable of fully analyzing.

If the contention is simply that it is possible in theory to become aware of this information, then it is not hard to realize that there is part of it of which I am not yet aware -- and that those are clearly thoughts of which I am unconscious. Psychoanalysis needs make no better case for itself on this subject.

  • 1
    +1. Mental states are not always introspectible. You don't have to go as far as endorsing some obscure psychoanalytic doctrines about the unconscious to find this either. Take the simple example of walking along the beach. You do not consciously perceive or attend to the rocks at your feet in the periphery of your vision, but you sense them, and your body copes intelligently to move your feet to avoid the rocks nonetheless.
    – user5172
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 2:01
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    Mental states don't necessarily have a propositional content either, but that's a comment for a different question.
    – user5172
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 2:03
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    @shane. A lot of folks would not admit automatic or trained-in muscle-memory actions as 'mental states', nor things that cannot eventually take on propositional content. So I chose an example perhaps a bit too far up in abstraction and intellectual complexity. It would be nice to know where various people would choose to put the boundary around 'mental'.
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 22:17

That a mental state is “direct knowable” is a statement which can be often found in a philosophical context.

But from the viewpoint of neurosicence no mental state is direct knowable: All our knowledge is the result of information processing in the brain. And most component processes run unconsciously.

Concerning the possibility of mental states, I do not see any difference between conscious and unconscious states: On a neurobiological level, a mental state is an enduring pattern of activity in the neuronal networks of our brain.

The decisive point is to locate the activity, in particular to determine the set of participating subsystems of the brain. Many of theses subsystems do not belong to the neocortex, e.g., the limbic system processing our emotions.

A term like “subconscious thought” is contradictory: Who uses such term?

On the opposite, a term like “subconscious emotion” is not contradictory. It denotes the unconscious component processes of our emotions.

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    I don't know any philosophers who would believe that all mental states are "directly knowable". Descartes believed that in the 1640s. I'd think the consensus amongst philosophers has been decisively against that thesis since, at the very latest, Jerry Fodor's Modularity of Mind in 1968 (or thereabout).
    – user5172
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 2:09
  • @Shane What about qualia? Aren't qualia the direct perception of certain conscious mental states? - I do not claim, that all(!) mental states are directly knowable. Apparently, unconscious mental states are not.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 6:32
  • The OP is the one I take to be claiming that all mental states are directly knowable. That's an idea associated with Descartes and early modern philosophy. I took you to be claiming that many (most?) philosophers still agree with that paradigm, not that you yourself were doing so. (Clearly you aren't--given your answer). My point is just that that paradigm is as outdated among philosophers as it is among neuroscientists and cognitive scientists. That's all.
    – user5172
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 14:06
  • As to qualia, I take most philosophers who believe in such things would take them to be the properties of our mental states with which we are directly acquainted, but note two things. (i) that you don't have to think that direct acquaintance with the qualitative features of some mental states means that you're directly acquainted with all the features of the mental state, and (ii) there may be lots of mental states for which there are no qualia. I think even "qualia fanatics" like Chalmers could agree with both (i) and (ii).
    – user5172
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 14:08

Although Freud made the unconscious famous the idea that moods, feelings, desires and beliefs can be unconscious even in humans is pre-philosophical and unmysterious as observations of sleep, dreams, absent-mindedness, obliviousness, and colloquialisms like "unaware of her feelings", "beside himself with anger" or "doesn't know himself" attest to. Aside from introspection, what puts these folk mental states in play is their utility in conceptualizing behavior of other humans and animals, or even some things. There is as little reason to assume that they cease unless consciously attended to as to assume that desks and chairs blink out of existence when we turn away, so awareness was never definitive of them. Of course, there are also high minded Mental States of introspection imbued with qualia, superknowledge and other supposed perfections.

But one need only adopt a broadly functionalist approach to mind to work with refined relatives of folk mental states without any complications. This includes not only psychoanalysts, but even transcendental idealists like Kant and Husserl, who infer conditions of possibility from appearances. For example, Kant informs us in the first Critique that the famous "productive imagination" responsible for all our cognitive syntheses "without which no knowledge will be possible at all", is "blind", and "we are rarely conscious of it". And materialists, who imagine mental states and consciousness to be manifestations of some physical processes, have no reason to suggest that one can not manifest without the other. By the way, Freud in his youth came up with a Pavlovian research programme in psychology, which he abandoned only because experimental methods available at the time were inadequate. Even Plato, a rationalist par excellence, writes about the unconscious knowledge we bring forth in anamnesis, and describes the Chariot of Soul driven by the horses of reason and passions, with passions not always consciously attended to. It would take a special kind of rationalist stuck in the Cartesian theater to insist that folk mental states must be conscious at all times.

What of the Mental States? Well, their continuity with unconscious folk states in humans should at least give one pause about their exceptionality, do we believe that fear or jealousy radically transform once one becomes aware of them? So should neuroscience experiments suggesting that some "superknown" introspections are confabulations after the fact that people can not always time accurately. As Roskies describes, "some aspects of awareness of agency seem constructed retrospectively. A recent study shows that people’s judgments about the time of formation of intention to move can be altered by time-shifting sensory feedback, leading to the suggestion that awareness of intention is inferred at least in part from responses, rather than directly perceived". Many philosophers and psychologists now conclude, as Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein once did, that consciousness is not essential to exercise of free will either, e.g. Rosenthal writes that "nonconscious volitions might occur simultaneously with neural initiating events and might even be identical with such neural events. At most, Libet's work shows not that volitions do not initiate actions, but that conscious volitions do not", and Levy goes further saying that "decisions, volitions and the formations of actions must all ultimately occur unconsciously". See Mele's review Recent Work on Free Will and Science.

It seems to me that it is the proponents of Mental States that need to do the lion's share of explaining.

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    What is your opinion about mental states, notably unconscious mental states? Could you please state your summary, thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 0:24
  • @Jo Wehler Aren't opinion based posts discouraged here? :) To me unconscious mental states are no more problematic than quarks and atoms, whichever way one wishes to interpret their reality or non-reality, they are introduced through the same type of inference from observations. Cartesian Mental States are a different matter.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 2:50
  • I share your opinion concerning the right to exist of unconscious mental states. So let's expect their evidence provided by neuroscience :-) (I asked because I was in doubt due to your statement "Well, their continuity with unconscious folk states in humans should at least give one pause.")
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 5:34
  • @Jo I meant it the other way, but good point, I clarified the text.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 20:49
  1. Is being tired a conscious or a subconscious mental state?

  2. All emotions are subconscious. You can calm them by being conscious of them, but still they are a thing of their own.

2.1 I.e. hit yourself with a hammer on the thumb. Did you then consciously produce adrenaline?

  1. Runners high. Are you high because of the endorphins or because you decided to become high?
  • "Did you then consciously produce adrenaline?" Of course not. But people often speak of subconscious pain or trauma, and claim that it has a causal effect on someones behavior. Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 18:56

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