“But what need can an analyst have for an extra ear, when it sometimes seems that two are already too many, since he runs headlong into the fundamental misunderstanding brought on by the relationship of understanding? I repeatedly tell my students: ‘Don’t try to understand!’ … May one of your ears become as deaf as the other one must be acute. And that is the one that you should lend to listen for sounds and phonemes, words, locutions, and sentences, not forgetting pauses, scansions, cuts, periods, and parallelisms, for it is in these that the word-for-word transcription can be prepared, without which analytic intuition has no basis or object” [1].

In June 1883, The Chautauquan magazine presented the following question: “If a tree were to fall on an island where there were no human beings, would there be any sound?”. A year later, Scientific American asked a similar question. Both gave an essentially identical answer: No. Sound is in effect a vibration which is transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear. It is a subjective sensation and it is brought about only when air or another medium is set in motion, striking the ear drum. Only then, through excited nerve fibers reaching from the hearing mechanism in the ear, sound is recognized at our brain. Thus, the falling of a tree will produce vibration of air but if there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound [2].

Almost 81 years later, in January 1964, in his 11th seminar, the status of the unconscious as ethical as opposed to ontological, was posed by Jacques Lacan, when he said that “the status of the unconscious, which […] is so fragile on the ontic plane, is ethical”[3].

Perceiving the unconscious as ethical owns a number of diverse implications and concerns. Some of which may be, for instance, that the unconscious, in psychoanalysis beginning with Freud, is not what some call ‘unconscious processes’, it is not that inside us which is left out of our consciousness; and so, the unconscious in psychoanalysis is not the negation of consciousness [4], it is not that which is not-conscious. It is not a matter of repressed memories, instincts or automatic thought processes or thought schemas as conceived by cognitivists. And more so, the unconscious is not an entity that can be distinguished, located, marked and measured, which renders worthless psychiatrists’ and neuro-psychoanalysts’ scientific efforts to find coordinates for the unconscious in the brain, just as it is of no value to expect sound where no functioning hearing mechanism is present.

The falling tree analogy supports one conceivable understanding concerning the ethical status of the unconscious. In this analogy, the unconscious is an analogue to sound. When there is no one to listen to the talking person, there will be talk, analogous to air waves, but there will be no unconscious. “Psychoanalysts are part and parcel of the concept of the unconscious, as they constitute that to which the unconscious is addressed” [4], therefore the presence of a listening psychoanalyst is a fundamental condition for the emerging ex-nihilo event of the unconscious.

Lacan took a very simple but ingenious course: he relocated the unconscious, transferring it from the field of consciousness to the field of ethics. Explicitly, he converted the ontological nature of the unconscious to the ethical. This move made it clear that the unconscious, like sound, does not exist in the world. To be precise, it is not a being, it has no essence, and it is not a matter of one psychological objectivity. Instead, the unconscious is what is being instigated in the encounter between a talking person and a psychoanalyst who is situated there in advance, and it comes under the auspices of the encounter thanks to the use of language. Thus, perceiving the unconscious as ethical is, in actual fact, equal to Lacan’s assertion as to “the unconscious, being situated in the locus of the Other” [4]. The (h)earing Other.

1. Lacan, J. Écrits. Bruce Fink (Translator). W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. p. 471.

2. If a Tree Falls in a Forest. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_a_tree_falls_in_a_forest.

3. Lacan, J. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 33

4. Lacan, J. Position of the Unconscious – Remarks made at the 1960 Bonneval Colloquium, rewritten in 1964. In Reading Seminar XI: Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Richard Feldstein (Editor), Maire Jaanus (Series Editor), Bruce Fink (Series Editor). State University of New York Press. 1994.