The “unthought known” is a phrase that I first heard through my therapist, when we were talking about trauma and memory specifically. But immediately, I recognized it as extremely useful to identity development, especially in that many of us feel that we’ve always been this way (whatever way “this” might be – queer, kinky, gendered), but never really knew that we were.
That’s basically the definition – something you’ve always known but have never thought about, have never really known that you know.
I remember going through these realizations multiple times as I developed a feminist identity, then a queer sexuality, then a butch gender. As soon as I had those moments which really “clicked,” I was almost confused as to why I hadn’t gotten to this sooner. It was so familiar on a cellular, deep-gut level, and yet it was never how I’d been previously.
One of my former writing mentors used to say, art is a way to get to know what you don’t know that you already know, and I think that’s related – or, maybe more specifically, art is one of the techniques that we can use in order to get the unthought known to become the thought known, as sometimes the creative process can take us to new places and uncover connections to things that are already inside of us, but that are not quite conscious.
I did some research online trying to find more references to it, and there is not a whole lot. It’s a psychology term that was coined in 1987. I did find one interesting essay – Embeddedness, Reflection, Mindfulness and the Unthought Known by Michael Robbins – which is worth reading. Only 4 pages, and it discusses some very interesting concepts related to the unthought known and mindfulness.
What then is the “unthought known”? Christopher Bollas first coined this provocative phrase in 1987 (Bollas, 1987). Basically it refers to what we “know” but for a variety of reasons may not be able to think about, have “forgotten”, “act out”, or have an “intuitive sense for” but cannot yet put into words. In psychoanalytic terms, it refers to the boundary between the “unconscious” and the “conscious” mind, i.e. the “preconscious mind.” In systems-centered terms, it refers to the boundary between what we know apprehensively, without words, and what we know, or will allow ourselves to know, comprehensively with words. (In many ways, although the methods are very different, the psychoanalytic goal of “making the unconscious conscious” is equivalent to the systems-centered goal of making the boundary permeable between apprehensive and comprehensive knowledge.) [… W]e conceptualize the unthought known as what we already know but don’t yet know that we know.
I find it really useful to think about in terms of gender and sexuality, since so much of those identity concepts are deeply, deeply embedded but often completely subconscious. What do you think? Are there particular things in your life that have been “unthought knowns”? How did you get them to be thought knowns? What was your identity development process around them?