Skip to main content



Under the impact of new developments in science, ideas in all fields are undergoing rapid change. This is especially true of the twentieth-century conception of the unconscious, the term being used here in a general sense for all those mental processes of which the individual is not aware while they occur in him.

The present interest in the unconscious is a result of the advance of science and psychology since the mid-1800s, and to understand this interest requires some knowledge of the history of ideas. But the timing of this outburst of interest, its intensity (which is greatest in the English-speaking countries and least in Russia and China), and the particular conception of the unconscious that is now dominant are mainly due to one man, Sigmund Freud. His high degree of success in creating widespread appreciation of the power of the unconscious makes the improvement of his conception of it a matter of great importance. Fortunately, a historical survey can not only put recent sectarian conflicts in perspective but can also throw light on aspects of the unconscious that have long been recognized by philosophers and humanists but that receive inadequate emphasis in Freudian theory.

There have been few peoples since, say, 3000 BCE who have not possessed myths expressing a sense of the power of divine or natural agencies to influence the individual without his being aware of that influence. Before the emergence of clear conceptions regarding nature and man there prevailed a sense of the continuity of phenomena, and it was taken for granted that man was part of a totality in which anything might influence anything else. This assumption of continuity is evident in much Eastern thought. Western recognition, from around 1600 CE, of unconscious mental processes, at first philosophical but gradually becoming more scientific, may be superficially regarded as the rediscovery of something that had long been taken for granted in certain Eastern traditions and also in some Greek and Christian writings. Plotinus held that "the absence of a conscious perception is no proof of the absence of mental activity," Augustine was interested in memory as a faculty extending beyond the grasp of the conscious mind, Thomas Aquinas developed a theory of the mind covering "processes in the soul of which we are not immediately aware," and most mystics assumed that insights might be gained by a process of inner reception in which the conscious mind is passive.

But these early ideas lack an essential feature of the modern concept of the unconscious that became possible only after Western thought had set out on the search for precision and scientific validity and, in doing so, had separated the conscious mind from material processes; that is, this became possible only from about 1600 on, or after René Descartes. For the ultimate purpose of the concept of unconscious mental processes is to link conscious awareness and behavior with its backgrounda system of processes of which one is not immediately awareand to establish this connection without losing the benefits of scientific precision. Here lies the weakness of the concept of the unconscious: It cannot be made fully acceptable to the scientific age until some science or union of sciences has provided an adequate conception of the unity and continuity of conscious thought, unconscious cerebral processes, physiological changes, and the processes of growth. In fact, the idea of the unconscious (or some equivalent) can acquire scientific status only after a unified picture of the human organism has repaired the intellectual lesions created by Cartesian and other dualistic or specialized methods.

Descartes to Freud

It is useful, if oversimplified, to consider that Descartes, by his definition of mind as awareness, provoked as a reaction the Western "rediscovery" of unconscious mental processes. During the two and a half centuries between Descartes's Discourse on Method (1637) and Freud's first interest in the unconscious, many philosophers, psychologists, biologists, novelists, and poets recognized that mental activity of various kinds occurs without awareness. This view was reached through introspection, through observation, or through attempts to create a theory of the working of the mind. By the last decades of the nineteenth century it was so widespread in Germany and Britain, and to a lesser extent in France, that one can say that by then the existence of the unconscious mind had become a common assumption of educated and psychological discussions; however, its structure, mode of operation, and role in illness were left for the twentieth century to explore.

Here we can consider only a few names out of many, selected either because they were influential or because their ideas represent an advancing understanding.

Our survey opens at the moment when Cartesian thought was acquiring influence. Ralph Cudworth, English divine and philosopher, wrote in 1678:

There may be some vital energy without clear consciousness or express attentionOur human souls are not always conscious of whatever they have in themthat vital sympathy, by which our soul is united and tied fast to the body, is a thing that we have no direct consciousness of, but only in its effectsThere is also a more interior kind of plastic power in the soul whereby it is formative of its own cogitations, which it itself is not always conscious of. (True Intellectual System of the Universe, Book I, Ch. 3)

Many other thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries expressed similar ideas, at first mainly in relation to the cognitive aspects, such as perception and memory. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz introduced the notion of a quantitative threshold. For him ordinary perceptions were the summation of countless small ones, each of which we are not aware of, because they lie below this threshold.

Two eighteenth-century figures were among the first to direct attention to the emotional aspects of the unconscious mind. Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to explore the unconscious background of his own temperament and to discover the reason for his fluctuating moods ("It is thus certain that neither my own judgment nor my will dictated my answer, and that it was the automatic consequence of my embarrassment"), and J. G. Hamann, a German religious philosopher, studied the deeper levels of his own mind as evidenced in his experience of conversion, in the emotional life, and in imaginative thinking ("How much more the formation of our own ideas remains secret!").

Between 1750 and 1830 a number of German philosophers and poets increasingly emphasized the emotional and dynamic aspects of the unconscious. Johann Gottfried Herder stressed the role of unconscious mental processes in relation to the imagination, dreams, passion, and illness. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed in poems and aperçus his sense of the fertile interplay of conscious and unconscious in the creative imagination, "where consciousness and unconsciousness are like warp and weft." Johann Gottlieb Fichte treated the unconscious as a dynamic principle underlying conscious reason. G. W. F. Hegel based his philosophy on the conception of an unconscious historical process becoming in the individual a partly conscious will. For Friedrich von Schelling unconscious nature becomes conscious in the ego.

Many of the romantic writers and poets, particularly in Germany and England, echoed what was in the air: a vivid sense of the powerful, dark, yet creative aspects of the unconscious mind. Thus, J. P. F. Richter wrote: "The unconscious is really the largest realm in our minds, and just on account of this unconsciousness the inner Africa, whose unknown boundaries may extend far away."

Another sequence of German thinkers made the idea of the unconscious a commonplace of European educated circles by about 1880: Arthur Schopenhauer, C. G. Carus, Gustav Fechner, Eduard von Hartmann, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Schopenhauer took the idea of a mainly unconscious will in nature and in man as his central theme. Carus, physician and friend of Goethe, opened his Psyche (1846) with the words: "The key to the understanding of the character of the conscious lies in the region of the unconscious" and presented Goethe's favorable view of the unconscious. Fechner, like Freud (who expressed a debt to him), regarded the mind as an iceberg largely below the surface and moved by hidden currents. He used the concept of mental energy, a topography of the mind, an unpleasure-pleasure principle, and a universal tendency toward stability. Von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869) gave a survey of a vast field of unconscious mental activities, and this book enjoyed a great success in Germany, France, and England. He discussed twenty-six aspects of the unconscious and converted the Goethean ideas of Carus's Psyche into a grandiose metaphysical system. Nietzsche, in his penetrating insights into the unconscious, reflected what was already widespread but gave it a new intensity. "The absurd overvaluation of consciousness . Consciousness only touches the surface . The great basic activity is unconscious . Every sequence in consciousness is completely atomistic . The real continuous process takes place below our consciousness; the series and sequence of feelings, thoughts, and so on, are symptoms of this underlying process . All our conscious motives are superficial phenomena; behind them stands the conflict of our instincts and conditions."

Nietzsche had cried, "Where are the new doctors of the soul?" Soon after, Freud started on his task: to begin afresh, unprejudiced by all this speculation, and to try to identify the precise structure of unconscious processes and their role in particular mental disturbances, so that lesions of the mind might be repaired by systematic techniques. We are not here concerned with his methods of therapy or with their degree of efficacy but with his steadily developing and often modified theory of the unconscious mind.

Freud was not the first to develop a systematic theory of conflicts in the unconscious. J. F. Herbart had put forward a theory of the operation of unconscious inhibited ideas and their pressure on consciousness, and of the resulting conflict between conscious and unconscious ideas at the threshold of consciousness. But he had little immediate influence. Meanwhile, a school of medical thought was developing in England that treated the patient as a unity, took for granted the interplay of unconscious and conscious, and sought to use this way of thinking in its approach to mental illness. William Hamilton, student of medicine and metaphysics, lectured on the role of the unconscious, particularly in relation to emotions and action, thus providing the background for the psychiatrist H. Maudsley and the naturalist W. B. Carpenter. Maudsley's The Pathology of Mind (1879) expresses this English school of thought about the unconscious and is included in the references given by Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams (1900), while Carpenter's Principles of Mental Physiology (1876) discusses "unconscious cerebration." A group of physicians in Germany were pursuing similar lines of thought, but for these figures and for the French interest in hypnotism, which exerted a strong influence on depth psychology, the reader must turn to histories of psychiatry.

During the 1870s several theories of unconscious organic memory were developed, and between 1880 and 1910 physicians and philosophers in many countries were concerned with various aspects of the unconscious (see references given in the surveys cited below).


Sigmund Freud, even late in life, had no idea how extensive attention to the unconscious had been. Today we need to see him in perspective in order to strengthen what was weak in his ideas and so to advance toward a complete theory of the unconscious mind in health as well as in sickness. A more detailed survey of Freudian theory and method is given elsewhere; here we can treat only those aspects of his ideas that are directly relevant to the theory of the unconscious.

For Freud all mental processes are determined by natural laws, ultimately by those governing chemical and physical phenomena; they are associated with quantities of psychic energy that strive toward release and equilibrium; the primary driving force is instinctual energy (libido, a concept that was at first narrowly, then more widely interpreted) expressing an often unconscious wish, and moving from unpleasure to physical pleasure (pleasure principle); the predominant energy is sexual, but other forms are present, and Freud later assumed two basic instincts, sexuality in a broad sense and aggression (Eros and Thanatos). The establishment of civilized life involves restraints on sexual activity, and the unconscious proper (in Freudian theory the accessible unconscious being called the preconscious) consists of instinctual energies, either archaic or repressed during the life of the individual, particularly in childhood (universal incestuous desires of the earliest years, adolescent frustrated dreaming, aggressive impulses, etc.); these are available only through the use of special techniques. A genetic or developmental approach to mental illness is therefore essential. Forgetting is an active process in which painful memories are repressed.

The Freudian unconscious is a pool of mainly repressed energies, distorted by frustration and exerting a stress on conscious reason and its shaping of the patterns of daily life. The strain produced by this stress, present in some degree in all civilized men and women, is seen in neurosis. It is only by exceptional luck in heredity or experience that civilized man can avoid this tragic and potentially universal feature of modern life, the major influence of the unconscious being antagonistic to reason. This doom and neurosis he can escape (wholly, Freud thought at first; later he had doubts) by becoming aware of his situation and gaining insight into the particular traumatic experiences that created his neurosis. Freud began with an unquestioning conviction that insight brought recovery. The interpretation of dreams (which are symptoms and express wish fulfillment) and the process of free association can render accessible the regions of the unconscious producing the neurosis and can make possible a cure. Myths express for communities what dreams do for the individual. Later, Freud developed his ego theory, dividing the mind into three areas: the id, or basic instincts; the ego, or rational part of the mind that deals with reality; and the superego, a differentiated part of the ego that results mainly from the child's self-identification with his parents. This triple division overlaps awkwardly with the unconscious-conscious dichotomy, and here the theory becomes obscure. It left Freud unsatisfiedindeed, late in his life he stated that understanding of the deepest levels of the mind was not yet possible.

These are, in condensed form, the main ideas that make up the core of the Freudian theory of the unconscious, leaving aside his many applications of it. The theory, in its most characteristic form, is a description of the pathology of civilized man, although for Freud this implied little restriction, since all suffer in some degree from the neurosis of civilization.

When this theory is reviewed today, most agree that Freud's general conception of a repressed unconscious, and its relation to child sexuality, aggression, defense mechanisms, sublimation, and so forth, is a permanent contribution of the highest importance. On the other hand, his sharp categories (conscious-unconscious, wishful-realistic, stages of sexual development, etc.) are merely, as he himself recognized, provisional steps toward the truth. But his theory suffers from a more radical weakness than these.

Freud's attitude toward the unconscious has been regarded as biological. But it was not so in a genuine sense, for all viable organisms display an organizing principle, not yet understood, which ensures that everything occurs in support of the continuation of life. This coordinating and formative principle underlies all organic properties, including the processes of the human unconscious, such as the imaginative and inventive faculties without which civilization could not have developed. It has been widely recognized that this factoralthough it had been emphasized in earlier views of the unconscious, for example, by Cudworth, Goethe, Fichte, Schelling, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Carusis not adequately represented in the Freudian theory, perhaps because it was neglected by the physicochemical approach to organisms dominant when Freud was shaping his ideas. His theory of the mind is overly analytic or atomistic and must be complemented by a general and powerful principle of coordination.

Adler, Jung, and Rank

The lack of a general principle of coordination was recognized by three of Freud's colleagues, Alfred Adler, Carl Gustav Jung, and Otto Rank, who, from different points of view, stressed the potential integration and self-organizing power either of the unconscious or of the mind as a whole. Adler treated the person as a unity; he did not regard the unconscious-conscious division as basic and held that the inaccessible unconscious contains elements that have never been repressed but are simply not yet understood and are unconsciously assumed in the endeavor to adapt socially and to overcome supposed or real weaknesses.

The individual's aspiration or unconscious need to realize a potential unity was more deeply appreciated by Jung. He created the concept of the collective unconscious, which is not a "group mind" but the deepest level in the individual mind, consisting of potentialities for ways of thinking shared by all men because their genetic constitutions are closely similar and their family and social experiences share certain universal features. In a given society the collective unconscious contains particular traditional symbols or archetypes that organize thought and action. This sociological concept of the deeper mental levels involves a historical background in which ritual, myth, symbol, and religious attitude play organizing and integrating roles that contribute to the strength and stability of the psyche and that are subject to an underlying tendency developing a differentiated unity in the person (individuation). The tension of superficially opposed aspects in the unconscious mind produces autonomous foci of energy, acting as complexes. The ultimate aim for Jung was not discovery of truth but acceptance of the role of deep psychology in the present historical situation: assistance in the search for life-enhancing significance in the fate of living in a scientific age at a time when traditional sources of strength have been weakened but a fully comprehensive scientific truth is not yet in sight. In this search, psychology enters realms that previously belonged to history, philosophy, and religion. Jung's ideas form part of a discursive communication of attitudes, rather than being steps toward an ultimately confirmable theory of unconscious mental processes.

Rank stressed the role of religious and aesthetic traditions in shaping the unconscious, and he saw in the life will a factor making for integration. The writings of these three display agreement that Freud, particularly in his early work, overemphasized the role of genital sexuality, unduly neglected the historical background of the individual unconscious, and failed to allow for the role of factors making for coordination both within each Freudian level of the mind and between the various levels.

The Future of the Concept

It has been observed (by Ira Progoff and others) that, mainly in their later years, Freud, Adler, Jung, and Rank all looked toward a future theory of the mind based on what perhaps can best be called the organic core of the mind (similar to Jung's objective psyche and psychoid) and capable of covering all human mental faculties, man's cultural history, his imagination, his mental illnesses and health. This still lies ahead. It seems that no important basic advance has been made in the theoretical understanding of the unconscious mind since then; certainly no one has yet made a satisfactory synthesis of the reliable features of their views. Thus, there has been a pause in the advance of the theory of subjective deep psychology. Freud hoped for assistance from the neurophysiology of the brain, but this has not yet come.

We should now consider what the unconscious has stood for in the minds of different groups. The mystics saw it as the link with God; the Christian Platonists as a divine creative principle; the romantics as the connection between the individual and universal powers; the early rationalists as a factor operating in memory, perception and ideas; the postromantics as organic vitality expressed in will, imagination, and creation; dissociated Western man as a realm of violence threatening his stability; physical scientists as the expression of physiological processes in the brain that are not yet understood; monistic thinkers as the prime mover and source of all order and novelty in thought and action; Freud (in his earlier years) as a melee of inhibited memories and desires the main influence of which is damaging; and Jung as a prerational realm of instincts, myths, and symbols often making for stability. It is natural to seek a common principle underlying these partial truths, but we do not possess the unified language in which to express it scientifically.

The formulation of a valid theory of the integrated human mind and of its various pathologies would imply the possibility of a transformation in man and his unconscious toward a more harmonious condition accompanied by the development of a social order that does not bring with it inescapable neurosis. This may seem a distant hope. But recent advances in biology and medicine have opened new vistas of improvement, and no survey of the idea of the unconscious would be complete without a glance into this possible future for theory and practice, for therein may lie the deepest reason for the fascination that the idea has for so wide a public.

This sketch of the idea of the unconscious has neglected its recent applications to religion, art, the history of science, philosophy, literature (Marcel Proust believed that the reality of experience lies in the unconscious), ethics, and justice. In all these realms the main effect has been to broaden, deepen, and loosen traditional conceptions. But the unification of scientific principles, so badly needed today, still lies ahead. In this an improved conception of the unconscious must play a crucial role.

See also Adler, Alfred; Augustine, St.; Carus, Carl Gustav; Cudworth, Ralph; Descartes, René; Fechner, Gustav Theodor; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Freud, Sigmund; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hamann, Johann Georg; Hamilton, William; Hartmann, Eduard von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herbart, Johann Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Jung, Carl Gustav; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Proust, Marcel; Psychoanalytic Theories, Logical Status of; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Thomas Aquinas, St.


historical surveys

It is remarkable that no authoritative critical study has yet been made of all ideas of the unconscious from earliest times to the present; the following works are useful historical surveys:

Ellenberger, H. "The Unconscious before Freud." Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 21 (1957): 3.

Margetts, E. L. "Concept of Unconscious in History of Medical Psychology." Psychiatric Quarterly 27 (1953): 115.

Whyte, L. L. The Unconscious before Freud. New York: Basic, 1960; paperback ed., 1962.

Zilboorg, Gregory. History of Medical Psychology. New York: Norton, 1941.


Drews, A. C. H. Psychologie des Unbewussten. Berlin, 1924.

Geiger, Moritz. "Fragment über den Begriff des Unbewussten und die psychische Realität." Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung 4 (1921): 1137.

Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 3 vols. New York: Basic, 19531957.

MacIntyre, Alasdair C. The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis. New York, 1958.

Miller, J. G. Unconsciousness. New York, 1942.

Northridge, William L. Modern Theories of the Unconscious. London, 1924.

Progoff, Ira. Death and Rebirth of Psychology. New York, 1942.

Taylor, W. S. "Psycho-analysis Revised or Psychodynamics Developed?" American Psychologist (November 1962): 784.

original works

Carus, C. G. Psyche. Pforzheim, 1846; 3rd ed., Stuttgart, 1860.

Cudworth, Ralph. True Intellectual System of the Universe. London, 1678.

Freud, Sigmund. Die Traumdeutung. Vienna, 1900. Translated by James Strachey as The Interpretation of Dreams, in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, James Strachey, general editor, 24 vols. New York, 19531964. Vols. IV and V.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Unconscious." In Collected Papers, edited by James Strachey, 5 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 19241950. Vol. IV, Papers on Metapsychology and Papers on Applied Psychoanalysis, p. 98.

Hartmann, Eduard von. Die Philosophie des Unbewussten, 3 vols. Berlin, 1869. Translated by W. C. Coupland as The Philosophy of the Unconscious. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1883.

Jung, C. G. Über die Psychologie des Unbewussten. Zürich: Rascher, 1943. Translated by R. F. C. Hull as Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Vol. VII of Collected Works. New York, 1953; paperback ed., New York: Meridian, 1956.

Jung, C. G. Wandlung und Symbole der Libido. Leipzig, 1912. Translated by Beatrice M. Hinkle as Psychology of the Unconscious. London, 1916. Rev. ed. and new translation by R. F. C. Hull from the 4th ed. (1952), Symbole der Wandlung, as Symbols of Transformation, published as Vol. V of Collected Works, Herbert Read et al., eds. London and New York, 1956.

Leibniz, G. W. Die philosophischen Schriften. Edited by C. J. Gerhardt, 7 vols. Berlin, 18751890. Vol. V, p. 48, Vol. VI, p. 600.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Leipzig, 1819. Translated by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp as The World as Will and Idea, 3 vols. London: Trubner, 18831886.

Lancelot Law Whyte (1967)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Unconscious." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 19 Jun. 2018 <>.

"Unconscious." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (June 19, 2018).

"Unconscious." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved June 19, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.