Preconscious, The

views updated


Already, in his 1896 letters to Wilhelm Fleiss ("Extracts from the Fliess Papers," 1950a), Freud connected the pre-conscious associated with verbal representations as being the ego. The full definition of the preconscious emerged only within the delineation of the first topographical theory, although it was never precisely formulated.

The preconscious (Pcs. ) can only be conceived in opposition to the unconscious (Ucs. ): It is the very differentiation between the two that makes it possible to think of a topography of the mind. The Pcs. is the antagonist of the Ucs. ; the former is separated from the latter by censorship, the barrier of repression. As the agent of repression, the Pcs. is what provides the forces necessary (anticathexes) to maintaining unconscious representations in the unconscious.

The modes of functioning of the Pcs. system are different from those of the Ucs. in that energy is bound there and that the secondary processes and the reality principle are dominant.

To understand the antagonistic function of the Pcs., it is necessary to let go of the ideawhich is nevertheless suggested by its nameof a sort of gradation in the capacity for material to become conscious. That idea was nonetheless present in Freud's work when he adopted the point of view of a descriptive unconscious, defined relative to consciousness. What was preconscious was then considered as unconscious in the phenomenological sense, readily and by right accessible to consciousness. This usage of the term, most often as an adjective, was thus in contradiction with the notion of two opposing systems, with the preconscious preventing the penetration into consciousness of unconscious contents. The contradiction was only transcended within the context of analysis itself, when the process of becoming conscious was studied. Thereafter, the preconscious took on the role of an intermediary between unconscious contents and their coming into conscious awareness.

The specificity of the preconscious lies in its connection to language. In "The Unconscious" (1915e), Freud wrote: "The system Ucs. contains the thing-cathexes of the objects, the first and true object-cathexes; the system Pcs. comes about by this thing-presentation being hypercathected through being linked with the word-presentations corresponding to it" (pp. 201-202). It is thus the perspective of treatment (the "talking cure") that made it possible to grasp the specificity of the preconscious. Through the work of analysis, representations of things, that is, the contents of the unconscious, are put into relation with the word-presentations that can then make it possible for them to come into conscious awareness. The preconscious is the place where this transposition into words, this link between words and the unconscious thing, takes place.

This notion of the preconscious as the intermediary between the unconscious and consciousness, between thing-presentations and word-presentations, between the primary and secondary processes, was maintained and amplified in psychoanalytic work over the course of time. The preconscious is now considered a locus of exchange and psychic work. Attributed to it are qualities of richness and permanence that vary from one individual to the next and can be used as the criteria for analyzability.

While Freudian metapsychology, dominated by the idea of repression and its role in neurosis, does make it possible to conceive of an impoverished preconscious, cases of atypical, nonneurotic patients, in particular psychosomatic patients, drew the attention of the psychosomatic school of Paris under the aegis of Pierre Marty. Marty gave the preconscious a central place in his conception of mental functioning, and as a result there is an emphasis in his theory on its role as an organizer, a regulator of not only psychic but also somatic balance. Marty's thinking concerned qualities that are present in varying degrees in the preconscious: its richness, breadth, mobility, and permanence. Richness and mobility refer to the multiplicity of symbolic derivatives in the unconscious capable of interacting in this intermediary zone with word-presentations, themselves multiple and available. The notion of breadth, evocative of the density of this network of representations, also leads to the idea of the preconscious playing the role of an internal protective shield that makes possible the protection of the ego against assaults from the drives and the external world. Permanence has to do with the capacity for lasting and stable functioning.

A sound organization of the preconscious goes hand in hand with sound mentalization, whereas occasional or long-term weakness can lead to what the French psychosomatic school called "operative" functioning, essential depression, or character and behavioral neuroses, as these are described in Marty's classification. By contrast, sound functioning of the preconscious guarantees a rich capacity for fantasizing.

AndrÉe Bauduin

See also: Agency; Amentia; Anticathexis/counter-cathexis; Cathectic energy; Censorship; Consciousness; Cure; Day's residues; Desexualization; Ego and the Id, The ; Essential depression; Evenly-suspended attention; Forgetting; Humor; Hypercathexis; Insight; Metapsychology; Multilingualism and psychoanalysis; Operational thinking; Perception-consciousness (Pcpt.-Cs.); Prereflective unconscious; Primary process/secondary process; Psychic apparatus; Reality principle; Reality testing; Repressed; Repressed, derivative of the/derivative of the unconscious; Repression; Time; Topographical point of view; Unconscious, the; "Unconscious, The"; Wish-fulfillment; Word-presentation.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

Marty, Pierre. (180). Les Mouvements individuels de vie et de mort (Vol. 2, L'Ordre psychosomatique ). Paris: Payot.

Further Reading

Eissler, Kurt R. (1962). On the metapsychology of the pre-conscious. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 17, 9-41.

Hamilton, Virginia. (1996). The analyst's preconscious. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Kantrowitz, Judith. (1999). The role of the preconscious in psychoanalysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47, 65-90.