Prereflective Unconscious

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The term "prereflective unconscious" refers to the shaping of experience by psychological structures (organizing principles, meanings, schemas, thematic patterns) that operate outside conscious awareness. Experience is shaped by organizing principles without this shaping ordinarily becoming a focus of self-reflection. The patterning and thematizing of experience is therefore said to be prereflectively unconscious.

George E. Atwood and Robert Stolorow first introduced this idea in 1980 and distinguished the prereflective unconscious from Freud's preconscious, because the former can be made conscious only with great effort, whereas the latter can be made conscious by a simple act of attention. Unlike Freud's dynamic unconscious, the prereflective unconscious is not the product of defensive activity such as repression. The defenses themselves are seen as a special instance of organizing activity that is prereflectively unconscious.

The prereflective unconscious became a central construct in the theory of intersubjectivity developed by Robert Stolorow, George A. Atwood, and Bernard Brandchaft. Prereflective structures of experience are pictured as crystallizing within the evolving interplay between the subjective worlds of child and caregivers. Recurring patterns of intersubjective transaction lead to the establishment of invariant principles that unconsciously organize subsequent experiences. These prereflective principles, forged within the childcaregiver system, are seen as the basic building blocks of personality development and as the quintessential focus of psychoanalytic investigation and interpretation.

The prereflective unconscious has features in common with Claude Levi-Strauss's, Jean Piaget's, and Jacques Lacan's ideas about unconscious structures of thought.

The concept of intersubjectively derived prereflective organizing principles is an alternative to the classical notion of unconscious instinctual fantasy.

Robert Stolorow

See also: Unvalidated unconscious.


Atwood, George E., and Stolorow, Robert D. (1980). Psychoanalytic concepts and the representational world. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 3, 267-290.

. (1984). Structures of subjectivity: Explorations in psychoanalytic phenomenology. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Stolorow, Robert D., and Atwood, George E. (1992). Contexts of being. The intersubjective foundations of psychological life. Hillsdale, NJ and London: The Analytic Press.

Stolorow, Robert D., Brandschaft, Bernard, and Atwood, George E. (1987). Psychoanalytic treatment: An intersubjective approach. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.