"Unconscious, The"

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"The Unconscious," a highly structured essay of 1915, is the most important of Freud's papers of that period on metapsychology. Freud made the unconscious the keystone of psychoanalysis. Written over a period of three weeks in 1915, "The Unconscious" is the culmination of his topographical theory (or "first topography"). Freud musters several arguments and points discussed or established earlier, especially in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a).

The work is divided into seven parts, the last being the most original. After reminding the reader that the unconscious encompasses more than just repressed material, which is only one element of it, Freud goes on to justify the hypothesis of the unconsciousthat is, to show that it is necessary and legitimate since there are multiple proofs of its existence. To do this he attempts to show that the assimilation of psychic and conscious is unacceptable: "It disrupts psychical continuities, plunges us into the insoluble difficulties of psycho-physical parallelism" (1915e, p. 168); most importantly, it closes off any possibility of effective psychological research. Freud then indicates that the unconscious is not a second, foreign consciousness within us, but that there are "mental processes [that] are in themselves unconscious" (p. 171), an important distinction that emphasized acts rather than reflexes. In this connection Freud did not hesitate to invoke the Kantian view that perceptions are "identical with what is perceived though unknowable" (p. 171).

In part 2, taking it that the hypothesis of the unconscious has been accepted, Freud discusses different meanings of the term unconscious, reprising previously discussed material concerning the distinction between the unconscious and the preconscious. He notes in passing that these distinctions do not, "for the present," imply any claims concerning anatomical areas of the brain; they refer only to "regions in the mental apparatus, wherever they may be situated in the body" (p. 175); the term regions should thus be taken in the sense of a fiction (p. 175).

Part 3 refers in part to the second of Freud's metapsychological papers, "Repression" (1915d), which discusses the instincts. Freud draws an important distinction here: "ideas are cathexesbasically of memory-traceswhile affects and emotions correspond to processes of discharge, the final manifestations of which are perceived as feelings" (p. 178). "Affectivity," he adds in a note, "manifests itself essentially in motor (secretory and vasomotor) discharge resulting in an (internal) alteration of the subject's own body without reference to the external world" (p. 179n). This clearly raises the issue of the actual neuroses, though Freud does not address it here.

Part 4 deals with the topography and dynamics of repression, and it is here that Freud provides his well-known definition of metapsychology: "It will not be unreasonable to give a special name to this whole way of regarding our subject-matter, for it is the consummation of psycho-analytic research. I propose that when we have succeeded in describing a psychical process in its dynamic, topographical and economic aspects, we should speak of it as a metapsychological presentation" (p. 181). As in "Repression" (1915d), Freud specifies repression relative to anxiety hysteria, to phobia in conversion hysteria, and to obsessional neurosis.

Part 5, which covers the specific properties of the unconscious system, includes some very important thoughts on time: "The processes of the system Ucs are timeless i.e., they are not ordered temporally, are not altered by the passage of time; they have no reference to time at all. Reference to time is bound up, once again, with the work of the system Cs " (p. 187). But this is only one aspect of the characteristics of the unconscious system, which Freud lists as follows: "exemption from mutual contradiction, primary process (mobility of cathexes), timelessness, and replacement of external by psychical reality " (p. 187).

After discussing the preconscious, Freud goes on in part 6 to examine the relations between the two systems, which are distinct but whose respective impulses may cooperate if they happen to be tending in the same direction. "The content of the Ucs," Freud concludes, "may be compared with an aboriginal population in the mind. If inherited mental formations exist in the human beingsomething analogous to instinct in animalsthese constitute the nucleus of the Ucs. Later there is added to them what is discarded during childhood development as unserviceable; and this need not differ in its nature from what is inherited. A sharp and final division between the content of the two systems does not, as a rule, take place till puberty" (p. 195).

The seventh and last part of Freud's paper is the most audacious; Freud asserts that only the analysis of narcissistic psychoneuroses (what we would now call psychoses), can "furnish us with conceptions through which the enigmatic Ucs will be brought more within our reach and, as it were, made tangible" (p. 196). He cites Karl Abraham on dementia praecox and Victor Tausk on schizophrenia, and he develops a number of important themes about the speech of schizophrenics. Using Tausk's clinical observations, Freud notes that "the schizophrenic utterance exhibits a hypochondriac trait: it has become 'organ-speech "' (p. 198). Discussing Eugen Bleuler and Carl Jung, he writes that "in schizophrenia words are subjected to the same process as that which makes the dream-images out of latent dream-thoughtsto what we have called the primary psychical process" (p. 199). The relationship to words thus takes precedence over thing-presentations, and substitutions are made based on verbal identity rather than on similarity between the things designated, which is what makes schizophrenic speech so disconcerting. In this way Freud introduces a more general analysis of the thought process, evoking cathexes far removed from perception which "attain their capacity to become conscious only through being linked with the residues of perceptions of words " (p. 202).

Freud concludes this most brilliant and profound of his papers on metapsychology as follows: "When we think in abstractions there is a danger that we may neglect the relations of words to unconscious thing-presentations" (p. 204).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Metapsychology; Thing-presentation; Unconscious, the; Word-presentation.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1915e). Das Unbewusste. Internationale Zeitschrift fürärztliche Psychoanalyse, 3, 189-203, 257-269; GW, 10: 264-303; SE, 14: 166-204.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.

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