Unconscious, The

views updated


"The division of the psychical into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premise of psychoanalysis" (1923b, p. 19). The unconscious emerged from practical treatments, from the theory of repression, and from the theory of sexuality. The adjective qualifies localized formations in a state of repression, various processes, and later on, agencies as well. The noun describes the "locality" that, according to the first topography, is set against the preconscious-conscious system. Both the adjective and the noun imply that psychical life is in conflict (the dynamic point of view); that memory exists without interest, that the energetics, indeed, the structure of psychic processes is determined, on the whole, beyond consciousness (the economic point of view); and that finally inaccessibility to consciousness is undeniable (the descriptive point of view). Freud transformed philosophical and psychiatric tradition with these ideas and his refinement of the terms (Hartmann, 1931; Whithe, 1961).

When he advanced the theory of repression and the psychoneurosis of defense in 1894, Freud managed without the word unconscious. Thus ideas (or representations) that were intolerable, irreconcilable, repressed, durable, and pathogenic were beyond association, forgotten, outside of consciousness. Freud then made use of the term unconscious three times in Studies on Hysteria and called for research: "The ideas which are derived from the greatest depth and which form the nucleus of the pathogenic organization are also those which are acknowledged as memories by the patient with greatest difficulty. Even when [. . .] the patients themselves accept the fact that they thought this or that, they often add: 'But I can't remember having thought it.' It is easy to come to terms with them by telling them that the thoughts were unconscious. But how is this state of affairs to be fitted into our own psychological views? [. . .] It is clearly impossible to say anything about this [. . .] until we have arrived at a thorough clarification of our basic psychological views" (1895d, p. 300). The advances made during 1895childhood trauma, afterwardsness (deferred action), the dream as wish-fulfilment, and finally the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), where the "system of impermeable neurones [w]" figures as a precursor to the unconsciousallow Freud to describe as unconscious pre-sexual sexual childhood traumas and the psychical work that they lead to, which he further constructed through practice and via theory from 1896 onwards (1896b). The discovery of unconscious fantasies and their efficacy (letters to Wilhelm Fleiss from September 21 and October 3 and 15, 1897) contributed to the creation of the unconscious in 1899 in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). The close and fundamental correlation between the unconscious, the infantile, and the sexual was affirmed.

Freud defined psychoanalysis as the science of the unconscious-soul (unbewusst-seelisch ) and the psychology of the unconscious (Ucs.), which evolved according to the advances of psychoanalysis. Via the local aetiology of neurotic symptoms, he discovered that the dream was similarly constructed and that the Ucs. becomes the generic psychic system. It contains wishesunconscious and indestructibleand the repressed, cathected by the libido through free energy and regulated by the pleasure principle. The primary processes (displacement, condensation) preside over the Ucs. The conflict between repressed instinctual motion and censuring force creates the dream, the paradigmatic compromise-formation. "If we look at unconscious wishes reduced to their most fundamental and truest shape, we shall have to conclude, no doubt, that psychical reality is a particular form of existence not to be confused with material reality" (1900a, p. 620). The reality of the Ucs. reveals itself in other localized processes such as joking, in the forgetting of words, and other symptomatic activities.

Freud's investigations into the "second step in the theory of the instincts" are continued in "The Unconscious" (1915e). The dependence of the Ucs. on the instincts and repression is stressed. It is primal repression that creates the Ucs. that above all "contains the thing-cathexes of the objects, the first and true object-cathexes" (p. 201) while "the nucleus of the Ucs. consists of instinctual representatives which seek to discharge their cathexis; that is to say, it consists of wishful impulses" (1915e, p. 186). Freud notes, in 1917, that the Ucs. is the missing link ("chaînon manquant") between soma and psyche (in 1960a).

The life and death instincts, as well as the agencies id, ego, and superego, the "third step in the theory of the instincts" (1920g), do not destroy a single previous experience. The id incorporates the Ucs. and inherits its characteristics, while the assets of the adjective "unconscious" accrue from the id and to a large extent from the ego, hence its resistance to the sense of guilt, to most of the processes of the superego, and to the conflicts between agencies.

There is no psychoanalytic notion that does not have some connection to the unconsciousness that the dynamic point of view imposes universally. The more or less localized ideas moving beyond the first topography exist in relation to the Ucs. and are included in the id. The "Mystic Writing Pad" delighted Freud (1925a) because it represented the system Ucs./Pcs.-Cs. The repository for memory traces, as well as a place of fixation, the Ucs. is even assumed to retain an instinctual foundation analogous to animal knowledge, as in inherited psychic formations and the traces of human history.

Having often clarified his views, Freud was always careful to separate the essentially dynamic unconscious from the latent, which was susceptible to becoming conscious. By arguing for posthypnotic suggestion, the dream, and other experiences associated with the first topography, he refuted the philosophers' view of the unconscious as paradoxical, and taking up this question of the ambiguity of the "Unconscious," he noted: "no one has a right to complain because the actual phenomenon expresses the dynamic factor ambiguously" (1923b, p. 16) (an intuition verified through the qualitative dynamic). In 1938 he criticized a presentation of the ego and the id as follows: "What is unsatisfactory in this pictureand I am aware of it as clearly as anyoneis due to our complete ignorance of the dynamic nature of the mental processes. We tell ourselves that what distinguishes a conscious idea from a preconscious one, and the latter from an unconscious one, can only be a modification, or perhaps a different distribution, of psychical energy. We talk of cathexes and hypercathexes, but beyond this we are without any knowledge on the subject or even any starting-point for a serviceable working hypothesis" (1939a). The qualitative dynamic, which endorses Freudian stylization, permits some working hypotheses.

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Psychic apparatus; Splitting; "Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest"; Collective unconscious (analytical psychology); Colloque sur l'inconscient; Consciousness; Formations of the unconscious; Graph of Desire; Idea/representation; Instance; Interpretation; Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis ; Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious ; Kantianism and psychoanalysis; Knot; Letter, the; Linguistics and psychoanalysis; Matheme; Metaphor; Metapsychology; Metonymy; Myth of origins; Object a ; Parade of the signifier; Subject's desire; Philosophy and psychoanalysis; Preconscious, the; "Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psychoanalysis"; Science and psychoanalysis; Seminar, Lacan's; Signifier; Signifier/signified; Splitting of the subject; Subconscious; Subject; Subject of the unconscious; Symptom/sinthome; Topographical point of view; Topology; Word-presentation.


Freud, Sigmund. (1896b). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 157-185.

. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Parts I and II. SE, 4-5.

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

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1925a [1924]). A note upon the "mystic writing pad." SE, 19: 225-232.

. (1939a [1934-38]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

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

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.

. (1960a [1873-1939]). Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1873-1939 (Ernst L. Freud, Ed.; Tania and James Stern, Trans.). London: Hogarth.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Hartmann, Eduard von. (1931). Philosophy of the unconscious. Speculative results according to the inductive method of physical science (W. C. Coupland, Trans.). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1869)

Whithe, Lancelot. (1961). L'Inconscient avant Freud. Paris: Payot.

Further Reading

Opatow, Barry. (1997). The real unconscious: Psychoanalysis as a theory of consciousness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45, 865-890.