Psychoanalysis > Theory

[The Unconscious]

  • The Problem of the Unconscious is the Problem of Psychology

The problem of the unconscious in psychology is, in the forcible words of Lipps (1897), less a psychological problem than the problem of psychology. [...]

It is essential to abandon the overvaluation of the property of being conscious before it becomes possible to form any correct view of the origin of what is mental. In Lipps's words, the unconscious must be assumed to be the general basis of psychical life. The unconscious is the larger sphere, which includes within it the smaller sphere of the conscious. Everything conscious has an unconscious preliminary stage; whereas what is unconscious may remain at that stage and nevertheless claim to be regarded as having the full value of a psychical process. The unconscious is the true psychical reality; in its innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense organs. (Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900.)

  • The Unconscious in Descriptive Sense

The oldest and best meaning of the word 'unconscious' is the descriptive one; we call a psychical process unconscious whose existence we are obliged to assume - for some such reason as that we infer it from its effects -, but of which we know nothing. In that case we have the same relation to it as we have to a psychical process in another person, except that it is in fact one of our own. If we want to be still more correct, we shall modify our assertion by saying that we call a process unconscious if we are obliged to assume that it is being activated at the moment, though at the moment we know nothing about it. This qualification makes us reflect that the majority of conscious processes are conscious only for a short time; very soon they become latent, but can easily become conscious again. We might also say that they had become unconscious, if it were at all certain that in the condition of latency they are still something psychical. (Sigmund Freud: New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 1933.)

  • Dynamic (coming soon)
  • The Unconscious in the Systematic Sense

Yes, but unluckily the work of psycho-analysis has found itself compelled to use the word 'unconscious' in yet another, third, sense, and this may, to be sure, have led to confusion. Under the new and powerful impression of there being an extensive and important field of mental life which is normally withdrawn from the ego's knowledge so that the processes occurring in it have to be regarded as unconscious in the truly dynamic sense, we have come to understand the term 'unconscious' in a topographical or systematic sense as well; we have come to speak of a 'system' of the preconscious and a 'system' of the unconscious, of a conflict between the ego and the system Ucs., and have used the word more and more to denote a mental province rather than a quality of what is mental. The discovery, actually an inconvenient one, that portions of the ego and super-ego as well are unconscious in the dynamic sense, operates at this point as a relief - it makes possible the removal of a complication. We perceive that we have no right to name the mental region that is foreign to the ego 'the system Ucs', since the characteristic of being unconscious is not restricted to it. Very well; we will no longer use the term 'unconscious' in the systematic sense and we will give what we have hitherto so described a better name and one no longer open to misunderstanding. Following a verbal usage of Nietzsche's and taking up a suggestion by Georg Groddeck, we will in future call it the 'id'. This impersonal pronoun seems particularly well suited for expressing the main characteristic of this province of the mind - the fact of its being alien to the ego. The super-ego, the ego and the id - these, then, are the three realms, regions, provinces, into which we divide an individual's mental apparatus, and with the mutual relations of which we shall be concerned in what follows. (Sigmund Freud: New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis , 1933.)

Thus, we may speak of an unconscious thought seeking to convey itself into the preconscious so as to be able then to force its way through into consciousness. What we have in mind here is not the forming of a second thought situated in a new place, like a transcription which continues to exist alongside the original; and the notion of forcing a way through into consciousness must be kept carefully free from any idea of a change of locality. Again, we may speak of a preconscious thought being repressed or driven out and then taken over by the unconscious. These images, derived from a set of ideas relating to a struggle for a piece of ground, may tempt us to suppose that it is literally true that a mental grouping in one locality has been brought to an end and replaced by a fresh one in another locality. Let us replace these metaphors by something that seems to correspond better to the real state of affairs, and let us say instead that some particular mental grouping has had a cathexis of energy attached to it or withdrawn from it, so that the structure in question has come under the sway of a particular agency or been withdrawn from it. What we are doing here is once again to replace a topographical way of representing things by a dynamic one. What we regard as mobile is not the psychical structure itself but its innervation. (Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900.)

  • Features of Unconscious Processes (coming soon)
  • Unconscious and the Repressed

- So we must now pay a little attention to the relation between these two technical terms, which, indeed, appear to coincide in their meaning. It is not difficult to make the matter plain. 'Unconscious' is the wider concept; 'repressed' is the narrower one. Everything that is repressed is unconscious; but we cannot assert that everything unconscious is repressed. [...]

'Unconscious' is a purely descriptive term, one that is indefinite in some respects and, as we might say, static. 'Repressed'  is a dynamic expression, which takes account of the interplay of mental forces; it implies that there is a force present which is seeking to bring about all kinds of psychical effects, including that of becoming conscious, but that there is also an opposing force which is able to obstruct some of these psychical effects, once more including that of becoming conscious. The mark of something repressed is precisely that in spite of its intensity it is unable to enter consciousness. (Sigmund Freud: Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva, 1907).

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Sigmund Freud

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