Lesson 11 The Hypothesis of the Unconscious



   The identity of the subject would not be a problem were the subject entirely within his own reach.  Yet are we not prone to moments of absence?  Are we always conscious?  Even during vigilance we are in any case more aware of the surrounding world than of ourselves.  The content of the mind is confined to whatever it lays its attention on.  We do not find in it anything it does not clearly perceive, neither perhaps anything it does not want to see.  Would this mean that there is an area in the mind that remains obscure?

   This is what is designated by the term unconscious. But what does this word mean?  This is not a simple question because the unconscious cannot be viewed as an object of the experience; it is a roundabout way to enquire into what is actually taking place inside the field of consciousness.  How much importance should we give to the hypothesis of the unconscious?  Ought we to regard it as a fruit of fashion or are there weighty reasons for retaining it?

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                   A.  The Paradigm of Consciousness and the Unconscious.


   In the West Freud is venerated as the man who revolutionised the paradigm of Psychology.  One says that there is Psychology "before" and "after" Freud.  In what way has the hypothesis of the unconscious been so revolutionary?

   Does it mean that the unconscious has not been described before?  In fact, well before the emergence of Freudian Psychoanalysis there were already theories of the unconscious.  Jung, a disciple of Freud, even realised, when studying traditional cultures outside the West, that the unconscious had been described on many levels. The Indian Tantras for instance comprise a theory of sexuality which, when compared to Freud, seems to indicate that the Freudian theory only deals with part of the unconscious. Humanity did not wait for Freud to develop systems of interpreting dreams.  Hence what importance should one give to the discovery of the unconscious by Psychoanalysis?

1) The hypothesis of the unconscious is of primary importance because it leads to a reorientation of the history of Western Psychology by provoking a change of paradigm - or model - of Psychology as it had been viewed since Descartes.  Indeed, classical Psychology was a psychology of consciousness.  If we follow the indications laid out in the cartesian model of consciousness, we shall never find any idea of the unconscious.  Descartes stipulates that the soul in consciousness and defines this consciousness as an immediate capture of the thought.  Psychology, as indicated by its name, being a study of the psyche, the soul, this means according to Descartes' model that it studies consciouseness as thought. If the soul is thinking substance, this must mean that it is thinking activity through and through.  How could there be something in it that is would not be conscious of?  How could there be something like "unconcious thought"?  It seems like a contradiction.  Thought is conscious or it is not at all.  What does not belong to thought may belong to matter, to extended substance, but cannot pertain to consciousness.  Descartes could never have spoken or "unconscious thought"; it is a formula which, inside his own system, appears non-sensical.

   Since we have all been schooled in the Cartesian tradition, our own use of the word "thought" is ambiguous.  The problem stems from taking consciousness to mean waking, or experience, and thought to mean mental activity, object of consciousness and even representation.  Are being awake and thinking one and the same thing?  If you do equate them, then the continuity of the soul is taken to be the continuity of the act of thinking.  Then you must conclude that the soul, which is thought, must in order to exist be continually thinking.  Descartes states this clearly: "I find that thinking is an attribute belonging to me: it alone cannot be detached from me. I am, I exist, that much is certain, but for how long?  For as long as I am thinking, because it may well be the case that were I to stop thinking I would also cease to be or to exist".

   This point however is open to criticism.  The readers of the Meditations perceived that here is an obscurity.  What about sleep? Coma? What can we say of the embryo inside its mother's womb? Does it think in the same way as I do now?  Can there not be something like the annihilation of thinking?  And blackouts? And deep sleep?  In deep sleep I stop thinking and yet I do not stop being.  How should we consider all these moments of inattention, of distraction?  Our slips of the tongue?  Our dreams?  These objections have to be answered and the unconscious state explained.  There are two possible solutions:

                        either one maintains the idea that the soul "is always thinking", in which case one shall have to account for the possibility of gaps in consciousness that nevertheless do not challenge the continuity of the soul. This is the core of the theory of mind in the West and a point of view shared by all cartesians (Leibniz, Malebranche, Spinoza).

                      or we let go of the idea that the soul is always thinking, and we posit that its true identity is on a metaphysical level and does not depend on the mental activity of the conscious subject, an activity which can effectively be interrupted. This is a point of view that we find for instance in Indian philosophy. 

   A deciding factor in the history of Western psychology is that the Cartesians choose the first solution, maintaining an ambiguity in the word "thinking".  Yet Descartes writes in the replies to objections: "It is no wonder if we do not recollect the thoughts we had in our mother's womb or when fainting because neither do we remember many thoughts we have had when grown-up, sane and awake."  The soul is always thinking, but it forgets a large number of its thoughts; these thoughts will necessarily have taken place, since the soul is by essence a thinking thing.  Descartes has to admit of a form of unconscious, which he lets memory deal with.  He takes consciousness to be the thinking activity of which we are immediately aware, the activity in which we are a will, an acting ego.

1) However this reply is obscure.  Consciousness is not of one piece and we are not conscious of everything.  What one should point out is that there are degrees of consciousness; thus a content (of consiousness, that is a thought) is either present inside the field of consciousness, or disappears from the field of consciousness while being retained by memory.  Leibniz' theory of small perceptions solves this difficulty.  Perception comprises infinitesimal degrees.  Once a threshold is reached, the object enters consciousness.  If a noise is too weak it will not be noticed, and yet it has entered in the infinitesimal domain of sensation.  If it reaches a sufficient threshold it will enter the realm of perception.  What we call a conscious event is nothing other than the concurrence of "small perceptions" making up a conscious perception.  What is there, but outside the field of consciousness, pertains to the unconscious.  Therefore " it is a major source of error to believe that there are no other perceptions in the soul than those one notices".  In other words, conscious experience emerges from a condensation of unconsious perceptions.  We can also say that this means that any conscious experience is surrounded by its own unconscious fringe.  What would be naive would be to believe that the only thing existing is that of which we are conscious.  This position is erroneous, both as regards its approach to the outside world (of which I do not perceive all aspects) as its approach to the inner world (I am not even aware of everything going on inside my own body).  What I call a thought can have arisen in the unconscious.  When this thought appears in my mind I only become aware of it.  This point of view leads to new perspectives.  Yet Leibniz continues to sate along with Descartes that "the soul is always thinking".

2) To be more specific, it is possible to equate the power of consciousness to that of the will and restrict the unconscious to the domain of automatisms.  If we regard consciousness above all as will, then the difference between conscious and unconscious can be taken to be that of the wilful attention, a reflective light on the objects of waking consciousness, and involuntary inattention, which feebly and distractedly slips into subconsciousness.  Habits and mechanical reactions are unconscious, while a reflective and voluntary act is conscious.  To be awake is also to will. This is all the difference between what is conscious because done wilfully, and what is unconscious because it has become mechanical.  This is why Bergson distinguishes that which in the mind is attention to life from that which has slipped away into unconsciousness as memories.  As soon as vigilance's alert interest its surrounding ceases, the content of the mind is no longer operative and then dreaming can begin: "Let's suppose", Bergson writes, "that at a given time I lose interest in the present situation, in acting in the present.  Let's suppose in other words that I fall asleep.  Then these immobile souvenirs, sensing that I have just opened the trap-door in the mind which kept them underground, begin to move.  They rise.  They quicken.  In the unconscious night they perform a huge and macabre dance.  And together they all rush to the door that has just half opened".  Here dreaming belongs to the dynamics of subconsciousness. Bergson follows a voluntarist tradition which goes from Descartes to Alain[1], via Maine de Biran[2], in which consciousness is always identified to thought and recognised as will.  Of course, in dreaming there is this dance of the memories, but it is hard to view this as “thinking” in the Cartesian sense.  The voluntarist tradition has a tendency to equate the unconscious with a mechanical activity of the body; this is an idea we find for example in Alain.


    True thinking is organised and intentional; it is vigilant and hence necessarily conscious.  This consciousness in action is determined by choices. It is all the more vivacious as the choice experience confronts us with is more dramatic.  It is not the mechanical thinking of habit and repetition.  To be conscious is to choose at every moment with respect to a prospective future; it is leaning present wakefulness on the past so that it responds to its expectations.  The unconscious pertains above all to lack of attention and habit.  Again, to bodily automatisms.


                      B.  Latent Thought and Unconscious Desire


    What is the originality of Freud with respect to Cartesian tradition?  In that he crossed the line which consists in considering unconscious phenomena not as residual habits, a kind of inert thinking stuck in matter, but as organised from within by an intention and a desire of which the subject is not aware.

1) Let us first consider the phenomenon of dreaming.  For long it was considered a kind of wandering of the mind, a nonsensical chaos.  Of course a dream is a moment of inattention which enables the manifestation of subconscious content.  Yet what reasons can these have to manifest?  If we conform to the classical interpretation of dreams we will say that they witness to the imagination’s release from the constraints of waking in some kind of gratuitous and fanciful manifestation.  To believe that dreams are as void of meaning as a pure improvisation, something with no purpose, is to give them little credit.  However intentionality is also present in dreams.  It only disappears in deep sleep.  Would there not be some sort of intention in dreams?  Freud underlines: “in my opinion the cause of dreams is not indifferent and therefore dreams are not innocent…dreams are not concerned with trivialities, they would not perturb our sleep for so little”.  Freud’s thesis is that the intention behind the dream is the realisation of a desire.  We say that the dream has a latent thought which is the expression of a desire and which orchestrates the elaboration of the dream; the dream as it manifests to the dreamer is the patent thought.  The dreamer experiences a more or less muddled story, but this story is conducted by intentions which are the complete expression of a desire.  The child deprived of sweets during the day will dream he is eating endless amounts of them.  He will compensate through his dream a lack of fulfilment of his desire when awake.  Dreams have a meaning; they are the realisations of desires on an imaginary plane.

   This explanation is satisfactory for children’s dreams; yet are no the dreams of grown-ups a little more complicated?  How is one to explain the fuzzy nature and chaotic progress of their dreams?  Does desire imply this confusion?  The problem does not arise in the case of children as long as their desires are not obstructed by some major prohibition.  The grown-up on the other hand has developed an acute sense of what is allowed and what is not.  His education has structured the duality good/evil in rules of conduct enforced by sanctions.  Hence he has installed censorship in himself and he has a sharp sense of guilt.  The child has first experienced censorship as coming from outside, from his parents’ authority.  Later on he has internalised this system of prohibitions and appointed in his own mind a judge capable of invigilating his desires.  This inner judge is what Freud calls the superego.  The result, according to Freud, is that the conscious ego refuses the direct confrontation with its own intentions if these stand in too great a contradiction with what morality can tolerate.  The shock would be too severe.  In addition, if desires become too transparent, the dreamer will awake in anguish, because the desire has not been properly repressed.  In general, even if the dream liberates unconscious desires, it immediately veils them by displacing the intentions towards more harmless objects. 

    Let’s take an example from Jung.  A lady comes to see her psychoanalyst friend to tell him of a strange dream she has had.  She says she has dreamt she strangled a little white dog.  She finds this odd and remarks that in the dream she proceeds in the manner of killing poultry and then she goes on to observations about capital punishment.  The friend asks her if she bears a grudge against someone in her vicinity.  She says she does.  Some days previously she threw out her sister-in-law, telling her to leave because “I don’t want a biting dog around”.  The interpretation is quite clear.   The dream realises in a dramatic manner an aggressive conduct.  Since she could not admit to herself her murderous intentions, she displaced her intentions on the dog, while keeping the equation dog = sister-in-law.  The dream operated the displacement.  She satisfied her desire, yet without admitting it consciously.  If the dream has a manifest content (the patent thought) which seems to be this chaotic story, it also has a latent content (the latent thought), which is a desire for revenge.  The conscious ego can well ignore his latent thoughts and preserve a façade of self-mastery.  Yet, there are unconscious tendencies at work in him.

2)  The mechanisms of interactions between conscious and unconscious are thus quite simple: 1) an unconscious desire manifests (If I could, I would strangle her…).  This one meets with conscious resistance (No, that would not be a good thing to do, I must not have such thoughts).  There is a conflict in me between what I allow myself and what I don’t. 2) The conflict between tendencies results in a victory of consciousness which repressed the tendency in the unconscious.  One then speaks of censorship.  The censorship is a barrier manufactured by education which rejects all unacceptable thoughts.  Censorship produces repression which is the result of censorship.  Since some desires are prohibited, a mental act must intervene to get rid of them: this is repression.  3) Nevertheless, what is repressed is not suppressed.  Not only is it preserved in what is the primary function of the unconscious, that of being memory, but it also keeps its dynamic potential.  The emotional charge contained in the repressed thought persists.  Thus a moment’s inattention suffices for the non-manifest content to manifest.  This is taking place in dreams, but not only.  One speaks then of unconscious acts or symptoms pertaining to the unconscious.  This quick analysis is taken from what we shall call the first Freudian topic, let’s say his first theory. 

3) There exist unconscious psychical phenomena.  An unconscious act is thus an act which has all the characteristics of ordinary mental events except one: it is unknown to the subject who performs it at the time when he performs it.  Freud classifies situations giving rise to unconscious acts in two categories: slips and dreams.

      One calls slip acts which, in conformity with the subject’s deliberate intention, are left uncompleted:  a slip of the tongue, of the pen, a mistaken identity, something forgotten, an inadvertent gesture and so on, everything which appears to fall outside the ego and his logic.  Freud cites the example of the president of the Austrian Reichtag, who upon opening the session said “Gentlemen, I notice the presence of the majority of our members and therefore declare the session closed….I beg you pardon, opened…”  In the Freudian interpretation one may suppose that the president had no wish to open the session, that perhaps he foresaw problems.  His slip would have betrayed his true wish.  The procedure is the same as above: repression of the tendency, inattention and the tendency expresses itself through a slip.  Let’s suppose I am to do an errand in response to a request.  I forget.  Here too this forgetfulness can be interpreted as a betrayal.  I may have secret reasons for not doing this favour, in which case I have obtained what I wanted.  The same goes for mistaken identities of someone in the street. If I have an intense desire to see someone, I run a great risk of unconsciously believing I see him many times.  In all these cases there are two conflicting tendencies in the mind.  One is conscious activity, wilful and conducted by the mind; the other is unconscious activity, involuntary, and not under the control of the mind.  Whenever there is inattention, censorship has loosened its hold and then the repressed unconscious content tends to manifest and provoke an unconscious act.

    What an odd situation!  Slips, forgetfulness etc… seem unconnected to me.  I do not notice them.  It eludes me.  And yet they are part of me.  They express an intention, a desire, even though I dare not frankly admit that they are my intentions and desires.  The unconscious thinks, dreams, desires, plans, it has its obsessions like my conscious self, but I know nothing of it.  Would it not therefore be legitimate to speak of “unconscious thinking”? The theory of repression reveals a form of thought which incorporates an idea, a goal, a desire.  One is almost tempted to speak of an identity.  This being so, we should regard the psyche as consisting of several different layers: on the surface consciousness which includes experience, and below the subconscious, and deeper still the unconscious.  The ego would therefore be like an iceberg; its visible part would be the conscious, but this visible part supposes an invisible part, the unconscious.

3) Freud does not stop there and shows also that the dynamics of the unconscious is nothing other than that of sexuality. In the psychoanalytical cure, the analysis always involves the patient’s intimacy and this intimacy takes him to sexuality.  Freud wants to show that the repressed thoughts are first of all repressed sexual thoughts, since desire is fundamentally the expression of sexuality.  Freud’s equation of psychical procedures is therefore:

            desire = affectivity = sexuality = unconscious.

     Starting with the idea of repression, one arrives at the interdicts of sexuality, especially those of incest.  Freud take the unconscious tendencies back to traumas that derange the patients’ mental life and which stem from early childhood.  In addition he interprets the notion of trauma only as relating to sexuality.

      This explains why Freudian psychoanalysis very quickly heeds towards a theory of sexuality.  This theory states that the vital energy, the libido, is nothing other than the development of sexuality going through certain stages of which the most well-known are the anal, the mirror stage and Oedipus complex.  If the development of the libido is obstructed, the individual will suffer and this is the beginning of neurosis.  The manner in which these stages are experienced is not without consequences for grown-up life.  This can explain some forms of infantile behaviour in grown-ups: one says then that some stages have not been successfully traversed.  Something in the psyche is immature and the individual wishes to return to the stage of a baby, or a young child, in order to assimilate what he failed to in the past.  Adopt a foetal position on the sofa, sucking one’s thumb are regressive conducts.  Freudian psychoanalysis insists on these experiences of early childhood because it assumes that they are crucial in the later construction of the grown-up.

    This hypothesis of desire ruled by the unconscious deals a severe blow to the self and its prerogatives.  We naively believed ourselves to be our own masters, we thought we ruled on the territory of our intimacy, and we were wrong.  I am not the origin of all my thoughts, in the sense that these would all be logical and deliberate constructions of conscious reason.  After Freud we can no longer believe in the supremacy of the wilful ego on its unconscious elaborations.  Psychoanalysis caused an earthquake in the field of psychology when questioning the prerogatives of consciousness and in forcing us to take man’s darker side into account.

     But beware!  Freudian theory is one possible interpretation of unconscious phenomena and not the only one.  The problem of the complexity of the unconscious remains to be dealt with.  Neither have we studied the problem of pathology and the unconscious.  However we are at least better able now to recognise the importance of the theory of the unconscious in understanding everyday life.


                       C.  The Unconscious and the Emotions.


      There are many compelling reasons the hypothesis of the unconscious should help us understand everyday life and play a part in self-knowledge.

      The ego of vigilance is, Freud says, like the owner of a house which is the soul.  Or at least this is what he thinks.  He could rightfully think of himself as the master of a well respected house controlling his every thought.  However neurosis and slips oblige us to think otherwise: this house of the soul is haunted by unconscious spooks that are unfulfilled desires.  “Thoughts arise and one doesn’t know where they come from; neither can one chase them away.  These alien guests appear even stronger than those subjected to the rule of the ego”.  How many of our choices are truly deliberate and conscious?  How many of our thoughts are conscious, directed and organised?  How many of our acts elude us?  Doesn’t our conduct mostly stem from impulses and not careful thinking?  It is this pretentiousness of the ego which is under attack in the following text:  “You believe you know everything of sufficient importance going on in your soul because your consciousness would inform you.  And when you remain without news from anything in your soul, you state with perfect assurance that it cannot be there.  You even go to the extent of equating “psyche” with “consciousness”, that is known to you and this despite the most compelling evidence that many more things must constantly be taking place in your psychic life than can be revealed to your consciousness.”  The ego is not aware that he is assuredly not the whole of mind and that the very thing he takes to be his own is something he has first had to take possession of.  The ego has access to patent thoughts which are given in experience.  He is only the master of some of his thoughts which he is able to formulate himself.  The origin of his thoughts may well elude him.  The conscious ego is in fact tossed about by stirs taking place in his mind, stirs caused by agitations he is not aware of.  He does not see the extent to which his acts are ruled by unconscious factors.

2) How then can we detect the unconscious in action?  By discerning everything which in thought and behaviour pertains to reactions and automatisms, what is accomplished at moments of inattention and absent-mindedness.

      Let us consider the example of emotions or more exactly emotional reactions.  Let us suppose that in the past I have been betrayed by a friend.  My expectations were not fulfilled and I have the feeling that I have been deceived.  The years go by, but the wound is still there.  Somehow I nourish a desire for revenge and I do not want to be betrayed again.  Now life’s circumstances replace me in a very similar situation to the one I knew previously.  I will react in panic, maybe aggressively, in any case out of proportion to the situation itself.  Reacting so emotionally deeply disturbs me, I shiver, I lose control.  The outcome of an emotional reaction is irrational.  I shout insults I will regret later.  I am of course not aware of it, carried away as I am by my anger, my fear etc…I do not realise how extreme my judgement, attitude and words are.  I have been touched where it hurts inside.  A twist is there in the psyche, and it is this twist which has just been expressed.  Something tense inside has not been resolved.  A desire is there which want to be ex-pressed, precisely because for long it has been re-pressed and the present situation and experience gives it an opportunity.  However, due to poor understanding, this is only half accomplished:  there is an emotional discharge, but the tension in my heart is not eased.   A trace from the past is there like a wound that life’s circumstances have re-opened.  It is under the influence of emotions that we become unconscious, we do senseless things; one will howl, another mortify himself, a third kill or kill himself.  This is the sense of the expression: “I didn’t know what I was doing”.  When one loses control, emotions flow.  Yet what is done automatically is nevertheless conditioned by the past.

Hence we have a model of behaviour which looks like this:

Situation/experience A

Reaction B

Situation/experience C analogous to A

Refusal = no

Response to the situation: withdrawal, distress

Inner agitation: return of what had been repressed


Internalisation: for instance a suppressed anger

Externalisation: emotional explosion


A model of behaviour

Repetition of that model



Incomplete expression

    In terms of Indian philosophy, anything experienced in duality and suffering leaves traces in the psyche (vasanas), which together will form tendencies (samskara).  Hence, unbeknown to us, the past is present in our unconscious.  This trace of the past organises memory and lays out in advance the person’s emotional reactions.  We can ourselves observe what emotional collapse amounts to.  It easy to perceive it in others and this is what enables us to understand what a fragile statue the ego is.   Our self-control is often weak.  There are tensions inside us that demand to be resolved.  The ego’s hold on its emotions is never total and this hold demands to let go of these tensions so that they can be resolved.  An emotional explosion expresses without removing the twist inside.  Some emotional excess finds an outlet in dreams, yet this does not seem to be enough to dissolve all tension.  To resolve everything that is twisted in the unconscious and which returns again and again it is necessary to work at oneself.

      Let us consider for instance the mechanism of passion in a relationship.   As soon as a discussion becomes passionate, that pathos is released, that everyone sticks to his position, we can be certain that unconscious factors are at work.  Too much passion in asserting and denying are the sign that something is not right, that the mind is not serene, that words are tossed about blindly, in short that fanaticism has made its entrance.  “When a person speaks vehemently and loses his calm this shows that he is attached to what he is speaking of,” and this attachment is fabricated by the ego out of the legacy of his own personal history.  Because it erupts all of a sudden, the emotion is a reaction to the sting of a wound and causes the person to go wild.  When one is no longer oneself, it means that the self has left a void and this vacancy is occupied by the unconscious; this is what happens in the madman’s lunacy (a madman is someone alienated, someone who has become other than himself) when his mind so loses its coherence that his instincts appear alone on stage.  Emotion has to go if the self is to recover itself.

    The appearance of emotional reactions offers us some guidance.  “What is the touchstone on which to sharpen the intellect?  If you are troubled in action. This is the yardstick.  If you remain calm, serene and unperturbed, then your action is correct.” Nevertheless, does this mean that a conscious act is inevitably cold and cerebral?  “It is not necessary to stay cold and intellectual.  There is place for feeling.  There is a difference between feeling and emotion.  Emotion sends you into a state of agitation, you feel sad or glad.  Feeling on the contrary leads to contact or oneness with the object.”  Feeling is a sensitive openness to the present.  Emotion is sensitivity disturbed by its own past.  For this reason anything very emotional is deceptive.  Ancient fears reappear, disappointed expectations work themselves up and we no longer see things as they are.  We see them as we fear they might be or as we wish they were; our behaviour reflects this illusion.  We crystallise on present objects expectations, apprehensions or worries, and this crystallisation distorts our vision altogether.  When emotions don’t erupt, this does not necessarily result in coldness; on the contrary if sensitivity is left undisturbed it is free to receive feelings.  

     Once we have seen through the mechanism of emotions and realised how heavily the legacy of past tendencies weighs, we also become more understanding.  We then see how most people around us are like bundles of nerves.  They easily lose control, leaving them at the mercy of their unconscious reactions.  We also see our own problems the result of twists within ourselves.  What then becomes manifest is the immense importance of the unconscious in our life and the necessity to work at ourselves.  Consciousness plays a smaller part than previously believed and the ascendancy of the unconscious is all the greater precisely because we do not want to see it.  What would also be erroneous however would be to take the unconscious to be another “self” manipulating the self without it knowing.  The unconscious is not another self but the immersed part of the self, which is quite another matter.  It is alienating only as the weight of the past which weighs on the present, a past which is our own.  Be this past heavy or light, the nature of the subject remains the same, as does the role he must play on the stage of life.

3) It follows that we can represent the relation between conscious and unconscious in a picture.  Let us suppose that the psyche is comparable to an ocean.  It is a little as if the surface was consciousness, the level below the subconscious and the deepest level the unconscious.


 The self is made of the same water as the ocean, but this water has frozen into an individual, part of whom is conscious, the other part plunges its roots in the unconscious.  The middle zone is the subconscious where memory is at work to deliver accessible content.   Living in denial creates psychological twists expressing themselves as emotions, slips, dreams, symptoms that cross the layers of the mind. The individual unconscious is the level that harbours an ancient experience which has left a deep trace.  Some authors add that beyond the unconscious there is a supra-personal level, also called the collective unconscious.  The self is a thought which recovers itself in vigilance.  Part of it is immersed like an iceberg plunging into the unconscious.  This is where you find the traumas of past experience.  Whatever goes up to the surface must travel through the deep layers and undergo their influence.  The deepest layer of the unconscious goes beyond the individual.  Between conscious and unconscious there would be according to Freud a middle region relating to censorship.  Through the three states of waking, sleeping and dreaming, the person would descend through these different layers.

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     Hence there are serious reasons for retaining the hypothesis of the unconscious.  One cannot conceive of the conscious without the unconscious: perception, memory and habit suppose that consciousness consists of degrees.  The pathology of consciousness is best explained with reference to the hypothesis of the unconscious.  But we also observe other situations in daily life where it would seem that the unconscious is involved, for instance the workings of the emotions.

     Yet we must not forget that life is lived consciously.  Vigilance is taking place conducted by the conscious subject.  It is in the light of consciousness that the content of the unconscious is disentangled.  It is the expansion of consciousness which we should be aiming for.  To put it more simply: we are consciousness, but we have an unconscious.  These are not equivalent propositions.

   The unconscious is a hypothesis on behalf of a thesis which concerns consciousness itself.  It is not just a fashionable theory.  The hypothesis of the unconscious has the merit of questioning the status of personal identity.  It compels us to pay attention to what we would otherwise easily have left in the dark.  However it is not beyond question that the theory of sexuality would be the only way to clarify the nature of the unconscious.


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Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm


[1] Emile Chartrier, called Alain.  French philosopher 1868-1951.  He published a number of original works, a few  of which can be found in English.  He was also known to be an exceptional teacher and taught among others Sartre and Simone Weil.

[2] Maine de Biran, French philosopher 1766-1824.  His philosophy is one of subjectivity.  For him, the self is not a substance, but one with its activity.  Hence he writes that “The self is completely identified with this acting force.”  Like Descartes he posits that consciousness is a primary experience.  In English you find his book The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking.