It’s not just in the pub that you meet people who say they don’t believe in the unconscious; you also get them on the couch. There is a popular idea that Freud is so outdated and disproven that psychoanalysis surely can’t be about all that. If someone knows they’ve made a Freudian slip, the recognition that they’ve done so can almost appear to annul it. It becomes a joke, “Ha ha, I just said one thing and meant my mother”. Knowledge of psychoanalysis is put at the service of defence.
Familiarity with the notion of the unconscious, and all the debate that has sprung up around it—plus the current mania for encouraging people to believe they can control everything in their own lives—means that people are possibly better defended against the concept than they were a hundred years ago. They can see it coming a mile off and can draw on a battalion of reasons not to take it seriously. But still they have symptoms that bring them to therapy. Perhaps the hope is that there will be a number of “nice” ego-syntonic reasons why they’re suffering—because so and so was horrible to them and it’s not fair, and therapy will help them to get over it. There are plenty of therapies that will aim to do exactly that. But going to psychoanalysis would imply that the unconscious is going to be taken seriously, which is going to mean there’s a high chance you might be led to think about things you’d rather not think about; as in, really rather not think about. Which is obviously a strange experience to put yourself through voluntarily.
I will try to describe the mechanics of the unconscious as outlined by Freud. Things often seem to go wrong when the unconscious is depicted as something a bit blurry. Of course the contents of your own unconscious might seem a bit blurry (thanks to repression) but Freud’s concept isn’t. It’s easier to defend oneself against it when it all looks a bit messy and weird. So for clinicians it’s important to try to be precise about the machinations of the unconscious, and not be terrorised by people’s suspicions around it. But first maybe it’s useful to say a bit about the pre-history of Freud’s ideas.
The “discovery” of the unconscious
There’s a good deal of debate about how much credit Freud deserves. Did he “discover” the unconscious? Did he steal the idea from his colleagues? How did the theory come about? Freud himself said, in a short, posthumously published essay, “The concept of the unconscious has long been knocking at the gates of psychology and asking to be let in.” (1940b, p. 286) According to Freud, the idea had been lurking around in philosophy and literature for centuries, but science hadn’t known what to do with it. Freud found a way to talk about it and to theorise it. So there’s no claim from Freud that it’s a big innovation of his, just that he found a different way to think and speak about it.
Before Freud you have a long history of people trying to understand mysterious symptoms, particularly in women. Why were these things happening that had no obvious organic cause? The way of thinking about it—and treating it—was most often that it had something to do with sex. Women were prescribed “massages” (masturbation by a doctor) in the hope that an orgasm would make them better. This treatment was so common—and impractical—that the Victorians invented clockwork vibrators to get the job done more efficiently. There was no mention of an unconscious in any of this, but a big question about why these mysterious things happened. Was it demons, gases in the womb, no sex or no babies? Did it only happen to women? And so on.
Outside medicine you had the perfectly commonplace idea that people might do or say things without knowing why. They might also think about things they didn’t want to think about, or keep getting into situations that made them suffer, or they might do self-destructive things. But how to understand all that? There was the classic question of fate vs. personal responsibility. Was there an external force, like God, that threw things in your way and made you miserable in order to teach you something? Were you master of your own destiny? Could you control your actions and feelings? There were endless debates about passion vs. reason. Is it best to contain your feelings and try to behave rationally, or does that make you a hollow or desiccated person? Is it better to live according to your emotions, even if you don’t know why you have those emotions? Countless philosophical essays, novels, poems, and paintings try to say something about whether people are rational, controlled beings or uncontrollable balls of sentiment. So, there are these big questions about who’s in charge, and lots of interest in the question, but none of it particularly scientific.
Immediately preceding Freud there were four very important figures in the medical world looking into questions about the mechanics of the mind. Charcot was a famous neurologist at Salpêtrière Hospital who developed the idea that some of the physical symptoms he was seeing in the hospital were caused by what he called “traumatic hysteria”. People would arrive suffering from a variety of seizures, pains, and contractures and his innovation was to link their symptoms to traumatic events in their past—maybe accidents or crashes. Perhaps they even sustained real injuries as a result of these accidents, but Charcot concluded that it was the unsettling idea of the accident that was the cause of their ongoing illness. He also thought that hysteria had a hereditary component. Freud studied with Charcot in the mid 1880s and was obviously impressed and influenced by him.
Thanks to Charcot, the diagnosis of hysteria became very fashionable—anything a bit strange or hard to explain would fall into that category. So here was a super-famous doctor, giving quite spectacular demonstrations. He would induce a hysterical state using hypnosis. There’s a well-known painting by Andre Brouillet showing a woman collapsing in front of Charcot and a room full of very interested doctors. The medical establishment had previously been rather suspicious of hypnosis, thanks to associations with Mesmer, who was seen as pretty suspect. Charcot’s experiments brought it into the medical mainstream. He attempted to use it both as a cure and as a device to demonstrate the difference between normal and hysterical states. People could be induced to act “hysterically” under hypnosis. So Charcot was launching himself into a hot debate in an exciting way and sort of spewing ideas out and getting everyone interested. Many of his students took up his ideas, like Freud, Pierre Janet, and Hyppolite Bernheim (who were all interested in hypnosis), as well as Tourette, and a number of others who went on to become important in the medical world. But it wasn’t just the medical establishment who was impressed; there was also huge interest from outside.
Hysteria, in the sense in which Charcot and his contemporaries understood it, is now seen by many people in the medical profession as having been a very problematic diagnosis. People who would now be diagnosed with concussion or epilepsy were having their symptoms put down to hysteria. This is one of the things people, like Richard Webster, conjure all sorts of things out of when they want to attack Freud. The basic logic of this attack is as follows: Charcot was wrong, therefore Freud—who was influenced by him—is wrong. It’s hardly the most watertight logic.
Pierre Janet was a student of Charcot’s in the late eighteen hundreds. He coined the term “subconscient” in order to talk about the “splitting of the mind”. This was, according to Janet, a phenomenon you might see in hysteria, and also in hypnosis. He also introduced the term “dissociation” to describe how a person dissociates themselves from a traumatic experience. He used both of those ideas to try to say something about amnesia. How do lost memories come about? And again, what’s the place of amnesia and dissociation in hysteria? Like Charcot, he used hypnosis both as an investigative tool and also as a form of treatment. You often hear that Janet deserves much more credit than he gets for the discovery and theorisation of the unconscious. People sometimes like to claim that he’s the real genius and Freud just nicked his ideas. As the story goes, Janet was less good at roping in a gang of doctors and writers to disseminate his ideas—because Freud made more of a song and dance about it, he managed to claim the credit.
Janet also developed a theory of transference to account for the fact that people became attached to a certain hypnotist and, as a result, would be unhypnotisable by someone else. Janet was younger than Freud, but initially more eminent. Freud was clearly interested in Janet’s research, in a competitive way. Anna Freud doesn’t mention him at all in her introduction to Freud’s essay on the unconscious—but she does mention Charcot, Bernheim, and Breuer.
Hippolyte Bernheim was a French neurologist, practising from the late 1860s. Working in Nancy, he was engaged in experimenting with hypnosis. Bernheim was interested in suggestion, and the fact that it’s so amplified under hypnosis. He performed experiments like telling someone, while they are in a hypnotic trance, that they would perform a certain action half an hour later. When they came out of the trance they would go about their business, but when the time came they would go and do exactly as they had been told. If someone asked them why they were doing it they’d make something up. They had no conscious awareness of the fact that they were obeying an order. His experiments show very clearly that people can be pushed to act by ideas that aren’t available to consciousness.
The last big influence was Joseph Breuer, and his work with hysterical patients. Hypnosis was being used by Breuer both as a “cure”—“you will no longer have your symptom”—but also as a way to access lost memories. Taking Charcot’s idea that hysteria is a result of trauma, patients were invited to bring the traumatic scene back to consciousness in order to “abreact” it—to drain it of its excessive emotional content. In early hypnoanalysis, you have this idea of catharsis as cure. Then of course there was Breuer’s rather disastrous treatment of Anna O, after which he lost his stomach for these new ideas and forms of treatment.
The Freudian unconscious
So, Freud took all of these ideas that were very much in the air at the turn of the century and eventually came up with his own, much more developed, theory of the unconscious. In his early case studies of hysterics you see all the usual 1890s stuff—splitting of consciousness, the search for trauma, shock, and nasty surprises. The idea of trauma around sex is included in the set of possibilities, but certainly not privileged. Freud was still using hypnosis, both to give support to suggestion and as a means of opening up access to memories. But by the late 1890s Freud stopped using hypnosis when free association came to seem a better way to tease out unconscious material. In 1898 he published his paper on the sexual aetiology of the neuroses (He had already written “Project for a scientific psychology” in 1895, which contains so many of the ideas he went on to develop later).
By the late 1890s Freud had both the technique of psychoanalysis and also a pretty good early sketch of the theory. He published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, and in Chapter VII he gave a schematic account of the relations between the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious systems. He developed the idea that unconscious ideas have to attach themselves to preconscious ideas in order to avoid repression, and that this is what leads to the sorts of distortions and peculiarities you see in dreams. In a sense, the whole book is about the unconscious and its relation to consciousness, although the idea itself doesn’t get an explicit mention until a couple of hundred pages in. And it’s actually not till towards the end that he really tries to say something about the various agencies of the mind and the dynamics at work between them. But you see over the next few years that he does all this amazing work that’s been made possible by this new way of thinking about the unconscious. From there he writes The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901b), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905c), and the case histories (1895d), and becomes very famous. He and Carl Jung go to America to talk about the unconscious, and the president is very interested in their work, and so on. Freud, by this time, has quite a collection of followers and fellow researchers. But maybe because the unconscious is such a strange and difficult idea, the more it spread, the more people were liable to misunderstand it. Within psychoanalysis there was a terrible rift with Carl Jung, who’d been so important at the beginning in terms of giving support to Freud’s ideas. This was triggered by the fact that Jung developed a notion of the unconscious which showed that he really hadn’t taken what Freud had been saying for the last decade all that seriously.
In 1912 Jung published On the Psychology of the Unconscious, where it’s very plain to see the differences concerning the nature of the libido. You had Freud’s theory of the drives and repression, leading to the organisation of the psychic functions into conscious and unconscious processes. Then you had Jung’s idea of the libido as a kind of psychic energy that can be channelled towards making you a healthy, creative individual. The idea of the unconscious as a wholesome, natural force that you can tap into in order to live in greater harmony with the world must have been a notion that was appalling to Freud, who really wanted to try to say something precise about the unconscious and didn’t want people with woolly spiritual ideas to get in the way.
The split with Jung was acrimonious, and both Freud and Jung seemed to suffer a great deal as a result of it. Jung had a breakdown, Freud collapsed in public in Jung’s presence, and made snotty references to him in his work (for instance, in the 1914 paper “On narcissism” (1914c) where Freud points out how stupid and wrong Jung is).
Jung’s “wrongness” leaves a huge legacy. His ideas became very popular. Without Jung there would certainly be no Star Wars and possibly no Avatar. His romantic idea of the unconscious took over where Rousseau left off, and plenty of people seemed to like it.
In 1915 Freud wrote his metapsychological essay on “The unconscious” (1915e). In it, the notion of the unconscious is stripped of its imaginary dimensions (to use a Lacanianism). He tries to talk about it purely in terms of dynamics, topography, and economics. In other words, there are no exciting vignettes or examples, no funny dreams, no little stories about daily life, just a description of the workings of the three systems—the unconscious, the preconscious, and the conscious. Everything is stripped back to bare bones. He’s not only correcting potential misunderstandings, but also arguing a case for the unconscious. Of course, there’s the problem of trying to speak scientifically about something that can’t be measured or proven. Still, Freud claims it’s nonetheless necessary—there’s enough evidence of this thing, he says, in slips and dreams, and also in symptoms. Symptoms are a place where people find themselves doing things that they can’t possibly understand or find any reason for. So Freud states that it really is observably the case that we are capable of psychical activity of which we know nothing, and no amount of angry philosophers can prove otherwise.
Freud describes three systems: unconscious, preconscious, and conscious, with the possibility of transfer of material between them. The conscious deals with the things we know we know. The preconscious handles the things we might know or think about at some point, we just don’t happen to be thinking about them at the moment (although if we did want to think about them there’d be no obstacle to their entering into consciousness). Finally there’s the unconscious—which houses ideas that are unacceptable to the ego, that need to be kept out of consciousness.
For an idea to make its way from the unconscious into consciousness it would need to pass through the preconscious system. If the idea was deemed not OK for whatever reason, this system would spot it as a no go and keep it back. In other words, the material would be repressed. So the preconscious can hold ideas back, without the conscious mind being made aware of it. This explains what Freud means when he talks about the unconscious part of the ego. The ego isn’t analogous with consciousness—there are parts of the ego that can cause unwanted ideas to vanish without us ever being consciously aware of what’s going on.
How are we supposed to think about these agencies? Is it simply a poetic idea? Or do they inhabit different areas of the brain? These questions remained unanswerable for Freud, although he didn’t deny that answers might become available later. At the time he just said that you can see these functions at work in people, and if science wants to come along later and have something to say about why, then it can. In the meantime the thing is to understand as much as possible about the dynamics of the mind; and the method of psychoanalysis (i.e., free association) provides a perfectly workable tool for doing this. And, anyhow, some kind of evidence for the unconscious had already been provided by hypnotic experiments showing that people could perfectly well be made to perform certain actions without knowing why.
What characterises an unconscious idea? To answer this you would need to untangle the distinction between an instinctual impulse and an unconscious idea. There is a common misconception (perhaps reinforced by Jung) that the unconscious is a place where all the drives are packed off in a swirling state, waiting to burst into action. But Freud says you can’t have a notion of the drive in a freeform state, it has to attach itself to an idea, otherwise we really wouldn’t know anything about it. So, whether in the unconscious or in the conscious mind, a drive can only be represented by an idea. Therefore, if you talk about unconscious instinctual impulses you are already necessarily talking about unconscious ideas.
There’s an interesting section in the essay where Freud says that if you talk about a “repressed instinctual impulse” then “the looseness of phraseology is a harmless one” (ibid., p. 177). But maybe it isn’t so harmless, because it’s a subject around which there seems to be a lot of room for misunderstanding—which he’s supposedly trying to clear up. The idea that the drives are just waiting there, like racehorses in the stalls, might not be exactly how he wants us to see it. He’s trying to tell us that the drive has to be linked with an idea in order to be recognised at all. So that’s very different from a ball of free-floating primal energy, of the sort you might imagine if you read Jung.
From there, Freud goes on to talk about unconscious emotions—people being in love and not wanting to admit it, or hating, or being envious. How does that sort of thing work? You have drives which are always pushing for satisfaction. So there’s a push towards an object that promises to satisfy the drive. Once you have the drive plus the object it’s the same as saying you have an idea. According to...