On Freud's "The Unconscious"

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If there ever was one word that could represent the essence of Freud's work, that word would be 'unconscious'. Indeed, Freud himself regarded his 1915 paper 'The Unconscious' as central to clarifying the fundamentals of his metapsychology. The paper delineates the topographic model of the mind and spells out the concepts of primary and secondary process thinking, thing and word presentations, timelessness of the unconscious, condensation and symbolism, unconscious problem solving, and the relationship between the system Ucs and repression. Examining these proposals in the light of contemporary psychoanalytic theory as well as from the perspective of current neurophysiology and ethology, nine distinguished analysts take Freud's ideas further in ways that have implications for both psychoanalytic theory and practice.

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1 - Metapsychology and Clinical Practice: Lessons from Freud's “The Unconscious”

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Metapsychology and clinical practice: lessons from Freud's “The unconscious”

Peter Wegner 1

Some observations on the genesis of the 1915 essay “The unconscious”

Freud's essay “The unconscious” was written as the third of twelve on psychoanalytic meta-theory planned in 1915. We know from the correspondence that the papers had to be written in a timescale of a few days or weeks. At the beginning of April 1915, Freud reported to Ferenczi that he had completed the second essay in the “synthetic series” (Falzeder & Brabant, 1996, p. 55, letter 542F, dated 8 April 1915), and by the end of April the third paper (“The unconscious”) was also finished and lying in the “publisher's portfolio” at the Zeitschrift (Falzeder & Brabant, 1996, p. 58, letter 544F, dated 23 April 1915).

By 4 May 1915, two days before his sixtieth birthday, Freud wrote to Abraham,

The work is now taking shape. I have five essays ready: that on Instincts and their vicissitudes, which may well be rather arid, but indispensable as an introduction, also finding its justification in those that follow, then Repression, the Unconscious, Metapsychological supplement to the theory of dreams, and Mourning and melancholia. The first four are to be published in the just started volume of the Zeitschrift, all the rest I am keeping for myself. If the war lasts long enough, I hope to get together about a dozen such papers and in quieter times to offer them to the ignorant world under the title: Essays in Preparation of a Metapsychology. I think that on the whole it will represent progress. (Falzeder, 2002, p. 309, letter 276f, dated 4 May 1915).

 

2 - “The Unconscious” in Psychoanalysis and Neuropsychology

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“The unconscious” in psychoanalysis and neuropsychology

Mark Solms

Most mental processes are unconscious

Freud states, “Our right to assume the existence of something mental that is unconscious and to employ that assumption for the purposes of our scientific work is disputed in many quarters” (p. 166).1 This statement no longer holds true. In neuropsychology today, Freud's insistence that the mental unconscious is both necessary and legitimate is widely accepted.

However, the consensus was not won by the arguments that Freud set out in “The unconscious”; it derived from a different research tradition. Where Freud cited clinical psychopathological evidence (and the so-called psychopathology of everyday life), neuropsychological theorists independently postulated unconscious mental processes on the basis of clinical neuropathological evidence. Foremost were observations of “split-brain” cases in which psychological responses (e.g., blushing and giggling) were elicited in patients by stimuli flashed only to the isolated right hemisphere (e.g., pornographic images), of which the speaking left hemisphere was unaware (Galin, 1974). Also influential were reports of significant learning effects in amnesic cases, who, following bilateral mesial temporal lobectomy, had lost the ability to encode new conscious memories (Milner, Corkin, & Teuber 1968). Most striking were reports of “blindsight”: cases of cortical blindness where the patients could localise visual stimuli of which they had no awareness (Weiskrantz, 1990). These examples provide evidence of unconscious processes that could only be described as mental: unconscious embarrassment, unconscious remembering, and unconscious seeing. The examples could easily be multiplied.

 

3 - Freud's “The Unconscious”: Can this Work be Squared with a Biological Account?

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Freud's “The unconscious”: can this work be squared with a biological account?

Linda Brakel

“The unconscious”, a relatively brief article written almost a century ago, has much packed into it, and much that is amazingly contemporary. Not only does Freud succinctly present his most seminal ideas about a contentful, meaningful unconscious, he does so in a fashion that (1) suggests the possibility of a link between the biology and psychology of the unconscious, (2) highlights the topographic, economic, dynamic, and structural aspects of his metapsychological framework, and (3) offers a subtle and effective philosophical argument against his detractors (and later ones) who assert that psychological processes and contents must be conscious, by definition.1 Regarding this challenge to the very possibility of unconscious mentation, Freud (1915e, p. 167) says,

…this [sort of] objection is based on the equation—not, it is true, explicitly stated but taken as axiomatic—of what is conscious with what is mental. This equation is either petito principia [Freud's italics] which begs the question whether everything that is psychical is also necessarily conscious; or else it is matter of convention, of nomenclature. In the latter case it is, of course, like any other convention, not open to refutation.

 

4 - A Hindu Reading of Freud's “The Unconscious”

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A Hindu reading of Freud's “The unconscious”

Madhusudana Rao Vallabhaneni

In this contribution, I will compare and contrast Freud's model of the unconscious (1915e) with that of Hindu philosophy. Western readers, except those few who are familiar with Sanskrit and Hinduism, might find reading the latter passages challenging. Because of this anticipated challenge, I have chosen to iterate them frequently and provide nominal equivalents in English, whenever possible. The models presented here have overlaps as well as divergences, and my aim is not to uphold one over the other. Freud's view is clinical and psychoanalytic. Hindu philosophers’ view is meditative and metaphysical. Hindu concepts presented here are philosophical and spiritual, but not religious. Freudian concepts are psychological and clinical, but not metaphysical or spiritual.

Freud was a mortalist. For him, the body was the substratum for the mind and the mind existed only in the context of birth and death of the body, not before and not after. Thus, the origin, development, and evolution of mind occur in the psychosomatic complex, a view consistent with Freud's (1925d) background as a neuroanatomist and neurologist. It is well known that Freud made an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt to formulate a neurologically based psychology in the 1880s (Freud, 1954). Freud continued to believe that in the future there will be a neurological explanation of mental phenomena. The current explosion in the discoveries in the field of physiology, neurology, and the applied aspects of the same in neuro-psychoanalysis (Kaplan-Solms & Solms, 2000) bears witness to Freud's foresight.

 

5 - The Repressed Maternal in Freud's Topography of Mind

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The repressed maternal in Freud's topography of mind

Kenneth Wright

Introduction

Although the idea of an unconscious mental life did not begin with Freud but was part of the intellectual background of his time (Ellenberger, 1970), the concept he inherited was purely descriptive, and referenced the fact that consciousness embraced only a small part of knowledge and memory at any particular moment, everything outside this point of consciousness being unconscious. It was not until Freud had worked clinically with hysterical patients, first with Charcot and later with Breuer (Freud (with Breuer), 1895d), that the concept of a dynamic unconscious began to take shape; as the evidence accumulated that hysterical symptoms were constructed from unconscious memories of traumatic events, the idea that psychic material could be repressed, and actively maintained in an unconscious state, became increasingly compelling. Freud soon realised he had stumbled on a powerful explanatory tool and began to apply it to other psychological phenomena. Jokes, parapraxes, slips of the tongue, and neurotic symptoms were, in turn, illuminated by its heuristic searchlight, and before long he had used it to unravel the mystery of dreams. By the time he had finished writing The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), a work he regarded as his magnum opus, he had forged a more or less coherent theory of the dynamic unconscious and delineated what he saw as its major systemic features (system Ucs.).

 

6 - Complementary Models of the Mind in Freud's “The Unconscious”?

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Complementary models of the mind in Freud's “The unconscious”?

Bernard Reith

Freud in his consulting room

When reading Freud, I like to imagine him in his consulting room, involved in an analytic session and pondering questions such as: What is going on here? How to understand it? How am I involved?

Reading “The unconscious” (1915e) with this picture of him in mind, I find in it something more than the topographical model of which this text is usually considered to be the supreme statement. Between the lines of the topographic model, Freud might have been trying to find his way to a transformational model of the analytic couple. This two-person transformational model would be complementary to the one-person topographic model and add an extra dimension to it. Of course, I am not suggesting that this was Freud's overt intention, but I do believe that with hindsight we can see it at work as an implicit theme.

Following some passages step by step, I shall try to show the interplay between the two models. The topographical model is described in parts II to VI of Freud's paper, but it is embedded in many other interesting thoughts and set between his introductory Part I and his exploration of psychosis in Part VII, like a jewel in a silk-lined box. The jewel being so well known, I shall concentrate on the box and lining.

 

7 - The Unconscious in Work with Psychosomatic Patients

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The unconscious in work with psychosomatic patients1

Marilia Aisenstein

Speaking about the manifestations of the dynamic unconscious in psychosomatic patients calls for a few preliminary remarks. Since the 1950s, different schools of psychosomatics, defending various theoretical models, have argued about the question of the unconscious meaning of somatic symptoms. Groddeck was the first to attribute an unconscious significance to every organic manifestation. Freud reproached him in a letter dated June 5, 1917 for making no real difference between the somatic and the psychic (Freud, E. L., 1960, pp. 316–318). In 1963, at a Congress for French-speaking analysts held in Paris,2 Angel Garma and Michel de M'Uzan took up contrasting positions, the first arguing that the treatment of physical illnesses must seek to unearth the unconscious fantasy underlying them and interpret it as in a classical analysis, while, for the second, “the somatic symptom is stupid”, precisely because it has no meaning, but is evidence of a traumatic excess that overwhelms the capacities of the psychical apparatus for elaboration, thus obliging the subject to find other paths of discharge for excitation, whether behavioural or somatic.

 

8 - The Unconscious and Perceptions of the Self

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The unconscious and perceptions of the self

Ira Brenner

Freud's seminal monograph on the unconscious (Freud, 1915e) has been a wellspring of ideas which, almost a century later, continue to inspire us to elaborate upon his insights. In this essay, I will extend his ideas on the role of the unconscious upon a specific aspect of perception. While his thinking about perception, the central component of mental functioning, evolved over the half-century of his writing and some theoretical contradictions were left to later writers to reconcile (Beres & Joseph, 1970; Schimek, 1975; Slap, 1987), it is now universally accepted that unconscious processes influence how and what we perceive.

Perception has been defined as “1. the state of being or process of becoming aware or conscious of a thing, spec., through any of the senses” (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993, p. 2156). Therefore, the emphasis in perception is on external stimuli and bringing the outside world into the mind primarily through the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. We therefore speak of perceiving the animate as well as the inanimate world. We also refer to the perception of abstract phenomena such as “b. the intuitive or direct recognition of a moral, aesthetic, or personal quality, e.g., the truth of a remark, the beauty of an object; the instance of this” (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993, p. 2156). The well-known saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” exemplifies the subjective nature of perception, which also is not an arguable point.

 

9 - “In spite of My Ego”: Problem Solving and the Unconscious

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“In spite of my ego”: problem solving and the unconscious1

Stefano Bolognini

As often happens, this topic has mobilised a series of reflections in me of various kinds—reflections that go beyond the specifically theoretical and clinical field of psychoanalysis.

In wandering through my associations, influences, and memories, I was struck by the internal perception of an acute feeling of envy in calling to mind some figures acting as part of my personal experience, figures characterised in some way by a strikingly intuitive attitude and by an instinctive capacity for facing up to and resolving problems of various kinds.

Certainly a well-justified envy, in my opinion—a physiological and “secret” envy of which I am not ashamed and about which I do not feel guilty, and that, when all is said and done, even leads me to feel a certain sense of solidarity within myself. How does one not envy, in fact, persons who seem endowed with the gift of not having to look for solutions to certain problems, persons for whom the solutions instead seem to seek them out…and find them?

 



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