What is the Unconscious in Freudian Psychoanalysis?

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Here’s a pub quiz question for you. Who came up with the idea of the ‘unconscious’? Perhaps, lest anyone fears a trap, we should make it a little easier. Which German came up with the idea of the unconscious mind? Not Sigmund Freud, of course, who was Austrian rather than German.

Instead, the credit should go to the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), who distinguished between the conscious and unconscious mind in his early work System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), labelling the latter Unbewusste (i.e. ‘unconscious’).

The term ‘unconscious’ was then introduced into English by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1869, the German philosopher Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906) wrote a book titled Philosophy of the Unconscious. And then in 1890, in his monumental work The Principles of Psychology, William James (the brother of the novelist Henry James) discussed the idea of the ‘unconscious’ or ‘subconscious’ at length.

But it was Sigmund Freud who provided the most influential ‘map’ of the mind and the structure (at least as Freud saw it) of the unconscious. So what is the unconscious, and how did Freud theorise it?

Freud argued that the unconscious comprises the id, the ego, and the superego. These three parts of the psyche – most of which are unconscious, although parts of the ego are also conscious – develop in that order. When we’re born, our minds are all id, and the id might be described as the impulsive part of the psyche. It is driven not by reason or by morals, but by a desire to get our basic needs and desires and passions fulfilled at any cost. It doesn’t think of consequences. The id can’t ‘think’ at all.

The most important thing for a newborn baby is that all its essential needs – food, protection, attention – are met, and so the id greedily and selfishly makes sure this happens. The baby cries until it gets what it wants. Freud called this the ‘pleasure principle’: the id’s main – indeed, only – aim is to ensure that it is granted the pleasure it seeks. If it needs changing, or wants food, it will cry to get attention at all costs.

Of course, the id would quickly get you arrested, or killed, or in trouble with your friends, if you went about acting on your basest and more primitive impulses all the time. So as babies develop an awareness of their place in the external world, the ego begins to develop, and the ego is there to check the id’s wildest impulses and ensure that we act in a way that is best-suited to our continued well-being and survival.

The ego is thus a sort of go-between, with the selfish and impulsive id on one side and the outside world on the other. Although the id is never fully suppressed, in a normal functioning person its wildest instincts are kept at bay.

Freud’s own analogy for the relationship between id and ego was that of a horse and its rider. The ego is the man riding the horse, which represents the id. He has to keep the horse in check to ensure it doesn’t suddenly decide to gallop into danger, causing harm to both of them.

But sometimes the ego isn’t able to reason with the id. And it’s important that the id isn’t allowed free rein to get what it wants, in many cases. When you’re angry, your id may be out for blood and want you do murder someone. The ego tries to reason with it and convince it that this would not, as a long-term plan of action, be a good idea. But the id is impulsive and doesn’t care.

This is where the superego can step in and help to check the more extreme impulses of the id. The superego develops after the Oedipal conflict, when the child realises he (or she – contrary to what many people think, Freud thought that the Oedipus complex could be applied to girls too) cannot get rid of the parental rival and must suppress the desire (s)he feels for the (other) parent.

If the ego is like the older sibling, the big brother if you like, looking out for the id – his ‘little (k)id brother’, we might say – then the superego is the strict mother or father keeping them both in check. For the superego, it’s not enough that the ego be practical or realistic: it should be moral. The superego is our inner police officer: the voice of our conscience. And this, in summary, is how Freud theorised the unconscious.

Sigmund Freud was a curious man. Every morning, when he arrived in his study, he would pet a marble baboon and greet the figure of a Chinese sage. On his desk, he kept a porcupine – a continual reminder of the ‘prickliness’ of human relationships. He also took cocaine in order to stimulate rather lengthy internal monologues about things which he otherwise kept hidden deep within his brain.

But this last fact does remind us of the lasting value and influence of Freud’s ideas: he believed in language, talking, discussing, analysing, probing, and exploring the mind in order to understand what makes us tick.

His cocaine-induced internal monologues neatly remind us of this fact, and also remind us that the English translations of Freud’s work, by James Strachey, were published by Virginia Woolf (or, more properly, by Hogarth Press, the publishing press Woolf set up with her husband, partly as a means of coping with depression).

Like Freud’s psychoanalytic writing, Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ style (as it’s commonly known) is an attempt to understand and capture the complexity of human thought-processes, why our minds work the way they do.

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