the unconscious

Kate’s questions on Freud’s „The Unconscious“

[Earl’s responses are in MAROON.]


This response, which I hope you will credit as such, is
questions instead of a focused paper. As I was reading through
Freud’s „The Unconscious“ I came upon concepts that I didn’t
understand, or analogies that I was not sure how to fit into the
schema that Freud is describing. So I wanted to ask you to help
me clarify some things.

[Hi Kate, these are great questions. I’ve taken the liberty of numbering them and breaking them down here.]

Question One.

Freud writes, in (I) about unconscious that he must concede „of some of these latent states that the only respect in which they differ from conscious ones is precisely in the absence of consciousness.“ (P 168) and this is his justification for why he can treat the unconscious as well as the conscious, but later on in (I, final paragraph) he says that „psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the
unconscious mental processes which are their object.“ (p 171).

[Let’s look at the respective contexts of each of these statements. The first statement is part of the metapsychological that introduces the entire essay – namely, why the concept of „unconscious psychical processes“ is not only not a contradiction in terms, but is a necessary presupposition for psychological research. Freud argues that so little of psychical life is conscious, that positing „unconscious“ psychical processes is inevitable (and based on empirical observation). The paragraph from which you quote is part of Freud’s refuation of psycho-physical parallism.One of the objections raised against the concept of „latent thoughts“ – that supposedly unconscious mental states are physical conditions of the brain (and thus not cognized in mental life – I’m extrapolating the argument from Freud’s rather overly economic prose here). With this background, I restore the sentences before the one you cite, and I think you’ll see the cogency of his argument here:

It is clear in any case that this question – whether the latent states of mental life,
whose existence is undeniable, are to be conceived of as conscious mental states
or as physical ones – threatens to resolve itself into a verbal dispute. We shall
therefore be better advised to focus our attention on what we know with certainty
about this debatable states. As far as their physical characteristics are concerned,
they are totally inaccessible to us. . . On the other hand, we know for certain
that they have abundant points of contact with conscious mental processes; with
the help of a certain amout of work they can be transformed into, or replaced by,
conscious mental processes, and all the categories which we employ to describe
conscious mental acts, such as ideas, purposes, resolutions, and so on, can be
applied to them.
(Freud, „The Unconscious“ 168).

Now let’s see the context of the other statement you quote: „psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object.“ (p 171). The paragraph begins:

In psychoanalysis there is no choice for us but to assert that mental
processes are in themselves unconscious, and to liken the perception of them by means of consciousness to the perception of the external world by means of the sense-organs. (Freud, „The Unconscious“ 171).

Freud had just finished a long discussion of how certain mental processes can be deduced by observing others, but are harder to recognize in ourselves. They can be recognized at first through inference (comparison of our actions and contradictory behaviors, etc. to those of others). Therefore, though most of our ordinary thoughts would be considered „conscious,“ the processes in which they are involved, are not conscious – i.e. are not self-evidentally present to consciousness (Freud, „The Unconscious“ 168-70).

In comparing the mental processes we examine to objects of perception, Freud is stressing the exteriority of these processes to our self-knowledge or immediacy of perception (thoughts are immediate to us part of our mental life; but these mental processes are objects we have to search for and scrutinize). Then, from the analogy between perceptions of a conscious mind and the mental processes we deliberately examine {with our conscious mind}, Freud introduces Kant’s phenomenological distinction. Freud writes:
„Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perceptions are subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with what is perceived though unknowable, so psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object“ (Freud, „The Unconscious“ 171).

Therefore, there is no contradiction between the statements you juxtapose. In the first, Freud is saying that some mental states are just like others except they’re unconscious. Meaning that the same state could be conscious in an individual is unconscious in another (due to repression, etc.). This is why „unconscious“ mental states can, with work, be rendered intelligible in terms of „all the categories which we employ to describe conscious mental acts, such as ideas, purposes, resolutions, and so on, can be
applied to them.“

The second statement is talkign about looking at unconscious mental processes as something arguably observable, like other objects, but ones which also demand critical scrutiny since their appearance to conscious observation may differ radically from their actual nature. The first statement above is comparing a mental state that is conscious with one that is not (but could have been); the second statement is contrasting the appearance of the unconscious mental process with its „real nature.“

Examples of each.

The first one: think of Freud’s famous example at the beginning of Psychopathology of Everyday Life, where he cannot remember the name of the painter of „The Last Judgement“ at Orivieto (Signorelli). Both the name and the process by which he forgot the name are not at first accessible to his consciousness. And the latter process is discovered through speculation and detective-like reconstruction (not ever autonmously conscious in itself).

The Second One: The hallucinations and delusions psychotics describe, such as those Daniel Paul Schreber details in his Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken, would seem the height of the psychosis, but they usually mark a later stage in the illness after the patient has already experienced the most profound break with reality. These delusions are in fact the attempts at recovery, the processes of reestablishing links with and interest in the external world (Freud, „Notes“).


Question ONE B:

Doesn’t that negate the quoted passage above? On a second
reading, maybe it doesn’t: in the second statement, he is
writing that conscious perceptions shouldn’t be equal to the
unconscious mental process that are their object– so the
conscious perception has an object that is an unconscious mental
process, which is entirely different than a latent state. An
unconscious mental process, I’d think, is something that is
repressed that the conscious has no awareness of, and the
conscious perception will never be equal to something that it is
unaware of. Oh, well, I guess that you didn’t need to answer
that, but maybe you could tell me if I’m right?

[Response One B: I see what you mean, and within your statement it makes sense, but I think Freud is talking about a second-order (or meta-) act of consciousness. This isnt‘ a subject suddenly becoming aware of her or his own mental processes, but a subject (like an analyst) deliberately looking at „mental processes“ as an object of investigation. Therefore the act of consciousness [directed perception, deduction, scrutiny] has nothing to do with the mental processes it is looking at [dream work; conversion hysteria; phobias, etc.].


Question Two: Freud writes, on page 176, that „To have heard something and to
have experienced something are in their psychological nature two
quite different things, even though the content of both is the
same.“ and I was wondering, does that mean to hear something
means that it doesn’t have effects or affects? Or is it just
that it is not experienced and so the utterance isn’t repressed
in the unconscious? For example: if Freud tells Dora she is
hysteric because she kissed Herr K by the lake and felt his
erection (mucho simplified, but I have to use something), then
that is different from her experiencing Herr K kissing her by the
lake, and so the utterance doesn’t signify the way the event did.
But, I guess what I’m trying to ask, is how does the utterance
signify? It must play a part in re-aligning the conscious,
otherwise there wouldn’t be such a thing as a talking cure.

[Response Two: Wow, Kate, these are hard! Let’s look again at the context. Freud is discussing the fact that sometimes in analysis the analyst discovers something that happened in the analysand’s history or an idea the analysand has definitely had but has repressed all memory of it.

If the analyst then tells the analysand that idea or event, the analysand hears it but rejects it, doens’t remember it. Which means simply presenting the repressed material directly to the subject does not lift the repression. The version of this memory that is in the unconscious has to be connected with the statement that is now in the subject’s consciousness (the analyst having said it). This is part of the speculative argument Freud introduces here and takes up again beginning p. 203, about whether the same material is inscribed twice – once in consciousness and once in the unconscious. Of course „things heard“ have effects and affects. But out of context, it’s hard to say more about that.

But what you did in your question that effectively confused yourself, is shift the speaker in this situation from the analyst to the analysand. If Dora had told Freud something, that would mean whatever that memory was either was not repressed, or the repression had been lifted. (And this is why, as you wonder, the talking cure works – but it’s when the analysand says it, not the analyst). Look at the number of times Freud tells Dora something and she rejects it. If we can bracket the quesiton of countertransferential contamination of the narrative for the sake of this illustration – when Freud’s statement to Dora is rejected, it shows that his inscribing the utterance in Dora’s consciousness has no effect on the inscription of the same memory/wish in the unconscious [at that point in the analysis, at any rate.]

Question Three: To make sure I’m understanding these things correctly: on page
178 Freud says „there are no unconscious affects as there are
unconscious ideas“ this leads me to believe that the unconscious
doesn’t process information, it only has information and
experiences. It doesn’t generate anxiety, it is the
transformation to the preconscious that does this. Is this
right? And if that is right, then why does Freud say, on the
next page, that „it is possible for the development of affect to
proceed directly from the system Ucs.; in that case the affect
always has the character of anxiety, for which all ‚repressed‘
affects are exchanged“ (p 179). This bolsters my claim, because
the affect proceeds directly from the Ucs. but is not in it.

[Response Three: I am going to postpone answering this in full at the moment. Remember the unconscious is the realm of „thing presentations“ – not word presentations – and it operates without negation, subjunctives, and laws of excluded middles, etc. Among the things this means is that I question what you mean by „information“ – what is „unconscious information“? It also means that we should ask ourselves what Lacan means when he says „the unconscious is structured like a language.“ And thirdly, it means that I think you’re right – that the anxiety (or any other affect powerful enough to fufill the discharge) occurs in the transfer from unconscious to preconscious or from preconscious to consciousness. I think the confusion here arises (not from you by the way) but from the fact that repression occurs in order to put things into the unconscious, and repression has a lot to do with defense against affect. But remember, repression has several ways of dealing with the affect of an unacceptablle wish or memory – this includes reversing the type of affect (from love to hate, or erotic pleasure to anxiety, etc.) or displacing the affect onto another object (common in phobias), or both (common in obsessional behaviors). So repression can deal with the affect without there being „unconscious affects.“]

Question Four: What is cathexis? Freud begins using it on page 180, and then,
according to the editors footnote, substitutes libido for
cathexis a little lower down on the page, and then again on page
182. How can libido be substituted for cathexis, and what is

[Response Four:Cathexis “ is the $64.00 word for which the translators ransacked Greek, to create a technically specific equivalent of the not-at-all-technically isolated German word „besetzen,“ which means, among other things, „to invest.“ Libido is the energy of the ego’s interest in an object. Therefore subjects invest objects with libido or withdraw it. If we had originally adopted „invest“ as the translation for besetzen, the Freudian term ‚libidinal economy‘ would also be much easier to understand – even intuitively. {If you think this is bad, look at what they did with anlehnen – anaclisis}].

Question Five: In Section V, Freud writes: „when a primary process is allowed to take its
course in connection with elements belonging to the system Pcs.,
it appears ‚comic‘ and excites laughter.“ (p 186). I do not
understand this. Help, please. Is Freud talking about
instincts? What is a primary process?

[Response Five: Primary processes are the processes of the unconscious, secondary processes are those of the preconscious and consciousness. The former are under the rule of the pleasure principle, and are typified by free flow of excitations, mobility of affect, and immediacy of discharge. The secondary processes are under the rule of the reality principle and establish „thought-identity“ among memory traces/perceptions/images by binding memories to language. See Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics , chapters 2-3 for quick overviews of these systems. Also see for texts about these two processes, especially Lysa Rivera’s conversation with me there.]

Question Six:
Also in V, Freud uses an analogy to explain where instinctual
impulses are located (qualitatively in the Pcs., factually in the
Ucs.) about an individual of a mixed race who fits in until they
are recognized by some feature that comes from a non-white
background and then they are excluded from society and get none
of the priviledges of white people. Now, this is an interesting
analogy, but I don’t understand what it has to do with
instinctual impulses. Do the impulses fit in with the Pcs. and
then are really part of the Ucs. and are then allowed none of the
privilidges of the Pcs.? If so, what are the privilidges of the
Pcs.? Censoring?

[Response Six: I am always chagrined whenever I encounter this passage. It’s certainly a racist analogy. But also think of the history of „miscegenation“ fantasies and their consequences – unfortunately our contemporary experience still supports the vehicle and tenor of the metaphor Freud deploys here. The privilege of the preconscious is basically access to consciousness.]

Question Seven: What is ego-syntonic? Freud says that „the unconscious becomes
ego-syntonic in respect of this single conjunction without any
change taking place in its repression apart from this.“ (p 195)
I know it must have something to do with the ego, but I can’t
find syntonic in my dictionary.

[Response Seven: That’s why we use Laplanche & Pontalis, Language of Psychoanalysis as „our“ dictionary ;- ). Ego-syntonic: „Term used to describe instincts or ideas that are acceptable to the ego – i.e., compatible with the ego’s integrity and its demands.“ [L&P, 151]. Ego-syntonic is contrasted with „ego-dystonic“ -which means „antogonistic to the ego.“


That’s all for now. Thanks Earl.
[Thank YOU.]

Go To Kate’s Outline Workshop.
Go To Amanda’s questions on „The Unconscious“
Go to Trouble shooting practice.