IPA Inter-Regional Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

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THE UNCONSCIOUS Tri-Regional Entry

Inter-Regional Consultants: Jose Renato Avzaradel (Latin America), Allannah Furlong (North America) and Judy Gammelgaard (Europe) Inter-Regional Coordinating Co-Chair: Eva D. Papiasvili (North America)


The notion of the unconscious has been universally accepted as the foundational discovery of psychoanalysis and a core assumption of psychoanalytic theory since its very beginning. Even though the concept underwent successive transformations in Freud´s thinking, the unconscious of Freudian topography with its implication of a de-centered theory of subjectivity stands out as the distinctive and radical insight of classical psychoanalysis. While Freud was not the first to use the term, he was the first to give it a crucial and systematic place in his metapsychology and to develop a methodical approach to its various manifestations. Freud (1912a) has given a short excellent account of the grounds for the hypothesis of unconscious psychic processes, pointing to clinical phenomena like post-hypnotic suggestion and neurotic, primarily hysterical, symptoms, but also to non-pathological phenomena like jokes, parapraxes and dreams. The assumption of unconscious phenomena can be traced back to the practices of spiritual healing, animism, magnetism, mesmerism, hypnotism and XIX century medical psychology. These practices have in common the dual concept of the mind, which is made of what is observable and, its obverse, i.e., what is hidden and intuitively believed and/or perceived. While in the early years of his career, Freud seems to have embraced this neo-Cartesian dualism, gradually there emerged a conception of a radically different kind of unconscious, one that is not a second consciousness but a series of ongoing “psychical acts” which are qualitatively different from the rational, adult, conscious mind. Psychoanalysts are not alone in their subjugation to the “stranger within”, but they are unique in making the epistemological, clinical, and ethical implications of this disruptive, yet potentially transformative, presence the daily object of study. Absent the notion of unconscious processes, Freud argued, we are at a loss to explain mental phenomena (1915c, pp. 166-171). He “was never tired of insisting upon the arguments in support of it and combating the objections to it” (Strachey, in: Freud, 1915c, p.161). Freud’s first published use of the term “unconscious” occurred in 1893 in “Studies of Hysteria” (Freud, 1893) and the very last unfinished scrap of his theoretical writing from 1938, entitled “Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis” (Freud 1940c) is a fresh vindication of the term.


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