The Unconscious – Rethinking the Unthinkable

in the Marais by Frederic Argazzi
in the Marais by Frederic Argazzi via Flickr

The terms unconscious and subconscious are often used as if they expressed some kind of scientific or religious certainty. This, of course, is convenient. Always stopping to think about every word we use wouldn’t get us very far in life.

Tacit conceptual agreements, whether real or imaginary, make conversation, literacy and social organization easier. There’s clearly some advantage to humanity’s collective unthinking.

But there’s also a drawback. All too often socially accepted words become more than mere tropes and catchphrases, and their repeated use can lead to reification.

Reification is a sociological idea referring to the unexamined belief that mere ideas represent some actual entity or thing—for instance, the idea of the state. Reified concepts may also point to detailed legal entities or religious teachings.

In a nutshell, the sociologist interested in reification asks if the thing written and talked about actually exists.

So it’s valid to ask if the unconscious and subconscious are just words that we’ve naively incorporated into our worldview, simply from their repeated usage by alleged professionals (and subsequently by the greater public).

Some Definitions

Black’s Medical Dictionary, 41st edition defines the unconscious as “a description of mental activities of which an individual is unaware” And describes it as “that part of thought and emotion that happens outside everyday awareness.”

Psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious, while not always recognized as scientific nor convincingly proven to be therapeutic, are often included in medical-legal definitions.

Unconscious is also used in psychoanalysis to characterize that section of a person’s mind in which memories and motives reside. They are normally inaccessible, protected by inbuilt mental resistance (Black’s, op cit.).

John F. Abess, M.D. describes it as:

That part of the mind or mental functioning of which the content is only rarely subject to awareness. It is a repository for data that have never been conscious (primary repression) or that may have been conscious and are later repressed (secondary repression).

David Macey says the term is “widely used to refer to any element of mental activity that is not present within the field of the conscious mind at a given moment” (The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, p. 386 [emphasis added]).

This is a more dynamic view. Instead of an unconscious only rarely subject to consciousness, Macey’s description portrays the mind as if it were a switched circuit. At one moment we plan to brush our teeth, the next moment the doorbell rings and we completely forget until the evening.

This leads to the idea of the subconscious. The unconscious is often contrasted with the subconscious although some writers, particularly novelists, use the two terms interchangeably. Black’s continues:

This [the unconscious] contrasts with the subconscious where a person’s memories and motives, while temporarily suppressed, can usually be recalled.

All very well and good. But already we see subtle variations in the idea of the unconscious. And if we call up psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious, then a whole host of uncertainties arise.

For instance, some writers place great emphasis on Carl Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious. And from Jung the more recent idea of transcultural psychiatry has arisen, where the unconscious seems collective and yet culturally specific.

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History Recalls

From a historical perspective, the unconscious is a centuries-old idea where few agree on its precise character. Raymond E. Fancher notes that the philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716)

postulated a continuum of consciousness, ranging from the clear, distinct and rational apperceptions through the more mechanical and indistinct perceptions and terminating in what he called minute perceptions (Pioneers of Psychology, p. 68).

This differs from contemporary definitions of the unconscious. But it paved the way for conceptualizing the subconscious, selective attention and the autonomic nervous system, ideas which later would emerge in psychology and physiology.

Arthur Koestler says that before the word unconscious was coined, people already knew about it. Koestler cites several examples where the idea of the unconscious is implied in the arts and philosophy–e.g., Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Kepler and Kant. Koestler also says that consciousness and unconsciousness are not discrete states but exist along a continuum (“Thinking Aside” in The Act of Creation, pp. 147 -177).

From Koestler it seems reasonable to suppose that the range of this experiential continuum differs among individuals. That is, some individuals consciously access different thoughts and emotions than do others.

Freud is usually credited with being the first to conceptualize the unconscious as something beyond mere subliminal perceptions and autonomic functions.

Both he and Jung believe that the task of analysis is to bring unconscious contents to the light of consciousness. By doing so, one gains mastery over impulses and tendencies which formerly unduly controlled or influenced their thoughts and behavior.

The implication here is that conscious and unconscious psychological contents are forever changing. From this we can say that one person’s idea of consciousness could be another’s unconsciousness. And these discrepancies could occur both within and across cultures.

The Hero and the Underworld

Another important thinker to appear with Freud and Jung was Joseph Campbell. While some (probably jealous) academics still trash Campbell as a ‘popularizer,’ in recent years this dismissive attitude has taken a turn for the better.

Freud, Jung and Campbell were each in their own way fascinated with the unconscious. It’s not well known, however, that all three of these theorists believed that the unconscious is essentially collective. And all three use the language of myth to express the idea of the unconscious and its contents.

Jung and Campbell likened the successful integration of unconsciousness within consciousness to hero myths. The hero’s journey entails a quest into some strange, exotic landscape. Traditionally, this takes the form of a descent into the underworld.

This symbolic voyage below everyday consciousness is potentially dangerous. One can feel totally lost along the way. And strange, hard to discern allies and enemies typically arise, each possessing paranormal abilities.

In this enchanted or, possibly, cursed land the hero must hold fast and remain true to his or her vision.

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Most hero myths involve a precarious journey in search of the pearl of wisdom, elixir of immortality, sacred object or magical key that is jealously guarded by a horrible creature–usually a dragon, an ogre or, in underwater stories, a sea monster.

After defeating the enemy and attaining the proverbial pearl of wisdom (i.e. personal knowledge of eternity), the hero returns to daily life with enhanced wisdom.

To account for this dynamic in psychological terms, Jung developed his theory of the archetypes and archetypal images. Archetypes are unfiltered unconscious powers. As the German philosopher Kant put it, the ding an sich. Although we can’t see them directly we can infer their existence.

Archetypal images, on the other hand, are expressions of archetypal power that are represented through psycho-cultural filters (e.g. dreams, the arts and architecture).

It’s true that Campbell popularized Jung’s approach. But he also added many insights about how consciousness and unconsciousness relate to each other.

Enter the Romanian author and scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, who met reguarly with Jung, Campbell and other leading figures like Karl Kerényi. Like Jung and Campbell, Eliade realized that the ancient hero motif was alive and well in the 20th century media. But Eliade focused less on psychological transformation. Instead, Eliade outlined how hero mythology adds spice to everyday life.

The characters of the comic strips present the modern version of mythological or folklore Heroes…The myth of Superman satisfies the secret longings of modern man who, though he knows that he is a fallen, limited creature, dreams of one day proving himself an “exceptional person,” a “Hero.” Much the same could be said of the detective novel. On the one hand, the reader witnesses the exemplary struggle between Good and Evil, between the Hero (= the Detective) and the criminal (the modern incarnation of the Demon). On the other, through an unconscious process of projection and identification, he takes part in the mystery and the drama and has the feeling that he is personally involved in a pardigmatic-that is, a dangerous, “heroic”-action (Myth and Reality, p. 185).

It should be no surprise that the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola directed a movie, Youth Without Youth (2007), based on an Eliade novella.

Campbell and Jung have both been accused of glossing over cross-cultural nuances in their treatments of the unconscious. By way of contrast, Eliade fleshed out the historical contexts from which myth and cosmology sprang. Despite their differences, all three thinkers recognized that, at some point, the psyche is a mystery. And perhaps most important, each acknowledged the limits of his own theorizing.

Although these thinkers offered much, we’re still left at a crossroads. There’s much to do in terms of understanding the psyche in connection with new discoveries—especially those in sub-atomic physics. Not that we should ignore the contributions that theology have made. But some kind of scientific approach is needed if we’re to go ahead and forge a brave new world where the link between consciousness and unconsciousness isn’t quite as tenuous and we find in humanity today.

Further Reading


  1. Detail from Aztec calendar showing deity (Xipe Totec) clothed in human skin and massive serpent devouring human being. Color version can be seen here »
  2. Jonah being swallowed by the whale.
  3. German alchemical illustration, circa 1600, of the spiritus mercurialis “and his transformations” as found on the front cover of C. G. Jung’s Aspects of the Masculine.
  4. Contemporary writers follow Jung, Eliade and Campbell in viewing superhero comics and B-movies as modern myths. Most see sci-fi, horror and fantasy as manifestations of a collective unconscious. Along these lines, Jung felt that the UFO craze of the 1950’s for the most part could be explained by manifestations of a mandala archetype (UFOs in that era were primarily saucer-shaped).  Campbell was particularly inspired by Star Wars and the film’s creator, George Lucas, consulted with him to ensure that the archetypal characters conformed to existing mythic cycles.
  5. Freud likened fundamental contents of the unconscious to ancient archaeological ruins. His psychoanalytic and Jung’s archetypal theory resemble one another on many points.

“The Unconscious – Rethinking the Unthinkable” © Michael W. Clark. All rights reserved.

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