Angus Nicholls – Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth-Century German Thought

Epilogue: the “optional” unconscious by Sonu Shamdasani

In the course of the nineteenth century, concepts of consciousness underwent a transformation as competing concepts of unconscious mental functioning were developed in philosophy, physiology, biology, and psychology and psychical research in Europe and the United States.

The papers in this volume have mainly traced trajectories of concepts of the unconscious in nineteenth-century German philosophical and literary thought. Alongside these philosophical developments, concepts of the unconscious were developed in other disciplines.

For example, in nineteenth-century British physiology, this took place through an expansion of the concept of reflex action. Under the rubric of “uncon-scious cerebration,” William Carpenter (1813–85) maintained that a large proportion of mental activity takes place automatically, which is to say unconsciously.

At the same time, notions of organic memory arose in German biology, based on Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s (1744–1829) the­ory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics and Ernst Haeckel’s (1834–1919) biogenetic law that ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny.

Through figures such as the German physiologist Ewald Hering (1834–1918), trans-individual and collective concepts of the unconscious were developed, wherein the unconscious was seen to contain and transmit the history of the race.

However, the most lasting legacy of these devel­opments lay in the dynamic psychologies and psychotherapies of the twentieth century.

As the basis for an explanation of psychopathology, the term was taken up for a while in twentieth-century psychiatry, and more widely within psychotherapy, where it became a means of explain­ing human behavior in general and a new source for self-knowledge, which increasingly came to signify knowledge of what was unconscious, in some shape or form, to the self.

The unconscious demonstrates the manner in which psychological concepts, despite their disputed status, have been taken on by large sectors of contemporary Western societies and entered the vernacular. Elsewhere, I have reconstructed the history of these multiple formations, and some of their complex intersections.

Drawing upon these works, I intend here to reflect upon the status of these concepts.1

Any consideration of the history of the unconscious is indebted to Henri Ellenberger’s monumental Discovery of the Unconscious (1970).

Ellenberger’s text marked the constitution and delineation of a new field of enquiry. His central assumption is embedded in the title of his work. As Mark Micale aptly notes, for Ellenberger, “the unconscious mind was not invented, or formulated, it was ‘discovered.’”

For Ellenberger, the reality and existence of the unconscious as a natural object was unques­tioned, with different conceptions of the unconscious figuring as com­peting maps of a preexisting and ontologically secure terrain. A singular reality was supposed to underlie the multiple depictions.

However, to grasp the historical constitution of the unconscious, such naturalism needs to be set aside. Without this suspension, the modes in which the unconscious came to be conceived of as a natural object, whose existence could simply be taken for granted, cannot be grasped.

At the end of the nineteenth century, many figures in the West sought to establish a scientific psychology that would be independent of philoso­phy, theology, biology, anthropology, literature, medicine, and neurology, whilst taking over their traditional subject matters.

The very possibility of psychology rested upon the successful negotiation of these disciplinary crossings. The larger share of the questions that psychologists took up had already been posed and elaborated in these prior disciplines. They had to prise their subjects from the preserves of other specialists.

Through becoming a science, it was hoped that psychology would be able to solve questions that had vexed thinkers for centuries, and to replace supersti­tion, folk wisdom, and metaphysical speculation with the rule of univer­sal law.The result would amount to nothing less than the completion and culmination of the scientific revolution.

A critical mutation occurred in the last quarter of the nineteenth cen­tury, during which conceptions of the unconscious became the basis for dynamic psychologies. Psychologists and philosophers were concerned with the questions that were posed by hypnosis, dreams, glossolalia,

fugues, automatic writing, maladies of memory, hallucinations, telepathy and other alterations of the personality that seemed to pose formidable problems for the philosophy and psychology of consciousness. In 1890, whilst reflecting on the future of science, the French philosopher Ernst Renan (1823–92) stated:

In studying the psychology of the individual, sleep, madness, delirium, som-nambulism, hallucination offer a far more favourable field of experience than the normal state. Phenomena, which in the normal state are almost effaced because of their tenuousness, appear more palpable in extraordinary crises because they are exaggerated … human psychology will have to be constructed by studying the madness of mankind.

A general reordering of the relations between the normal and the pathological, the regular and the irregular took place at this time, which was constitutive of modern psychology. For the dynamic psychologies that flourished, the term that was most frequently used to conceptualize such states was the unconscious.

In 1890, Eduard von Hartmann wrote of its advent that: it was in the air and prepared from all sides; furthermore, it was also a require­ment of the progress of the self-consciousness and self-understanding of man­kind, and only because it was all this could it find such a quick and favourable acceptance with the public, so that one can now almost hear the sparrows chirping about it from the rooftops.5

That same year, with characteristic prescience, William James (1842–1910) noted what was to bedevil the use of the term. He wrote of the distinction between the conscious and the unconscious, that “it is the sov­ereign means for believing what one likes in psychology, and of turning what might become a science into a tumbling ground for whimsies.”6

For the dynamic psychologies, the concept of the unconscious was intended to carry the aspirations of their “will to science,” and the attempt to form a unitary discipline of psychology. In this regard, the unconscious presented an ideal term.

It was a site where new universal laws could be discovered and where periodic tables could be established. It enabled them to delineate their own domain of the mind and people it with a plethora of objects, mechanisms, and special modes of functioning, described in a language modeled after the technical languages of the natural sciences.

There was little that could not be explained via the unconscious: dreams, delusions, passions, inspirations, and even religious experience. The unconscious of the psychologists had to be differentiated from that of the philosophers, to enable it to be presented as a scientific concept. In most cases, this was simply accomplished through a denial of filiation.

Consequently, Hartmann’s philosophy of the unconscious came in for extended criticism from psychologists. Physiologists were also at pains to differentiate their conceptions of the unconscious from Hartmann’s. A case in point is the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909), whose 1885 work On Memory (Über das Gedächtnis) was critical in estab­lishing the experimental investigation of memory, and who wrote his 1873 dissertation as a critique of Hartmann’s work. Ebbinghaus contended that what was true in Hartmann’s book was not new, what was new in it was not true.

Everything essential in it went back to Schopenhauer.

In 1889, the American psychologist James Mark Baldwin (1861–1934) subjected the concept of the unconscious to a critique in his Handbook of Psychology: Sense and Intellect.8 Von Hartmann’s views were simply dis­missed for being metaphysical. Baldwin concluded:

Phenomena called “unconscious mental states” may be accounted for partly from the physical side, as excitations inadequate to a mental effect, and partly from the mental side, as states of least consciousness. Where, in the progressive subsistence of consciousness, these two classes of fact come together we have no means of knowing … As Binet says, if there be unconscious mental phe­nomena, “we know absolutely nothing about them.”

Oswald Külpe (1862–1915), a former student of Wilhelm Wundt who played a key role in establishing the experimental study of thought, gave an extended account of von Hartmann’s work in his The Philosophy of the Present in Germany (Die Philosophie der Gegenwart in Deutschland, 1902)

that indicates its contemporary significance. Külpe saw Hartmann’s system as being, like that of Schopenhauer, “more a mythologically-colored speculation, like the myths of Plato, rather than an extension and completion of scientific knowledge.”

In 1890, William James devoted an extended section of his Principles of Psychology to a critique of the concept of the unconscious. In his chapter on the “mind-stuff” theory, James dealt with the existence of unconscious mental states. He set out ten supposed proofs of the unconscious, which were “most systematically urged” by von Hartmann, and then subjected them to a detailed point by point refutation.

What was significant in James’ approach was that in each case, while recognizing the existence of the particular phenomenon in question, he demonstrated that they were amenable to other forms of explanation, which were in turn quite distinct from one another.

In place of the monistic appeal to the unconscious, what was required was a pluralistic account of diverse phenomena. James dismissed von Hartmann’s work, arguing that Hartmann fairly boxes the compass of the universe with the principle of uncon­scious thought.

For him there is no nameable thing that does not exemplify it  the same is true of Schopenhauer.

Likewise, there were critiques of psychological conceptions of the unconscious.

Hippolyte Bernheim (1840–1919), who had played a central role in instigating the modern hypnotic and psychotherapeutic movements, cri-tiqued the “hypnotic unconscious,” or the utilization of the unconscious to explain the hypnotic state. According to Bernheim, “this false idea of the unconscious has been the source of all the errors which have been committed.

The subject is conscious … The hypnotic unconscious … does not exist.”

Bernheim argued that the presumption of hypnotic amnesia was a mistake. Far from being unaware of their surroundings, hypnotized individuals were acutely aware of their surroundings, and responsive to cues:

When memories of the somnambulistic state seem completely erased and when the subject cannot retrieve them spontaneously, it is sufficient to say to him, “You are going to remember everything that has happened.” If the subject doesn’t recover everything quickly, I put my hand on his forehead and say, “You are going to remember.”

After a certain time, the subject concentrates, recalls everything, and reports accurately everything that has happened.

This proves that awareness is not abolished, that the somnambulist never acts like an unconscious robot, that he sees, hears, and knows what he is doing. He is dominated by images, ideas, suggested impressions, heightened credulity, and a tendency to obedience which is unrestrained […] This is not unconscious­ness – it is another state of consciousness.

As we may recall, post-hypnotic suggestion was precisely what Bernheim’s translator Sigmund Freud appealed to as demonstrating the proof of the unconscious.

In 1915, he wrote: “Incidentally, even before the time of psycho-analysis, hypnotic experiments, and especially post-hypnotic sug­gestion, had tangibly demonstrated the existence and mode of operation of the mental unconscious.”15

There was little that joined William James to Wilhelm Wundt, but one point in common was the critique of the concept of the unconscious. In his Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology (Vorlesungen ueber die Menschen- und Thierseele, 1863) Wundt argued that the interest in the unconscious arose from the false assumption that consciousness was a mental condition, a kind of stage upon which our representations

appeared like actors. This view led to the interest in what took place behind the scenes, i.e. in the unconscious. By contrast, Wundt argued that consciousness, unlike the stage, did not remain when the processes we are conscious of passed away, and that we knew nothing of a represen­tation when it had disappeared from consciousness:

There is scarcely any view which has been a greater source of error in psych­ology than that which regards representations as imperishable objects which may rise and sink … but which, once they exist, are only distinguished by their changing distribution of consciousness and unconsciousness.16

Wundt contended that representations, like other mental experiences, were processes and occurrences, as opposed to objects.

Throughout the twentieth century, concepts of the unconscious con­tinued to have a contested status.

On the one hand, they have figured as the corner-stone for the plethora of psychoanalyses and dynamic psychotherapies, where, regardless of their status, they were operation-alized as the theoretical basis for therapeutic interventions. Within this domain, there was further strife between different versions of the uncon­scious: Freudian, Jungian, and otherwise. On the other hand, they have had little place in mainstream experimental and social psychologies, where they were largely dismissed.

However, protagonists and critics of the unconscious have in the main both tended to share commitments to realist ontologies and a correspondence theory of truth: either the uncon­scious exists, or it does not (or the unconscious of one particular school exists, and the unconscious of all the others does not). In other words, either people have unconsciouses, or they don’t. Such positions fail to do adequate justice to the mode in which psychologies have functioned.

In a quasi-Wittgensteinian manner, I use the term “concept” here in a wide sense, as encompassing the ensemble of practices gathered under a term, what it enables one to do, and the uses to which it is put. Such breadth of consideration is necessary because, in the twentieth century, the unconscious became institutionalized, spawning a vast network of associations, guilds, and training societies, as well as becoming an influ­ential societal idiom or idiolect.

Concerning the functioning of psychological concepts, I take my cue from William James’ discussion in The Principles of Psychology concerning

conceptions of hypnosis. James discussed the conflicts between the late nineteenth-century hypnotic schools. Concerning differing theories of the trance state, he wrote:

The three states of Charcot, the strange reflexes of Heidenheim, and all the other bodily phenomena which have been called direct consequences of the trance-state itself, are not such. They are products of suggestion, the trance-state having no particular outward symptoms of its own; but without the trance-state there, those particular suggestions could never have been success­fully made.

Whilst conceived in a realist mode, psychological theories actually created new forms of experience, due to the impressionability of the trance state.

This enabled any theory to be “realized.” James’ discussions of theories of trance are not solely concerned with one phenomenon, but with the malleability of experience to conceptual reframing in general, and how concepts become real. From this perspective, the context of clinical inves­tigation does not uncover pure phenomena as such, as the phenomenon in question takes on the characteristics of the theory and parades it.

From this perspective, theories of the unconscious functioned in a productive manner: far from being perpetually rediscovered and uncovered in a posi-tivistic manner, the psychological unconscious was an artefact produced in the clinic.

The theories in question do not function in a descriptive manner, but are more akin to theatrical scripts or stage directions.

However, this is by no means to say that the unconscious produced by such operations is illusory, unreal, or merely fictitious. Psychologies and psychotherapies have generated a plethora of optional ontologies through which individuals have come to rescript their lives.

One of the most prominent among these has been that of the unconscious, which became one of the most powerful artefacts of modern psychology. From this perspective, one may raise the question as to what type of objects such unconsciouses are, and what uses they have been put to.

In this regard, concepts of the unconscious clearly had significant epis­temological and professional utilities, which were interconnected.

The unconscious was conceived as a natural object, which was trans-historical and cross-cultural. For psychoanalysts, everyone who had ever been alive must have had an unconscious, and furthermore, one whose laws had been discovered and laid down by Freud.

There was no place for cultural variation, or the possibility of accepting that other peoples might have equally compelling alternative ontological conceptions and effec­tive narratives of sickness and healing with no need for an unconscious. Consequently, historical and cross-cultural variations were nullified.

With the unconscious, psychologists had their own epistemological object, with its particular laws, processes, and modes of functioning, just like other natural sciences, with compendious grammars of interpretive rules, which required special modes of training and instruction to be initiated into.

This gave the sense that the disciplinary separation of psychology from other disciplines has been successfully negotiated, and indeed, that psy­chology could be considered to be a real entity that existed.

Within psychotherapy (at a theoretical level, as opposed to what occurred in practice) the unconscious led to the notion that the task of the psychotherapist lay in uncovering partially recessed unconscious rep­resentations which were concealed to the subject themselves but visible to the psychotherapist, whose task was one of transcribing behavior into the theoretical language of the unconscious. As such, the unconscious became a manner of rescripting the narrative description of a life, and a mode of hermeneutics for giving it significance.

This language clearly did not remain a professional preserve, and was taken on by large social groupings, for whom it became a compelling form of self-description.

In this perspective, posing the question as to whether the unconscious exists or not is generally unhelpful, as whatever one’s views on this may be, we are faced today with a situation where a large body of people consider that they (and others) have an uncon­scious, and a still larger body of people consider that they (and others) don’t.

Geographically speaking, it would be possible in an approximate sense to chart this on a map upon which one would in all likelihood see the greatest density of individuals “with an unconscious” conglomerated around the European and American metropolises, with a minimal dens­ity in the so-called developing regions, such as Africa, China, and the Indian subcontinent.

Given this situation, it would be useful to imagine how an anthropology of psychology might envisage such questions.

For instance, one might ask, how does one come to acquire an unconscious? Is there greater susceptibility among particular age groups? Are there

typical conversion experiences which give rise to the conviction of the reality of a particular unconscious? Why do people choose a particular type of unconscious? How do people try out different unconsciouses? What leads one to lose an unconscious?

What effects, beneficial or other­wise, has living with an unconscious had on people’s lives, in their own estimation? How does the unconscious compare with other optional ontologies? Furthermore, such investigations may be timely.

If we live in an era marked by the increasing ascendancy of “brainhood,” to use Fernando Vidal’s excellent expression for the manner in which identity has come to be located in the brain, the psychological unconscious may well be on the wane. ~Sonu Shamdasani, Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth-Century German Thought, Page 287-296