Consciousness and the discovery of the unconscious




Consciousness and self-control

As we have seen, our existence in this life is linked to the functioning of our body, and in particular of our brain, however the perception of our existence is determined by that inner phenomenon that we call consciousness, and above all by the self-consciousness of that nucleus defined as Ego. But there are many elements of discontinuity, often conflicting, between the functioning and behavior of a person's organism, and the consciousness and Ego of that same person: an external observer could believe, looking at the way a person's body behaves, acts, speaks, etc., that conscious Ego of that person knows well what is happening to its body and is able to control it. Instead, it may happen that although conscious of what its body is doing or saying, the intentional and voluntary control by the Ego over the body's actions is reduced or inhibited. Moreover, there are cases in which the same consciousness can vanish, so that the organism of an individual can move, act and speak in an automatic or heterodirect manner, without an inner Ego being aware of such behavior. The observation and the study related to these facts led to the development of the concept of unconscious.

Unconscious processes, subconscious, and autonomous states of consciousness

It is evident that most of the physiological processes that determine the development and functioning of our body are unconscious. Furthermore, many memories relating to what we have done or happened to us become unconscious over time: this means that a part of what we have been conscious of, with the passage of time, becomes subconscious or unconscious. Regarding the accessibility of memories it has been argued that the term subconscious is preferable to that of unconscious, since some memories can be recalled to consciousness, albeit with some effort, or come back spontaneously under certain circumstances, due to some mental association. So far we are in the sphere of what is considered the normal functioning of the human mind, in relation to which consciousness is considered by some to be an epiphenomenon of the processes determined by the activity of particular brain areas. But starting from the research on some mental pathologies, such as the one that until the end of the nineteenth century was defined hysteria, or from the investigations on hypnotic and somnambulistic phenomena (covered in the section on psychical research), scholars realized that there were forms of behavior, more or less organized and coherent, to which psyche's events were associated that did not fall within the sphere of a person's ordinary consciousness. In some cases these events were consciously organized in relation to a secondary personality, distinct and independent from the primary Ego, so that it could occur the phenomenon of the so-called double or multiple personalitiy, consisting of separate and autonomous states of identity and consciousness that manifested themselves at different periods within the same body. More often, the complexes originating from the psyche denoted their autonomy of consciousness even without organizing themselves into a secondary consciousness.

Deceptions originating from the psyche

By examining mental processes, the researchers realized that what was developed by the psyche in the consciousness, in relation to certain behaviors, their causes, and mental disorders, did not correspond to the real factors that caused those behaviors or those disorders. Those causes had been removed from consciousness, and replaced by others (fictitious but considered more acceptable, usually on the basis of socio-cultural conditioning), or the disorders occurred without the subject's Ego being able in any way to identify or recognize their cause. Thus the psyche's researchers had to recognize the vulnerability and weakness of a person's Ego in relation to those forces that determined the functioning and behavior of its organism in relation to certain environmental, social and cultural events. Where we would expect a capacity of the Ego and its volition to effectively manage the psyche's dynamics determined by the interactions of the body with the environment, there was instead an unpredictable uncertainty about the activation of autonomous nuclei of the psyche that were subtracted to any form of voluntary control. It happened to the conscious Ego something similar to what happened to the organism: just as the body was vulnerable and exposed to all the threats coming from the environment, to which it reacted with greater or lesser success through the resources it was endowed with, the Ego was also exposed to certain threats produced by the psyche that not only it was not able to control, but were operating outside the range of action of its consciousness.

The psychiatrist and the psychotherapist

During the nineteenth century, the evolution of medical science in complex societies had led to the division of the profession into different branches of specialized expertise: after the figure of the neurologist was joined by that of the psychiatrist (the psyche's doctor), a new discipline, psychology, established itself, which was supposed to study and understand the functioning of human mind. Problems of a social nature and the requests for personal help made so that, from the late nineteenth century to the present day, the new role of psychotherapist was recognized in the field of psychology, supported by one of the various forms of hope originating from the psyche with which human history is scattered. Indeed, the empirical observation of the anomalies of the functioning of human psyche, object of study by psychiatrists in the nineteenth century, immediately posed a problem of method, between those who stated that the organic and physiological study of the functioning of the brain and the nervous system had to be carried on, in the hope of identifying in the future the causes of problems originating from the psyche, and those who believed that – given the difficulties that the study of the brain presented – it was preferable to try an empirical approach, based on observation and communication, to the problems of mental disorders (Freud). It is evident that only the physiological and organic approach can be considered coherent with the scientific method: in fact empirical observations in a field so random as that of human behavior and the related experiences communicated verbally, with the modalities determined by the state of consciousness of the subject observed, present too many variables to be the object of a scientific study in the strict sense. Moreover, the very fact that the minds (and thus the psyche) of the observers were actively involved in the human cases represented by the observed subjects, if only for the therapeutic or social need to alleviate their sufferings, constituted a further element of unreliability towards the interpretative theories of the symptoms, and of the therapeutic systems adopted. 

Anyway, having to make a virtue of necessity, the commitment of the nineteenth-century psychiatrists was remarkable, and in some cases led to significant results, although in the face of many unsolved cases which, as it is understandable, did not have the same resonance and the same emphasis as those successfully treated. But what soon emerged was the different interpretation given by the various schools to the observed psyche's dynamics: psychology began so to branch into the various psychologies, and the concept of the unconscious was repeatedly reworked and reinterpreted in the light of the cultural currents that gradually established themselves on the European and American scene. An excellent text to follow the evolution of the concept of the unconscious, both under the philosophical and cultural profile as well as in the specific area of dynamic psychiatry, is The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970), in two volumes, written by psychiatrist Henri F. Ellenberger (1905-1993), born in Rhodesia from a family of Swiss origin and active as academic in Europe (France and Switzerland), in the United States and especially in Canada. This work, fundamental for anyone interested in human psyche, can not be made freely accessible because of copyright, but certainly deserves a careful reading.

The unconscious and the psyche: Schopenhauer and Carus

In his book Ellenberger highlights how, in the context of late Romanticism, the idea that the unconscious was the psyche itself spread in Europe: an entity endowed with creative autonomy that was only minimally received and processed by our human consciousness. The origin of this conception can be found in the work of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who in 1818 published his most important book, The World as Will and Representation. This text went unnoticed for over thirty years, being almost forgotten, and then it was rediscovered and became a great cultural success, perhaps also due to the disappointments caused by the failure of the 1848 revolutions. Leaving aside the criticism that can be made to the system elaborated by Schopenhauer, we can highlight the relationship that is established between the concept of representation (or idea) and human consciousness, while the will for Schopenhauer is the creative force itself: when it acts on the human being, through the psychophysical instrument that allows both the conscious representation and the action, the will manifests itself as an unconscious force to whose power no person can escape. As we can see, we are very far from any reference to the organic and physiological functions of the nervous system, and also from the removal of most of the events of our life, outer and inner, that should characterize unconscious activities. Schopenhauer's will is unconscious because, according to the philosopher, it has neither a self-consciousness of its own nor a purpose.

The physician and romantic thinker Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869) was a remarkable personality as an artist: besides being a talented painter, he graduated in medicine and philosophy, and in 1814 was appointed director of the obstetrics and maternity clinic at Dresden University. A prolific writer, he dealt with animal anatomy and physiology, but also with psychology: in 1846 he published Psyche, zur Entwicklungsgeschichte der Seele (Psyche, on the Evolution of the Soul), considered by Ellenberger as the first attempt to present an objective and concrete theory on the psychology of the unconscious. Also Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) would recognize to Carus the merit of having identified in the unconscious the essential basis of the development of the psyche: in fact, Carus considered psychology as the science of the development of the soul from the unconscious to the conscious, even if the meaning he gave to the term soul (Seele) was linked to a predominantly romantic vision. According to him, human life could be divided into three stages: a pre-embryonic state, in which the individual exists (potentially) as a cell within the maternal ovaries; an embryonic period, in which, after fertilization, the formative unconscious which determines the development of the individual is activated; and the post-natal development phase, in which the unconscious continues to direct the growth of the individual and its organic development. Then consciousness gradually arises, though remaining under the influence of the unconscious, which manifests itself especially during sleep.

As we can see, it is a conception that mixes in an original way the aspects that we could now define as genetic or informatic of the development of the body (not only human, but also animal), with the ones originating by the human psyche. Thus Carus unconscious ends up being an idealized conception – to the limits of personification – of those factors of natural creativity, culminating in the human psyche, which escape our cognitive faculties. Carus distinguished three levels of the unconscious. The first is the absolute general unconscious, in no case accessible to human consciousness, and therefore unknowable. The second is the absolute partial unconscious, which determined the processes of formation, growth and activity of our organs, and therefore exerted an indirect influence on our affective life through the physiological reactions of breathing, blood circulation, liver activity, and so on. In practice, Carus did nothing but recognize that, since we live with an organism, its functioning also determines and influences the way our mind works. The third level, that of the relative or secondary unconscious, coincides with what is usually called the personal unconscious, and is given by all the feelings, perceptions, representations, and other components of the human psyche, which are present in our consciousness at some time and then become unconscious. It is evident that only this third level corresponds to the concept of the unconscious derived from objective observations on the mind functioning, while the first two levels have a speculative origin, and end up representing a kind of metaphysics of the psyche. In any case, Carus ideas exerted a considerable influence on the subsequent developments of the concept of the unconscious, and in particular on Freud's psychoanalysis and Jung's analytical psychology.

With regard to what I have called Carus' metaphysics of the psyche, here is a list of some of the features attributed by him to the unconscious: it presents Promethean and Epimethean aspects, it is directed towards the future and the past, but ignores the present; it is in continuous transformation, therefore conscious thoughts and feelings, when they become unconscious, continue to be processed and transformed, undergoing a sort of maturation process; the unconscious is tireless and never rests, while our consciousness needs rest and refreshment, which finds dipping in the unconscious; it is fundamentally healthy, knows no diseases, and one of its functions is the healing power of nature; the unconscious works according to ineluctable laws and has no freedom, but has its own innate wisdom; it does not include trial and error procedures or forms of learning; without being aware of it, we are connected, through the unconscious, with the rest of the world and with other human beings. The speculative ideas presented by Carus, undoubtedly fascinating, owe their success to the socio-cultural influence of the romantic psyche, but – although they are based in part on empirical observations – they do not present the requisites required for scientific knowledge. The influence of Carus should however be kept in mind when we will examine the attempts to explain the paranormal phenomena, investigated by psychical research, through the super-Psi theory. 

The unconscious according to von Hartmann

In the wake of Schopenhauer and Carus we find another German late romantic philosopher, Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906), who – after having also tried his handnas a painter and musician – published in 1869 a work in three volumes, Philosophie des Unbewussten (Philosophy of the Unconscious), which was a great success, so much so that he was offered the University chairs in Leipzig and Göttingen, which he refused for health reasons and to maintain his independence. About the book by Hartmann (published in Berlin) and his success, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote ironically in 1873: «In the whole world nobody talks about the unconscious since, according to the very essence of the term, it is something unknowable: only in Berlin can someone speak and know something about it, diligently teaching us what distinguishes it». With his sarcasm, Nietzsche centered the core of the problem: how was it possible to speak about something that, by definition, was outside our human consciousness?

Actually, as we have seen, the term unconscious (as a noun) has become a label under which different meanings are hidden, some referring to human ways of functioning and behaviors observable and effectively observed, and others – quite speculative, such as those derived from the works of Carus and Hartmann – which refer to a power and a creative activity that are supposed to be inherently unconscious, but whose existence human consciousness would be able to perceive by deduction. However, even from this point of view, it is not clear through what form of reasoning it can be decided whether the existence of a typically human faculty, such as consciousness, may or may not be attributed to an entity that is not human. We can therefore recognize that the unconscious, in the sense of Carus and Hartmann, is nothing but the expression of a cultural phenomenon that had some success, and therefore represents a typical manifestation of the human psyche. The question is also dealt with in an interesting book, published in 2010 by Cambridge University Press, with contributions by various authors: Thinking the Unconscious.

In his work, Hartmann reworked the ideas of various German philosophers and also took into consideration the texts of the Hindu Vedas: in fact, by the term Unconscious he referred to what Jakob Böhme, Friedrich Schelling and Arthur Schopenhauer had called Will. He also reported a large number of important and well-documented facts concerning perception, association of ideas, intelligence, emotional life, instinctual drives, character traits, individual destiny and the role of the unconscious in language, in religion, in history and in social life. In attempting to reconcile Schopenhauer with Hegel and Leibniz, Hartmann stated that the Unconscious is both Will and Representation (idea), from which the existence of the world and its natural order derive respectively. Will manifests itself in suffering, Representation in order and consciousness, so there can be space both for pessimism and for optimism, because if the absolute (that is, the Unconscious) is one, its two aspects will have to reconcile. As cosmic progress evolves, Representation prevails over Will, making aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment possible. However, the evolution of intellect makes us more susceptible to suffering, and material progress ends by suppressing spiritual values, so it is not possible to achieve lasting happiness on Earth or progress towards an earthly paradise. The illusion of happiness is used by the Unconscious to force humankind to reproduce and propagate. If they renounced this deception, humans would move towards a collective suicide, thus determining the victory of the Idea on the Will: a typical late-romantic, not unfounded and coherent conclusion, based on a... cheerful optimism about human life!

Like Carus, Hartmann too described three levels of the unconscious: the absolute unconscious, which forms the substance of the universe and from which the other forms of the unconscious derive; the physiological unconscious, which operates in the phases of development and evolution of living organisms; the relative or psychological unconscious, which underlies the psyche's dynamics of which we become conscious. Without going into further details about Hartmann's work, it should be emphasized that a concept of eminently speculative character, which could have been defined in many ways (for instance, creative power of nature, psyche's energy, evolutionary factor, etc.), has been associated with what operates outside our human consciousness, to the point of assuming almost personalized connotations. So it seems evident to me that the unconscious, considered from this point of view, ends up becoming a substitute and a surrogate of the concept of God, in vogue until the modern era but already declining in the nineteenth-century cultural and scientific horizon. The subsequent use of the concept of the unconscious by both Freud and Jung reflects the unresolved ambiguities linked to the way in which this concept had evolved and established itself in the romantic and post-romantic cultural context, up to Nietzsche. Only in the second half of the twentieth century did the need arise to clarify a term so heavily contaminated by various speculative elements, which nevertheless constitute an interesting observation topic as cultural manifestation of the human psyche.

The unknowability of the unconscious

If then we want to use the unconscious noun in relation to the fact that we do not know the causes that determine the functioning and the manifestations of human psyche, and that in many cases our Ego can not control through its will neither the psyche's manifestations of which we are conscious, nor – even more so – all the dynamics of mental functioning of which we are not aware, then we can agree to consider it as a system, still largely unknown, which determines our personal destiny as much as our own inner life as human beings. But it is precisely the impossibility of reaching an adequate knowledge of a phenomenon of these proportions, endowed with so much power compared to our limited control faculties, that should make us wary of the attempts, more or less naive, to describe it or to theorize its functioning. Furthermore, it is evident from what we have seen so far that those thinkers who have considered themselves able to investigate the unconscious, have done so on the basis of the experiences of their own psyche, sometimes giving the impression of believing that all human beings can be oriented in a similar way, while it is obvious – as we have already observed – that the human psyche as a whole goes far beyond the possibilities of observation and experimentation by single individuals, no matter how smart and acute they may be. This is proved by the fact that, despite the pessimism of Schopenhauer or Hartmann, and despite all the calamities and tragedies that marked the last century, humanity not only continues undaunted to exist, but – from the end of the Second World War to our days – human population as a whole has more than tripled (with all the problems deriving from it).

The brain and the unconscious mental activity

Currently, as we have seen, the scientific investigation is oriented on the knowledge of the brain functioning, which determines both the conscious mental activity and all those functions that are not recorded by consciousness. The brain works, so to speak, day and night. Much of the unconscious brain activity controls and regulates the functioning of the organism, and in some way represents the animal heritage of the human body, but another part records, memorizes and creates the sensations, information and data continuously received from the environment and the resulting experiences originating from the psyche. Part of this activity can be transformed, sooner or later, into conscious experience, but in many cases these functions remain unconscious. Particular interest deserves the creative function of mental activity, which must be examined with particular attention as it is the most significant element in the diversity between humans and other animals. In any case, once attributed to the neural networks of the brain (or better: of the brains) all the functions that determine both the conscious mental activity (with all the experiences deriving from it), and the operating activities that remain unconscious (even if they can also have conscious reflexes), all the issues related to the causes that led to the evolution of this extraordinary instrument, the modalities of its functioning and the purposes of its activity remain open. The various speculative theories on the unconscious previously exposed represent an attempt, on the basis of what is processed by the human psyche, to answer these important questions which concern precisely the meaning of our very existence.

Any consideration about the unconscious should be traced back to the fundamental problem of the correlation between the activity of acquiring information and programs, followed by a phase of further processing performed by our brain, and the consequent conscious perception. There is no doubt that we consciously record only a part of what our brain receives and processes, while most mental activities escape the conscious Ego. Moreover, what we can consciously perceive are exclusively the psyche's elements, in form of thoughts, sensations, emotions, feelings, memories, dreams, etc., while the conscious Ego is never directly informed about the mental processes that determine these manifestations. However, when certain nuclei of the psyche enter the range of our consciousness, the Ego can perceive tensions and conflicts whose origin should be due to the unconscious processing activity of the brain: as well as an illness or a body trauma generate nerve impulses that are transferred to the brain and processed so as to give us the perception of pain, also certain signals, information and conditioning from the external environment are processed, activating reactions originating from the psyche that break into our consciousness. The Ego can also be overwhelmed by particularly intense nuclei of the psyche, to deal with which it tries to activate the resources at its disposal – above all will and intelligence – in order to arrange the defense strategies that seem most effective to it.

As long as mental activity remains unconscious, we can have a certain understanding of the functioning of this complex system of elaboration, aimed at the pursuit of certain objectives and at self-defense of the organism (as it happens for many animal species). But when we also take into consideration the conscious aspect of the dynamics of the human psyche, we begin to feel uncomfortable, because we often have the impression that we are dealing with two systems that do not cooperate, but rather reveal an inner conflict: as a consequence of certain tunings determined by the psyche, in fact, the Ego can rebel against the very fact of having a body, a psychophysical system to which it is subordinate, up to want to destroy it by suicide (as Hartmann claimed). As already mentioned, another rather surprising aspect of the problem is given by the social need to extend to the psyche the relationship between doctor and patient, which initially concerned only the body to be healed: while the body has sufficient requirements of objectivity that allow to study and treat it with methods, so to speak, mechanical (which do not always have the same success for everyone), psyche's experiences are subjective to the highest degree. Despite this, on the one hand those who suffer from causes determined by the psyche go in search of someone who can help them out of that unpleasant condition, and on the other hand there are scientists, doctors and people of good will who devote their activity to trying to solve problems arising from the psyche of others. Sometimes the social needs themselves impose that certain people are placed under guardianship, even against their will, because their behavior can be socially dangerous as a consequence of the state of their psyche. However, from a socio-cultural point of view, the issue of psychotherapy – despite having now been recognized as a branch of medicine – has yet to find a satisfactory framework from a cognitive point of view.


Conscious. & science
Interview with Roth
Intelligence & deceit
Science & human life
The unconscious
Unconscious faculties
The creative function
The human psyche
Psyche & Nature
The recorded life
The ego & the psyche