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Freudian Dictionary

The oldest and best meaning of the word "unconscious" is the descriptive one; we call "unconscious" any mental process the existence of which we are obliged to assume-because, for instance, we infer it in some way from its effects-but of which we are not directly aware .... If we want to be more accurate, we should modify the statement by saying that we call a process "unconscious" when we have to assume that it was active at a certain time, although at that time we knew nothing about it.[1]

Certainly, large portions of the ego and super-ego can remain unconscious, are, in fact, normally unconscious. That means to say that the individual knows nothing of their contents and that it requires an expenditure of effort to make him conscious of them. It is true, then, that ego and conscious, repressed and unconscious do not coincide.[2]

Unconscious and Preconscious

There are two kinds of unconscious, which have not as yet been distinguished by psychologists. Both are unconscious in the psychological sense; but in our sense the first, which we call Ucs., is likewise incapable of consciousness; whereas the second we call Pcs. because its excitations, after the observance of certain rules, are capable of reaching consciousness; perhaps not before they have again undergone censorship, but nevertheless regardless of the Ucs. system. The fact that in order to attain consciousness the excitations must pass through an unalterable series, a succession of instances, as is betrayed by the changes produced in them by the censorship, has enabled us to describe them by analogy in spatial terms. We described the relations of the two systems to each other and to consciousness by saying that the system Pcs. is like a screen between the system Ucs. and consciousness. The system Pcs. not only bars access to consciousness, but also controls the access to voluntary motility, and has control of the emission of a mobile cathectic energy, a portion of which is familiar to us as attention.[3]


We have found by experience that unconscious mental processes are in themselves "timeless." That is to say to begin with: they are not arranged chronologically, time alters nothing in them, nor can the idea of time be applied to them. [4]


Sigmund Freud

Although the term "unconscious" had been used by writers prior to Freud, it acquires a completely original meaning in his work, in which it constitutes the single most important concept.


Freud distinguished between two uses of the term "unconscious."[5]


The adjective it is very widely used to refer to any element of mental or psychic activity that is not present within the field of consciousness; as an adjective, it simply refers to mental or psychic processes that are not the subject of, that occur in the absence of, conscious awareness, thought, attention, perception or control.

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As a noun, the noun-form designates one of the psychical systems described by Freud in his topographical model of the psyche, his first theory of mental structure.

"Topological Model"

The "topographical model" divides the mind or psyche into three separate component parts -- or "psychical localities":

The unconscious system is not merely that which is outside the field of consciousness at a given time, but that which has been radically separated from consciousness by repression and thus cannot enter the conscious-preconscious system without distortion.

"Structural Model"

Freud's second model of the mind or psyche -- the "Structural theory" -- consisted of three "agencies":

In this model, no one agency is identical to the unconscious, since even the ego and the superego have unconscious parts.

Jacques Lacan

Early Work

Lacan, before 1950, uses the term "unconscious" principally in its adjectival form, making his early work seem particularly strange to those who are more familiar with Freud's writings.

Later Work

In the 1950s, however, as Lacan begins his "return to Freud," the term appears more frequently as a noun, and Lacan increasingly emphasizes the originality of Freud's concept of the unconscious, stressing that it is not merely the opposite of consciousness.

"A large number of psychical effects that are quite legitimately designated as unconscious, in the sense of excluding the characteristics of consciousness, are nonetheless without any relation whatever to the unconscious in the Freudian sense."[6]

He also insists that the unconscious cannot simply be equated with "that which is repressed."

Biological Reductionism

Lacan argues that the concept of the unconscious was badly misunderstood by most of Freud's followers, who reduced it to being "merely the seat of the instincts."[7]

Against this biologistic mode of thought, Lacan argues that "the unconscious is neither primordial nor instinctual;"[8] it is primarily linguistic.


This is summed up in Lacan's famous formula, "the unconscious is structured like a language."[9]

Lacan's analysis of the unconscious in terms of synchronic structure is supplemented by his idea of the unconscious opening and closing in a temporal pulsation.[10]


Lacan himself qualifies his linguistic approach by arguing that the reason why the unconscious is structured like a language is that "we only grasp the unconscious finally when it is explicated, in that part of it which is articulated by passing into words."[11]


Lacan also describes the unconscious as a discourse: "The unconscious is the discourse of the Other."[12]

This enigmatic formula, which has become one of Lacan's most famous dictums, can be understood in many ways.

Perhaps the most important meaning is that "one should see in the unconscious the effects of speech on the subject."[13]

More precisely, the unconscious is the effects of the signifier on the subject, in that the signifier is what is repressed and what returns in the formations of the unconscious (symptoms, jokes, parapraxes, dreams, etc.).


All the references to language, speech, discourse and signifiers clearly locate the unconscious in the order of the symbolic.

Indeed, "the unconscious is structured as a function of the symbolic."[14]

The unconscious is the determination of the subject by the symbolic order.


The unconscious is not interior: on the contrary, since speech and language are intersubjective phenomena, the unconscious is "transindividual."[15]

The unconscious is, so to speak, "outside."

"This exteriority of the symbolic in relation to man is the very notion of the unconscious."[16]

If the unconscious seems interior, this is an effect of the imaginary, which blocks the relationship between the subject and the Other and which inverts the message of the Other.


Although the unconscious is especially visible in the formations of the unconscious, "the unconscious leaves none of our actions outside its field."[17]

The laws of the unconscious, which are those of repetition and desire, are as ubiquitous as structure itself.

The unconscious is irreducible, so the aim of analysis cannot be to make conscious the unconscious.

In addition to the various linguistic metaphors which Lacan draws on to conceptualize the unconscious (discourse, language, speech), he also conceives of the unconscious in other terms.


The unconscious is also a kind of memory, in the sense of a symbolic history of the signifiers that have determined the subject in the course of his life.

"What we teach the subject to recognize as his unconscious is his history."[18]


Since it is an articulation of signifiers in a signifying chain, the unconscious is a kind of knowledge (symbolic knowledge, or savoir).

More precisely, it is an "unknown knowledge."

See Also


  1. Template:NILP Ch. 3
  2. Template:NILP Ch. 3
  3. Template:IoD Ch. 7
  4. Template:BPP Ch. 4
  5. Freud, Sigmund. "The Unconscious." 1915e. SE XIV, 161
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.163
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 147
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 170
  9. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.167
  10. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 143, 204
  11. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992. p. 32
  12. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 16
  13. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 126
  14. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992. p. 12
  15. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.49
  16. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.469
  17. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.163
  18. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.52

Critical Dictionary

As a noun, it designates one of the psychical systems which Freud described in his first theory of mental structure (the "topographical model").

The noun-form is now usually used in the psychoanalytic sense, and refers to the unconscious system described by Freud's first topography of the psyche.

In the second topography, the unconscious system is replaced by the agency of the id, but [Freud]] continues to use "unconscious" as an adjective.

Although Freud is often credited with the discovery of the unconscious, it is clear tha tthe notion of a non-conscious part of the mind has a long history in both philosophy and the psychological sciences.

A distinction has been made between the Freudian unconscious and Jung's concept of a 'collective unconscious'.


Freud's initial desriptions of the unconscious are based upon his analysis of dreams (1900).

Dreams are described as the royal road the the unconscious because they represent the fulfilment of unconscious wishes that are inadmissible to the preconscious-conscious system, usually because of their sexual nature.

Further confirmation of the existence of an unconscious system is provided by Freud's study of phenomena such as parapraxis (101) and jokes (1905b); everyday phenomena such as slips of the tongue, bungled actions, lapses of memory and the inability to recall names all point to the existence of the unconscious.


The contents of the unconscious are described as representatives of the drives and as unconscious wishes and desires that are organized into imaginary scenarios and narratives.

Many of these elements have been subjecte to repression or have been refused entry to the conscious mind.

Others relate to fantasies or memories relating to the primal scene or the Oedipus complex.

At times, Freud further speculates that the unconscious also contains elements of a phylogenetic heritage made up of residual elements of the vicissitudes of human history.[1]


Insofar as it is a system, the unconscious is described by Freud as having a number of special characteristics.

It is governed by the primary processes of the free circulation of energy and libido, and characterized by the mobility of cathexis.

The unconscious is timeless, indifferent to external reality, oblivious to the notions of negation and doubt, and obeys only the pleasure principle.


Virtually all post-Freudian psychoanalysis may be regarded as contributing to an understanding of the unconscious, but the most extensive reworking of the concept is that propounded by Lacan.

In his celebrated "Rome Discourse" on the field and function of language and speech in psychoanalysis (1953), Lacan describes the unconscious as the censored chapter in the history of the individual subject.

The truth of this censored chapter can, however, be found elsewhere; it exists in the form of 'monuments' such as the nuclei of a neurosis, the symptoms that can be read like some strange language.

It can be found in the 'documents' of infantile memories, in the indivudal's character traits, and in the fragments that link the censored chapter to the chapters that precede and follow it.

Lacan remarks that psychoanalysis is quite literally a talking cure, with speech as its sole medium, and goes on to describe the unconscious as being structured like a language (1957).

Drawing on the linguistics of Saussure and Jakobson's work on 'aphasia', Lacan argues that symptoms and unconscious formations such as the dream-work display the same formal properties as the rhetorical devices of metaphor/metonymy, which he likens to the mechanisms of condensation and displacement.


The division of mental life into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premise on which psycho-analysis is based; and this division alone makes it possible for it to understand pathological mental processes, which are as common as they are important, and to co-ordinate them scientifically. Stated once more in a different way: psycho-analysis cannot accept the view that consciousness is the essence of mental life, but is obliged to regard consciousness as one property of mental life, which may co-exist along with its other properties or may be absent.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag

We obtain our concept of the unconscious, therefore, from the theory of repression. The repressed serves us as a prototype of the unconscious. We see, however, that we have two kinds of unconscious-that which is latent but capable of becoming conscious, and that which is repressed and not capable of becoming conscious in the ordinary way. This piece of insight into mental dynamics cannot fail to affect terminology and description. That which is latent, and only unconscious in the descriptive and not in the dynamic sense, we call preconscious; the term unconscious we reserve for the dynamically unconscious repressed, so that we now have three terms, conscious (Cs), preconscious (Pcs), and unconscious (Ucs), which are no longer purely descriptive in sense. The Pcs is presumably a great deal closer


While the notion of a non-conscious part of the mind or psyche has a long history in both philosophy and the psychological sciences, Sigmund Freud is often credited with the discovery of the unconscious.

The "unconscious",

The concept of the unconscious lies at the center of psychoanalysis.

Freud is credited with the discovery of the "unconscious", the concept of which lies at the center of psychoanalysis.

--- Freud recognized that the term ‘unconscious’ was better used as a descriptive adjective rather than as a topographical noun.


unconscious 12-13, 19-36, 39-41, 43, 45-8, 56, 56-60, 68, 72, 76, 79, 82-3, 100, 102, * 104, 119, 125-31, 133-50, 152-5, 156-7, 161-2, 174, 176, 181, 187-8, 197, 199-200, 203, * 207-8, 217, 221, 224, 231-2, 235, 242, 247, 249-52, 257, 260, 263, 267, 274 Seminar XI


Unconscious, 4, 14, 21-22, 34, 99, 104-5, 115, 131, 135, 137, 139, 141, 144-45
as language, 15, 48, 56, 67, 96, 100, 135, 139, 142
language of, 51,110
meaning and, 88
signifying chain and, 135
subject and, 21, 37, 81, 87-88
  1. 1915d