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OverviewThe Unconscious

Freud broke with the philosophic tradition that had identified the mental, the mind, with consciousness and consequently considered the introspective study of consciousness as the source of certain knowledge. Freud divided our mental lives into the conscious and the unconscious. Freud's unconscious is composed of desires that are suppressed, expelled from the conscious self because they are unacceptable or too painful especially in connection with suppressed memories of traumas suffered especially during early childhood. Still, though unconscious, these motives and memories express themselves in dreams, neurotic obsessive symptoms, phobias, slips, jokes, sublimated art, and under hypnosis. It is impossible to learn of the content of the unconscious by direct introspection, but indirectly, through free association and the symbolic interpretation of dreams.

Freudian psychoanalysis offered to cure neurotics through recollection of the suppressed memories of the events that caused the suppression of desires. This "catharsis" should increase consciousness at the expense of the unconscious. Since the suppressed memories are painful, people devise a variety of defense mechanisms to avoid confronting them consciously. Consequently, the Cartesian tradition of gaining certain knowledge through introspection collapsed: introspection is useless for gaining access to the unconscious, indeed it may be misleading because of defense mechanisms. The correspondence between one's thought and thoughts about thoughts (self-consciousness) has come under even greater criticism since Freud. For example, Gilbert Ryle in his Concept of Mind (1949) argued that introspection, inward perception of mental entities, is fallible and incomplete.

In a larger historical context, Freud responded to the rise of irrational political forces in Europe that appealed to unconscious, uncontrolled, and ultimately destructive mental forces that eventually dominated the middle of the twentieth century in Europe. Freud wished to devise a method that would bring the unconscious under the control of the rational conscious. Other trends within depth psychology, art, and politics sought quite on the contrary to release the unconscious powers, dreams, and nightmares and allow them to dominate the conscious. Younger psychoanalysts like Carl Jung (1875–1961) and Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) offered alternative characterizations of the conscious and the unconscious.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConsciousness - Overview - Consciousness In Modern Philosophy, The Unconscious, Contemporary Philosophy Of Mind, Historical Self-consciousness