Unconscious, The

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Unconscious, The


in the broad sense, the totality of mental processes, operations, and states not represented in a subject’s consciousness. In a number of psychological theories the unconscious is a special sphere of the psychological or a system of processes that are in essence different from the phenomena of consciousness. The term “the unconscious” is also used in characterizing individual and group behavior, the real aims and consequences of which are not consciously recognized. The term “the unconscious” is widely used in philosophy and psychology, as well as in psychiatry, psychophysiology, legal science, and art studies.

The general idea of the unconscious, which goes back to the teachings of Plato on knowledge-as-memory (anamnesis), prevailed until modern times. It began to be characterized differently after R. Descartes posited the problem of consciousness. The ideas of Descartes, who asserted that the conscious was identical with the mental, laid the foundation for the notion that beyond the limits of consciousness only purely physiological, nonmental brain activity could take place.

The concept of the unconscious was first clearly formulated by G. Leibniz (in Monadology, 1720), who treated the unconscious as a lower form of mental activity, lying beyond the threshold of those conscious thoughts that rise like little islands above a sea of dark perceptions. The first attempt at a strictly materialistic explanation of the unconscious was made by D. Hartley of England. He connected the unconscious with the activity of the nervous system. German classical philosophy basically touched upon the gnoseological aspect of the unconscious. I. Kant related the unconscious to the problem of intuition and the question of knowledge through the senses (unconscious a priori synthesis).

The unconscious was characterized in a different way by poets and theorists of romanticism. In opposition to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, they developed their own cult of the unconscious as a deep-lying source of creativity. A. Schopenhauer advanced a nonrationalistic theory of the unconscious, which was continued by E. von Hartmann. Hartmann elevated the unconscious into a universal principle, the ground of existence, and a cause of the world process. A line of psychological study per se of the unconscious began in the 19th century (J. F. Herbart, G. Fechner, W. Wundt, and T. Lipps—all in Germany). Herbart introduced the dynamic aspect of the unconscious (1824). According to him, irreconcilable ideas may come into conflict with each other, the weaker ones expelled from consciousness, yet continuing to affect it without losing their dynamic qualities.

Work in the field of psychopathology provided a new stimulus for the study of the unconsious when special methods of affecting the unconscious, beginning with hypnosis, began to be applied for therapeutic purposes. Research, especially by the French psychiatric school (J. Charcot and others), helped to bring to light mental activity of a pathogenic nature that differs from conscious mental activity and of which the patient is not aware. The concept of the Austrian physician and psychologist S. Freud was a continuation of this line of inquiry. Freud began by establishing direct connections between neurotic symptoms and traumatic experiences that could not be consciously remembered because of the action of a special defense mechanism, which he called repression. Having rejected physiological explanations, Freud conceived of the unconscious as a powerful irrational force antagonistic to the activity of the conscious mind. According to Freud, unconscious drives can be revealed and brought under the control of the conscious with the help of the techniques of psychoanalysis.

The Swiss psychologist C. Jung introduced, in addition to the individual unconscious, the concept of a collective unconscious, an objective psyche, various levels of which are identical in persons of a certain group, of a certain nation, or of all humanity. The teachings of Freud about the unconscious have received a purely nonrationalistic treatment in a number of contemporary bourgeois philosophical and psychological theories.

In Soviet psychology the problem of the unconscious is being worked out especially as an aspect of the theory of attitude set developed by D. N. Uznadze. The psychophysiological aspects of the unconscious, which were studied by I. M. Sechenov and I. P. Pavlov, are being investigated in connection with the analysis of sleeping and hypnotic states, cortical and subcortical formations, automatism in work and sports activities, and other phenomena. Recently, the possibility of applying cybernetic concepts and methods to shape the unconscious has been under discussion. Despite numerous attempts, no one has yet succeeded in constructing an integral theory to explain the mechanisms and structure of the unconscious.


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Freud, S. “Bessoznatel’noe.” In his book Osnovnye psikno-logicheskie leorii v psikhoanalize. Moscow-Petrograd, 1923.
Sechenov, I. M. “Komu i kak razrabatyvat’ psikhologiiu?” lzbr. proizv., vol. 1. Moscow, 1952.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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