The Assumption of a Universal Unconscious Mind

The nineteenth-century romantic movement undoubtedly influenced Freud's conception of a universal unconscious. Lancelot Law Whyte, in The Unconscious before Freud (1962), has shown how philosophers, scientists, and poets, beginning in the seventeenth century, contributed to the idea of the unconscious mind. The romantic movement of the nineteenth century believed that the unconscious mind was the underground source through which the individual was able to access the universal forces of nature. Nature, in turn, was seen as a great reservoir of vitality, without which an individual could not remain psychically alive.

Freud incorporated the essence of some of these ideas into his theory of the id. Instincts or drives are impelling forces of nature, shared by all members of our species, that impact upon all individuals' minds through the id. The id, viewed within the topography of the unconscious mind, is the storehouse of those instincts, which reflect the experiences in detail of the human species—a Lamarckian interpretation of evolution. The ego (or self), in contrast, contains the experiences of the individual. Freud believed that his differentiation of the ego from the id represents a fundamental biological distinction between the experience of the individual and the history of the species. If the ego is formed as a result of the interaction of the id with the external world, it rests, as it were, "as a follicle upon the id." The individual, represented by the ego, is not fully autonomous; it is driven by the unconscious id, as portrayed in Freud's famous metaphor of the horse and rider. The ego (self) "has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; if he is not to be parted, he is obliged to guide it where it wants to go" (Freud 1923a).

I should add, however, that the Freudian unconscious does not consist entirely of the collective, impersonal forces of the id, for Freud also characterized a dynamic, individualized unconscious created by conflict. So the contents of the unconscious mind encompass impersonal instincts as well as specific thoughts and feelings that the individual repressed because of guilt or shame.

In Freudian theory the mechanism of repression explained what remains unconscious. The Greek underworld had a watchdog named Cerberus, who guarded its entrance. For Freud, the watchdog function of Cerberus is assigned to repression, which guards both the exit from and the entrance to the unconscious. The undoing of repression explained the release of thoughts and feelings into consciousness, and Freud attributed such power to words and verbal interpretation. Freud's conception of the unconscious thus placed a high burden of explanation upon the concept of repression, which he conceived of as a psychophysiological mechanism common to all of humanity. I be lieve that such a mechanistic explanation cannot be sustained.

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