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Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.

© 1914




        There is a school which regards the subconscious as formed of "suppressed mental complexes." The views of this school are not psychologically clear. It seems, however, that the subconscious is viewed in the light of "unconscious ideas." "Unconscious Ideas" were discussed by me in my Psychology of Suggestion, and I cannot do better than to quote from that volume, "For the mechanism of consciousness is hidden deep down in the depths of the subconscious, and it is thither we have to descend in order to get a clear understanding of the phenomena that appear in the broad daylight of consciousness."

         The German school, with Wundt at its head, at first started out on similar lines, but they could not make any use of the subconscious, and their speculations ran wild in the fancies of Hartmann. The reason of this failure is due to the fact that the concept of the subconscious as conceived by the German school was extremely vague, and had rather the character of a mechanical than that of a psychical process. An unconscious consciousness―that was their concept of the subconscious. In such a form as this the subconscious was certainly meaningless―mere nonsense―and had to be given up. The German psychological investigations are now confined to the content of consciousness in so far as the individual is immediately conscious of it. But as this form of consciousness is extremely narrow and circumscribed, the results arrived at, though remarkable for their thoroughness, are, after all, of a rather trivial nature. It is what James aptly characterizes as "the elaboration of the obvious."

         This criticism applies well to Freud and his adherents. Das Unbewusste is conceived as "Suppressed unconscious idea-complexes." Of course, the claims of that school to originality and to the apparent unveiling of the causation of psychoneurosis are entirely unjustified. A "suppressed complex" is but another term for a dissociated system, commonly accepted in psychopathology. The special theories developed by that school in regard to desire, to sexuality, and to voluntary suppression of unpleasant or painful ideas are entirely gratuitous and false in the light of modern psychology and clinical experience.

         This psycho-analytic school has unfortunately fallen back on the Herbartian psychology with its metaphysical Reals or ideas which by their mutual tension keep suppressing one another, thus determining the display of the contents of consciousness. As Herbart tells us: "Concepts become forces when they resist one another. This resistance occurs when two or more opposed concepts encounter one another." This proposition or principle proclaimed by Herbart is at the basis of Freud's mythical speculations. "A concept is in consciousness in so far as it is not suppressed," Herbart tells us, "but is in actual representation. When it rises out of complete suppression, it enters into consciousness." According to Herbart and his modern followers, suppressed ideas become forces and impulses. Concepts which are not opposed or contrasted with one another, so far as they meet unhindered, form a "complex," a favourite term used by the psycho-analytic school and its followers.

         It may possibly be of interest to remark that Herbart is closely followed by the psycho-analytic school in regard to the doctrine of desire. Desire with Herbart is fundamental. "The faculty of desire must include wishes, instincts, and every species of longing." "The expression 'desire' must not be so limited as to exclude those wishes which remain, though they may be vain, or so-called pious wishes, and which, for the very reason that they do remain, constantly incite men to new efforts, because through them the thought of a possibility is ever anew suggested, in spite of all reasons which appear to prove the impossibility of attainment. It is very important to give the concept of the unattainability of the wished-for object strength enough so that a peaceful renunciation may take place of the desire. A man dreams of a desirable future for himself, even when he knows it will never come." These Herbartian doctrines, long ago abandoned by psychology, are now being revived by the marvellous, "scientific" psycho-analytic technique as a new discovery in the science of normal and abnormal psychology. No better criticism can be passed on this revival of Herbartian psychology in the domain of psychopathology than the one made by James: "I must confess that to my mind there is something almost hideous in the glib Herbartian jargon about Vorstellungmassen and their Hemmungen (suppressions) and sinken and erheben and schweben and Verschmelzungen and Complexionen (complexes.)"

         It is claimed by some of Freud's younger adherents that the mechanism of "unconscious ideas," though a contradiction, is nevertheless justified, because of its being a conceptual construct, as Karl Pearson puts it, in order to aid the explanation of mental phenomena. This is a new epistemological argument in defence of a tottering system. It is truly amazing that science has nowadays become so philosophical that when a theory is unstable, it is unhesitatingly supported by epistemological considerations.

         Perhaps it may be well to point out that self-contradictory hypotheses are not quite acceptable in science. A scientific hypothesis should at least have the merit of being rational, logical, and not conceived in a wild harum-scarum fashion. A good scientific hypothesis must have restrictions and definite conditions. I think it is Huxley who says that in the case of stolen goods two hypotheses are at hand: one hypothesis is that an angel is responsible for it, and the other that a thief has carried off the goods. The angel-hypothesis is hardly considered by science. In other words, the hypothetical causative agency must be conceived in terms of experience.

         The hypothetical agency must either be a fact directly observed in nature, or a fact which can be verified later on. Thus the theory of gravitation is based on the facts of falling bodies; the theory of natural selection is based on the facts of the struggle for existence observed in the organic world. In short, a good scientific hypothesis must take as its causative agency a vera causa, a fact observable in experience, or a fact which can be verified by further experience. Atoms, electrons, ether, are not haphazard constructs; they are not regarded by the physicist as unreal fancies, unreal abstract notions to explain the real facts; but each of these hypothetical agents is regarded as real, as a vera causa.

         We cannot help agreeing with J. S. Mill on the subject of hypothesis: "I conceive it to be necessary, when the hypothesis relates to causation, that the supposed cause should not only be a real phenomenon, something actually existing in nature, but should be already known to exercise, or at least to be capable of exercising, an influence of some sort over the effect. In any other case it is no sufficient evidence of the truth of the hypothesis that we are able to deduce the real phenomenon from it." Again, "What is true in [Newton's] maxim is that the cause, though not known previously, should be capable of being known thereafter; that its existence should be capable of being detected, and its connection with the effect ascribed to it should be susceptible of being proved by independent evidence."

         If we apply this very simple rule of logic to the theory of "unconscious ideas," we at once realize the illegitimate character of such a hypothesis. An idea is essentially of a conscious nature. To speak, therefore, of unconscious ideas, is to introduce into psychology the self-contradictory impossible concept of unconscious conscious ideas. This is equivalent to the assumption of an unconscious consciousness. An unconscious idea is neither a vera causa nor a fact ultimately to be verified. The conception of an unconscious idea is like the conception of a round square.

         Moreover, it is not true, psychologically, that ideas can be "suppressed" so that they become dissociated or "unconscious." It is not true that we suppress painful ideas into the "unconscious." We do not forget our painful ideas. On the contrary, painful ideas stand out all the more prominent in our consciousness. Pain hammers experience into the mind. In fact we may say with more right that it is the pleasurable ideas that are forgotten, while the painful ideas are remembered. An experience associated with pain is never forgotten. Like a splinter in the flesh, it remains in consciousness. It is due to other causes that a painful experience becomes subconscious.

         Teleologically, we can well see the importance of this fact. It would have been suicidal to the individual and ultimately to the species, if painful experiences were forgotten. The individual must learn to avoid harmful objects and hurtful stimuli. This can only be accomplished by actually remembering painful experiences. That individual would survive who remembered best his painful experiences. Were it otherwise, the individual would be very much in the condition of the proverbial silly bird that hides its head at the sight of the hunter. The subjective painful experiences must be remembered; a painful experience fixes the attention.

         On this fact of strengthening memory by pain was based the once universally recognized method of training and education. What is fixed by pain is never forgotten. What may bring about forgetfulness is either a constitutionally bad memory, or a state of indifference, or an intense, paralyzing emotion of fear, especially in early childhood. The whole theory of "suppression" of painful "complexes" is based on false clinical and psychological assumptions. Neither is there such a process as "suppression of complexes," nor is there such a mental state as an "unconscious idea."

         Bergson, who as usual has his hand everywhere, takes up cudgels in defense of the unconscious. In his work "Matter and Memory" he argues that common sense assumes the presence of external objects, although it may not be directly cognizant of them. Being an idealist and pan-psychist Bergson regards the nature of things as made up of images. If, then, he reasons, common sense believes in the existence of objects ‘passed out of sight and sense,’ if it affirms unhesitatingly the actual existence of not directly experienced objective images, there should be no difficulty in assuming the existence of subjective images, or of psychic states of which there is no consciousness. The argument is essentially metaphysical and will hardly have any weight with the psychologist or psychopathologist.

         Bergson's psychology is unfortunately so much saturated with metaphysics that many a valuable suggestion becomes lost in the haze and tangle of his speculations. The psychologist has nothing to do with the constitution of matter as it is in itself. This belongs to metaphysical ontology. The psychologist assumes matter as an external existence, and separates it from his own subject matter,―psychic states, mental processes, their elements and relations. A psychic state made up of 'images' after the fashion of 'material images' with no consciousness to them ceases to be psychic in the psychological sense. From a psychological standpoint the term 'psychic' can only mean some form of consciousness, however vague and marginal. Bergson's view would have probably been nearer the truth, if he had assumed the existence of a subconscious consciousness

        An "unconscious idea" in the sense that the idea has no consciousness can have no meaning. If, however, by an "unconscious idea" is understood a consciousness of which the individual or personal self is not conscious, then we come around to a subconscious consciousness, as developed by me in my various works. A quotation from Höffding may bring out my point in a clearer and stronger light:

"The question before us is, whether the unconscious can be other than a purely negative concept. In daily speech (and more than is proper even in the scientific use of the language) we use such expressions as unconscious sensations, unconscious ideas, unconscious feeling. As, however, sensations, ideas and feelings are conscious elements, the expression is in reality absurd. If by an unconscious idea is meant the idea which I have, then the predicate "unconscious" signifies only that I do not think of or pay heed to the fact that I have it. This use of the word unconsciousness is connected with a twofold use of the word consciousness. It is used to denote not only the inner presentation of our sensations, ideas and feelings, but also self-consciousness, the attention especially directed to our sensations, ideas, and feelings. We have, of course, many sensations and ideas without being conscious that we have them, that is, without self-consciousness: many feelings and impulses stir within us, without our clearly apprehending their nature and direction. In this sense we speak, for example, of unconscious love. A man who has this feeling does not know what is astir in him; perhaps others see it, or he himself gradually discovers it; but he has the feeling, his conscious life is determined in a particular way."

        In other words, what Höffding practically claims here is that there is no such mental state, no idea that is "unconscious," but that there are mental states, ideas, feelings, which, though conscious, do not reach self-consciousness. In other words, there are in us mental processes which have consciousness, but no self-consciousness. This is precisely what I mean by the subconscious,―mental states which have consciousness, but do not reach the personal consciousness. In short, the only possible psychological assumption is a subconscious consciousness.


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