The Concept of the Unconscious Revisited

The Concept of the Unconscious Revisited

Tidings of the Eagle, by Nicholas Roerich (1927)

There is a deceptive idea that many followers of depth psychology seem to adhere to. It is the perception that what depth psychologists call “the unconscious” is some sort of objective reality, or compartment of the mind that stores the thoughts, ideas, images we repress, things we forget, etc. Basically, anything we are not consciously aware of is supposedly “stored” in the unconscious. This is inaccurate. The word simply means, “not aware.” We treat “the unconscious,” as a place or thing when, in reality, there is much we are simply unaware of. Not very hard to understand, but lots of people who are interested in the human mind, and especially Freudian, Jungian and post-Jungian psychology, make this mistake. In fact, some seem to speak of the unconscious as a divine entity, even capitalizing the word and attributing all sorts of powers to it. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this, myself.

Again, unconsciousness is simply a lack of awareness. For example, I am trying to remember the name of someone I went to school with when I was a child. I can see her face clearly in the imagination, but I am unconscious of what her name is. I don’t remember her name. But, if I think of her face for awhile, the name usually comes to me. Does this mean that lost memories are stored in a compartment of the mind called the unconscious? No, it simply means I was momentarily unaware of the name.

Jung proposed a model, a revision of Freud’s picture of the mind, that divided the unconscious into two layers, “personal unconscious,” and “collective unconscious,” the latter being the “storehouse” of what Freud had previously called “archaic remnants.” In retrospect, we see this dichotomizing as being a product of the extreme adherence to Cartesian dualism. Both men were still in the grip of, what Jean Gebser calls, the decaying mental-rational mode of consciousness. It is true that Jung’s view evolved over the years to an understanding closer to Gebser’s, but many of his followers still hold to this bifurcated idea. Yes, there is a collective and a personal aspect to the mind, but they are not compartmentalized. They work in unison.

Furthermore, consciousness and unconsciousness are not oppositional areas of the mind. In everyday experience, they walk hand-in-hand. In reality, they are one. In his classic work, The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser declares

There is no so-called unconscious. There are only various modalities (or intensities) of consciousness: a one-dimensional magical, a two-dimensional mythical, a three-dimensional mental consciousness. And there will also be an integral four-dimensional consciousness of the whole (Gebser 204).

Gebser does make allowance for using the term to describe lesser intensifications of consciousness. In our day, we would speak of the archaic, the magical, and the mythical modes of consciousness as less intense, since we are currently dominated by the mental-rational modality. Unconsciousness would also relate to the respective dimensionality of the less intense modes (archaic, magical, and mythical) than what we currently experience. The archaic has zero dimensionality, the magical is one-dimensional, the mythical is two-dimensional, and of course, the mental-rational has access to three dimensions. According to Gebser, there will be a four-dimensional consciousness. This is known as the integral mode. It will amalgamate all previous modes.

James Hillman makes some very pertinent and interesting observations concerning “the unconscious” in his work, The Myth of Analysis:

How does this term help us now? Already in Jung’s usage the term was becoming inadequate. He had to speak of a consciousness in the unconscious, and he ascribed to the unconscious a superior, guiding intentionality–which is more fitting to divinities than to subliminal mental processes.

By questioning the term, we do not doubt the existence of unwilled and unreasonable psychic states, of dreaming and of subliminal creative activities, or of any of the disturbances that are called the psychopathology of everyday life, nor do we question their “inferiority” as “sub” forms of consciousness, as we now conceive consciousness… (Hillman 174).

And also,

The term, “unconscious” is suitable for describing states where consciousness is not present–coma, for instance; but to use the word for the imaginal region, for morally inferior or culturally ignorant behavior, for instinctual release reactions, and for a causal agent who “sends” dreams and to which one can turn to ask an opinion, is an erosion of categories. To personify it and regard it as one’s inhibitory daimonic voice, or totem animal, or familiaris is not merely superstitious. Such habits are sacrilegious, because they deprive the Gods of their due. The unconscious is a concept, not a metaphor, even if what it represents is indeed the metaphorical and the source of metaphors. Thus we seem unable to avoid speaking in this peculiar, superstitious manner. But it is not good psychology to make a theology of the psyche or to psychologize the divine (Hillman 175).

Language in our current mode of consciousness does not sufficiently deal with the difficult realities of the human mind. I think, however, that both Gebser and Hillman are are on the right track.

Hillman, in another place in The Myth of Analysis, likens the term, unconscious, to what the ancients called memoria. I find this quite fascinating. The human ability to memorize vast amounts of information is a fascinating topic. Hillman thinks it is closely connected to the soul and what Henry Corbin called the mundus imaginalis, the imaginal world.

Regarding Gebser, I think he might say that memoria is the modality of consciousness holding all four modes of consciousness, preserving all of mankind’s experiences with consciousness throughout the history of the human race. The soul is timeless. Because of that, the four modes are presently accessible to us. Our origin, as living creatures, is “ever-originating,” an eternal presence. We have forgotten this. Our true selves have been disconnected from eternity. We have wandered far from our origin. Our task here is to re-member, to re-collect that which has disintegrated. It’s not a remembering in the sense of memory, but a re-integration of what has been torn asunder. It is difficult to say what the origin is, but it seems similar to what Hermetists calls The All. It is certainly non-spatial and non-temporal. All the various modes of consciousness emerge from the origin. In fact, I would go so far as to say that all things in the universe share in this ever-present reality. It is not an external reality. The very roots of our being lie within us, connected rhizomally to the origin, and, in turn, to each other.

Works Cited

Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin. Trans. by Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.

Hillman, James. The Myth of Analysis: Three Essays in Archetypal Psychology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972.


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6 thoughts on “The Concept of the Unconscious Revisited

  1. I clearly can see it when people act upon an impulse of their “unconscious”. They do or say things that surprise themselves and when asked: they are surprised by it, do not know where it came from, but continue talking, accept it in a childlike, natural way without wondering or questioning.
    So in this I more agree with Jung. Who spoke from own experiences with His Unconscious(as I do);)

    But for the rest I do love and respect your posts , ?M.

  2. I don’t think there is a conflict in the two ways of viewing unconscious knowledge. Both still retain the same sense of unawareness.

    When you say, “…do not know where it came from,” it seems to infer a location somewhere, which is a spatial concept. I don’t see unconsciousness as being spatial.

    Instead of thinking of a compartment in the mind, a noun, I would say it is simply unawareness, which is more adjectival. Yes, this unawareness can irrupt in our everyday lives, and does quite frequently.

    Thanks for reading,


  3. Hi Mark,

    Excellent work here overall and a very great piece on an idea that remains a source of confusion. I often think that our propensity towards objectification of ideas and concepts leads us to imagine terms like conscious and unconsccious as things or places. It’s understandable because the world as we experience it seems temporal and locational. Our language leads the way in creating much of the confusion between how we express our experience and what the nature of reality might be.

    Understandably Jung used concepts and terms to map out the distinctions between modes of perception always with an eye towards reconciling psyche with the material world. Seeing psyche and matter in a way that recognizes that they are part of the same world remains difficult not only for Jungians, but for science and philosophy as well.

    For instance, Jung often reminded us that at some level, there is a meeting of psyche and matter in autonomic physiological functions. He referred to this mode as psychoid. I’m sure you already are aware of Jung’s ideas here.

    It’s impossible to separate psyche from body, and yet, many of us suspect that there is a metaphysical realm that embodied beings are a part of, but can not consciously access. We say ‘metaphysical’ because we cannot help but make distinctions between what we perceive through the body and its senses and what we perceive through thought and the soul. At some level, I think, there is a unity between all of the distinctions we perceive or imagine. I wonder what you think about that?

    I think Jung (and Hillman fought hard to remind the Jungians of this) did recognize that we are in psyche, and not the other way around. With that in mind, what is unconscious may be understood as that which contains (still not the right word), or is the source (that might be better), of all, both physical and psychical worlds (which do not have separation because they are not objects).


  4. Dear Mark

    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your site and your thoughts, but i would like to make a case for Jung here.

    Jung was very clear. The unconscious (as you say) is forever unconscious, we do not see directly in there and can never say exactly what it is or even what form it exists in. However one can form hypotheses from the autonomous tracks inferred in the images of fantasies and dreams that we experience. Thus to understand Jung, requires leaving behind the field of concepts and enter into a participation and reflection upon these images. It is near impossible for a Westerner to suspend their conceptualising and participate in this manner. Thus it is very common to conceptualise Jung away, which I’m afraid you have done here.

    He meet with Gebser several times (I think at Eranos) and although appreciated him greatly, disagreed with the intensification idea. Jung found as you go deeper into the experience within, not an intensification, but a relationship with autonomous factors evolves. This relationship is marked by experiences of numinosity. These deeper images are marked by a primitivity and often a religious aspect. Can modern humans find relationship through their experiences of the depths within is the question for him. This requires a wholeness that our culture deeply lacks (with our accent on rationalist thought over all else). To recover from this takes a decade or two of intense study and effort to bring into fruition. Jung is an empiricist and always grounds his work not on any concept or idea but on the reality of our experiences with the psyche. He should be judged on this basis.



  5. Robert,

    Thank you very much for reading and for your comment.

    To your statement that I have conceptualized “Jung away,” I can do no better than to quote James Hillman:

    By questioning the term, we do not doubt the existence of unwilled and unreasonable psychic states, of dreaming and of subliminal creative activities, or of any of the disturbances that are called the psychopathology of everyday life, nor do we question their “inferiority” as “sub” forms of consciousness, as we now conceive consciousness…

    To question the usage of the term in no way eliminates the numinosity experienced when meeting with the autonomous imaginal figures that walk through our dreams and thoughts.

    Thanks again,


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