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A shift from religion to literature of the conversation with the unconscious began with Chaucer. His main contribution was a change in vocabulary from the theological to the personal; from one of transcendent salvation to one of human relationships and emotion, characterized by changing the object of affection from God to other humans. This represented a new awareness of the depths of the human soul, especially in relation to events, both exterior and interior (Claxton 95-96). In a sense, this acknowledgement of the inner and outer represents a merging of the immanent experience of the divine from ancient religion with the transcendent and exterior image of the divine which had been ushered in during the axial age. The shift of vocabulary, representing a shift of thought and ways of engaging self and world was a correction of the deficiencies of both of the preceding methods of negotiating with the unconscious. The result of this new synthesis was a more complete perspective – the human experience was no longer one exclusively of mystical identification with myth, nor was it one of mindless obedience out of fear of damnation and hope of salvation.

###01Unfortunately, a side effect of this new synthesis, and the knowledge of the hidden mind, brought about a large degree of mistrust, both of self and of others. Augustine’s thoughts on the abilities of the mind to hide itself resulted in self-doubt and fear of self-deception, and worse – if the individual did not have full access to his or her own mind, then no one did, and no one could be trusted. This mistrust led to Sir Walter Raleigh saying that wise men do not let everyone see everything in their mind, that they should be like “coffers with double bottoms.” The unconscious became, in a sense, a chamber of secrets to be used for deceit and manipulation. This line of thinking led ultimately to Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which it was argued that leaders should use this inherent human ability to deceive and manipulate in order to better rule their subjects, who were “fickle, feigners and dissemblers, avoiders of danger, eager for gain” (Claxton 97-98). Only a destructive circle is to be expected from this – the unconscious was now not only the source of other’s undesirable characteristics, but also the justification and basis for secrecy and deceit. The world became a dangerous and competitive series of manipulation. This is however is mostly a ‘conscious unconscious,’ nothing more than a method of trickery devised by the conscious ego, based on a formulation of the unconscious as the ability of the mind to hide parts of itself.

###02This form of the unconscious manifesting in manipulative personas of course led to an awareness of the disparity people experienced between their actions and the way they actually felt. The resulting discomfort began to give birth to literature describing the experience, some comical, such as Moliere’s Tartuffe (Claxton 99), while others, such as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus allowed for a ‘safe’ encounter with and a compensation for the evil to which all were obviously capable of succumbing (May 222, 231). It allowed them to vicariously experience the nature of evil, and to make sense of their own humanness, including their capacity to do evil as at least partly evidenced by the manipulative use of the ‘double bottomed coffer.’ In this, the unconscious was being misused as a front for manipulative dominance, but was also being assuaged through the cathartic experience of literature and drama such as Faustus.

Shakespeare was also known to engage the unconscious in his works through his characters and metaphor. Claxton explains how Macbeth was deceptive or how Achilles was introspective “like a fountain stirr’d” (99), or how Rosalind’s love for Orlando shows the mind both as “a well of untold depth, and a leaky bucket” (100). Anticipating modern analytical psychology, Shakespeare was also convinced that dreams have a therapeutic function, and that perception, ideas, and behavior are influenced by the unconscious, to the point of projection, again anticipating modern psychology. Shakespeare raised the function of literature from being a cathartic experience to one of actually giving voice to the unconscious through his characters. They not only soothed guilty minds of the manipulative and manipulated, but reminded people that there was much more to the unconscious, and thus to being human than Machiavellian deception and manipulation.

The Unconscious in Early Modern Philosophy


Shakespeare and Chaucer created and strengthened the atmosphere of ever growing awareness of and responsibility for self, the capacity for independent thought, and mistrust of self and others. Within this atmosphere, philosophy began to take on a new texture, and became the first modern attempt to deal with the unconscious on a rational basis. Though still concerned about arousing the anger of the Church (Descartes, for example, fled to Holland to avoid persecution), there was a more pronounced insistence on what was perceived as the truth – which was only to be arrived at through rationality. As a group, the philosophers of this age, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Spinoza, are usually credited with formulating the rejection of the mythopoetic and establishing the predominance of the scientific worldview that would become the basis of all knowledge on an increasingly global scale. While largely true, it is not entirely the case that these early modern thinkers did not allow things which were not provable, such as sense, intuition, or dreams, to be the basis, or at least instigator, of knowledge. In fact, most of the British sentimentalists, such as Francis Hutcheson, based their philosophy on the foundation of experience and sentiment (without excluding rationality, it must be noted).

One of the most influential philosophers of this period was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Ultimately, through his prevailing attitude of doubt, Descartes excluded everything except thinking (and doubting) from what might prove to be the one thing that is the quintessential human quality. He came to the conclusion that there had to be an agency behind what he considered as himself, the “I who am certain that I am” (Descartes 78), that was doing the thinking, and that the primary function of this ‘Him’ agency was to think and reason. The famed Cartesian split came from the idea that since the body was a hydraulic and mechanic organism, it was incapable of this primary function of thought, and thus the mind could not be a part of the body. Reducing everything to a thing, Descartes differentiated between “res extensa, material stuff, and res cogitans, thinking stuff.” As he reflected on the nature of what he was, he came to the conclusion that thought must be comprised of everything that came to conscious awareness, including sensory impressions:

But what then am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing that thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels. (79)

###04Descartes based his assumption that there can be nothing within him of which he is not conscious on this rumination, and neatly separated the soul, whose essence “is to think,” from the body. This tactic supported the mechanical view of the body while allowing for the obvious human facility for consciousness. However, since there can be nothing within our mind of which we are not aware, this argument effectively ‘kills’ the unconscious, and thus is clearly inadequate to account for the full nature of being human. This came to be seen as the influential but unfortunate legacy which Descartes left to western society and the world.

Some philosophers of the time rejected the Cartesian model of the mind while others had ideas similar to Descartes. John Norris took as an argument against Descartes’ ideas the statement of Plotinus that there are things in the mind of which we are not aware of, even if it is only by virtue of the sheer number of impressions. Pascal claimed that the heart has reasons of its own, ones that the rational and reasoning mind cannot know. Spinoza and Hobbes based their theories on observed phenomena of the mind as they actually happen, and not supposed theories on how they should happen (Claxton 115-117). Hume said that there is nothing in the mind of which the individual is not conscious, and that the mind does not deceive. He used the image of a theatre as a metaphor to describe the activities of the mind, but added the disclaimer that we have no idea whatsoever where the scenes are arranged or how thoughts are comprised (Claxton 114-115). He seems here to be in conflict with his own assertion that there is no unconscious space in the mind – if we do not know where the scenes are arranged, how can we say there is no unconscious? He contradicts himself further, while at the same time predicting Freudian ideas, by saying that humans are not aware of some influences of the mind, and that in fact, might even purposefully hide them from themselves in order to ensure self-esteem (Claxton 117).

It is interesting to note that the ideas of mind being separate from body and that there is nothing in the mind of which the individual is not conscious are two different ideas. The Cartesian split does not mean that there is no unconscious. This, in a sense, seems to anticipate Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. Descartes was open to ideas such as intuition or dreaming which are not easy to pack into tidy and rational arguments, but instead of attributing them to the mind, he attributes them to God. He also, in later writings, opened the door to the unconscious by acknowledging the agency of some unknown element in thought, an element which is deceiving and cunning. The problem is that this could not be God, as it is not in God’s nature to deceive, but it also could not be the ‘dumb’ and mechanical body; so it obviously must be a part of the mind. Descartes also acknowledged the ‘arrival’ of thoughts into consciousness which had not been worked out by reason, and said that “perhaps some faculty might be found in me, although it is hitherto unknown to me, which caused and produced them” (Claxton 112). Hence there is a Cartesian unconscious after all.

###05The Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) described an innate human moral faculty, based on the care for others, as a sense. This moral sense is analogous to the other senses but used for sensing the good or ill of an action or situation, without any foundation in self-interest (Hutcheson, 266-267; 282). Though not active at birth, he claimed that all humans are born with the moral sense, and that it is only activated through the encountering of situations that provide it with content and guide our actions (Hutcheson, 269). The moral sense is thus a form, or pattern, without content, which allows for the development of human morality. Being a form, it allows for different expressions, accounting for the widely varying ideas of human morality around the world and throughout history. As a form which is inherently developmental, it follows that it can develop, within the boundaries of cultural and historical contexts, into what can be termed moral maturity.

Hutcheson’s explanation of the moral sense has obvious similarities with the archetypes of the collective unconscious, which strongly suggests that the moral sense can be seen as an archetype. Both the moral sense and the archetypes are innate patterns comprising human nature. They are both inactive forms, only becoming active when encountering states of affairs in the world which correspond to them. Once active, they both exert influence over the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the individual, whose responsibility it is to develop a healthy and meaningful relationship to them. Also, similar to the moral sense, the archetypes, as forms, allow for cultural differences when manifesting externally. With this outlining of the moral sense and archetypes, the similarities are obvious, and it makes sense to refer to the moral sense as the archetype of morality.

Romanticism and the Unconscious


Romanticism was a literary and philosophical tradition of 18th and 19th century Europe, with a strong expression in Germany. It was born of and represents a “cultural, political, and socioeconomic movement of revolutionary vision and ambition” (Seyhan 7). It was a response to the upheavals of the times and an attempt to find a way to be more fully human in the face of those intense challenges. It is difficult to say with certainty where any age or movement begins, but the dawn of Romanticism can be placed relatively firmly with Friederich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) for 3 reasons: 1) he offers a formulation of an idea that resolves the dualism of early modern philosophy but retains an explanation of self-awareness, representing the culmination of the project of Idealism; 2) he begins a consideration of the unconscious, which plays a significant role for later Romanticists; and most importantly, 3) he brings forth the idea that art renders more adequately the idea of the ground of being than philosophy.

German Romanticism is often criticized for being overly sentimental, overflowing with feeling and love, and of no real value. How could it be, the critics ask, when it concerns itself with mythology and fairy tales, or nostalgic longing for bygone days of the classical world or the middle-ages? Considering the demands for rationality and progress to improve the human condition though, it is surprising that Romanticism is often rapidly swept under philosophy’s rug. In actuality, while much of the literary and philosophical work produced in the era of Romanticism is indeed wrought with emotion and nostalgia, there are solid philosophical statements contained in the work. The movement itself is born of the philosophical problems stemming from the Enlightenment and German Idealism. The Romantics asked questions deep enough to resolve the quandary of enlightenment materialism and skepticism, and Cartesian dualism. They also corrected the dualism of Transcendental Idealism and completed the ideas of the easily satisfied Ethical Idealists. Through rigorous philosophy, the Romantics came to the conclusion though (and this is perhaps the actual reason the movement is shunned by philosophers), that philosophy comes to a point where it can no longer adequately express the full nature of human existence. Art and aesthetic experience, specifically poetry, say the Romantics, can go farther than intellectualist philosophy. Ultimately though, according to most of them, the full nature of human existence cannot be reached, or expressed, even with poetry. Their assertion is not that poetry is adequate, but simply that it is more adequate.

###07novalis3Contrary to the view that the Romantics were merely sentimental and nostalgic, they fulfilled an essential task of philosophy – the uncovering of the unconscious – substantiating, and explaining things we already know about ourselves. This contribution came in the form of the conclusion that there is an ineffable part of human existence that philosophy cannot reach and explain, yet must be included in philosophical consideration. Following from this conclusion, the Romantics asserted that while philosophy alone cannot accomplish a full explanation of human existence, art and poetry can at least approach the ineffable absolute and begin to reveal its form. The Romantic philosopher and poet Novalis recognized the role of the unconscious in literature, writing that “all true poets up to now made true poetry organically without knowing it” (56).

Arising as a response to the extreme rationalism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries of which Descartes and the other great philosophers were a part, the literature of the Romantic Period was mythopoetic par excellence and very much concerned with the unconscious. Finding its roots partly in classical Greece, the writers of this movement did not place reason above all else (in fact, they tended to the other extreme of accepting only the mythopoetic), but saw it as being only “adjunct” to personal, emotional, and spiritual ways of knowing. The purpose of this knowing, rooted in Greek philosophy, was the finding of “increasingly satisfactory ways of living.” Pragmatic in approach, the Romantics valued experience, inner and outer as ways of knowing, and not only as raw material for intellectual processing. To this end, symbols were essential, anything that could “cut across the familiar, reasonable categories and oppositions of language, and hint at buried complexities to which the mundane patterns of speech have rendered people all but deaf.” These symbols were to be found in dreams, poetry, mysticism, and especially nature. A prime example of this symbolism is their favored symbol for the unconscious itself: underground passageways, which led the soul into the larger cosmos, to which the obvious means of entering was to dive “down and in” (Claxton 135-137).

One of the revolutionary features of the literature of this period include the full knowledge of the characters deepest inner lives, such as Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa (Claxton 142), as opposed to earlier literature which only showed the details necessary for the plot. To this end, a common motif of the gothic novel, such as The Monk by Lewis or Stoker’s later Dracula and Wilde’s Dorian Gray, was the exploration of the darker side of human nature. Another common motif was that of the doppelgänger, in which the shadowy side of a character had to be confronted; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, Poe’s William Wilson, Dostoevsky’s The Double, and to some extent Goethe’s Faust are of course prime illustrations of this motif. The deeper exploration of the character’s psyches allowed for a compensation to the idea that minds were only conscious, and showed what Shakespeare had shown much earlier – that the depths of the mind were unknown. Continuing what he had started over a century earlier, the Romantics made a major step in literature and art in general as it again came much closer to being an adequate explanation for what was actually occurring in the human experience. Accordingly, through the confrontation of ‘real life’ problems, and the conscious use of symbolic form, literature was able to move closer to being a means of exploration and especially a negotiation with the unknown unconscious.

###08Through its basic weltanschauung, Romanticism attempted to restore the relationship to the unconscious to the place it had held earlier, and it moved closer to filling the role that had been left vacant by the mythology of the ancients. One of the main schools of the Romantic Period, Naturphilosophie, saw the ‘diving down and in’ into the unconscious as the means for humans and nature to meet. Goethe was a member of this school, as was Herder, and Schelling, who felt there was an “unconscious formative principle” in all of nature which manifested in human consciousness and nature, and thus the product of this unconscious principle was all of creation (Claxton 137). For the Romantics, the unconscious is elevated to divine status, as it had been in the mythological and religious periods.

To summarize the ideals of the Romantic Period, it can be said that they were formed out of the idea that spirit is inherent to nature, that the world is not mechanical, but informed by a spiritual, life giving force, which was formulated in the notion of the unconscious. Man, as a part of that universe, is also spiritual and filled with that same unconscious force. The functioning of this force of nature operated in a manner that tended to integrate polar opposites, such as night and day, and resulted in what was termed Urphaenomen, primordial phenomena, such as Goethe’s idea of the primordial plant which gave the essence of being to all plants (Ellenberger 203-204). The philosophy of the Romantic era laid the foundations for the subsequent psychological period, and all of these ideals are found reflected in the thought of either Freud or Jung. The human participation in the unconscious is a foundational concept in both of their psychologies, and the primordial phenomena found expression in the Jungian archetypes, which Jung often referred to as ‘primordial images,’ and which are of the nature of a syzygy.  It is not an unfair assumption to say that Freud and Jung (but particularly Jung) were essentially Romantics.

Anticipating the Psychological Period

###09Especially the philosophy of C.G. Carus (1789-1869) and Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906), which synthesized the ideals of the Romantics into a philosophy, formulated concepts of the unconscious which were to anticipate and inform the emerging depth psychology of the early 20th century (Ellenberger 204-205).

For Carus, the soul was not unlike Aristotle’s idea of soul – it was a biological entity which represented the energy of life, of which humans were one manifestation. This energy was both inner and outer to the human, thus taking on some aspects of the divine, and performing the task of integrating, or including, the human with the divine (Claxton 138). His main contribution was the classification and categorizing of the layers of the unconscious, the embrace of which nothing of human experience, from art to respiration, was allowed to escape; it was the basis for all human mental and physiological activity. His categorization of the unconscious included three layers: 1) the general absolute unconscious: that part of the mind which is totally and permanently inaccessible to conscious awareness; 2) the partial absolute unconscious: this layer was able to emerge into awareness and indirectly influence and be influenced by other human functions, physiological and mental; and 3) the relative or secondary unconscious: this layer included impressions (thought, memory, sensory input) which at one time had been conscious (Ellenberger 207).

Additionally, he outlined the main characteristics of the unconscious: its nature of facing the future and past as opposed to the present, its state of constant activity, its lack of need for rest, its basic health and healing properties, its operation based on certain laws, its inborn wisdom, and its activity of connecting the human to the rest of the world. Carus also described types of relationships of the mind – conscious to conscious, conscious to unconscious, unconscious to conscious, and unconscious to unconscious (Ellenberger 208). This classification not only laid the foundation for subsequent psychology on the structure of the unconscious, but also its functions and purposes, and informed the psychotherapeutic innovations that followed.

Von Hartmann, though he often is better known than Carus, built on these theories, and incorporated Schopenhauer’s Will and Hegel’s Idee and expanded and reformulated them all in his seminal work The Philosophy of the Unconscious. The main value of his work is the use of factual evidence in expounding the ideals and philosophy of the Romantic Period (Ellenberger 210).


Works Cited

Claxton, Guy. The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious. London: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.

Descartes, Rene. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. Great Books of the Western World. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., in Collaboration with the University of Chicago. 1st ed. Vol. 31. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1952. 69-103. Print.

Ellenberger, Henri F. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic, 1970. Print.

Hutcheson, Francis. “An Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil.” British Moralists, 1650-1800. Ed. D D Raphael. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1969. 259-299. Print.

May, Rollo. The Cry for Myth. New York: W. W. Norton &, 1991. Print.

Novalis. Philosophical writings. Ed. Margaret Mahony. Stoljar. Trans. Margaret Mahony Stoljar. Albany, NY: State University of New York P, 1997.

Seyham, Azade. “What is Romanticism and where did it come from.” Ed. Nicholas Saul. The Cambridge companion to German romanticism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. P, 2009. 1-20.