Thinking and Unconscious Nineteenth-Century German Thought

By Cooksey, Thomas L. | Goethe Yearbook, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Thinking and Unconscious Nineteenth-Century German Thought


Cooksey, Thomas L., Goethe Yearbook


Angus Nicholls and Martin Liebscher (eds.), Thinking and Unconscious Nineteenth-Century German Thought Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. ix + 327 pp.

Concepts of the unconscious are central to most contemporary developments in dynamic psychology, psychopathology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy. They have also assumed a prominent position in modern culture, shaping our views on ethics, aesthetics, and the nature of the self. Much of this derives from the influence of Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, and by extension Lacan. That said, the notion of the unconscious, as Sonu Shamdasani points out in the epilogue to this book, remains problematic. Given the role of Freud and Jung in our contemporary thinking on the matter, an examination of the philosophical, scientific, and literary contexts provides an important jumping off place for a fuller treatment of the concept of the unconscious, illuminating the complexities of this contested ground. Nicholls and Liebscher have commissioned ten essays and an epilogue by leading scholars that explore various competing conceptualizations, broadly tracing their interrelated developments. The results are deeply informed and uniformly stimulating.

While versions of an unconscious can be attributed to philosophers as early as Plato or St. Augustine, the modern formulations began in response to Descartes's equation of the self with the res cogitans (the thinking thing), and his claim that it would be logically impossible to be conscious of something unconscious. Leibniz tried to preserve this position with his petites perceptions, perceptions of which we are actually conscious, but only collectively, much as we hear the roar of the ocean, but not the individual waves. Others such as Wolff argued in Cartesian terms that there are "dark" places in the soul, matters we are conscious of, but that are not clear and distinct, a position that anticipates Kant's "dark thoughts" (dunkle Vorstellungen) and the splitting of the subject. It was the nineteenth century and the romantic response to the Enlightenment that marked a profound turn, spurring subsequent developments in concepts of the unconscious.

Following the scheme laid out by Günther Gödde in his discussion of Freud (chapter 10), Nicholls and Liebscher distinguish three lines of influence. The first, beginning with Leibniz, focuses on the unconscious in relation to cognitive thresholds. In this line Michael Heidelberger (chapter 8) offers a detailed discussion of Gustav Fechner's psychophysics, which built partly on Schelling and partly on Johann Friedrich Herbart's "laws of the threshold," to trace a continuity between the physical and the psychological, rejecting metaphysical claims. The second line of influence derives from romanticism, relating the unconscious to the irrational and the role of a larger a priori mind. Paul Bishop (chapter 1) discusses this in relation to Goethe and the dialectic between time and pleasure, that is, our awareness of desires for things in the future which were past, but not in the present consciousness. Andrew Bowie (chapter 2) addresses Schelling's version of the unconscious in terms of our aesthetic awareness of the non-conceptual. …

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