From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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unconscious (inconscient) Although the term 'unconscious' had been

   used by writers prior to Freud, it acquires a completely original meaning in his

work, in which it constitutes the single most important concept.

      Freud distinguished between two uses of the term 'unconscious' (Freud,
  19l5e). As an adjective, it simply refers to mental processes that are not the

subject of conscious attention at a given moment. As a noun (the unconscious;

  das Unbewuflte), it designates       one of the psychical systems which Freud
  described in his first theory of mental structure (the 'topographical model').

According to this theory, the mind is divided into three systems or 'psychical

localities'; the conscious (Cs), the preconscious (Pcs) and the unconscious

(Ucs). The unconscious system is not merely that which is outside the field of

  consciousness at a given time, but that which has been radically separated from
  consciousness by repression and thus cannot enter the conscious-preconscious
  system without distortion.
      In Freud's second theory of mental structure (the 'structural theory'), the
  omd is divided into the three "agencies' of ego, superego and id. In this model,
  no one agency is identical to the unconscious, since even the ego and the

superego have unconscious parts.

      Lacan, before 1950, uses the term 'unconscious' principally in its adjectival

form, making his early work seem particularly strange to those who are more

familiar with Freud's writings. In the 1950s, however, as Lacan begins his

.return to Freud', the term appears more frequently as a noun, and Lacan

increasingly emphasises the originality of Freud's concept of the unconscious,

stressing that it is not merely the opposite of consciousness; 'a large number of

psychical effects that are quite legitimately designated as unconscious, in the

   sense of excluding the characteristics of consciousness, are nonetheless with-

out any relation whatever to the unconscious in the Freudian sense' (E, 163).

He also insists that the unconscious cannot simply be equated with 'that which

is repressed'.

     Lacan argues that the concept of the unconscious was badly misunderstood

by most of Freud's followers, who reduced it to being 'merely the seat of the

instincts' (E, 147). Against this biologistic mode of thought, Lacan argues that

'the unconscious is neither primordial nor instinctual' (E, 170); it is primarily

linguistic. This is summed up in Lacan's famous formula, 'the unconscious is

structured like a language' (S3, 167; see LANGUAGE, STRUCTURE). Lacan's

analysis of the unconscious in terms of synchronic structure is supplemented

by his idea of the unconscious opening and closing in a temporal pulsation

(S11, 143, 204).

     Some psychoanalysts have objected to Lacan's linguistic approach to the

unconscious on the grounds that it is overly restrictive, and on the grounds that

Freud himself excluded word-presentations from the unconscious (S7, 44; for

Lacan's refutation of these objections, see THING). Lacan himself qualifies his

linguistic approach by arguing that the reason why the unconscious is struc-

tured like a language is that 'we only grasp the unconscious finally when it is

explicated, in that part of it which is articulated by passing into words' (S7,


      Lacan also describes the unconscious as a discourse: 'The unconscious is the

discourse of the Other' (Ec, 16; see OTHER). This enigmatic formula, which has

become one of Lacan's most famous dictums, can be understood in many

  ways. Perhaps the most important meaning is that 'one should           see in the

unconscious the effects of speech on the subject' (Sll, 126). More pre-

cisely, the unconscious is the effects of the SIGNIFIER on the subject, in that

the signifier is what is repressed and what returns in the formations of the

unconscious (symptoms, jokes, parapraxes, dreams, etc.).

      All the references to language, speech, discourse and signifiers clearly locate

the unconscious in the order of the SYMBOLIc. Indeed, 'the unconscious is

structured as a function of the symbolic' (S7, 12). The unconscious is the

determination of the subject by the symbolic order.

      The unconscious is not interior: on the contrary, since speech and language
  are intersubjective phenomena, the unconscious is 'transindividual' (E, 49);
  the unconscious is, so to speak, 'outside'. 'This exteriority of the symbolic in
  relation to   man is the very notion of the unconscious' (Ec, 469). If the

unconscious seems interior, this is an effect of the imaginary, which blocks

the relationship between the subject and the Other and which inverts the

message of the Other.

      Although the unconscious is especially visible in the formations of the

unconscious, 'the unconscious leaves none of our actions outside its field'

(E, 163). The laws of the unconscious, which are those of repetition and desire,

  are as ubiquitous as structure itself. The unconscious is irreducible, so the aim
  of analysis cannot be to make conscious the unconscious.

      In addition to the various linguistic metaphors which Lacan draws on to

conceptualise the unconscious (discourse, language, speech), he also conceives

of the unconscious in other terms.

  g    MEMORY The unconscious is also a kind of memory, in the sense of a

symbolic history of the signifiers that have determined the subject in the course

of his life; 'what we teach the subject to recognize as his unconscious is his

history' (E, p. 52).

  e    KNOWLEDGE Since it is an articulation of signifiers in a signifying chain,
  the unconscious is a kind of knowledge (symbolic knowledge, or savoir). More

precisely, it is an 'unknown knowledge'.