Few theories hold more intrigue than that of human psychology. Throughout history, many have sought to decode the structure of the mind. Amongst those who were determined to investigate the nature of psychic material, one of the most prominent remains Sigmund Freud (also known as “the archaeologist of the mind”). Freud had very pronounced views on the innate components of human psychology, within which one idea remained central – the ‘unconscious’ mind; he uses this concept to make sense of phenomenons such as that of parapraxes.
In his essay, “The Unconscious”, Freud introduces a unique perception of human thought, action, interaction and experience. He details a state of dualism that exists in our psychical life in stating, “consciousness includes only a small content, so that the greater part of what we call conscious knowledge must in any case be for very considerable periods of time in a state of latency, that is to say, of being psychically unconscious” (2). He argues that although we are blind to our unconscious mind, it determines a greater part of our behavioural being and participates just as much as psychical activity as our conscious mind.
Freud also adds, “In every instance where repression has succeeded in inhibiting the development of affects, we term those affects ‘unconscious’” (7). He states that the unconscious is where repressed desires are stored, ideas that are suppressed from surfacing into the realm of our awareness e. g. we recognise our emotions – we ‘feel’ – because they have moved from amongst the elements of the unconscious mind to the conscious mind. The notion of “what you see is not all there is”, of the uncertainty of appearance or self-knowledge is a message that identifies very well with Freud’s theory of the unconscious.
Freud’s arguments entail that a significant reality (and “most importantly” he would most likely say) exists in that which is intangible. He claimed that the unconscious could not be realized by the individual themselves through introspection, but is potentially made possible during psychoanalysis. In “The Unconscious”, Freud states, “[it transforms] into a qualitatively different quota of affect, above all into anxiety; or it is suppressed” (7), alluding that the unconscious mind, or rather a conflict between conscious and the unconscious intentions is the root of neurotic or histrionic behaviour.
Thus, not only did he perceive psychoanalysis as a useful tool for uprooting unconscious ideas, but the very understanding of the concept played a central role to the successful treatment of his patients (that is to say, that Freud believed that he could lead his patient to recovery by making aware the unconscious idea that is conflicting with the individual’s consciousness).
Freud believed that naturalized phenomenons such as innocent ‘mistakes’ (“parapraxes”) or the state of dreaming were in fact meaningful and were indications of the active unconscious, an idea which echoes to the notion of conscious and unconscious communications which we discussed in the second week of class – that in both forms there were “logical relations”. This is the essence of Freud’s belief that there is psychical process in every movement or act (whether in a state of wakefulness or asleep/acts that are intended of ‘unintended’), which is to say that order exists in every action including the seemingly ‘disconnected’.
With reference to this notion, he famously claimed that parapraxes (slip of the tongue, mishearing, forgetting, memory loss) were significant phenomenons worthy of interpretation, because they were evidence that the unconscious mind exists. In “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis”, Freud explains his view in which the unconscious plays a significant role in the phenomenon of parapraxes. Though parapraxes are often disregarded as “small failures of functioning, imperfections in mental activity” (28), he explains, “They are not chance events but serious mental acts; they have a sense” (44).
Before moving on interpret what Freud meant by this, it seems useful to first introduce an idea which Louis Althusser presents in “Lacan and Freud” (which was also touched upon in class), in which he states: “the ‘effects’, prolonged in the surviving adult, of the extraordinary adventure that, from birth to the liquidation of the Oedipus complex, transforms a small animal engendered by a man and a woman into a little human child” (22).
The transformation that Althusser describes resonates with a sense of ‘humanization’ whereby a feral being is tamed by society and progresses into a ‘human’ existence; it alludes to the ultimate sacrifice that is made by the primitive soul in order to survive amongst civilization [the desire for instinctual satisfaction]. Keeping Althusser’s portrayal in mind, perhaps it could be said, then, that the unconscious manifests impulses whose intentions are deemed ‘too disturbing’ or unfitting with civil behaviour.
This conforms to Freud’s argument that a ‘spontaneous’ or unexplainable error is an indication of a compromise between two conflicting aims of the ‘disturbed’ and the ‘disturbing’ consciousness (44). By means of distortion or substitution, the irrational impulse disguises its intentions under an appearance of rationality. He communicates, essentially, that parapraxes should be interpreted less as “faulty acts”, but instead, should be considered as faulty achievements of our unconscious desires.
He indicates this when he states, “the disturbing purpose only distorts the original one without itself achieving complete expression” (35). Freud theorizes that an inaccessible part of our mind – the unconscious – does exist and evidence of its reality is apparent, such as in the very happening of everyday pathologies, or “parapraxes”. He maintains the significance of the unconscious mind as a meaningful, valid psychical force that pursues its own intentions (its presence undeniable in its ability to elicit bodily responses).
In the discovery of this, Freud stresses the idea that individuals should place more value in what we so often dismiss as ‘mistakes’, ‘accidental’ or ‘random’ behaviour, because there may be significant meaning to the obscured intentions they convey. On a different note, the underlying notion that there is no such thing as ‘involuntary’ acts or ideas, reinforces more than ever a disparate sociological thought: that we, as individuals, are truly and solely responsible for our own actions.