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On The Nature Of The Unconscious Factor

We have seen that in the question of the unconscious there
must be recognized a positive part--facts, and an hypothetical

Insofar as the facts are concerned, it would be well, I think, to
establish two categories--(1) static unconscious, comprising habits,
memory, and, in general, all that is organized knowledge. It is a state
of preservation, of rest; very relatively, since representations suffer
incessant corrosion and change. (2) Dynamic unconscious, which is a
state of latent activity, of elaboration and incubation. We might give a
multitude of proofs of this unconscious rumination. The well-known fact
that an intellectual work gains by being interrupted; that in resuming
it one often finds it cleared up, changed, even accomplished, was
explained by some psychologists prior to Carpenter by "the resting of
the mind." It would be just as valid to say that a traveler covers
leagues by lying abed. The author just mentioned has brought
together many observations in which the solution of a mathematical,
mechanical, commercial problem appeared suddenly after hours and days of
vague, undefinable uneasiness, the cause of which is unknown, which,
however, is only the result of an underlying cerebral working; for the
trouble, sometimes rising to anguish, ceases as soon as the unawaited
conclusion has entered consciousness. The men who think the most are not
those who have the clearest and "most conscious" ideas, but those having
at their disposal a rich fund of unconscious elaboration. On the other
hand, shallow minds have a naturally poor unconscious fund, capable of
but slight development; they give out immediately and rapidly all that
they are able to give; they have no reserve. It is useless to allow them
time for reflection or invention. They will not do better; they may do

As to the nature of the unconscious working, we find disagreement and
darkness. One may doubtless maintain, theoretically, that in the
inventor everything goes on in subconsciousness and in unconsciousness,
just as in consciousness itself, with the exception that a message does
not arrive as far as the self; that the labor that may be followed, in
clear consciousness, in its progress and retreats, remains the same when
it continues unknown to us. This is possible. Yet it must at least be
recognized that consciousness is rigorously subject to the condition of
time, the unconscious is not. This difference, not to mention others, is
not negligible, and could well arouse other problems.

The contemporary theories regarding the nature of the unconscious seem
to me reducible to two principal positions--one psychological, the other

1. The physiological theory is simple and scarcely permits any
variations. According to it, unconscious activity is simply cerebral; it
is an "unconscious cerebration." The psychic factor, which ordinarily
accompanies the activity of the nervous centers, is absent. Although I
incline toward this hypothesis, I confess that it is full of

It has been proven through numerous experiments (Fere, Binet, Mosso,
Janet, Newbold, etc.) that "unconscious sensations" act, since they
produce the same reactions as conscious sensations, and Mosso has been
able to maintain that "the testimony of consciousness is less certain
than that of the sphygmograph." But the particular instance of invention
is very different; for it does not merely suppose the adaptation to an
end which the physiological factor would suffice to explain; it implies
a series of adaptations, corrections, rational operations, of which
nervous activity alone furnishes us no example.

2. The psychological theory is based on an equivocal use of the word
consciousness. Consciousness has one definite mark--it is an internal
event existing, not by itself, but for me and insofar as it is known by
me. But the psychological theory of the unconscious assumes that if we
descend from clear consciousness progressively to obscure consciousness,
to the subconscious, to the unconscious that manifests itself only
through its motor reactions, the first state thus successively
impoverished, still remains, down to its final term, identical in its
basis with consciousness. It is an hypothesis that nothing justifies.

No difficulty arises when we bear in mind the legitimate distinction
between consciousness of self and consciousness in general, the former
entirely subjective, the latter in a way objective (the consciousness of
a man captivated by an attractive scene; better yet, the fluid form of
revery or of the awaking from syncope). We may admit that this
evanescent consciousness, affective in nature, felt rather than
perceived, is due to a lack of synthesis, of relations among the
internal states, which remain isolated, unable to unite into a whole.

The difficulty commences when we descend into the region of the
subconscious, which allows stages whose obscurity increases in
proportion as we move away from clear consciousness, "like a lake in
which the action of light is always nearing extinction" (in double
coexisting personalities, automatic writing, mediums, etc.). Here some
postulate two currents of consciousness existing at the same time in one
person without reciprocal connection. Others suppose a "field of
consciousness" with a brilliant center and extending indefinitely toward
the dim distance. Still others liken the phenomenon to the movement of
waves, whose summit alone is lighted up. Indeed, the authors declare
that with these comparisons and metaphors they make no pretense of
explaining; but certainly they all reduce unconsciousness to
consciousness, as a special to a general case, and what is that if not

I do not intend to enumerate all the varieties of the psychological
theory. The most systematic, that of Myers, accepted by Delboef and
others, is full of a biological mysticism all its own. Here it is in
substance: In every one of us there is a conscious self adapted to the
needs of life, and potential selves constituting the subliminal
consciousness. The latter, much broader in scope than personal
consciousness, has dependent on it the entire vegetative
life--circulation, trophic actions, etc. Ordinarily the conscious self
is on the highest level, the subliminal consciousness on the second; but
in certain extraordinary states (hypnosis, hysteria, divided
consciousness, etc.) it is just the reverse. Here is the bold part of
the hypothesis: Its authors suppose that the supremacy of the subliminal
consciousness is a reversion, a return to the ancestral. In the higher
animals and in primitive man, according to them, all trophic actions
entered consciousness and were regulated by it. In the course of
evolution this became organized; the higher consciousness has delegated
to the subliminal consciousness the care of silently governing the
vegetative life. But in case of mental disintegration there occurs a
return to the primitive state. In this manner they explain burns through
suggestion, stigmata, trophic changes of a miraculous appearance, etc.
It is needless to dwell on this conception of the unconscious. It has
been vehemently criticised, notably by Bramwell, who remarks that if
certain faculties could little by little fall into the domain of
subliminal consciousness because they were no longer necessary for the
struggle for life, there are nevertheless faculties so essential to the
well-being of the individual that we ask ourselves how they have been
able to escape from the control of the will. If, for example, some lower
type had the power of arresting pain, how could it lose it?

At the foundation of the psychological theory in all its forms is the
unexpressed hypothesis that consciousness may be likened to a quantity
that forever decreases without reaching zero. This is a postulate that
nothing justifies. The experiments of psychophysicists, without solving
the question, would support rather the opposite view. We know that the
"threshold of consciousness" or minimum perceptible quantity, appears
and disappears suddenly; the excitation is not felt under a determinate
limit. Likewise in regard to the "summit of perception" or maximum
perceptible, any increase of excitation is no longer felt if above a
determinate limit. Moreover, in order that an increase or diminution be
felt between these two extreme limits, it is necessary that both have a
constant relation--differential threshold--as is expressed in Weber's
law. All these facts, and others that I omit, are not favorable to the
thesis of growing or diminishing continuity of consciousness. It has
even been maintained that consciousness "has an aversion for

To sum up: The two rival theories are equally unable to penetrate into
the inner nature of the unconscious factor. We have thus had to limit
ourselves to taking it as a fact of experience and to assign it its
place in the complex function that produces invention.

The observations of Flournoy (in his book, mentioned above, Part I,
chapter III) have a particular interest in relation to our subject. His
medium, Helene S......--very unlike others, who are satisfied with
forecasts of the future, disclosures of unknown past events, counsel,
prognosis, evocation, etc., without creating anything, in the proper
sense--is the author of three or four novels, one of which, at least, is
invented out of whole cloth--revelations in regard to the planet Mars,
its countries, inhabitants, dwellings, etc. Although the descriptions
and pictures of Helene S. are found on comparison to be borrowed from
our terrestrial globe, and transposed and changed, as Flournoy has well
shown, it is certain that in this "Martian novel," to say nothing of the
others, there is a richness of invention that is rare among mediums: the
creative imagination in its subliminal (unconscious) form encloses the
other in its eclat. We know how much the cases of mediums teach us in
regard to the unconscious life of the mind. Here we are permitted, as an
exceptional case, to penetrate into the dark laboratory of romantic
invention, and we can appreciate the importance of the labor that is
going on there.

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