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 representation

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.