Book notice: Lancelot Whyte's The Unconscious Before Freud

[Editorial note: “Book notices” will be a new type of post on this blog where I give brief summaries of books I have recently read]

Whyte convincingly argues for the thesis that “the general conception of unconscious mental processes was conceivable (in post-Cartesian Europe) around 1700, topical around 1800, and fashionable around 1870-1880.” Whyte’s aim is to show that, contrary to popular opinion, Freud did not “invent” the concept of the unconscious. In fact, the concept had been percolating in the general intellectual atmosphere for quite some time prior to Freud. Whyte employs a heavy battery of quotations from a diverse array of sources, most of the whom I had never heard of before. Although Whyte’s own understanding of psychology is rather dated and has a lighter significance compared to those he is quoting, his historical scholarship is top notch and surely represents a significant amount of time scouring libraries, a feat even more impressive given Whyte published the book in 1960 well before the advent of internet research.

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3 Comments

Filed under Books, Consciousness, Psychology

3 responses to “Book notice: Lancelot Whyte's The Unconscious Before Freud

  1. I’ve had my eye on this since reading Carruthers’ The Opacity of the Mind. In Carruthers earlier stuff on ‘introspective self-transparency’ he actually dated the unconscious with Freud. Aside from slighting Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, I found this troubling enough to fetch Guy Claxton’s The Wayward Mind – a book which I didn’t find all that convincing. Have you read the Claxton, Gary? How does Whyte compare? Does he discuss the problems with characterizations of the ‘unconscious’ (primarily as being another consciousness (intentionally structured) only ‘hidden’ from consciousness proper? Do you know of any literature on the relation between the unconscious and the ‘subpersonal’ in contemporary psychology?

    • Gary Williams

      Hi Scott,

      I haven’t heard of the Claxton book so I can’t compare with Whyte. In the beginning of the book, however, he does talk about the possibility of unconscious and conscious processing being part of a single system of ideas, with the latter arising from an attention to contrasts. I don’t quite fully follow Whyte’s suggestion, and think it’s a little confusing. The book is not useful for any serious philosophy of mind, but rather, just for its historical scholarship and quotations. As for contemporary psychology, I can’t think of any literature off the top of my head, although I assume there has to be. I think for the most part though “unconscious” and “subpersonal” are treated as synonymous in contemporary psychology, although don’t ask them to define “personal” (as opposed to “subpersonal”). Keith Stanovich and “dual-process” accounts might be something to look into if you haven’t already, since they tend to lump unconscious processes (system 1) with subpersonal and conscious (system II) with the personal.

  2. Danke. I wrote a blog post several months back arguing that the ‘conscious/unconscious’ dichotomy was just a covert way of smuggling the Hard Problem across the intentional side of the border. The psychoanalytic conception of the unconscious, in particular, is simply soaked in intentional idioms.

    I’m up to my eyeballs in dual-process cognition. There really seems to be a move away from ‘consciousness talk’ to ‘subpersonal mechanism’ talk resembling the behaviourist retreat from introspective psychology over a century ago. Academic ‘consciousness fatigue’ seems to have finally settled in…

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