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  • Affekt, Gefühl, EmpfindungRereading Freud on the Question of Unconscious Affects
  • Adrian Johnston (bio)

If, as Aristotle famously declares in the Metaphysics, wonder is the source driving philosophizing, then a further specification should be immediately added to this: wonder, a compelling, captivating feeling that is experienced as a light, gentle yearning or exhilaration, is the affective motor behind the speculative endeavors of theoretical philosophy.1 That is to say, if wonder is a fundamental philosophical affect, it’s fundamental primarily to those parts of philosophy moved principally by a “desire to understand” (epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, logic, etc.). But, what about the significant other dimension of philosophy? In other words, what about practical philosophy (ethics, politics, etc.) as concerned not so much with “What can I know?” but rather with “What should I do?” Guilt is one of the main candidates for being to practical philosophy what wonder is to theoretical philosophy, namely, a foundational affect as a catalyst for the deliberations, decisions, and deeds of concern to philosophy’s prescriptions.

If guilt indeed is a fundamental philosophical affect in relation to ethics—at least in Kant’s shadow, it certainly seems to be—then Freud’s psychoanalytic discoveries and their aftershocks (both within post-Freudian psychoanalytic movements and in wider circles without) introduce some serious complications. These complications [End Page 249] have to do with both the consciousness of guilt (as conscience) and affective mental dynamics more generally. To begin with, analyses of the workings of conscience are part of what prompt Freud to undertake a massive revision of his basic theoretical framework in the middle of his mature career, a revision in which the pleasure principle is dethroned from its previously central position as the inviolable law of psychical life. Along with this sweeping shift “beyond the pleasure principle,” the post-1920 Freud introduces the agency of the super-ego as part of the new triumvirate (including the id and ego) of the second topography; self-inflicted suffering in the form of conscience-induced guilt is somewhat more difficult to explain under the old (pre-1920) metapsychological regime centered on the hegemonic pleasure principle. The outlines of this agency already are foreshadowed in the seminal 1914 paper “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” which highlights an intrapsychical function (identified by Freud as “conscience”) of surveying and supervising the ego’s position vis-à-vis the ego-ideal (i.e., what the ego aims to be).2 However, despite Freud’s 1914 employment of the everyday word conscience for this mental ministry of judgment and punishment, it soon becomes apparent to him that his later renaming of this as “super-ego” amounts to more than the superficial semantic substitution of technical for quotidian language.

One of the crucial philosophical upshots of the Freudian conception of the super-ego is that not all of conscience is conscious. With the transition from the first to the second topographies in Freud’s thinking in the early 1920s, the triad of conscious, preconscious, and unconscious (i.e., the first topography) isn’t simply displaced and replaced by that of id, ego, and super-ego; moreover, for numerous reasons, one cannot legitimately establish one-to-one correlations here such as “consciousness = ego” or “unconscious = id” (based on the erroneous notion that the transition between topographies involves nothing more than simple substitutions). Instead the three terms of the first topography change from being nouns, designating metaphorically spatial sectors within a map of the psyche’s regions, to operating as adjectives. As adjectives they modify the three agencies of the second topography. Specifically apropos of both the ego and super-ego, this means that there are [End Page 250] unconscious as well as conscious dimensions to these two agencies (SE 22:69–70). Considering this, Freud declares, in connection with the psychoanalytic positing of an unconscious side of conscience, that, “the normal man is not only far more immoral than he believes but also far more moral than he knows” (SE 19:52). If much of the content composing the super-ego (injunctions, prohibitions, etc.) is inaccessible to self-conscious introspection, circumstances easily can arise in which someone unknowingly has violated a command or rule to which he or...


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