- The Foundation of the Unconscious: Schelling, Freud, and the Birth of the Modern Psyche
Matt ffytche attempts to make good on his book’s title and provide a philosophical foundation for the unconscious. To that end, he privileges the work of the Romantic philosopher F. W. J. Schelling, who not only flirts with the unconscious but comes to view it as a necessary foundation for thinking about human freedom more generally. So begins ffytche’s sometimes complex, often convincing discussion of the unconscious, which grounds post-Enlightenment interest in freedom, autonomy, authenticity, and liberalism.
According to ffytche, the unconscious underlies philosophical ideas about identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, first and implicitly in Fichte’s examination of the self, second and explicitly in Schelling’s work on subjectivity; it is a movement from “the Fichtean I to the Schellingian unconscious” (205). Schelling’s examination of subjectivity [End Page 134] “led him to forge a new philosophical vocabulary centering on the psyche, the unconscious, a tension over the past and forgetting, and the enigma of (ontological) birth” (218). Ffytche argues that Freud’s own interests in such themes are a late, albeit sometimes indirect, continuation of this German tradition.
The argument is coherent and at times provocative. A rare breed of well-informed interdisciplinary scholar, ffytche dances across boundaries that would make most of us pause. Readers from philosophy and psychology will find much that is challenging. Certainly, historians of philosophy otherwise disinclined to open the can of worms called the unconscious owe him a debt for this fundamental contribution.
I wonder, though, if ffytche overstates the importance of Schelling for our understanding of Freud and psychoanalysis. For ffytche, the continental foundation of the unconscious exists independently of the psychodynamic tradition. “My account,” he writes, “suggests that ideas and concepts, familiar today through psychoanalysis (the unconscious, repression, the uncanny) emerged independently of the field of Romantic psychology” (33). It is certainly true that many philosophers turned to psychopathology for empirical verification only late in the day, and that philosophy and psychotherapy became more thoroughly entangled only after Freud. But as ffytche knows, many of the major figures of the psychodynamic tradition, such as Joseph Delboeuf, Pierre Janet, and William James, were also trained philosophers. Philosophers dabbled in psychology, and psychologists dabbled in philosophy, since after all experimental psychology did not even exist until Wilhelm Wundt created his lab (in Leipzig) in 1879. So it is tricky indeed to privilege the one tradition at the expense of the other.
Henri Ellenberger’s monumental contribution to the genealogy of the unconscious, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970), makes no hard distinction between philosophers and other theorists of the unconscious. Similarly, historians like Adam Crabtree and Edward Shorter trace the history of dissociation, double consciousness, and the unconscious far beyond philosophy. Ffytche grapples with Ellenberger at times in his book, but only to distinguish his own attempt to provide the philosophical foundation of the unconscious. Yet if Ellenberger’s approach is less philosophical, it is more richly cross-disciplinary. Of course, Ellenberger is less concerned with rationalizing the place of philosophy as it concerns the unconscious, and more intent upon tracing a tradition of hocus-pocus that goes back to medical and stage hypnosis, animal magnetism, mesmerism, and before that to spirit possession in the Christian tradition. Ffytche is obviously informed about this tradition, although he does not engage with its literature very much. Consequently, I worry that he elevates “the unconscious” to an ur-concept that effectively whitewashes a history of hocus-pocus that is anything but incidental to our understanding of the unconscious. That a philosophical “foundation”—notably rendered in the singular—exists after the many supposed “instantiations” of the unconscious (over the last two thousand years) is problematic. I would put it all more prosaically: Schelling is just a late, particularly German, instantiation of a very old tradition.
By way of conclusion, ffytche points out that Schelling and Freud both confront the enigma of subjectivity, and its relationship to...