‘That difficult thing, the liberal self’

The Foundation of the Unconscious: Schelling, Freud and the Birth of the Modern Psyche, by Matt ffytche, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, ix + 310 pp., £60.00 (hardback), ISBN 978 0 521 76649 4

Reviewev by Carolyn Burdett (Birkbeck, University of London)


Unusually, this review of Matt ffytche’s book on the origins of the Freudian concept of the unconscious requires a word or two to justify its inclusion in this journal. The Foundation of the Unconscious is not primarily, or even partially, a Victorian study. Instead, it closely engages with idealist and Romantic philosophy, mostly of the German tradition, before, in its final section, jumping forward in time to Freud himself. But this important book is both thought-provoking and eminently relevant for Victorian scholars. One Victorian writer, moreover, does feature consistently (if not centrally) throughout, namely John Stuart Mill. For this study of the unconscious is a meticulously detailed unravelling of the developments, contestations and crises which cluster around the liberal self as it forms and deforms across the nineteenth century – the century at the heart of the book. Familiar though we may be with the notion that the twentieth century was the century of psychoanalysis, the unconscious, which is its conceptual life-blood, was fully part of the nineteenth, embedded in its particular social, political and cultural dynamics and the philosophies of selfhood which sought to make sense of them. As ffytche acknowledges early on in his study: ‘A complete understanding of the rationale for the development of the unconscious in the nineteenth century would require nothing less than a cultural history of the nineteenth century itself’ (9).

One of the most important conceptual achievements of Freudian psychoanalysis – though judged variably as good or ill – is the de-centring of self emblematized in Freud’s assertion that the ego is not master in its own house. ffytche’s book does far more than merely show that this destabilizing gesture which overturns the authority of consciousness is not unique to Freud, however. Any scholar interested in Victorian psychology will know that notions of unconsciousness – whether thought about in terms of distinctions between sensations, intuitions and perceptions, or derived from study of the workings of memory and the category of the will, from ideas about sleep and dreaming or reverie, or from material associated with the burgeoning study of psychopathology – were developed and discussed throughout the century. ffytche’s striking contention, rather, is that the unconscious played a central role in philosophical and psychological thinking about the modern (and moral) self as free and autonomous.

Within the German philosophical tradition investigated here, the unconscious was the means, ffytche argues, by which the individuality and autonomy of the self is provided with some originary ground. The description of such ground was a fundamental challenge for the philosophers who followed Kant, and who recognised that autonomy and its attendant notion of freedom could not be assumed. This recognition accompanied what ffytche calls an ‘intensification’ of core notions of the self which occurs in response to various modern political and social crises in which questions of freedom and self-direction predominate, and which we associate with the formation of the liberal self (25). However, paradoxically, even a liberal philosophy overtly resistant to formulas which remove conscious choice from the individual also, in John Stuart Mill’s hands, resists the mechanistic qualities of the ‘chain’ of sensations and ideas so dominant in psychological associationism. In so doing, the individual is endowed with hidden, inner sources of moral autonomy, the ‘inward sources which make it a living thing’, as Mill puts it in On Liberty (29). The ‘principled unconsciousness’, so important to German Romantic and idealist tradition, is thus also discernible in the empiricism of the Mills, evidenced in the younger Mill’s ‘acute moral interest in Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, with its “shadowy recollections”, its “thought that lie too deep”, its “vanishings” and its “sleep and a forgetting” at birth’ (233).

ffytche shows how post-Kantian philosophy suggests a rich context in which Mill’s individual story of mental stress and recovery by way of Romantic poetry can fruitfully be reassessed. He begins with the idealist philosopher, J. G. Fichte. Fichte struggled to overcome the rift between freedom and nature which had become acute as older metaphysical vocabularies gave way to newer, post-Enlightenment concepts of the self and soul. Too much self-determination risks the anarchistic consequences of individuals totally sovereign to themselves, while culture, nation or Church, evoked as unifying structures, threaten to collapse human freedom back into theology or political absolutism (58). Fichte had to preserve the concept of autonomy in some way but found transparency and self-consciousness too bedevilled with contradictions. Instead, ‘some obscure principle of the will, acting behind and constituting consciousness’ sets a pattern ffytche finds repeated in philosophies of the modern self: in Schelling’s notion of an unconscious, in Schopenhauer’s world as will, in Eduard von Hartmann’s fusing of Schopenhauer and insights from the Romantic psychologist, C. G. Carus, into an ‘unconscious will’ at work in the universe, through to Jung’s collective unconscious (71-2). Fichte’s original task is only properly understood in relation to the implications of this question of autonomy and freedom. As ffytche reminds us, the proto-liberal self was provisional, and if apprehensions of selfhood could be (and were) powerfully articulated in the culture – not least within the pages of novels, for example – actual rights and powers took much longer to be achieved and consolidated (69).

For F. W. J. Schelling, the proponent of Naturphilosophie who is at the heart of ffytche’s study, there must be a means of grounding the individual which does not, in that grounding or foundational gesture, efface its autonomy. In a world of conditioned objects, the unconscious allows for the self’s home within itself – even if it is a peculiar, unheimliche home (201). Moreover, ffytche explains, Schelling (and others) also, at the same time, unsettled the categories of history and nature themselves with notions of the past as secret and obscure. It is as if the ‘I’ can found its own beginning but only on the basis of the lostness, secrecy and obscurity of that beginning. Emerson, who read Schelling in the 1840s, wrote of needing ‘a bit of night, of chaos, of Abgrund’ to found the self (203-4).

What for Schelling is still in some sense a displacement of divine or absolute organisation becomes in Freud  a far more technical matter of understanding the structure and dynamics of psychic energies and their censorship. But ffytche shows how, in the text Freud saw as founding psychoanalysis, The Interpretation of Dreams, a raft of unresolved issues about selfhood and its autonomy persist. Freud ‘radically complicated’ the notion of an isolated individuality but, nevertheless, constantly presumed the separateness and autonomy of a self in ideas of an individual driven to seek enjoyment, to preserve or destroy, and to repeat its past. In turn, these not-quite-fully-acknowledged facets of what is assumed in terms of selfhood and individuality become, ffytche suggests, the fault lines of subsequent rifts and splits within the wider psychoanalytic movement. When Freud comes to revise and reimagine the psyche in terms of the tripartite structure of ego, id and superego in 1920, he is driven by trying to refine a concept of the I, recognising that the ego too can be unconscious. This is part of the pathos, as ffytche sees it, of Freud’s effort – which repeats that of Schelling – to embed the contradictory forces of fragmentation and the drive to combine which characterise the experience of selfhood and society within a theory of general natural organisation. It is why, perhaps, Freud never quite gave up on the notion that some biological and neurological basis of life would eventually be securely graspable – something that is currently being pursued again today with renewed energy in work which aims to integrate psychoanalysis and neurobiology.

Part of the pleasure of this book is how carefully and patiently it follows the myriad threads of thinking about unconsciousness and selfhood in its chosen thinkers. Along the way, there is much that is interesting about intersections (or not) with the French-derived theoretical thinking which has, ffytche believes, dominated post-Freudian debates and thus tended to marginalise the historical view the book explores.  For scholars of Victorian culture and ideas, the attraction of this book lies in its rich seam of hints about how insights here might illuminate more specifically English debates. I found particularly suggestive ffytche’s arguments about how the ‘occult’ phenomena sometimes interpreted as quasi-theological resistance to modernity are, in fact, fundamental to explorations of the modern liberal self.

As a postgraduate student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, studying in an English department, and strongly drawn to psychoanalysis, I was agitated (as were many of my peers) by tensions between ‘the psychic and the social’. As a feminist I knew that the personal was political – but encompassing the range of ‘the political’ in that formula was still a challenge. This thought-provoking book, which contains fresh and arresting insights on almost every page, shows how the concept of the unconscious was always both historical and political, and – in a peculiarly contradictory and ambivalent manner – served (and failed to serve) the profoundly political function of conferring moral autonomy on the individual. In doing so, it makes a compelling case for the importance of the nineteenth-century unconscious as an essential, if extremely strange, building block of the modern notion of human identity.

Carolyn Burdett is Senior Lecturer in Victorian literature and culture at Birkbeck, University of London where she edits the journal 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. She is the author of Olive Schreiner (Northcote House, 2012) and co-editor of The Victorian Supernatural (Cambridge, 2004). She is currently working on a project about Victorian emotions, psychology and aesthetics.

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