The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Unconscious’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Let’s begin with a quick quiz question. To make it easier, it’ll be a multiple-choice quiz. Who came up with the notion of the ‘unconscious’: that is, the idea that human beings have an unconscious as distinct from a conscious mind? Was it:

a) Sigmund Freud
b) Friedrich Schelling
c) Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Regular readers of this blog may have learnt to be wary of giving the ‘obvious’ answer, because it’s usually wrong. See our articles about the curious origins of mayonnaise and the word ‘virus’ for other instances in which etymological booby-traps have been set.

Perhaps, lest anyone fears a trap, we should make it a little easier. Which German came up with the idea of the unconscious mind and theorised about it?

The answer can’t be Sigmund Freud: he was Austrian rather than German. Instead, credit for the invention of the ‘unconscious’ should go to the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), who distinguished between the conscious and unconscious mind in his early work System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), labelling the latter Unbewusste, which can be rendered into English as ‘unconscious’.

So the origin of ‘unconscious’ lies, in one sense, in German philosophy at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the word’s etymology is easily explained. It’s formed from Latin, namely the negating un- prefix, and the Latin con-, meaning ‘with’, and scīre, meaning ‘know’: the same root as the words ‘science’, ‘omniscient’, and many others.

But when did ‘unconscious’ first enter the English language? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the word ‘unconscious’ had been around for centuries before psychologists and philosophers started to take an interest in the notion of ‘the’ unconscious: a part of the mind which influences our behaviour.

For example, Thomas Hobbes, better known for writing Leviathan (1651), penned a poem in 1678 with the glorious title De Mirabilibus Pecci: Being the Wonders of the Peak in Darby-Shire, commonly called The Devil’s Arse of the Peak. In this book, he uses the word ‘Unconscious’ with the meaning of ‘unaware’. Around the same time, the word was already starting to be used in relation to states of unconsciousness, most famously sleep.

But as a noun – as in ‘the unconscious’ – the term ‘unconscious’ appears to have first been used in English by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who write in his notebooks, on 10 March 1818: ‘As in every work of Art the Conscious – is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it […] – so is the Man of Genius the Link that combines the two.’

And then, in 1833, Sarah Austin’s translation of a German book on the writer Goethe stated: ‘Here occur the manifold relations between the Conscious and the Unconscious. Let us just imagine a person of musical talent who opens a fine score – consciousness, and unconsciousness, would stand in the relation of a woof and warp.’ The idea of ‘the Unconscious’ was gaining ground among English thinkers.

And it would be towards the end of the nineteenth century that theories of the unconscious would become more widespread. In 1869, the German philosopher Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906) wrote a book titled Philosophy of the Unconscious. And then in 1890, in his monumental work The Principles of Psychology, William James (the brother of the novelist Henry James) popularised the theory among English and American readers, discussing the idea of the ‘unconscious’ mind at length.

But it was Sigmund Freud who provided the most influential ‘map’ of the mind and the structure (at least as Freud saw it) of the unconscious. Freud argued that the unconscious comprises the id, the ego, and the superego. These three parts of the psyche – most of which are unconscious, although parts of the ego are also conscious – develop in that order.

When we’re born, our minds are all id, and the id might be described as the impulsive part of the psyche. It is driven not by reason or by morals, but by a desire to get our basic needs and desires and passions fulfilled at any cost. The superego is our inner police officer, our conscience, which restrains the wilder impulses of the id, while the ego is stuck somewhere between these two competing forces.

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