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"The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing." --Blaise Pascal

Diagram of the human mind, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, page 217[1] by Robert Fludd

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The term subconscious is used in many different contexts and has no single or precise definition. This greatly limits its significance as a meaning-bearing concept, and in consequence the word tends to be avoided in academic and scientific settings.

In everyday speech and popular writing, however, the term is very commonly encountered as a layman's replacement for the unconscious mind, which in Freud's opinion is a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression. However, the contents do not necessarily have to be solely negative. In the psychoanalytic view, the unconscious is a force that can only be recognized by its effects — it expresses itself in the symptom. Unconscious thoughts are not directly accessible to ordinary introspection, but are supposed to be capable of being "tapped" and "interpreted" by special methods and techniques such as meditation, random association, dream analysis, and verbal slips (commonly known as a Freudian slip), examined and conducted during psychoanalysis. Carl Jung developed the concept further. He divided the unconscious into two parts: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is a reservoir of material that was once conscious but has been forgotten or suppressed.

The word 'subconscious' is an anglicized version of the French subconscient as coined by the psychologist Pierre Janet. Janet himself saw the subconscient as active in hypnotic suggestion and as an area of the psyche to which ideas would be consigned through a process that involved a 'splitting' of the mind and a restriction of the field of consciousness.

The subconscious and psychoanalysis

Though lay persons commonly assume 'subconscious' to be a psychoanalytic term, this is not in fact the case. Sigmund Freud had explicitly condemned the word as long ago as 1915: "We shall also be right in rejecting the term 'subconsciousness' as incorrect and misleading". In later publications such as "The Question of Lay Analysis" his objections were made clear:

"If someone talks of subconsciousness, I cannot tell whether he means the term topographically -- to indicate something lying in the mind beneath consciousness -- or qualitatively -- to indicate another consciousness, a subterranean one, as it were. He is probably not clear about any of it. The only trustworthy antithesis is between conscious and unconscious."

Thus, as Charles Rycroft has explained, 'subconscious' is a term "never used in psychoanalytic writings". And, in Peter Gay's words, use of 'subconscious' where 'unconscious' is meant is "a common and telling mistake"; indeed, "when [the term] is employed to say something 'Freudian', it is proof that the writer has not read his Freud".

Freud's own terms for mentation taking place outside conscious awareness were das Unbewusste (rendered by his translators as 'the Unconscious') and das Vorbewusste ('the Preconscious'); informal use of the term 'subconscious' in this context thus creates confusion, as it fails to make clear which (if either) is meant. The distinction is of significance because in Freud's formulation the Unconscious is 'dynamically' unconscious, the Preconscious merely 'descriptively' so: the contents of the Unconscious require special investigative techniques for their exploration, whereas something in the Preconscious is unrepressed and can be recalled to consciousness by the simple direction of attention. The erroneous, pseudo-Freudan use of 'subconscious' and 'subconsciousness' has its precise equivalent in German, where the words inappropriately employed are Unterbewusst and Unterbewusstsein.

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Subconscious" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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