Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 August 2010
Locating the unconscious
Philosophical investigations which trace the genesis of a concept from what preceded it, and then trace how the concept influenced what succeeded it, encounter a problem in relation to “the unconscious.” This problem might admittedly seem to arise in relation to any concept, because disagreements about the content of a concept inevitably result from the never finally delimitable contexts in which it is encountered. Philosophers don't even agree, for example, on whether “Water is H2O” is “necessarily true in all possible worlds.” In such a case we can at least refer to the familiar fluid that we are disagreeing about and describe some of its properties. With respect to the unconscious the problem is more fundamental because we don't know what we are talking about: if we did, it would not be unconscious. As we shall see, much will depend here on the sense of “know.” Before getting to Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1770–1854), who has some claim to being the first person to use the term “unconscious” in the kind of ways which have been important in modern thought, we therefore need to explore some of the issues that make the unconscious a peculiarly recalcitrant topic. This should also enable us both to avoid the problem of just parroting what Schelling says when he employs the word “unconscious” and related terms, and to gauge whether his ideas are still philosophically significant.