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Humphrey, N. (1997). Commentaries. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 45:726-731.

(1997). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45:726-731

Commentaries

Nicholas Humphrey

These days, when it is taken for granted in every field of psychology that a large part of mental life occurs unconsciously, it is as well to be reminded that up until Freud's own time the very idea of unconscious mental activity had been considered a conceptual impossibility. For centuries philosophers had been insisting that whatever goes on in a person's mind must by its very nature be conscious and accessible. Descartes had argued that the mind is essentially “transparent to itself.” In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke had claimed that “a man is always conscious to himself of thinking. … consciousness is the perception of what passes in a man's own mind” (Book III, chap. 9).

Freud was not the first to challenge this cozy picture of the mind as a completely open book. Writers from Shakespeare to Diderot evidently had inklings that there might be hidden forces at work that could bias the way people think and could even undermine their conscious projects. Yet it took Freud to raise these inklings to the status of a scientific hypothesis and to seek confirmatory evidence in neurotic behavior.

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