Repression: psychoanalytic and Sartrean phenomenological perspectives.
Abstract: Freud's psychoanalysis places repression in the unconscious, working as a mechanical process devoid of awareness, whereas Sartre's phenomenology insists that this repression is entirely conscious and transparent. What, then, might be happening in terms of mental events analysable as either unconscious censorship or conscious denial? This paper investigates what can and cannot be ascribed as unconscious concerning the 'mechanism' of repression and raises questions about the ontology of the unconscious. Is the unconscious an invisible domain or, more simply, aspects of more skilfully created absences within our being? Implications for psychopathology and therapy are suggested where the Sartrean view is taken into account.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Psychoanalysis (Research)
Existential psychology (Research)
Phenomenology (Research)
Repression (Psychology) (Research)
Author: Wilson, John G.
Pub Date: 07/01/2010
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: July, 2010 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Thailand Geographic Code: 9THAI Thailand
Accession Number: 288874200
Full Text: The term 'unconscious' in everyday language

Before we can assess what the unconscious is for psychoanalytic or phenomenological accounts of the mind, we should consider everyday meanings for the word 'unconscious' and the states we commonly associate with an absence of consciousness. These may be ambiguous. There is a big difference, for example, between "I was unconscious of there being a hornet in the room" and "I was unconscious of hating my brother."

One can be unconscious of there being a hornet in the room in the sense of being entirely without awareness of any shapes or sounds of a flying insect in the room (even though there is one) or aware of a hornet-like sound but ignoring it (to find out later that it comes from a hornet), or be antecedently aware of there being an actual hornet in the room but presently ignoring or suppressing awareness of its presence (say, for the purposes of concentrating on the task at hand). Other variations could be cited. There are, therefore, different modes and degrees of being unconscious, some dependent on ignorance others on suppression. But will suppression, in the Freudian sense, turn out to be absolutely unconscious? And, if so, how can I suppress as an agent but simultaneously do so unconsciously as a non-agent? For unconscious suppression seems to be not an active suppression, at all, but rather a mechanically determined event outside my awareness and control. Then again, perhaps suppression always implies some modicum of awareness. But we may baulk at the idea of partial awareness when speaking of awareness. For awareness is either aware or it is not. All these things need investigation.

Consciousness and the unconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis

According to psychoanalysis the only element in our psychic makeup that is conscious is the ego. The ego may expand or contract according to what becomes conscious, much of this arriving from the id. Traces of our conscious ego (memories) may be unconscious as willfully suppressed, or perhaps more simply forgotten. According to Freudian thinking the ego is highly selective in what it regards as legitimate parts of itself and censors anything it does not like as a result of shame, guilt or morality. These dissociated parts of ourselves will be forced away and kept in the id.

Famously, Sartre refused to accept the existence of an unconscious. He pointed out that the word is self-contradictory. How can a part of the mind be not conscious and still retain mental qualities? For Sartre, to be a part of the mind is for it to be conscious. And if he is right, this would have devastating effects on psychoanalysis by destroying the contention that the nature of our mental life is to be both aware and unaware. In a chosen example, I hope to salvage some of Freud's unconscious whilst at the same time preserving Sartre's phenomenology--let's see if this can be done.

An axiomatic feature of Sartre's phenomenology is that consciousness is always transparent. That is, our awareness is not only awareness of something but also the awareness of being aware of it. This is the condition that impels Sartre to insist we cannot be unaware of the repressive mechanism--for Sartre the ego censor knows what is being repressed and also knows it is repressing. How, then, can psychoanalysts continue to insist that there is an unconscious which is the repository of all that has been repressed and that we know nothing of it by self-inspection?

Sartre's criticisms of the mechanism of repression

Sartre points out that the Freudian distinctions between ego, id and superego are divisive for an individual being able to derive a meaning from his own conduct. Sartre points out, for the case of the Freudian id and the ego, we may apprehend some aspects of our existence as a whole but 'not the truth of it'. According to the Freudian model, we will always be ignorant or uninformed about the true nature of parts of ourselves that continue to reside in the unconscious (and yet still have an impetus to erupt and 'threaten' the ego). In order to discover what these hidden drives are we require the services of a psychoanalyst who reveals ourselves to ourselves--what we are in our truth as well as our existence. Thus, in isolation, we are cut off from ourselves in our original situation--we can experience the facts but not their provenance; we can experience effects but not the causes. So, in existential terms, we are alienated from our totality. Sartre wants to show that such a position is untenable and that we know a great deal more than Freud would allow.

That which cuts ourselves off from what we are is the censor which establishes 'a duality of the deceiver and the deceived'.

By the distinction between the id and the ego, Freud has cut the psychic whole in two. I am the ego but I am not the id. I hold no privileged position in relation to my conscious psyche.

(Sartre, 1957:50)

Sartre depicts this aspect of the Freudian unconscious through the example of an impulse to steal a book. 'I bring it [the impulse] to light and I determine myself hand-in-hand with it to commit the theft. But I am not those psychic facts, insofar as I receive them passively' (ibid p.51). In other words, according to the Sartrean view of Freud, a passive reception of an impulse from the id does not constitute a part of our consciousness as a self-determining agent, but rather isolates us as the victim of a hidden persuader. And this persuader is not a person; it is unconscious, a not-self, it has the same deterministic power as mechanism.

So in the case of unconscious drives one would never know the truth of the matter through direct intuition. Self-knowledge would always arrive 'second hand' through hypothesis as explained by an intermediary, for example an immersion in psychoanalytic theory as presented by the psychoanalyst.

When taken in this light, Freud's account is very deterministic. The phenomenological transparency of consciousness--my knowledge of my actions as complete in the free and conscious decision to act according to a self-created value (my own decision that the book is worth stealing) has disappeared and I am now the victim of invisible impulses from a hidden aspect of myself. So where is the me in all this? Can I perform such an action without having any inkling of what I am doing? And if there is any such inkling, would it not be more appropriate to say I am deceiving myself (Sartrean Bad Faith) through splitting and denial as a division within myself? Sartre thinks this is true.

Thus psychoanalysis substitutes for the notion of Bad Faith the idea of a lie without a liar; it allows me to understand how it is possible for me to be lied to without lying to myself since it places me in the same relation to myself that the Other is in respect to me.

(Sartre, 1957:51)

In Being and Nothingness Sartre repeatedly amplifies his own notion of self-awareness by asserting we are both wholly conscious and wholly free. In the case of the book theft example he insists there is no hidden impulse which is unknown to the book stealer. The impulse and the consciousness of it are one and the same and any decision to steal the book is constituted by consciously conferring the value upon the book as 'worth stealing'- and freely acting on this.

But this is to surmise. Our concern at this point is to examine whether there may be an unconscious where such impulses to steal, and other components, such as lust, guilt, resentment, inferiority--the whole spectrum of discreditable parts of ourselves--can reside.

Sartre reintroduces awareness into the 'mechanism' of repression by asking how the censor can comprehend what is to be repressed and what not. His explanation insists that the censor knows what it is repressing. Furthermore, in order to apply repression with any discernment, the censor must choose and know what it is choosing. But how can the repressed drive disguise itself without including a consciousness of being repressed-the awareness that it is being 'pushed back'-and the general project of disguise as an attempt to deceive? There is no obvious explanation for these difficulties in Freudian thinking.

Sartre declares that the mind's censor must be conscious of the drive to repress in order 'not to be conscious of it'--and thereby create a split in one's being. And here we have a prime example of Sartrean Bad Faith: that one pretends to oneself one does not know something when one does. But how can such an event be possible and what are the advantages of such an attitude? What is the intention (the project) of Bad Faith? Independently of Sartre, I will illustrate and amplify on these ideas.

A solution to Freud's dilemma: 'annientisement' through negation and denial

Let us imagine that in my own life I have had an experience where guilt plays an all important role. Any memories of this experience would be unpleasant for me to revive, so they must be repressed: I will not be obliged to admit to myself that I have behaved badly and thus be forced to consider unpleasant contrasts with my current self-image. In this historical instance, I forced myself on an innocent female acquaintance who plainly did not want me as a sexual partner. On this one occasion, having ensured the house was empty, I pressed my attentions on this girl to the point where she gave in-but not without an ugly scene in which my advances verged on rape.

Since this girl belongs to a respected social position, and we share the manners and propriety of our allocated roles, in later life I manage to exclude all appearance and memory of this event in a typically Freudian manner. I forget about my base behaviour and, by chance, meet the girl again today (now a woman) and behave towards her (and myself) as if nothing of the sort had ever happened. According to Freud my current condition is one where I have successfully split my past from my present through repression. The memories exist but only in the unconscious.

Now are we to assume I am in complete and utter ignorance of my previous actions? Apparently so. But what if I am, for some reason, feeling uncomfortable in this woman's presence? What if presentiments makes me feel uneasy, disconsolate, uncomfortable? The Freudian answer would be that memories in the preconscious (a sort of hinterland between the unconscious and the conscious) are threatening to erupt and destroy my peace of mind. But, in order to maintain this peace of mind I avoid such impressions by concentrating on other things: the joy of the chance meeting, the conversation at hand, current events, our new lives and so on. But also, concurrently, something like bad memories is being precipitated into awareness; her odor is familiar, her demeanor is attractive, she has that certain tone of voice and those same gestures of long ago; those same familiar attractive features much as were coveted on the night of my evil deed. And perhaps a flicker of discomfort passes across her features on our first meeting again--but then I don't ask myself why. According to Freud I have no knowledge of my repression but according to Sartre I am quite aware of it-not only that but also what I am repressing. How can the contradiction be resolved?

One solution goes along with Sartre; I am aware of my evil past--my nervousness, my sense of unease attest to this. But it is only as an incipient awareness. At every opportunity, I turn away from a full recognition of the past within my present situation. It is not so much that something wants to repress what happened as an unconscious repressive mechanism that remains unconscious, but rather that I consciously evade and deny what I do already know about it as it appears to me within the stream of events of our reunion. And it is as if I am jamming a radio frequency. At every moment where a clear memory could arise, I block its presence through diversionary tactics (my bouncy manner, my insistent chatter, my leaping straight from one topic to another). In other words, I take every opportunity to evade a complete and thorough recognition of my past through avoidance and obfuscation. I know something, yes, but I refuse to amplify on my knowledge and if I am persistent enough, this incipient awareness, even in its first emergences, will recede and possibly extinguish itself amidst the gaiety and glamour of the reunion.

And there is no special mystery about this. At every opportunity where an unpleasant image of myself might arise, I simply block it with another impression. If I am persistent enough, the original acknowledgement will recede and bother me no longer as other events take their course. Of course, I must be persistent. But this too might be a talent that can be virtually automatised with a bit of practice.

Are we now forced to deny the Freudian existence of an unconscious? Not completely. For during my project of splitting and denial I am successful and something has been, at the very least, shifted to one side. My constancy has paid dividends and, by application, there is an increasingly successful division of myself with my past and that which I know of it: I am becoming unconscious. To be sure, I am aware of my original state, but it is not an amplified awareness with duration, distinction, constancy, repetition, self-reflection, or affirmation. The skimpiness of its throttled constitution will soon bother me no longer-or so I hope. And even in that original nervous awareness on our meeting up again I am not compelled to dwell. Yes, there is a kind of unconscious (aspects of myself of which I have no current awareness) but it is not 'under' anything or residing in some subterranean vault of the mind. It is simply an aspect of myself that I have deftly cut off and put aside.

Now Sartre will insist that I am living in Bad Faith and in this he is quite right. But it is only in relation to 'inklings'--not propositions--that I am deceiving myself and such thoughts, moreover, are always kept indefinite and incomplete. I deny my knowledge but I am not obliged to deny its amplified fullness, for the amplification never succeeded-I blocked it off. Thus my Bad Faith is only virtual as a complete revelation. I am a liar, yes, and I lie to myself. But it is not accompanied by the kind of recognition that one ascribes to episodic reflection with a propositional content. My awareness of my past is incipient but not complete; it appears as a flicker of recognition but not as an augmented totality. I know, but I take every opportunity to 'cancel' this knowledge: there is no cognitive process, no self-examination on my part, and I do not make linguistic representations to myself about issues that could be asserted or denied. And this lack of representation is indeed advantageous to the project of keeping myself in the dark. I am a liar but I am a liar who is a master of camouflage and preemption and I don't really need to lie that much.

At this point we may call to mind our original remarks about how the meaning of the term 'unconscious' is handled in everyday life. There are more ways than one to be unconscious and there are, so to speak, 'different kinds of unconsciousness where the unconscious might be found'. But we are now beginning to move away from the idea that the unconscious has qualities similar to a spatio-temporal location with continuously existing yet unseen 'mental objects' as its contents--an area in the mind where dark things are rumbling around with their own unseen volition. The above account, accepting Freud's ideas in part (splitting, denial and dissociation) and partly diminishing Sartre (refuting an amplified awareness as representations of my previous conduct), demonstrates the capacity to 'force out', but does not point to 'a place' where the objects of denial continue to exist independently of my awareness of them. Their being is truncated and exists in no 'place' whatsoever unless I choose to allow them to. Could it be that the psychoanalyst's conception of the unconscious is a kind of overstatement, a muddling of concepts due to improper analogizing? That is, the psychoanalyst is mystified into thinking that the unconscious is a kind of place in the mind when in fact we should be speaking of the unconscious as an aspect of emptiness more on the lines of Sartre's phenomenology? That is, to continue the thread of the previous argument, to say that splitting and denial are not a 'cutting up' and a removing of something from one seen place to an unseen other, but rather a split where there is nothing between that which has been cut off and a denial that simply denies but cannot be said to hide? For, we might well ask, what has happened to the extended representations of the rape scene I am so anxious to avoid? Is it not the case that I do not so much struggle to prevent their retrieval as struggle to prevent their being given birth as objects of thought in my consciousness? And is it not the case that without my permissive collaboration they simply do not exist-in 'any place'?

In the forced seduction example, we may say that I know full well that I acted wrongly but also that a more complete knowledge of these actions are withheld from me by my own intent (as in Sartrean Bad Faith). Furthermore, it is conceivable that I minimize this knowledge to such an extent that it does not appear in any form in my consciousness--a kind of absolute denial that might suggest the existence of an unconscious in which such utterly dissociated things might dwell. But this unconscious, insofar as it can be posited at all, would, in terms of the phenomenological transparency of consciousness, be no more than simply all the aspects of myself I would rather not examine through an internal act of annihilation (a Sartrean 'anientissement'). They exist as a split in my being, a threat resonating by my odd mood and suppressed anxiety-but they need have no privileged domain from whence they will arise for it is simply the strength of my will that keeps them from being reified: What is the difference between all this and a self-imposed ignorance?

Sartre's analysis of self-deception: development and implications

Sartre asks: What is the faith of Bad Faith? What is the means by which I can both know something and deceive myself that I do not know it? His answer to these questions is that faith itself is the problem.

The decision to be in Bad Faith does not dare to speak its name; it believes itself and does not believe itself in Bad Faith .... Bad Faith apprehends evidence but is resigned in advance to not being fulfilled by this evidence, to not being persuaded and transformed into good faith ... it stands forth in the resolution not to demand too much ... its structure is of a metastable type.

(Sartre 1957:68)

If it is possible to substitute frankness and reflection with a willfully chosen preference to create a substitute belief about who I am and what I have done, then we have the basis of a mental world where self-deception becomes the norm. Sartre is careful to point out that such a state of mind is not the product of step-by-step reasoning or acquired knowledge. To pursue such would disclose self-deception in its entirety. Rather there is an original choice--a fundamental project--to live within self-deception and to deny full self-knowledge as a foundation for one's life. Self-deceivers have cultivated the habit and the outlook of self-deception. Note that, existentially, such an individual does not 'have' self-deception as a 'quality' of his mind, He is a willful self-deceiver in his most intimate moments and, ontologically, in his relations with himself and the world.

Moreover, it would be possible for such an individual to base his understanding of himself and the world entirely on the basis of this 'instinctual' preference. If one does not like an idea or an impression then one simply shuts it out and refuses to believe it can exist. At the same time one nurtures and encourages one's preferred belief system and amplifies its existence by repetition and the impetus of acquired duration.

Implications for Psychopathology and Psychotherapy

It is not difficult to see how an acceptance of these explanations would have far-reaching implications for psychopathology and the kind of therapy one might offer to clients one suspects as being self-deceivers. Until now we have looked at repression as a more amplified aspect of the classical defense mechanisms, but we have not considered the implications for an individual who has a habitual outlook employing this kind of defense as a 'way of life'. If a client's foundations in the world (his ontological security) is built upon an evolved product of comprehensive self-deception, then fantasy, in place of what is actually true or false, may become an intentional mode of being-in-the-world. Repeated expansively, such a disposition would precipitate serious fractures with reality and perhaps encourage borderline states of mind where the individual retreats into an isolated world of preference that belongs to him alone. It has frequently been postulated that psychosis derives from regression to repeated developmental failures in infancy, during the early attempts to forge a discrete and enduring self, but, I would add here, in the light of the above it is also possible to 'drive oneself crazy' through persistent and truth-denying preferences as a kind of monstrously overblown defense mechanism. Such willful preferences would require a willful tendency to survive the clear light of day--willful in the sense of demanding, excessive, blind, ruthless. And it is easy to imagine how energetic this process must become to maintain a protracted yet false equilibrium when challenged by outside sources. But, as Sartre has pointed out, the original project is pre-reflective and not subject to deliberation as we normally conceive it. It may be that there is a tendency for the human mind to be able to deceive itself in mood and anxiety disorders as well as psychotic states of mind-and that no special talent is required to do this in its initial stages. If an existential-phenomenological analysis of consciousness shows consciousness to be, as Sartre insists throughout his early work, by nature fragile, 'without foundation' and 'metastable' in the project of accomplishing intentional (self-created) yet vacillating acts of intentionality, then it may come as no surprise for us to encounter clients for whom reality is but a maelstrom of conflicting representations which can only torment and delude; but, we must now insist, have their origins in an original Bad Faith in the pre-reflective project to self-deceive. As with classical psychoanalysis, such a pre-reflective project turns out to be a defense that fails: that which was initially chosen to avoid anxiety becomes torment in a set of habituated false relations between oneself and the world.

It follows that any therapy which aims to alleviate the distress created by such a fundamental project would have to consider the role of authenticity and self-determination in its solution. No longer can we insist that the client is purely an innocent victim of his unconscious. And no longer can we insist that the client is entirely in ignorance concerning the history of his condition. Granted, his current situation may be aggravated by the unforeseen consequences of the original project to self-deceive, but this, as we have seen, is incompatible with the notion of the unconscious as a place where old conflicting impulses remain hidden. Whatever conflict there is, it exists in the here and now.

Up to this point we have been considering the problems of self-censorship as an intellectual affair and the reader has accompanied me thus far from the perspective of a critical thinker. But it will require a great deal more than intellectual understanding to forge a solution with the client. 'A demonstration' of the client's predicament would be inappropriate, for the business of therapists is not to attack the problem with the verve of analytical philosophers, but rather to be a sympathetic accompanier and an aid to someone in distress. What does one do, therefore, when one discovers a client in a blatant act of self-deception? To adopt a confrontational position would be to aggravate the condition and this could have repercussions that have more to do with interrogation than healing. Rather, therefore, it should be the business of the counselor to, step by step, assist the client perform his own realization. This can be accomplished through allusion, repetition and reserve. Apparent contradictions have their own momentum and require no force from us to acquire a certain resonance-the role of silence has been celebrated in counselling and we shall celebrate it here.

There is a problem concerning the advisability (and the speed of) encouraging the emergence of repressed/denied elements during process. We have to consider the unacceptability that was anguishing for the client and why the original impetus to repress was chosen. On the other hand, to continue as one is with a laisser faire attitude is equally unacceptable. One therefore has to 'tread the middle way' and wait for signals to assist in the process of healing. This may turn out to be a recursive process.

From the therapeutic viewpoint, it strikes me that the resolution of such a condition lies in the therapist encouraging self-acceptance. To what does the strength of such denial owe its existence? Psychoanalysis predicts the unbearable anxiety that a full revelation would imply. Yet the strength of such denial testifies to an equal opposition to recognizing that which is being denied. So, how can the client be induced to a) recognize the source of his denial, b) accept the project of 'undenying' and all that that would entail. One means is for the counselor to replicate by example and show his own neutral acceptance of those conditions when they first comes to light, let us say, through the transference. That is, to continue with my own example, to help the client come to terms with his rapist tendencies by acknowledging their existence without value considerations in the first instance. At this point we can see the enormous contribution that Carl Rogers has made to client-centred therapy-acceptance of the client for who he is.


Has Freud's account of the censor been demolished by Sartre's criticisms? Did my modified account favour Freud or Sartre in the end? These conclusions I will leave up to the critical reader, for the interstices of pre-reflective mental events may turn out as complex as they are instantaneous. But for those who are convinced there is something to these arguments there may be opportunity therein and a parallel change of outlook. Rather than consider oneself grappling with a blind, unseen assailant (the unconscious) one is now confronted with the assailant itself-the mercurial conscious mind in all its devious ways.


Freud, S. (1910/1962). Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Laing, R.D. (1969) Self and Others. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Sartre, J.-P. (1937). (Trans. 1957). The Transcendence of the Ego. New York: Noonday.

Sartre, J.-P. (1939). (Trans. 1957) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Barnes, H.E. London: Methuen.

John Wilson is an existential counsellor working at Assumption University, Bangkok. He is interested in the interface between philosophy and psychology with a specialization in Sartre.

Address: Graduate School of Psychology, Assumption University, Hua Mak Campus, Bangkok 10250, Thailand. Email:
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