The Origins of Freud’s Theory of the Unconscious: A Philosophical Link

The recent publication of Freud’s correspondence to his school friend, Edward Silberstein, has provided new impetus for research into Freud’s relationship with the philosopher Franz Brentano. In this paper I will address one possible objection to any claim that the philosopher could have influenced Freud on a theoretical level. It may be argued that there could be no significant theoretical influence because the psychoanalyst constructed a model of mental functioning which presupposes an unconscious, while Brentano was a philosopher of consciousness, who denied the very existence of unconscious ideas. I will demonstrate that, despite his rejection of unconscious mental functioning, Brentano presents a systematic investigation into what he perceives to be the strongest arguments in favour of the existence of unconscious ideas. Although he finds each account to be flawed, Brentano frequently offers a possible corrective, suggesting certain conditions as principles which must be observed by anyone hoping to formulate a reasonable thesis to support the existence of unconscious ideas. I argue that it is this analysis which helped Freud to formulate a coherent account of the unconscious which does not fall prey to the objections Brentano levelled against preceding conceptions of unconscious mental processes.

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