The Discovery of the Unconscious

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The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry
The Discovery of the Unconscious.jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Henri F. Ellenberger
Country United States
Language English
Subject Psychiatry, psychology
Published 1970 (Basic Books)
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 932
ISBN 0-465-01672-3
OCLC 68543

The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry is a 1970 book by the Swiss medical historian Henri F. Ellenberger. In this study of the history of dynamic psychiatry,[1] Ellenberger provides an account of the early history of psychology covering such figures as Franz Anton Mesmer, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Pierre Janet. The work has become a classic, and has been credited with demolishing the myth of Freud's originality and encouraging scholars to question the scientific validity of psychoanalysis. Critics have questioned the reliability of some of Ellenberger's judgments.


The Discovery of the Unconscious is a study of the history of dynamic psychiatry that covers the early history of psychology and the work of Freud, Jung, Adler,[2] and Janet.[3] Ellenberger's chapter on Adler uses unpublished materials, including "Kindheit und Jugend Alfred Adlers bis zum Kontakt mit Sigmund Freud", a manuscript by the Adler researcher Hans Beckh-Widmanstetter.[4] Ellenberger shows that Freud was dependent on earlier writers, especially Janet.[5] He describes psychoanalysis and analytical psychology as forms of hermeneutics (the art or science of interpretation), comparing both disciplines to the philosophical schools of Graeco-Roman antiquity.[6]

Freud, according to Ellenberger, was heir to the Protestant Seelsorge or "Cure of Souls", a practice that arose after Protestant reformers abolished the ritual of confession. During the 19th century, the idea of unburdening oneself by confessing a shameful secret was gradually transferred from religion to medicine, influencing Mesmer's animal magnetism, and eventually Freud.[7]

Ellenberger argues that evaluating Freud's contributions to psychiatry is made difficult by a legend involving two main features that developed around Freud: the first being, "the theme of the solitary hero struggling against a host of enemies, suffering the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' but triumphing in the end", and the second, "the blotting out of the greatest part of the scientific and cultural context in which psychoanalysis developed". The first aspect rested on exaggeration of the anti-Semitism Freud encountered, as well as overstatement of the hostility of the academic world and the Victorian prejudices that hampered psychoanalysis. The second aspect led to Freud being credited with the achievements of others.[7]

Influence and reception[edit]

Psychoanalyst Joel Kovel writes that The Discovery of the Unconscious "contains an elaborate survey of the history of psychoanalytic schools through the first half of the century", but while he sees Ellenberger's book as "useful because of its encyclopaedic nature" he believes it has "little critical value or real historical analysis."[8] Frank Sulloway's Freud, Biologist of the Mind (1979) was partly inspired by The Discovery of the Unconscious.[9] Psychologist Hans Eysenck, in his Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985), calls The Discovery of the Unconscious an "excellent book which unveils many of the myths which have accumulated around Freud", observing that it has become a classic.[5]

Literary critic Frederick Crews considers the The Discovery of the Unconscious part of a body of research demonstrating that Freud "was misled by his drive toward heroic fame." Crews writes that the Ellenberger reveals "the derivative and curiously atavistic position of psychoanalysis in nineteenth century psychiatry", adding that "No one who ponders the entirety of Ellenberger's subtly ironic narrative can fail to come away with a sense that psychoanalysis was a high-handed improvisation on Freud's part."[10] Crews has also credited Ellenberger with demolishing the myth of Freud's originality and encouraging subsequent scholars to question the scientific validity of psychoanalysis.[11]

Historian Peter Gay writes in his Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988) that The Discovery of the Unconscious is "a rather swollen but thoroughly researched nine-hundred-page volume, with long chapters on the early history of psychology, and on Jung, Adler, and Freud." Gay adds that, "Though far from elegant, though opinionated and not always reliable in its quick judgments (such as its verdict that Freud was the quintessential Viennese), it is a rich source of information." Gay comments that The Discovery of the Unconscious is far more comprehensive than Lancelot Law Whyte's The Unconscious Before Freud (1960).[2] Psychiatrist Anthony Stevens has made use of Ellenberger's concept of "creative illness", a rare condition whose onset usually occurs after a long period of intense intellectual work, in his account of Jung.[6] Historian Paul Robinson described Ellenberger's chapter on Freud as "irreverent", writing that Ellenberger's book paved the way for much of the criticism of Freud that followed in the 1980s.[12]

Historian of science Roger Smith calls The Discovery of the Unconscious "a magisterial - and readable - historical study".[13] Philosopher Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and psychologist Sonu Shamdasani call The Discovery of the Unconscious a "monumental work".[14]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Webster 2005. p. 16.
  2. ^ a b Gay 1995. p. 754.
  3. ^ Reed 2007. p. 494.
  4. ^ Gay 1995. p. 760.
  5. ^ a b Eysenck 1986. p. 213.
  6. ^ a b Stevens 1991. pp. 178, 267.
  7. ^ a b Webster 2005. p. 109.
  8. ^ Kovel 1991. p. 349.
  9. ^ Welsh 1994. p. 126.
  10. ^ Crews 1986. p. 91.
  11. ^ Crews 1996.
  12. ^ Robinson 1993. p. 2.
  13. ^ Smith 1997. p. 988.
  14. ^ Borch-Jacobsen 2012. p. 19.


  • Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel; Shamdasani, Sonu (2012). The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-72978-9. 
  • Crews, Frederick (1986). Skeptical Engagements. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503950-5. 
  • Eysenck, Hans (1986). Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-022562-5. 
  • Gay, Peter (1995). Freud: A Life for Our Time. London: Papermac. ISBN 0-333-48638-2. 
  • Kovel, Joel (1991). A Complete Guide to Therapy: From Psychoanalysis to Behaviour Modification. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-013631-2. 
  • Reed, Graham F. (2007). Gregory, Richard L., ed. The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866224-6. 
  • Robinson, Paul (1993). Freud and His Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08029-7. 
  • Smith, Roger (1997). The Norton History of the Human Sciences. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-31733-1. 
  • Stevens, Anthony (1991). On Jung. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-012494-2. 
  • Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. ISBN 0-9515922-5-4. 
  • Welsh, Alexander (1994). Freud's Wishful Dream Book. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03718-3. 
Online articles

External links[edit]