The Unconscious before Freud

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The Unconscious before Freud
The Unconscious Before Freud.gif
Cover of the first edition
AuthorLancelot Law Whyte
CountryUnited States
SubjectUnconscious mind
PublisherBasic Books
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)

The Unconscious before Freud: A history of the evolution of human awareness is a 1960 book about the history of ideas about the unconscious mind by the historian of science Lancelot Law Whyte. The work has been compared to the psychiatrist Henri Ellenberger's The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) and has been considered a classic. Whyte has been credited with showing how the predecessors of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, established the concept of the unconscious.


Whyte describes the thinking about the unconscious that preceded the work of Sigmund Freud, emphasizing that those who discussed the subject before Freud were important thinkers in their own right rather than simply figures who anticipated Freud. According to Whyte, his inspiration for writing The Unconscious before Freud was his excitement as discovering that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had expressed several of Freud's insights years before Freud, showing that it was not Freud who discovered the unconscious. Whyte's immediate reason for beginning the book was his shock at finding that the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, in the first volume of The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953), "explained Freud's theory of the mind, not in the context of the development of European thought but in terms of academic and clinical psychology over the preceding fifty years".[1]

Writers Whyte discusses include the physiologist Carl Gustav Carus, whose Psyche (1846) he describes as "a great work" and "a landmark". He comments that while Carus, whose "penetrating interpretation of the unconscious mind was prejudiced by a somewhat sentimental idealistic and religious optimism", neglected the conflicts that were Freud's main concern, he had "a vivid sense of the importance of the sexual functions, unconscious as instinct and conscious as voluptuousness, in relation to the mind as a whole." Whyte also discusses the psychiatrist Carl Jung.[2]

Publication history[edit]

The Unconscious before Freud was first published in 1960 by Basic Books.[3]


Scientific and academic journals[edit]

The Unconscious before Freud received a positive review from G. Stewart Prince in the Journal of Analytical Psychology and a negative review from Sidney Axelrad in the American Sociological Review.[4][5]

Prince wrote that the material in the book was "well selected and arranged", that Whyte's thesis was "closely argued", and that those interested in the history of ideas would find his work fascinating. However, he believed that Whyte should have devoted more space to Jung.[4] Axelrad described The Unconscious before Freud as "loosely organized" and denied that it constituted "an essay on the history of ideas". He questioned Whyte's understanding of Freud and wrote that he repeated the "vulgar errors" that "Freud attributed neurosis only to some sexual malfunctioning and that Freud thought that if the genesis of the neurosis was explained to the patient this would result in a cure." He criticized Whyte for failing to discuss the influence that earlier thinkers had on Freud, for presenting statements from authors who wrote about the unconscious before Freud out of context, and for failing to relate those statements "to the interior development of the concept of the unconscious" or to "those forces within Western European culture which engendered the idea." He maintained that Whyte concealed or was unaware of the fact that Freud, unlike previous thinkers, tried to create "a general and systematic framework for psychology, based upon a physical model although phrased in psychological language." He also wrote that by insisting on "a monistic view of the mind" Whyte "comes close to mysticism."[5]

Evaluations in books[edit]

The psychologist Hans Eysenck called The Unconscious before Freud a classic in Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985). He compared it to Henri Ellenberger's The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970). Eysenck credited Whyte with showing in great detail how Freud's predecessors "established the importance of the unconscious and delineated its vagaries."[6] The historian Peter Gay called The Unconscious before Freud helpful in Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), though he noted that it was brief and less comprehensive than The Discovery of the Unconscious.[7] The philosopher Adolf Grünbaum described The Unconscious before Freud as useful for documenting the influence of Johann Friedrich Herbart's philosophy of the unconscious on Freud in Validation in the Clinical Theory of Psychoanalysis (1993).[8] The critic Frederick Crews credited Whyte, together with Ellenberger, with helping to establish that Freud deserves no credit for having introduced the concept of the unconscious in his anthology Unauthorized Freud (1998).[9]


  1. ^ Whyte 1960, pp. vii–viii.
  2. ^ Whyte 1960, pp. ix, 11, 148–150.
  3. ^ Whyte 1960, p. iv.
  4. ^ a b Prince 1963, p. 195.
  5. ^ a b Axelrad 1961, pp. 319–320.
  6. ^ Eysenck 1986, p. 213.
  7. ^ Gay 1995, p. 754.
  8. ^ Grünbaum 1993, p. 172.
  9. ^ Crews 1999, p. xxiii.


  • Axelrad, Sidney (1961). "The Unconscious Before Freud". American Sociological Review. 26 (2).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Prince, G. Stewart (1963). "The Unconscious before Freud (Book)". Journal of Analytical Psychology. 8 (2).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)