sartre’s critique of freud’s concept of the unconscious

[And a final degree essay.]

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre criticises Freudian psychoanalysis, particularly its concept of the unconscious.  Below I will assess Sartre’s attack on Freud’s notion of the unconscious and consider how this attack illuminates Sartre’s conception of agency.  This discussion will highlight the differences in the way Sartre and Freud approach the mind and thus illuminate the idiosyncratic way in which Sartre encountered Freud’s work.

There are two discussions of Freud in Being and Nothingness: the first is in Sartre’s discussion of ‘bad faith’ (mauvais foi) in the first part of the book; the second is in his discussion of his own ‘existential psychoanalysis’ in the book’s fourth part on freedom and agency.  The bulk of Sartre’s direct criticisms of Freud fall within the first discussion, but the second discussion is revealing of the differences in approach between Sartre and Freud that lead Sartre to attack Freud.  I will come back to highlight these general presuppositional divergences after the more concrete discussion of Sartre’s critique of Freud’s idea of the unconscious.

As I have mentioned, Sartre’s initial discussion of Freud, in which he briefly outlines Freud’s notion of the unconscious as he understands it, falls within a discussion of ‘bad faith’, Sartre’s theory of self-deception.  Sartre is concerned with psychoanalysis here insofar as it offers a way of understanding tensions and pockets of self-opacity within the subject, something which is problematic for Sartre’s conception of the subject as perpetually self-‘translucent’.  Sartre argues that Freud’s concept of the unconscious is explanatorily superfluous insofar as it simply posits a self-deceiving, self-translucent agency within the subject.  The heart of Sartre’s criticism, as we will see, is that Freud cannot undermine the unity of the acting subject in the way that he attempts to without simply reintroducing this unity at the level of one of his posited subsidiary agencies.

Sartre identifies three elements of the Freudian psychical apparatus: the conscious, the unconscious and the censor.[1] The conscious (or Cs., to use Freud’s shorthand) is identified with ‘the totality of the facts of consciousness’ (BN, p. 75);[2] the unconscious (Ucs.) is identified with drive (Trieb).  The censor mediates between the Cs. and Ucs., repressing those drives that would prove traumatic to the Cs. were they allowed to flood into consciousness (cf. BN, p. 73).

As Sartre notes, ‘I am the ego [Cs.] but I am not the id [Ucs.].  I hold no privileged position in relation to my unconscious psyche’ (BN, p. 74).  Thus, I am only one system within my psyche.  In this way, Freud can offer an explanation of self-deception by ‘replac[ing] the duality of the deceiver and the deceived […] by that of the “id” [Ucs.] and the “ego” [Cs.]’: the real meaning of the subject’s actions, which can only be understood in terms of her unconscious drives, is withheld from the Cs. by the censor (cf. BN, p. 73).

Sartre’s discomfort with this picture can begin to be understood through the apparent tension in the idea that there is a part of my psyche that strictly speaking I am not, yet which plays a central role in motivating my actions.  For Sartre, self-deception is a project.  It requires sustained effort by the subject and a sensitivity to the changing situation in which one finds oneself.  Sartre emphasises that such activity requires a unity of consciousness based on a pre-reflective (non-thetic) consciousness of oneself (cf. BN, Pt. II, chap. 1, §1); a project must be unified by an underlying awareness of the goals of the project.  Freud accepts that self-deception is an activity of an agency, as is evident in his account of ‘resistance’ to the analyst’s approaching the ‘truth’ of a symptom (cf. BN, p. 75; on ‘resistance’, cf. Laplanche and Pontalis 1988, pp. 394-7).  Given Freud’s fragmentation of the psyche into distinct systems, the question arises for Sartre of how this unity of project is accounted for.

Sartre considers each of the three psychical elements posited and finds that the censor is the sole possible architect of the deception: the Cs. has no more access to the true meaning of the analysand’s symptoms than does the analyst; the drives of the Ucs. aim to manifest in the Cs. and so would not resist the analyst’s probing; thus, the censor is the only plausible culprit of the deception of the subject as to her real motives (cf. BN, p. 75).

Here Sartre reaches the crux of his explicit argument against Freud.  ‘If we reject the language and the materialistic mythology of psychoanalysis,’ Sartre claims,

we perceive that the censor in order to apply its activity with discernment must know what it is repressing.  In fact if we abandon all the metaphors representing the repression as the impact of blind forces, we are compelled to admit that the censor must choose and in order to choose must be aware of so doing [my emphasis]. [… I]t is not sufficient that it discern the condemned drives; it must also apprehend them as to be repressed, which implies in it at the very least an awareness of its activity.

(BN, pp. 75-6)

Given that the censor must be a self-conscious agency in order to enact the project of repression and resistance, Sartre claims that these phenomena can only be explained if the censor deceives itself:

All knowing is consciousness of knowing.  Thus the resistance of the patient implies on the level of the censor an awareness of the thing repressed as such, a comprehension of the end towards which the questions of the psychoanalyst are leading, and an act of synthetic connection by which it compares the truth of the repressed complex to the psychoanalytic hypothesis which aims at it.  These various operations in their turn imply that the censor is conscious (of) itself.[3] But what type of self-consciousness can the censor have?  It must be the consciousness (of) being conscious of the drive to be repressed, but precisely in order not to be conscious of it.  What does this mean if not that the censor is in bad faith?

(BN, p. 76)

Sartre’s argumentation here is confused.  It is the Cs. from which the truth of a symptom is being hidden; it is unclear why Sartre claims that the censor must also hide this truth from itself.  Although the censor must encounter traumatic drives as ‘to be repressed’, ‘repressed’ from its perspective means ‘hidden from the Cs. by keeping them within the Ucs.’, and Sartre has not made it clear why this need involve the censor’s self-deception.

Sartre’s move here becomes clearer in light of his subsequent comments.  He accuses Freud of neglecting the necessary unity of self-deception: ‘The very essence of the reflexive idea of hiding something from oneself implies the unity of one and the same psychic mechanism and consequently a double activity in the heart of unity’ (BN, p. 76).  Sartre’s accusation that Freud requires a self-deceiving censor is an ill thought out consequence of his imposing the unity of the psyche, which he regards as a necessary feature of self-deception, onto Freud’s account: if the psyche is a unity then, if the censor knows the true meaning of the subject’s actions, the subject as a whole can in some sense be said to know this truth, thus reintroducing the self-translucency of the subject and requiring the censor to somehow hide this knowledge from itself in order to hide it from the psyche as a whole.

This illicit reintroduction of psychical unity serves to render Sartre’s explicit argument against the coherence of the idea of the unconscious unsound; however, Sartre’s considerations on unity represent a stronger challenge to Freud than his failed proof.  To speak of a psyche deceiving itself, we must understand this psyche as somehow unified.  Freud’s sub-psychical agencies, although they affect one another, seem not to be unified in a way that justifies construing them as parts of a psychical whole.  Sartre is adamant that such unity is required if we are to make sense of the sort of reflexive psychical phenomena with which Freud is concerned:

How can the repressed drive ‘disguise itself’ if it does not include (1) consciousness of being repressed, (2) the consciousness of having been pushed back because it is what it is, (3) a project of disguise?  No mechanistic theory […] can explain these modifications by which the drive itself is affected, for the description of the process of disguise implies a veiled appeal to finality [my emphasis]. […] By rejecting the conscious unity of the psyche, Freud is obliged to imply everywhere a magic unity linking distant phenomena […].

(BN, pp. 76-7)

By this reference to ‘finality’, Sartre means to indicate the teleological nature of human action, which he claims cannot be accounted for deterministically.

These considerations are spelled out in more detail in Sartre’s second discussion of Freud in Part IV of Being and Nothingness.  There, he highlights approvingly Freud’s attempt to understand human behaviour in terms of its meaning, and specifically

to disengage the meanings of an act by proceeding from the principle that every action, no matter how trivial, is not the simple effect of the prior psychic state and does not result from a linear determinism but rather is integrated as a secondary structure in global structures and finally in the totality which I am.

(BN, pp. 479-80)

However, he accuses Freud of compromising this awareness of the meaningfulness of action by reinstating a ‘vertical determinism’ – the determination of conscious choices by unconscious drives – which ultimately collapses into the ‘linear determinism’ condemned above, insofar as it is one’s past (the Oedipus complex and its more or less successful resolution; cf. Laplanche and Pontalis 1988, pp. 282-7) which determines one’s present psychical state.  For Sartre, ‘[e]very action is comprehensible as a project of oneself toward a possible’ (BN, p. 482); hence, it is the future of an action, its ‘finality’, which gives it its meaning, not its past.  Future-orientated action cannot be understood, Sartre claims, in the deterministic manner implied by Freud’s notion of the unconscious; determinism is always backward-looking.  Thus, Freud’s attempt to account for the meaningfulness of human action is thwarted by his fragmentary and deterministic understanding of the psyche.

Before we turn to the success of Sartre’s criticisms, it should be noted that Sartre’s discussion of Freud evidences his narrow familiarity with Freud’s oeuvre (cf. Askay and Farquhar 2006, pp. 233-41).  Sartre conflates Freud’s first and second ‘topographies’ of the psychical apparatus.  The first topography is based around the unconscious, the preconscious and the conscious, the latter two constituting component of a single system (Pcs.-Cs.) (cf. Freud 1957 [1915], esp. §II).  It is only in the second topography that Freud speaks of the ego (Ich), superego (Überich) and id (Es) (cf. Freud 2001 [1923], esp. chaps. II and III).  In the second topography, the unconscious is no longer regarded as a distinct system, and although the id is assigned the roles previously played by the Ucs., it is not identical with it; in addition, the ego and the superego are partially unconscious, partially preconscious and partially conscious (cf. Laplanche and Pontalis 1988, p. 474; Wollheim 1971, chap. 6).

Despite this conflation, Sartre’s general criticisms pick up on a real tension in Freud’s work between his sensitivity to the meaningfulness of human action and his commitment to a thoroughgoing causal determinism.  As we have seen, Sartre offers various reasons for regarding these concerns as incompatible.

Freud’s idea of the unconscious can survive this critique, however, since Sartre and Freud have different understandings of what it is for human behaviour to be ‘meaningful’.  While Sartre is concerned with individuals’ projects, Freud’s is concerned with the integration of behaviour into a narrative grounded in an individual’s psychical genesis.  For Sartre, meaning is found in a project, for Freud, meaning is found in a history.

Although Sartre is right to highlight the future-orientated structure of our conscious motivations, it begs the question against Freud to take this phenomenological account as evidence against the Freudian claim that our unconscious motivations are grounded in past events.  Freudian analysis proposes to uncover a deeper meaning underlying our conscious rationalisations of our behaviour.

Given this point, we can also alleviate the threat posed to Freud’s account by Sartre’s criticisms concerning the fragmentation of the psyche.  If Freud can give a meaningful narrative to human behaviour in terms of its relation to anterior events in the subject’s history, then the unity required for future-orientated action need not be present in the psyche as a whole.  Again, the meaningfulness of behaviour in Freud’s theory comes from the story one can tell about the origins of one’s behaviour, not in its integration into a project.

I have drawn a distinction between Sartre’s and Freud’s understanding of the meaningfulness of action on the basis of a distinction between project and history.  However, it might be thought that Sartre does justice to both poles of this distinction with his notion of an ‘original project’ (cf. BN, p. 578ff).  This is a unifying, irreducible project in terms of which all other projects can be understood.  Existential psychoanalysis

is a matter of rediscovering under the partial and incomplete aspects of the subject the veritable concreteness which can only be the totality of his impulse toward being, his original relation to himself, to the world, and to the Other, in the unity of internal relations and of a fundamental project.

(BN, p. 584)

Sartre might be thought to take account here of the sort of past-orientated meaningfulness that concerns Freud.

However, Sartre’s notion of an original project is still ultimately future-orientated.  Although the choice of an original project is a past event, the subject’s actions are meaningful in light of this project only insofar as it provides a unifying goal in terms of which the goals of subsidiary projects may be understood.  As such, the meaning derived from an original project is still properly speaking future-orientated, rather than purely historical.

Although Sartre and Freud share an interest in the meaningfulness of human behaviour, they approach human subjectivity differently.  Freud’s conception of the psyche is fundamentally deterministic and yet he permeates his descriptions of these systems with intentionalistic vocabulary.  Sartre, on the other hand, rejects deterministic descriptions of human agency precisely in order to allow their meaning to come to the fore.  Given Sartre’s belief in the incompatibility of deterministic causality and meaningfulness, his criticisms of Freud are understandable, but as we have seen, his criticisms are unsuccessful: Freud’s understanding of the meaningfulness of human behaviour is simply different to Sartre’s, being past- rather than future-orientated, and so Sartre begs the question by assessing Freud on his (Sartre’s) own terms.


Askay, R. and Farquhar, J. 2006, Apprehending the Inaccessible: Freudian Psychoanalysis and Existential Phenomenology, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Freud, S. 1957 (1915), ‘The Unconscious’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XIV, tr. J. Strachey et al., Toronto: Hogarth Press, pp. 166-205.

––– 2001 (1923), The Ego and the Id, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XIX, tr. J. Strachey et al., London: Vintage, pp. 3-66.

Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.-B. 1988, The Language of Psychoanalysis, tr. D. Nicholson-Smith, London: Karnac.

Sartre, J.-P. 2003, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, tr. H. E. Barnes, Abingdon: Routledge.

Wollheim, R. 1971, Freud, London: Fontana.


[1] I will use the terminology of Freud’s ‘first topography’ when discussing Sartre’s comments on Freud; cf. pp. 6-7 below.

[2] BN abbreviates Sartre 2003.

[3] Sartre’s use of parentheses here indicates that this consciousness is non-thetic.

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2 responses to “sartre’s critique of freud’s concept of the unconscious

  1. that is an excellent essay! is it possible then that existentialist psychotherapy can pick up where psychoanalysis leaves off?
    hey, if you can summarize being and nothingness similarly (more so), drop me a line – i’d REALLY appreciate it!
    great work : )

  2. Pingback: IDNKT: Exestenstialsm Deplores Psychoanalysis « MarcusSioux

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