The Subject of the Unconscious

Descartes said, cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”…

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan discusses the importance of the thought process that Descartes went through to get to his conclusive statement: “I think, therefore I am.” He explains that it is the act of doubting that leads to the conclusion that one is thinking: “by the virtue of the fact that I doubt, I am sure that I think”.4 Lacan tells us that a central theme in the thought of Sigmund Freud is also “doubt”. Lacan says:

“In a precisely similar way, Freud, when he doubts…he  is assured that a thought is there, which is unconscious, which means that it reveals itself as absent. As soon as he comes to deal with others, it is to this place that he summons the I think through which the subject will reveal himself. In short, he is sure that this thought is there alone with I am, if I may put it like this, provided, and this is the leap, someone thinks in his place. [He continues his thought] It is here that the dissymmetry between Freud and Descartes is revealed. It is not in the initial method of certainty grounded on the subject. It stems from the fact that the subject is ‘at home’ in this field of the unconscious. It is because Freud declares the certainty of the unconscious that the progress by which he changed the world for us was made.” (Book XI)

While Descartes centers his inquiry on the subjectivity of the one who is thinking, Freud focuses on the deeper subjectivity emanating from the unconscious. In doing so he recognizes two distinct focal points of subjectivity: the ‘I am’  and ‘the subject.’ This subject within is a subjectivity that is larger and more vast than the speaking and thinking subject which declares “I am”. It is a subjectivity not directly accessible, but known only through dreams, free association and active imagination. It is the ‘subject of the unconscious.’  We might call this subjectivity ‘the Self.’

Freud’s discovery was that of a deep subjectivity; a subjectivity that is larger and more vast than the speaking and thinking subject which declares “I am”. It is a subjectivity not directly accessible, but known only through dreams, symptoms, free association and active imagination. Lacan goes on to tell us more about this subject of the unconscious:

“You will see that, more radically, it is in the dimension of a synchrony that you must situate the unconscious—at the level of a being, but in the sense that it can spread over everything, that is to say, at the level of the subject of the enunciation, in so far as, according to the sentences, according to the modes, it loses itself as much as it finds itself again, and in the sense that, in an interjection, in an imperative, in an invocation, even in a hesitation, it is always the unconscious that presents you with its enigma, and speaks—in short, at the level at which everything that blossoms in the unconscious spreads, like mycelium, as Freud says about the dream, around a central point. It is always a question of the subject qua indeterminate.” (Book XI)

Lacan is telling us that the ‘subject of the unconscious’ speaks an enigmatic language. Spreading itself out, over all that is enunciated. It is found between the gaps, and heard within our slips of the tongue. It is speaking within our dreams, like a hieroglyphic language; a language overladen with emotion and affect. And notice that Lacan speaks of the unconscious as mycelium: blossoming and spreading out around some unknown and indeterminable central point.

Deleuze sheds more light on the subject in the following passages where he addresses Lacan’s discourse on the Descartes Cogito (I think, therefore I am). He says:

“Cogito: this means that every statement is the production of a subject. It means that firstly; and secondly, it means that every statement splits the subject that produces it… Then every statement refers to a subject, and every statement splits, cuts, separates the subject that produces it. It is propositions that are linked up naturally, because if it is true that a statement is produced by a subject, then for that very reason this subject will be divided into the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement… the subject cannot produce a statement without being thereby split (scindé) by the statement into a subject of enunciation and a subject of the statement. This introduces the entire metaphysics of the subject into psychoanalysis.” (Dualism, Monism and Multiplicities.

If Deleuze is right then it is the act of enunciation that brings us into the primary state of dualism: “the duality of subjects of the statement and subjects of enunciation”. (ibid) And it is this duality in the subject that ushers in all other dualities: “soul-body, thought-extension, statement-enunciation.” (ibid). Deleuze tells us, “Dualism is what prevents thought.” (ibid) He then goes on to elucidate this statement when he says, “wherever we leave the domain of multiplicities, we once again fall into dualisms, ie. into the domain of non-thought, we leave the domain of thought as process.” (ibid)

In exploring our own subjectivity, we move beyond the limited form of thinking inherent in dualities, and we consciously enter into the field of dreams and imagination, into “thought as process”. Lacan makes clear the revelatory (the Latin root of revelation is “to reveal”) quality of the psychoanalytic endeavor. He says:

“…one can call upon the subject to re-enter himself in the unconscious—for, after all, it is important to know who one is calling. It is not the soul, either mortal or immortal, which has been with us for so long, nor some shade, some double, some phantom, nor even some supposed psycho-spherical shell, the locus of the defenses and other such simplified notions. It is the subject who is called— there is only he, therefore, who can be chosen. There may be, as in the parable, many called and few chosen, but there will certainly not be any others except those who are called.” (Book XI)

It is precisely the Subject, in other words the Self, who calls upon one to re-enter oneself in the unconscious, to encounter Being beyond dualist thought.


  1. Sigmund Freud SE XIV, Our Attitude Towards Death  Matte, Blanco, The Unconscious as Infinite Sets
  2. Sigmund Freud, Instincts and their Vicissitudes
  3. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Dualism, Monism and Multiplicities (Desire-Pleasure-Jouissance)
  5. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

5 thoughts on “The Subject of the Unconscious

  1. How is the “I am” distinct from the “Subject” …… The “I am” is only a reference to a implied subject (linguistically) but beyond that they are considered the same to most people. Like, if you are interested in Deleuze, the thing you referenced reminds me of the “Fractured I” … a kind of central idea in some of his works.

    1. The “I am” can sometimes represents our conscious self image. There is the “I am” which we consciously think we are. But when one begins to work with dreams and imagination, one can become aware of a deeper subjectivity. In this process the referent changes. The “I am” that I thought I was loses priority and a deeper subjectivity emerges.

  2. well you make it sound like people aren’t cognizant of the multiple layers of consciousness and unconsciousness… it seems clear that a lot of behavior is generally unconscious and controlled by stimuli that influence subjective perceptions. hey, i don’t know the way psychology uses jargon though.

Comments are closed.