Philosophy of the Unconscious

By Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann

15 ratings - 3.8* vote

Hartmann reviews the work of many German philosophers and discusses the ideas of the Indian Vedas, as well as collecting facts about perception, the association of ideas, wit, emotional life, instinct, personality traits, individual destiny, and the role of the unconscious in language, religion, history, and social life. He refers to what Jakob Böhme, Friedrich von Schelli Hartmann reviews the work of many German philosophers and discusses the ideas of the Indian Vedas, as well as collecting

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Book details

ebook, 1150 pages
June 23rd 2014 by Routledge

(first published 1869)

Original Title
Philosophie des Unbewussten
1317830423 (ISBN13: 9781317830429)

Community Reviews


This is the combined three volumes of von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious, his magnum opus. It is over a thousand pages, and, honestly, not all of it is equally as interesting and equally as relevant to the topic. It took me around four months to read. This is partially due to its size and partially due to me having less time to devote to reading it.

Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann was a German philosopher active in the latter half of the 19th century. It is clear that he was very well read. His references to other philosophers are substantial. Being German himself, it is evident that his main sources of influence are German as well. Schopenhauer is one primary influence, and von Hartmann owes a lot to him—although, he shares some of the same critiques of Schopenhauer I have. He also owes a lot to the German Idealists, which are referred to regularly. It can be said that he was attempting to combine Schopenhauer’s thought with the Idealist thought of Schelling primarily. The primary influence of Schopenhauer is regarding will and idea. This forms the backbone of von Hartmann’s system. He makes will a component of the unconscious. Like Carus, he also makes nature itself an unconscious process. Since his view of the unconscious is so broad, von Hartmann is able to include numerous references to evolutionary theory and scientific discoveries of the day. Some of his evidentiary references include experiments that were performed on animals. These portions are disturbing I must say. It does indicate how very little compassion was extended to animals less than 200 years ago. These are not experiments von Hartmann carried out but were ones documented by others. One experiment involved the removal of a frog’s head to measure its bodily reaction to stimulus without a brain. The fact the frog would move its extremities in response to things like acid being dripped on it, i.e. to wipe off the acid, indicated to von Hartmann that perception did not require a conscious mind. This indicates unconscious perception at the most basic level. Most of von Hartmann’s references that take up a considerable portion of the book are of this kind. Much of this could have been removed and the point still would’ve been made. He came from a time when writers would include anything seemingly of value—no matter how tangential.

Like Schopenhauer, von Hartmann was influenced by evolutionary theory. It is clear that he had read all the notable works of the time on evolution. He accepted evolution as fact. Indeed, he presents evolution as his unconscious process at work. Much of this work is also devoted to debating various theories of evolution. I admit that a lot of this was pedantic and dull. Philosophy had to contend with theories like evolution at the time, so it is a bit understandable that von Hartmann felt the need to address those ideas. It is insightful that there were contending approaches to evolution. Darwin’s was certainly not the only one, but von Hartmann seems to be partial to his theory but not uncritically.

One positive attribute of this work is that it seems to be one of the primary works that bridged philosophical thought with what would become clinical psychology. Von Hartmann distilled much of the thought of earlier German philosophers, and formulated a system relating to the unconscious, which became influential for later psychologists. He does hold that the unconscious is universal, so here you have an early inkling of the collective unconscious that was later an important element in Jung’s system of psychology. Jung was noted to have read von Hartmann. Von Hartmann very specifically calls the unconscious a collective (Vol. 1 pg. 4-5; vol. 2 pg. 90). Even though he refers to Schelling frequently, it is always to his collected works, which makes it very difficult to determine which work of Schelling’s he is referencing specifically. It seems likely that Schelling’s influence on von Hartmann played a significant role in his views on the universality of the unconscious. Schopenhauer probably was influential here as well. He often compares the thought of both. Even though he utilizes evolutionary theory, von Hartmann wasn’t a materialist. There is an intimation of the transcendent in his system, but he accords to the unconscious a primary role in nature and it isn’t mind as such, it is the source of will and ideation though (vol. 2, pg. 83, 101). It is only with consciousness that mind comes into play. Like Schelling and Schopenhauer, von Hartmann’s unconscious will is mindless (Vol 2, pg. 273). He seems to have concluded that the unconscious will is mindless because for von Hartmann (contra Leibniz cf. vol. 2, pg. 361-362) this world is the worst of possible worlds (cf. also vol. 2, pg 273-274), and a rational creator would have destroyed it upon its creation. What is odd though is that he both maintains that the unconscious is mechanistic necessity (Vol. 2, Pg. 24), but it also is an undifferentiated mass outside of time and manifestation (Vol. 2, Pg. 50-51). Mechanism requires order, but the unconscious as von Hartmann intimates it is a convoluted chaos (cf. Vol. 2 Pg. 338-339). He was inspired most likely by Carus in his view of the unconscious as mechanism (cf. my review) but positing it as chaos is not from Carus. I did note in my reading and review of Carus that the unconscious almost certainly requires some degree of mechanism and freedom. Both Carus and von Hartmann seem to grant freedom only to consciousness itself. Freedom is often indeed chaotic, so the paradox exists for both the unconscious and conscious modes. Von Hartmann accords so much to the unconscious that he actually makes it the coordinator of evolution and the destiny of humanity (Vol. 2, pg. 38-39). How it could coordinate anything without a mind is not clear. It is obvious though that segmenting roles the way that von Hartmann and Carus do leads to contradiction. When it comes to will, a sane person doesn’t receive motivations to do things that are impossible. If the will is primarily unconscious, it at least knows what ideas are practical and what aren’t. The only obvious reconciliation is that the unconscious contains undifferentiated possibility but isn’t devoid of reason; and consciousness also contains freedom and possibility, but also can rationally differentiate between possibilities. It seems likely that the unconscious can offer at least rational suggestions in part. It seems to me that the final decider is the conscious part, but the unconscious isn’t devoid of reason. This does indicate that if the will starts as unconscious impetus, it isn’t removed from mind and rationality because mind is partially unconscious. For the unconscious to even make suggestions that seem feasible to the conscious mind, it requires that there is some rationality involved. To put simply, I cannot subscribe to any system that separates reason from the unconscious or will from consciousness, or freedom from either. While I agree that the will almost certainly is first rooted in the unconscious, consciousness must either decide to manifest its impetus or to deny it. We cannot easily segment roles as Carus and von Hartmann do. It is incredibly difficult to do so. My position is that all facets of being and mind must have roles in the conscious and unconscious person. The unconscious does seem to be the root as Carus and von Hartmann hold, but it cannot work without consciousness. If will was as overpowering as Schopenhauer and von Hartmann believed, the conscious mind would not be able to act as a check to it. It seems far more likely that a checks and balance system is at work between both. I would have a tendency to agree that the unconscious is far more intuitive (cf. Vol. 2 Pg. 338), and the conscious is more logical, but that isn’t to say that they don’t have a share in both to varying degrees. It also begs the question as to whether there are various levels in consciousness and unconsciousness.

Von Hartmann sees the whole point of conscious life, and its accompanying rationality, to separate idea from will. This is Schopenhauer’s position precisely. The problem still exists for both as to how such a primary overarching pre-conscious and pre-cosmic power can be subject to secondary processes like consciousness and conscious mind (cf. Vol. 2, pg. 248-249). He also searches for consciousness in cells (Vol. 2, pg. 215-216), but it isn’t clear how cells themselves necessitate consciousness. Certainly not all cells go into organisms with an obvious consciousness. Von Hartmann wouldn’t have been aware of DNA, and even that doesn’t suggest consciousness as such. It does indicate that order, information, and mind are inherit in cells, which really works against Schopenhauer’s and von Hartmann’s systems that utilize evolution. It might be intuited that anything that carries information as DNA does, suggests intelligence and consciousness as a matter of course; but consciousness is poorly understood to this day, and that connection isn’t clearly defined. One could even hypothetically at least draw a parallel between the DNA helix and atomic weight. Undoubtedly, both define the matrix of their organic and inorganic context. Von Hartmann does not remove either the organic or inorganic from the unconscious necessarily (cf. Vol. 2, Pg. 287). Of course, as I said, he couldn’t have been aware of all the developments of atomic theory and genetics, but he seemed to intuit some things appropriately enough. It is certainly up for debate among many whether either one indicates a universal mind. I think it is fairly obvious it does, but I admit that how all of this works is not readily apparent to me. That there is an obvious pattern is certainly not beyond reasonable extrapolation. Whether pattern indicates mind I leave it to the reader to decide.

In contrast to a purely subjective Idealism, von Hartmann posits that space and time must be accepted a priori before plurality can even be manifested. I am in agreement here with him to some extent. I part company only in that I hold that distinction takes place even before the introduction of space and time. Philosophers like von Hartmann have often failed to properly understand nuance when it comes to the difference of distinction and the difference of separation. He is certainly correct though that if the conscious mind accepts an other, it can only presuppose space and time when it comes to the mundane world.

Another element that von Hartmann adopted from Schopenhauer is his extreme pessimism. Indeed, his pessimism becomes incredibly wearisome by the end of the book. Instead of it always coming off as purely philosophical, it often comes across as someone just complaining about life. It’s not even that I reject all of his assertions about suffering in life, I only think he is myopic due to his own experiences. I cannot assert with any degree of certainty that suffering is more pervasive and ubiquitous than pleasure in the world. This would require a wealth of data that I am not privy to. I’m also not the best to even weigh such a subject. If I were to gauge my own life, I would probably agree with von Hartmann that suffering has been more notable than pleasure. Von Hartmann’s views on the world are certainly not based on unbiased readily apparent data. There’s plenty of people that do not view the world that same way. We are often biased by our own experiences and we project those on to others. That’s exactly what von Hartmann does. Apparently, he was well acquainted with suffering personally, so it would be natural for him to project that onto the world. Von Hartmann’s view of the world is so grim that he apparently adopted Schopenhauer’s preference for nihilistic Eastern religions where only escape from the world into the nothingness of nirvana was acceptable. With this, he thought it far more preferrable that the world should not exist at all. His pessimism extends to his appraisal of Christianity and other religions. He sees selfishness in asceticism and in almost anything that could be called Christian ethics (Vol. 3, Pg. 90-92). Of course, nirvana is always a personal goal in Eastern religions, so that is also selfish. And one could reasonably find a selfish reason for almost any action if one chooses to. Von Hartmann simply embraces a nihilistic view because of his pessimistic nature. A disdain for the world like his will only accept the complete annihilation of that world and an annihilation of individual people. Von Hartmann sees all doctrines of personal immortality as egoistic, so the unconscious is also his afterlife where everything is undifferentiated and ego-less (Vol 3, pg. 88-89).

Hartmann’s thesis seems to be best rendered on page 242 of volume 2. I provide a long quotation:

“The world is only a continuous series of sums of peculiarly combined will-acts of the Unconscious, for it is only so long as it is continuously posited; let the Unconscious cease to will the world, and this play of intersecting activities of the Unconscious ceases to be. It is an illusion disappearing before thorough reflection, an illusion of the senses in the widest sense, when we think we have in the world, the non-ego, something directly real. It is an illusion of the egoistic instinct when we think we have in ourselves, in our ideal ego, something directly real. The world consists only of a sum of activities or will-acts of the Unconscious, and the ego consists of another sum of activities will-acts of the Unconscious. Only so far as the former activities intersect the latter does the world become sensible to me; only so far as the latter intersect the former do I become sensible to myself. In the sphere of the mental representation or pure Idea, the ideally opposed peacefully exist side by side, and for the most part form logical combinations calmly and without storms. Does, however, a will seize these ideal opposites and make them its content, then the will-acts filled with opposite content enter into opposition; they pass into real conflict, in which they mutually resist and threaten to destroy one another, when either the one succeeds entirely or both partially, so that they compel one another to a compromise. Only in this conflict, the mutually offered resistance of the individually parted will-acts of the All-One, arises and consists that which we call reality…”

I didn’t see anything in this incredibly large tome that sums up his position better than this passage.

This was an interesting book to an extent. I give it around three stars. Its sheer size makes it nigh on unapproachable for most. It could use a serious abridgment. A lot could be removed from it and still be left with the salient points. Some other things that detract from it I mentioned above. Its size makes it hard to recommend to anyone one but those who are keenly interested in philosophy and psychology and their intersection in history.

Aveugle Vogel

"an Australian ant"