Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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By William H.R. Rivers (1920)

Posted May 2000



According to Freud, the unconscious is guarded by an entity working within the region of the unconscious, upon which it exerts a controlling and selective action. It checks those elements of unconscious experience which by their unpleasant nature would disturb their possessor if they were allowed to reach his consciousness, and if it permits these to pass, sees that they- appear in such a guise that their nature will not be recognised.

In sleep, according to Freud, this censorship allows much to reach the sleeping consciousness, but as a rule distorts it so that it appears only in a symbolic form and with so apparently meaningless a character that the comfort of the sleeper is not affected. Or, the process may perhaps be more correctly expressed as a selective action which only allows experience to pass when it has assumed this guise.

In the waking state the censorship is held to be even more active, or rather more efficient. It only allows unconscious experience to escape in the form of slips of the tongue or pen or to show its influence in apparently motiveless acts which, owing to the complete failure of the agent to recognise their nature, in no way interfere with the efficiency of the censorship.

There is no question that this concept of a censorship, acting as a guardian of a person against such elements of unconscious experience as would disturb the harmony of his life, is one which helps us to understand many of the more mysterious aspects of the mind. Such a process of censorship would account for a number of experiences which at first sight seem so strange and [p. 229] irrational that most students have been content to regard them as the products of chance, and as altogether inexplicable. It is only his thoroughgoing belief in determinism as applied to the sphere of mind which has not allowed Freud to be content with such explanation, or negation of explanation, and has led him to his concept of the censorship.

There are many, however, prepared to go far with Freud in their adherence to his scheme of psychology, who yet find it difficult to accept a concept which involves the working within the unconscious of an agency so wholly in the pattern of the conscious as is the case with Freud's censorship. The concept is based on analogy with a highly complex and specialised social institution, the endopsychic censorship being supposed to act in the same way as the official whose business it is to control the press and allow nothing to reach the community which will, in his opinion, disturb the harmony of its existence.

It would be more satisfactory if the controlling agency which the facts need could be expressed in some other form; Since the process which has to be explained takes place within the region of unconscious experience, or at least on its confines, we might expect to find the appropriate mode of expression in a physiological rather than a sociological parallel. It is to physiology rather than to sociology that we should look for the clue to the nature of the process by which a person is guarded from such elements of his unconscious experience as might disturb the harmony of his existence.

It is now generally admitted that the nervous system, in so far as function is concerned, is arranged in a number of levels, one above another, forming a hierarchy in which each level controls those beneath it and is itself controlled by those above. If we assume a similar organisation of unconscious experience, we should have a number of levels in which experience belonging to adult life would occupy a position higher than that taken by the experience of youth, and this again would stand above the experience of childhood and infancy. A level of more recently acquired experience would control one going back to an earlier period of life, and any intermediate level would central and be [p. 230] controlled according to its place in the time-order in which it came into existence.

Moreover, the levels would not merely differ in the nature of the material of which they are composed, the lowest level[1] being a storehouse of the experience of infancy, the next of the experience of childhood, and so on.[2] Much more important would be that character of the hierarchy according to which each level preserves in its mode of action the characteristics of the mentality in which it has its origin. Thus, the level of infamy would preserve the infantile methods of feeling, thinking and acting, and when this level became active in sleeping or waking life, its manifestations would take the special form characteristic of infancy. Similarly, the level recording the forgotten experience of youth would, when it found expression, reveal any special modes of mentality which belong to youth.

I have now to inquire how far this concept that higher levels of adult experience, acting according to the manner of adult life, control lower levels of infantile and youthful experience, acting according to the manner of infancy and youth, is capable of forming the basis of a scheme by means of which we may explain those facts of the sleeping and waking life which Freud refers to the action of his endopsychic censorship.

I will begin by considering dreams, the special form in which experience becomes manifest in sleep. There is much reason to believe that the dream has, the characters of infancy; not so much that its material is derived from the experience of infancy, but rather that any experience which finds expression, in the dream is moulded according to the forms of feeling, thought and action proper to infancy. This character of the dream finds a natural explanation if its appearance in consciousness is simply-due to the removal in sleep of higher controlling levels, so that the lower levels with their infantile modes of expression [p. 231] come to the surface and are allowed to manifest themselves in their natural guise. The phantastic and irrational character of the dream would not be due to any elaborate process of distortion, carried out by all agency partaking of a demonic character. It would be rather the direct consequence of the coming into activity of modes of behaviour which in the ordinary state me held in check by levels embodying the experience of later life.

It will be well at this stage of the argument to state as exactly as possible how the view I now put forward differs from that of Freud. This writer supposes that his "censorship" is a process which has come into being as a means of protecting a sleeper from influences which would awake him. So far as I understand Freud, the distortion of the latent content of the dream is a result of the activity of the censorship. It is a transformation designed to elude this activity. I suppose, on the other hand, that the form in which the latent content of the dream manifests itself depends on something inherent in the experience which forms this latent content or inherent in the mode of activity by which it is expressed. If the controlling influences derived from the experience of later life are removed, the experience finding expression in the dream must take the form proper to it, and would do so quite regardless of its influence upon the comfort .f the sleeper and the duration of his sleep. I do not deny that the infantile form in which unconscious or subconscious experience reveals itself in dreams may be useful in promoting or maintaining sleep, But if there be such utility, it is a secondary aspect of the process. It is even possible that this protective and defensive function may be a factor which has assisted the survival of the dream as a feature of mental activity, but the character of the dream is primarily the result of the way in which the mind has been built up. It is a consequence of the fact that early modes of mental functioning have not been scrapped when more efficient modes have come into existence, but have been utilised in so far as they are of service, and suppressed in so far as they are useless.[3] suppose[sic] that the general mode in which the mind has developed is of the same order as that now generally acknowledged to have characterised the development of the nervous system, and that the special character of the dream is the direct result of that mode of development. As a by-product of this special development the dream may have acquired a useful function in protecting the sleeper from experience by which he would be disturbed, but in his concept of the censorship, Freud has unduly emphasised this Protective function. His view of the endopsychic censorship with its highly anthropomorphic colouring tends to obscure the essential character of the dream as a product of a general principle of the development of mind.

I can now pass to other activities ascribed to the censorship by Freud. The phenomena of the waking life which need consideration are of two chief kinds. First, slips of the tongue or pen, apparently inexplicable examples of forgetting, and other similar processes which have been considered by Freud in his book on The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The other group which needs explanation is made up of those definitely pathological processes which occur in the psycho-neuroses, for the explanation of which Freud has called upon his concept of the censorship.

I propose on this occasion to accept, without discussion, Freud's view that much processes as slips of the tongue or pen are the expression of tendencies lying beneath the ordinary level of waking consciousness. My object is not to dispute this part of his scheme of the unconscious, but to inquire whether such a scheme as I have suggested may not explain these slips in a way more satisfactory than one according to which they occur, owing to momentary lapses of vigilance on the part of a guard an watching at the threshold of consciousness.

The special character of slips of the tongue or pen is that a word which would be appropriate as the expression of some unconscious or subconscious trend of thought intrudes into a sentence expressing a thought with which it has no obvious connection, thus producing an irrational and nonsensical character similar to that of the dream. If it is true, and that it is so [p. 233] seems to me to stand beyond all doubt, that underlying orderly and logical trains of thought which make up our manifest consciousness, there are systems of organised experience embodying early phases of thought, and still earlier mental constructions which hardly deserve the name of thought, it is necessary that these lower strata should be held in some kind of check. Consistent thought and action would be impossible if there were continual and open conflict between the latest developments of our thought and earlier phases, phases, for instance, belonging to a time when, through the influence of parents and teachers, opinions were held directly contrary to those reached by the individual experience of later life. The earlier systems may and do influence the later thoughts, but the orderly expression of these later thoughts in speech, spoken or written, would be impossible unless the earlier systems were under some sort of control.

In so far as they are explicable on Freudian lines, slips of the tongue or pen seem to depend on two main factors; one, the excitation in some way of the suppressed or repressed body of experience which finds expression in the slip; the other, weakening of control by fatigue or impaired health of the speaker or writer. A suppressed body of experience ("complex") is especially, or perhaps only, liable to intrude into the speech by which other thoughts are being expressed when there has been some recent experience tending to call into activity the buried memory, while this expression is definitely assisted by weakening of the inhibiting factors due to fatigue or illness.

Such a process is perfectly natural as a simple failure of balance between controlled and controlling systems of experience, the temporary success of the controlled system being due either to increase of its activity, or weakening of the controlling forces, or both combined. It is not so clear that it accords with the protective influence ascribed by Freud to the censorship. The slips of tongue or pen may be quite as trying and annoying as the suppressed experience out of which they arise. There is no such useful function as the guardianship of sleep, which is ascribed by Freud to the censorship of the dream. [p. 234]

Another kind of experience fits better with Freud's concept of the censorship. The forgetting of experience when it is unpleasant or is a condition of some dreaded activity, of which such striking examples have been given by Freud,[4] definitely protects the comfort, at any rate the immediate comfort, of the person who forgets. The examples seem capable of explanation by the concept of a guardian watching at -the threshold of consciousness. At the same time they are not immediately explicable as a result of a mechanism by which more lately acquired control more ancient; systems of experience. They seem to involve a definite activity on the part of the controlling mechanism, which is not inaptly designated by the simile of a censorship. In the case of the dream I have pointed out that, if the scheme I propose be a true expression of the facts, we should expect that the controlling factors would sometimes acquire a useful function. This useful function need not be inherent in the process of development which brought the mechanism of control into existence. Just as there are certain features of the dream and certain kinds of dream which lend definite support to Freud's concept of the censorship, so the forgetting of experience which would lead to unpleasant action is a phenomenon which might be explained by the activity of a process similar to a censorship. Such a concept as that of the censorship, however, should explain and bring into relation with one another all the facts. If it only explains some of the facts, it becomes probable that the process of censorship is a secondary process, a later addition to one which has a more deeply-seated origin.

The other group of phenomena of the waking life, for the explanation of which Freud has had recourse to the concept of the censorship, consists of the psycho-neuroses, and especially that characterised by the mimetic representation of morbid states which is generally known as hysteria. A sufferer from this disease is one who, being troubled by some mental conflict, finds relief in a situation where the conflict is solved by the occurrence of some disability, such as paralysis, contracture, or [p. 235] mutism, a disability which makes it impossible for him to perform acts which a more healthy solution of his conflict would involve. The mimetic character of hysteria is definite, and the school of Freud has recognised the resemblance of the pathological process underlying it to the dramatisation and symbolisation of the dream. The disease is regarded as a means of manifesting motives belonging to the unconscious in such a manner that the sufferer does not recognise their nature and is content with the solution of the difficulty which the hysterical symptoms provide. According to Freud, the rôle of the censorship in this case is to distort the process by which the unconscious or subconscious manifests itself so that its nature shall not be recognised by the patient. This process is so successful that as a rule the patient not only succeeds in deceiving himself, but also those with whom he is associated. On the lines suggested in this paper, the concept of a censorship is in this case even less appropriate than it might seem to be in the case of the dream. The hysterical disability is amply explained by a process in which the higher levels are put in abeyance so that the lower levels are enabled to find expression. The state out of which the hysterical symptoms arise is one in which there is a conflict between a higher and more recently developed set of motives, which may be summed up under the heading of duty, and a lower and earlier set of motives provided by instinctive tendencies, The solution of the conflict reached by the hysteric is one in which the upper levels go out of action, while the lower levels find expression in that mimetic or symbolic form which is natural to the infantile stages of human development, whether individual or collective. The hysteric is satisfied with a mimetic representation as refuge from his conflict, just as the child or the savage is content with a mimetic representation of some wish which fulfils for him all the purposes of reality.

The infantile character of the process is still apparent if we turn to the process by which the higher levels of experience pass into abeyance. It is generally recognised that the abrogation of control which takes place in hysteria is closely connected with [p. 236] the process of suggestion. We know little of the nature of this process of suggestion, but there is reason to believe that it is one which takes a most important place in the earlier stages of mental development. If existing savage peoples afford any index of primitive mentality, this conclusion receives strong support, for among them the power of suggestion is so strong that it goes far beyond the production of paralyses, mutisms and anæsthesias, and is capable of producing the supreme disability of death.

This susceptibility to suggestion is to be connected with the gregariousness of Man in the early stages of the development of human culture. If animals are to act together as a body, it is essential that they shall possess some kind of instinct which makes them especially responsive to the influence of one another, one which will lead to the rapid adoption of any line of conduct which a prominent member of the group may take. In the presence of any emergency, it is essential that each member of a group shall be capable of losing at once the, conative tendencies set up by his individual appetites, and shall wholly subordinate these to the immediate needs of the group. Animals possessing this power by which the higher and more lately developed tendencies are inhibited by the collective needs set up by danger will naturally survive in the struggle for existence. If, as there can be little doubt, Man in the earlier stages of his cultural development was such an animal, we have an ample motive for his suggestibility, and for the greater strength of this character in the earlier levels of experience. According to-this point of view hysteria is the coming into activity of an early form of reaction to a dangerous or difficult situation. The protection against the danger or difficulty so provided is the direct consequence of the nature of the early form of reaction, and the concept of a censorship making it necessary that the manifestations shall take this form is artificial aid unnecessary.

The argument thus far set forth is that the phenomena, both of waking and- sleeping experience, which have led Freud to his concept of the censorship are explicable as the result of [p. 237] an arrangement of mental levels exactly comparable with that now generally recognised to exist in the nervous system, an arrangement by which more recently developed or acquired systems control the more ancient. The special characters of the manifestations which Freud has explained by his concept of his censorship have been regarded as inherent in the experience which finds expression when the more recently acquired and controlling factors have been weakened or removed.

The concept which I here put forward in place of the Freudian censorship is borrowed from the physiology of the nervous system. I propose now to consider briefly some facts usually regarded as strictly neurological and to discuss how they fit ill with the two concepts. In the case of the nervous system two chief classes of failure of control can be recognised -- one occasional and the other more or less persistent, at any rate for considerable periods. If the relations between the conscious and the unconscious are of the same order as those existing between the higher and lower levels of the nervous system, we may expect to find manifestations of nervous activity similar to those which Freud explains by his concept of the censorship.

Good examples of occasional lapses of control in the sphere of motor activity are provided by false strokes in work or play. The craftsman who makes a false stroke with his chisel or hammer, or the billiard player who misses his stroke, show examples of behaviour strictly comparable with slips of tongue or pen. From the point of view put forward in this paper, both kinds of occurrence are due to the failure of a highly complex and delicately balanced adjustment between controlling and controlled processes. If we could go into the causes of false strokes in work or play, we should doubtless find that each has its antecedents, and that the false stroke often has a more or less definite meaning and is the expression of some trend which does not lie on the surface. Such occurrences are readily explicable as failures of adjustment due either to weakening of control or disturbances in the controlled tendencies to movement. In the vast majority of cases, however, [p. 238] it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to force these into a scheme by which they rue due to the activity of a guardian who allows or encourages the occurrence of the false stroke in order to cover and disguise some more discomforting experience.

A definitely morbid disorder of movement, which may be taken as an example of the more persistent class of failures in control, is that known as tic, a spasmodic movement having a more or less purposive character. This disorder is definitely due to a weakening of-nervous control, and is most naturally explained as a dramatisation of some instinctive tendency called into action by a shock or strain. Thus, the ties of sufferers from war-neurosis may be regarded as symbols or dramatisations of some tendency which would be called into activity by danger, and the movements me often of such a kind as would avert or minimise the danger. The concept of a censorship is here not only unnecessary, but quite inappropriate. The form taken by the tic is that natural to an instinctive movement, but the tic depends essentially on weakening of the controlling forces normally in action. Its existence like that of hysteria, or perhaps more correctly like that of other hysterical manifestations, may act, or seem to the patient to act, as a protection against prospective danger or discomfort, but it is probable that such a function is secondary. It is an example of the utilisation by the organism of a reaction, the nature of which is determined by instinctive tendencies, and in no we requires the concept of a guardian watching at the threshold of consciousness, or at the threshold of activities normally associated with consciousness.

I will conclude this paper by considering how far the process which I propose to substitute for Freud's censorship has any parallels in human culture, for since the control of one level by another runs through the whole activity of the nervous system as well as through the whole of experience, we should expect to find it exemplified both in civilised and savage culture.

Every kind of human society reveals a hierarchical arrangement in which higher ranks control the lower, and inhibit or [p. 239] suppress activities belonging to earlier phases of culture. In certain cases this process of control includes the activity of a censorship by which activities seeking to find expression are consciously and deliberately held in check or suppressed. But this process of censorship forms only a very small part of the total mass of inhibiting forces by which more recently developed social groups control tendencies belonging to an older social order. When in time of stress the control exerted by more recent developments of social activity is weakened, the earlier levels reveal themselves in symbolic forms, well exemplified by the Sansculottism of the French Revolution and the red flag of the present day, but these symbolic or dramatic forms of expression are not in any way due to the activity of a censorship. They are rather manifestations characteristic of early forms of thought by means of which repressed tendencies find expression when the control of higher social levels is removed. They are not distortions produced or even allowed by the social censorship, but are manifestations proper to early forms of mental activity which occur in direct opposition to the censorship. Censorship is a wholly inappropriate expression for the social processes corresponding most closely with the features of dream or disease for the explanation of which this social metaphor has been used by Freud.

In a lecture on "Dreams and Primitive Culture"[5] I have described certain aspects of rude society which seem to show modes of social behaviour very similar to those qualities of the dream which Freud explains by the action of a censorship. I now suggest that these, like the censorship of civilised peoples, are not necessary products of social activity, something inherent in the social order, but are special developments. They seem to be specialised forms taken by the general process of control in order to meet special needs. It has been seen that the concept of an endopsychic censorship is capable of explaining certain more or less morbid occurrences in the waking life. A good case could be made for the view that [p. 240] the social censorship has in it something of the morbid, and that its existence points to something unhealthy in the social order. Whether it be the censorship of the Press of highly civilised societies, or the disguise of the truth found in the ritual of a Melanesian secret fraternity, the processes of suppression and distortion point to some fault in the social order, to some interference with the harmony and unity which should characterise the acts of a perfectly organised society.


[1] I leave on one side for the present the possibility that there may be a still lower level derived from inherited experience of the race. If there be such a level, we must suppose that this is controlled by the acquired experience of the individual.

[2] It must be noted that these levels, like those of the nervous system, are not discontinuous, but pass into one another by insensible gradations.

[3] Cf. Brit. Journ. Psych., vol. ix. (1918), p. 242.

[4] Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

[5] Manchester University Press, 1918. Reprinted from the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. iv. (1918), p. 387.