Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

ISSN 1492-3173

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By William H.R. Rivers (1920)

Posted April 2000



It will be convenient at this stage to consider a term for a concept which is now widely current in psycho-pathology and has so caught the general fancy that it is becoming part of popular language. I propose to consider what we mean when we speak of a complex. In its original significance, as used by Jung, the term referred to experience belonging to the unconscious which, though inaccessible to consciousness, is yet capable of influencing thought and conduct, especially in directions which may be regarded as pathological.

Bernard Hart, who more than any other English writer has made the psychology of the unconscious part of general knowledge, has greatly extended the meaning of the term and uses it for any "emotionally toned system of ideas" which determines conscious behaviour, taking the hobby as his special example, while he also instances political bias as a complex. During the war the term has come to be used very loosely. Worries and anxieties arising out of recent and fully conscious experience have been spoken of as complexes. In fact, the word is often used in so wide and loose a sense that my own tendency at present is to avoid it altogether, and this course will have to be followed in scientific writings unless we can agree upon some definition which will make the term "complex" really serviceable as an instrument of thought. I propose now to do what I can towards the formulation of such a definition.

In the last chapter I attempted to make clear the sense in which we should use another term, dissociation, which is also in danger of becoming useless through the inexactness with which it is employed. I reached the conclusion that the term "dissociation" will be most useful if it is defined as [p. 86] the independent activity of suppressed experience accompanied by alternate consciousness. The first possibility which occurs to us is that we should connect the term "complex" with the process of dissociation as so defined. A complex would then be a body of suppressed experience with an activity independent of the behaviour of normal life and accompanied by consciousness dissociated or separated from the consciousness which accompanies that behaviour.

An alternative is that the term "complex" shall be used in a wider sense for any body of suppressed tendencies and experience which shows any form of independent activity. This usage would certainly come nearer to that at present in vogue. Used in this wider sense it would be applied to such experience as that of my claustrophobic patient whose experience in the passage, together with the accompanying affect, would be a complex. In my own childish experience the nature of the "complex" is as yet unknown, but if it should be found that the suppression of my imagery is due to some one especially painful event, that event with its associated experience would then be spoken of as a complex. If it can be shown that this suppressed experience has had any influence on my character and mental constitution, this influence would be said to be due to the complex. In the case of war-experience the term "complex" would apply to any events which, having become inaccessible to consciousness, can yet be held directly responsible for fugues, nightmares, terrors, or other manifestations of a psycho-neurosis or for minor peculiarities of a similar order which are not ordinarily regarded as pathological.

The term "complex" is especially useful where we are seeking for the explanation of a specific mental manifestation such as a phobia, a fugue, a specific anxiety, or a specific feature of a dream. It is distinctly useful to be able to speak of the complex in such a case in place of having to refer every time to the body of suppressed tendencies together with the associated experience and affect which are determining the course of behaviour. [p. 87]

It will have been noted that both the senses in which I have considered the term "complex" are narrower than that proposed by Bernard Hart. There is no reason to suppose that political bias has any special relation to suppression or to dissociation in the sense in which I use the terms. In so far as our political opinions are determined by underlying preferences and prejudices, the "political bias" of Bernard Hart, they are the result of a large number of influences of childhood, youth, and adult age, many of which are fully conscious, while others may be determined, at any rate in part, by experience which has been suppressed. The bias as a whole, however, is a very complicated affair which in the main is a product, not of suppression, but of fusion, a fusion between trends of certain lines of thought and conduct which may or may not be determined by unconscious experience, together with other influences, such as those of parents, teachers and friends, which have never been either suppressed or repressed, but very much the opposite.

In the broad sense which Hart proposes for "complex," the term becomes almost identical with the "sentiment" of the orthodox psychologist. Used in this definite sense, the term and concept of "sentiment" are among the most recent and valuable acquisitions of psychology, but in my opinion it will only tend to confusion of thought to include in one category sentiments and the bodies of suppressed experience to which I should like to see the term "complex " limited, if it is going to be used at all.

It may perhaps help to make clear how I distinguish sentiments from complexes if I illustrate by similar products on the sensori-motor level. Such an experiment as that of Head shows that certain forms of protopathic experience, such as the radiation and reference of sensation in space, are suppressed while other elements are fused with later developed forms of sensation to make up the normal modes of sensibility of the skin. Let us consider for a moment what we mean when we speak of the sensibility for cold. We mean that the skin is endowed with "something" which, when a body with certain [p. 88] physical properties touches the skin, determines both our experience of cold, and the special kind of behaviour which is adapted to this experience. What we mean by sensibility is thus comparable to the "something" in our mental constitution which determines that when we read in the paper of a certain event, we experience the specific kind of affect and special tendency to behaviour, which determine the relation of that event to our political conduct, which help, for instance, to determine how we shall vote at the next election. This "something" which thus determines our feelings and conduct is what the orthodox psychologist knows as a sentiment.

We have seen that the sensibility of the normal skin is produced by the process of fusion of different kinds of tendency and experience. This fusion is a process of a wholly different order from the suppression by which certain features of early experience have been put out of activity. The whole process of development of cutaneous sensibility which is made clear and intelligible by distinguishing suppression from fusion, and by defining the proper place and share of each, would be hopelessly obscured if we confused the two very different processes of suppression and fusion under one heading. And yet this is what in my opinion has been done by Bernard Hart when he includes under the term "complex" the highly complicated product of fusion, which by other psychologists is called a sentiment, and the suppressed experience which probably, indeed certainly, enters into the process of fusion, but only as one of its elements. Using the terms as I propose, both complex and sentiment determine thought and conduct, but differ from each other profoundly in other respects. They differ first in complexity, the sentiment being far more complex in its nature than the process which has been denoted according to this feature.[1] Secondly, to use the special terminology of this book, the sentiment is a far more epicritic product than [p. 89] the complex. The sentiments are features of the mind which take part in the most finely graduated processes and are connected with discrimination of the most delicate description. The complex, on the other hand, being the result of suppression always partakes in some degree of the crude "all-or-none" character which we have been led to associate with suppression. Months or years may pass without its showing any effects at all and then it may reveal its presence by some profound and far-reaching disturbance of the mental life.

Lastly, it is not without importance that the sentiment is an absolutely necessary and constant feature of the normal mental life. Most of our sentiments come into action daily and influence the behaviour of every moment of the life of every day. The complex, on the other hand, in the sense in which I should like to use the term, has essentially a pathological implication. It is not only a result of suppression, but the product of independent activity of the suppressed content, whether accompanied by alternate consciousness or wholly within the region of the unconscious. There is, of course, no hard-and-fast line between the healthy and the morbid, and it is possible, if not probable, that the complex will in some cases shade off into the sentiment, but I believe it is useful that pathology shall have its own terms and concepts. I believe that it will be best to reserve the term "complex" for products which partake, in some degree at any rate, of a morbid quality and that nothing but confusion can result from the inclusion in one category of definitely pathological processes and such absolutely normal and necessary processes as the sentiments.


[1] It is very unfortunate that the complex should have been so named. Its two characteristic features are its relation to the unconscious and its affective importance, and a suitable term should have reference to one, if not to both, of these features.