Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy of the Unconscious in Literature Course

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

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What is that dark and fascinating place beneath the conscious mind, and how does it manifest itself in conscious thought? Many philosophers have proposed that ‘poetic thinking’ is a key to the unconscious. The course starts with Blake’s ontology of the ‘living dead’, and Coleridge’s ‘opium dreams’, we will explore ideas of the unconscious through literature. We will then analyse four of the most powerful texts of the 20th century: Joyce’s Ulysses; Kafka’s Metamorphosis; and D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.


During this course participants will:

  1. Explore the history of the unconscious through different ages;
  2. Understand how ideas of the unconscious influenced the production of literature;
  3. Understand how ideas form a ‘feedback loop’ to the unconscious;
  4. Examine how ideas become a part of the repository of ‘knowledge’ out of which the images and metaphors are produced;
  5. Interrogate the unconscious by seeing it in action in the literature;
  6. Enjoy engaging with some truly beautiful literature.


1. Introduction

What is the Unconscious? The unconscious consists in those workings, or attributes of the mind which produce thought and action, knowledge and creativity, without the need for conscious control or choice. Regardless of whether we now agree with the theory which the writer holds about their own process, they are exhibiting unconscious processes in their work which we can attempt to analyse. For example, how does Surrealist poetry produce its emotional impact out of the juxtaposition of unlikely images?

2. Metaphysical Knowledge vs Human Production

In this concept, the unconscious is able to channel a deeper and more profound truth than the conscious mind can produce on its own. This idea can be seen in the Ancient Greek idea of the Muses who direct the poet’s thought to access the ‘Reality’ beyond the human senses. Plato considers music as a metaphysical art, which is why the composers and musicians would be an important part of his new Republic. William Blake’s ontology of the ‘living dead’ is the example of this idea. Even without an explicit metaphysical theory, the unconscious is understood by many later writers and artists as being able to access some ‘deeper’ kind of knowledge than the conscious mind: Virginia Woolf explores this idea.

3. William Blake

Blake’s ontology of the ‘living dead’. Blake’s challenge to the Material/ Spiritual dualism: both are states of perception and have independent reality. Heaven and Earth are simply different ways for me to exist.

4. Goethe

The rise of the Romantic unconscious in the self and its connection to nature.

5. Coleridge and Bronte

Coleridge explores the idea that the unconscious can be aided by experimentation with mind altering substances. Bronte explores the idea of the irreducibility of emotion to ordered, rational thought.

6. D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers

The civilised voice of the superego is played out against the powerful forces of the id: pleasure against duty; reason against desire. Sons and Lovers tackles issues of sex, power, possession and how to deal with the problem of those who love us too much.

7. Kafka’s Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis begins with one of the most famous opening lines in literature: ‘As Gregor Sams awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect’ (Don’t we all feel like that some mornings!). We will explore ideas of the self; of identity crisis and the struggle of the mind and body to maintain an unified, creative self image.

8. Joyce’s Ulysses

Leopold Bloom is an ordinary down-to-earth character who has a wonderfully rich inner life. Joyce not only attempts to give us the detailed content of that mind, but also gives us the way that humans converse in the language of thought.

9. Joyce’s Ulysses

Joyce and stream of conscious writing. Does stream of consciousness writing expose unconscious thought?

10. Virginia Woolf

Is Woolf’s mental illness connected to her literature and its thematic concern with the fractured self?

Delivery Style


Recommended Reading

To be provided in class.


To be provided in class.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Small class sizes
  • Free, expert advice
  • Student materials – yours to keep
  • Statement of completion