C.D. Broad on the various meanings of the term ‘unconscious’


These are his words below, from the conclusion to his paper:


I will end by collecting together the various meanings of the terms “conscious” and “unconscious,” which we have elicited:


(i) As used to mark off different kinds of substances, like men and stones, they simply mean “capable, or incapable, of awareness” respectively. In this sense they are best replaced by “animate” and “inanimate.”


(ii) An animate being is said to be in a conscious condition, if some mind is in control of its body at the time, and this mind is actually aware of something. It is said to be in an unconscious condition, if no mind is in control at the time, or if the mind which is in control is not then aware of anything.


(iii) An experience is said to be conscious, if some mind which is in control of a body at the time when the experience happens has at least simultaneous undiscriminating awareness of it. It is said to be relatively unconscious, if the only mind which has this relation to it is not in control at the time. And it is said to be absolutely unconscious, if no mind has this relation to it. As it seems probable that ownership and simultaneous undiscriminating awareness go together, we can substitute the former for the latter relation in the definition. This is the only literal sense in which we can talk of unconscious experiences. Whether there is any adequate ground for believing in their existence is left undiscussed in this paper, though certain tests are suggested by which we could decide that it was unconscious provided that we had reason to think that it happened at all.


(iv) Traces and dispositions are often called “unconscious states.” But there is no reason to suppose that they are, or are anything like, experiences. It is therefore better to call them by the neutral name of “mnemic continuants.”


(v) Dr. Rivers has applied the name “unconscious” to experiences which were conscious, in sense (iii), when they happened, but which their owner can no longer remember by normal means. It is best to call them “inaccessible experiences,” and to say their traces form part of the “total mnemic mass.” Such experiences do not literally form part of the Unconscious, in any sense of that word; and it is merely confusing to say that the unconscious consists of such experiences.


(vi) Lastly, the name “unconscious” is often applied to ordinary conscious experiences which are not properly discriminated by their owner because the recognition of their true nature would be unflattering to him. According to the different methods which are adopted for evading the recognition of such experiences we may say that they are “ignored,” “misdescribed,” or “mislocated.” Experiences to which this happens are most often desires, or emotions, and they have a tendency to become inaccessible.



Broad, C.D. 1923. Various Meanings of the Term “Unconscious.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society  23: 173-198.