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consciousness, in psychology, a term commonly used to indicate a state of awareness of self and environment. In Freudian psychology, conscious behavior largely includes cognitive processes of the ego, such as thinking, perception, and planning, as well as some aspects of the superego, such as moral conscience. Some psychologists deny the distinction between conscious and unconscious behavior; others use the term consciousness to indicate all the activities of an individual that constitute the personality. In recent years, neuropsychologists have begun to investigate the links between consciousness and memory, as well as altered states of consciousness such as the dream state. See also defense mechanism; psychoanalysis.


See D. C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (1991); A. Damasto, The Feeling of What Happens (1999); S. Blackmore, Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (2005); C. S. Hill, Consciousness (2009); D. J. Chalmers, The Character of Consciousness (2010).

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that part of the human mind that is aware of a persons self, environment and mental activity The conscious mind contains memories, current experience and thoughts which are available to awareness. The conscious mind in FREUD's theory is only a small part of mental life, most of which is hidden in the UNCONSCIOUS. See also PRACTICAL CONSCIOUSNESS, STRATIFICATIONAL MODEL OF SOCIAL ACTION AND CONSCIOUSNESS.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a basic concept in philosophy, sociology, and psychology, signifying the capacity for the ideal reproduction of reality, as well as the specific mechanisms and forms at various levels of this process. There are two forms of consciousness: individual (personal) and social.

Because of the complexity of consciousness, each of the sciences studying it contributes a specific characteristic to the approach to defining the phenomenon. With a materialist resolution of the basic question of philosophy, consciousness is regarded as a property of highly organized matter, consisting in the psychological reflection of reality. Materialist philosophy also views consciousness as conscious being, the subjective image of the objective world; as subjective reality, in contrast to objective reality; and as the ideal, in contrast to and in the unity with the material. In a narrower sense, consciousness means the higher form of psychological reflection inherent in the socially developed human being, the ideal side of purposeful labor activity.

The sociological approach regards consciousness primarily as society’s spiritual life, in all its forms. In psychology, consciousness is interpreted as psychic activity that ensures the generalized, purposeful reflection of the external world; a person’s separation of himself from the environment and his juxtaposition to it as subject to object; goal-directed activity, or the preliminary, mental construction of actions and consideration of their consequences; and the control and direction of the individual’s behavior—his ability to be aware of what is taking place in his environment and in his mind. Since the object of consciousness is not only the external world but also the subject, or the possessor of consciousness, self-consciousness is an essential element of consciousness.

History. In the early stages of the development of philosophy, the ideal and the material were not strictly divided. For example, Heraclitus interpreted logos as both fire and the meaning of things. The value of human reason was determined by its proximity to logos, the general world order of things. Before Plato, Greek thought had no concept of the ideal, in the proper sense of the word. The soul was regarded as air, as fire, or as the movement of atoms. Plato was the first to distinguish the concept of the ideal as the opposite of the sensual objective, the material. For the whole cosmos, Mind (nous) is the prime mover, the source of harmony, and a force capable of adequately conceiving of itself. Similarly, in the individual human soul, the mind contemplates itself and, at the same time, serves as the active principle regulating behavior.

In antiquity, reason was regarded as cosmic and represented as a generalization of the real world, a synonym for universal law. Conversely, during the Middle Ages consciousness was regarded as a principle superior to the world, as god, who existed before nature and created it out of nothing. Reason was interpreted as an attribute of god, and man was left with only a tiny “spark” of the all-penetrating flame of divine reason. However, Christianity gave rise to the idea of the spontaneous activity of the soul and to the inclusion of consciousness in the concept of soul.

In modern philosophy, Descartes had the greatest influence on the elaboration of the problem of consciousness. Bringing self-consciousness to the fore, he regarded consciousness as nonspa-tial substance, accessible only to the subject contemplating it. In his materialist doctrine, Spinoza regarded consciousness, as well as extension, as an attribute of substance (nature). The 18th-century French materialists viewed consciousness as a function of the brain and as the reflection of reality. But the pre-Marxist materialists were unable to reveal the social, active character of human consciousness. The German classical idealists profoundly analyzed the creative activity of consciousness. Hegel came right up to the problem of the sociohistorical character of consciousness and asserted the principle of historicism in the understanding of consciousness. His point of departure was the idea that since the consciousness of the individual (the subjective spirit) is necessarily linked to the object, it is determined by the historical forms of social life. He interpreted these forms, however, as the embodiment of the objective spirit.

Marxism regards consciousness as a function of the brain, as the reflection of the objective world, and as a necessary aspect of the practical, material activity of man. According to dialectical materialism, consciousness emerges, functions, and develops out of the real interaction of man with the world, on the basis of sensual-objective activity and sociohistorical practice. Consciousness, the content of which reflects the objective world, is determined by natural and social reality. Objects, their properties, and their relationships exist in the consciousness ideally, as images. The ideal is the product of the activity of the brain, the subjective image of the objective world.

The active character of consciousness: consciousness and activity. Repudiating the idealist interpretation of the activity of consciousness as immanent, as proceeding from the depths of the spirit, Marxism reveals the groundlessness of the conception of metaphysical materialism, according to which consciousness is the passive contemplation of the world. Dialectical materialism explains the active character of consciousness, taking as a point of departure its determination by objective reality. The objective world acts on man and is reflected in his consciousness, becoming ideal. Through man’s material activity, however, consciousness (the ideal) becomes reality (the real). The primary aim of the activity of consciousness is cognition. The activity of consciousness is manifested in the selectivity and purposefulness of perception, in the abstract power of thought, in acts of fantasy and productive imagination involved in the creation of new ideas and ideals, and in the guidance of practical activity.

The foundation for man’s relationship to the real world is goal-directed activity. The fundamental, vital meaning of consciousness and the historical necessity for its emergence consist in ensuring goal-directed activity aimed at transforming the world and subordinating it to the interests of man and society. Consciousness gives man the possibility of accurately reflecting what exists, foreseeing the future, and molding the world, based on his predictions and practical activity. V. I. Lenin wrote: “Man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world, but creates it... . The world does not satisfy man and man decides to change it by his activity” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, pp. 194,195).

The origin of consciousness and its biological prerequisites. The formation of human consciousness was preceded by a long period of “mental” development in animals. Dialectical materialism based its interpretation of this development on the fact that psychic reflection appears only at a high level of organization of matter and is connected with the formation of the nervous system. The psychic activity of animals is completely determined by biological laws and is aimed at adapting to the environment, whereas human consciousness is directed at transforming the world. Unlike animals, humans distinguish between their relationship to the world and the world as objective reality.

The emergence of man was associated with the transition to labor from the appropriation of finished articles (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 19, note). In labor the instinctual foundation of the animal psyche broke down, and mechanisms of conscious activity took shape. Consciousness arises, develops, and is primarily embodied in labor, creating a world of humanized nature, of culture. Consciousness could only have emerged as a function of an intricately organized brain, which developed with the increasing complexity of the structure of sensual-objective activity and social relations, as well as the increasing complexity of the forms of symbolic communication (F. Engels, ibid., vol. 20, p. 490).

Using tools, man brought objects into artificial forms of interaction. Under the conditions of the primitive human herd and later, clan society, the entire structure of human activity was altered by the use of tools and a system of signals (gestures and sounds)—that is, by the transition to mediated practical and symbolic activity. The internal program of intellectual activity grew out of the logic of sensual-objective activity and the system of gestures that reproduced it in acts of communication dictated by the necessity of joint labor. Language, a system of symbols, emerged as the instrument of this internal activity, causing consciousness to take shape and develop as the spiritual product of society, and making possible the realization of continuity in human activity and relations.

The social essence of consciousness: personal and social consciousness. Idealism takes as its point of departure the notion that consciousness develops immanently and spontaneously, and may be understood exclusively in itself. By contrast, Marxism proceeds from the assertion that it is impossible to analyze consciousness apart from the other phenomena of social life. “Consciousness ... is, from the very beginning, a social product, and it remains so as long as people exist” (K. Marx and F. Engels, ibid., vol. 3, p. 29).

The human brain contains the potentialities developed throughout world history—”deposits” transmitted by heredity and realized under the conditions of learning, training, and the totality of social influences. The brain becomes the organ of human consciousness only when man is drawn into social life, when he assimilates the historically elaborated forms of culture.

Consciousness is objectified in the system of material and spiritual culture, in the forms of social consciousness, which develops through and is only relatively independent of the consciousness of individuals. Undeciphered letters do not in themselves have intellectual content. All of the books in the libraries of the world, as well as all works of art, have cultural significance only in relation to individuals. Social consciousness is the reflection of social being in language, science, philosophy, works of art, political and legal ideology, morals, religion and myths, folk wisdom, social norms, and the views of classes, social groups, and all mankind. Social consciousness has a complex structure and various levels, ranging from everyday, mass consciousness to the highest form of theoretical thought. Among the forms of social consciousness are science, philosophy, art, ethics, religion, politics, and law. Although it reflects social being, social consciousness is relatively independent and has a reciprocal influence on social being.

Considerations of social consciousness direct one’s attention away from everything individual and personal and toward the examination of views characteristic of a particular society as a whole or of a particular social group. Society is not the sum of its members. Similarly, social consciousness is not the sum of the consciousness of various individuals but a qualitatively distinct, relatively independent spiritual system. Personal and social consciousness are constantly interacting. The norms of consciousness historically developed by society become the personal convictions of the individual, the source of moral injunctions, aesthetic feelings, and ideas. In their turn, personal ideas and convictions become social values, gaining importance as a social force when they become part of the social consciousness and take on the character of behavioral norms.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Sviatoe semeistvo. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 2.
Marx, K. Tezisy o Feierbakhe. Ibid., vol. 3.
Engels, F. Liudvig Feierbakh i konets klassicheskoi nemetskoi filosofii. Ibid., vol. 21.
Lenin, V. I. Moterializm i empiriokrititsizm. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18.
Lenin, V. I. Filosofskie tetradi. Ibid., vol. 29.
Sechenov, I. M. Izbrannye filosofskie i psikhologicheskie proizvedeniia. Moscow, 1947.
Khaskhachikh, F. I. Materna i soznanie. Moscow, 1952.
Rubinshtein, S. L. Bytie i soznanie. Moscow, 1957.
Vygotskii, L. S. Razvitie vysshikh psikhicheskikh funktsii. Moscow, 1960.
Spirkin, A. G. Proiskhozhdeniesoznaniia. Moscow, 1960.
Spirkin, A. G. Soznanie isamosoznanie. Moscow, 1972.
Shorokhova, E. V. Problema soznaniia v filosofii i estestvoznanii. Moscow, 1961.
Leont’ev, A. N. Problemy razvitiiapsikhiki, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1972.
Problemy soznaniia. Moscow, 1966.
Georgiev, F. I. Soznanie, ego proiskhozhdenie i sushchnost’. Moscow, 1967.
Bassin, F. V. Problema bessoznatel’nogo. Moscow, 1968.
Uledov, A. K. Struktura obshchestvennogo soznaniia. Moscow, 1968.
Tugarinov, V. P. Filosofiia soznaniia. Moscow, 1971.
Delgado, J. Mozg i soznanie. Moscow, 1971. (Translated from English.)
Conference on Problems of Consciousness, 5th ed. New York, 1955.
Beloff, J. The Existence of Mind. London, 1962.
Frey, G. Sprache—Ausdruck des Bewusstseins. Stuttgart, 1965.
Kuhlenbeck, H., et al. Brain and Mind: Modern Concepts of the Nature of Mind. New York, 1965.
Greidanus, J. H. A Theory of Mind and Matter. Amsterdam, 1966.
Rothacker, E. Zur Genealogie des menschlichen Bewusstseins. Bonn, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


State of being aware of one's own existence, of one's mental states, and of the impressions made upon one's senses.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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