The Freud Museum


What's the difference between 'unconscious' and 'subconscious'?

Freud was extremely sensitive to ambiguity, both as a clinician and a theorist. He rejected the word 'subconscious' because he thought it could lead to misunderstandings:

  • First of all, 'subconscious' could be understood literally as 'beneath consciousness': a layer that just sits fairly dormant at the bottom of the mind, doing its own thing, with consciousness happening up above. As such, it overlooks one of the essential characteristics of the unconscious: that it is active, constantly interfering with consciousness and being kept back by defensive efforts.
  • A second literal reading of the word 'subconscious' would give us a second consciousness underneath the main one, like a little person inside our heads. This reading preserves the idea of conflict, but it leaves us with a kind of 'split personality': two consciousnesses jostling for control of the same person, a notion that Freud firmly rejected.

Freud preferred the term ‘unconscious’ because it ruled out both of these potential misunderstandings.

Still curious? Check out our carefully curated reading list!

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