C D Broad

Charlie Dunbar Broad


     Charlie Dunbar Broad originally wanted to be an engineer, and continued all his life to be fascinated by model engineering; a taste which probably contributed much to the precision and objectiveness of his thought. A master at Dulwich College however encouraged his interest in science and he won a scholarship in this subject to Trinity College, Cambridge where, after gaining a First Class in the first part of the Natural Science Tripos he decided that he was not mathematical enough to be a physicist, turned to philosophy, and again got a First. Trinity awarded him a Prize Fellowship.

He lectured in Logic at the Universities of St Andrews and Dundee, worked for the Ministry of Munitions in World War One, and was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Bristol, whence he returned to Trinity in 1923. In 1926 he became Lecturer in Moral Science, and served as Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy from 1935 to 1953. He had Fellowships and honorary degrees in several countries.

After all this one might have expected, as his Cambridge pupil Henry Coombe Tennant did, 'someone tall, saturnine and remote', only to find him 'mild and cherubic, playing with a yo-yo' in his rooms, which had once belonged to Sir Isaac Newton. He remained all his life a man of immense intellectual ability, unselfconscious candour, and charm of an almost Lewis Carroll quality.

Alan Gauld, who wrote a brief biographical sketch in the SPR Journal for June 1971 noted that one of Broad's most interesting achievements was to combine 'a humanistic and a scientific turn of mind'. It should be added that in both contexts he thought with strenuous precision, in both he defined his terms and in both he set out his argument clearly in a language not embarnacled with in-group jargon. He used recondite words; but they were all to be found in a good dictionary. His work could be hard to follow, because it involved considerable intellectual exercise, but not because his meaning was in doubt.

He joined a Cambridge psychical research group in 1906, the SPR in 1920 and its Council in 1930. His Presidential Address, 'Normal Cognition, Clairvoyance and Telepathy' (SPR Proceedings 43, 1935) noted that all perception, sensory or extra sensory, has to be interpreted by the mind; and dealt in detail with telepathy (of whose existence he was certain) suggesting that 'each of us may often or continuously be influenced by other minds without realizing the fact'.

He also put forward the concept of 'a common substratum of experience affected by the separate experiences of all human beings, which might affect one another through it', a concept echoing back to Jung and forward to Sir Alister Hardy's suggestion (SPR Proceedings 50, May 1935) that there might be 'a general subconscious sharing of a form and behaviour design between members of a species', a design modified by their individual reactions.

Broad's second SPR Presidential Address in 1958 (SPR Proceedings 52, Feb, 1959), discussed 'Dreaming and Some of its Implications', observing that dreams can include the process of reasoning (as when he himself dreamed he had been levitated some 8 feet, caught up a heavy glass vase from a shelf high above the fireplace, and swooped down to put it on the floor to prove the levitation had been real and not the result of hypnotic suggestion). He also discussed the nature of perception, and the possible implications of out of the body experiences.

He contributed valuable papers to SPR Proceedings from time to time. Among his books were Scientific Thought: The Mind and its Place in Nature: Religion Philosophy and Psychical Research: and Induction, Probability and Causation.

He did not like the idea of surviving death, but came to think it possible.

Source (with minor modifications): The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History by Renée Haynes (1982, Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd, London).

Articles by Charlie Dunbar Broad on this website:

The Relevance of Psychical Research to Philosophy

Henry Sidgwick and Psychical Research

Normal Cognition, Clairvoyance and Telepathy

Empirical Arguments for Human Survival

Saltmarsh's Investigation of Mrs Warren Elliott's Mediumship



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