The Collective Unconscious

The Collective Unconscious

The distinction between the conscious and the unconscious has become a cultural commonplace. We recognize when our co-workers, friends, and family act unconsciously, repeatedly manifesting meaningful patterns of action they claim to be purely accidental. Wider society also capitalizes on the unconscious by designing its propaganda (marketing) to appeal to our deep longings that rarely surface in the conscious mind. Though we are familiar (and perhaps uncomfortable) with the idea of the unconscious, it is normally understood in purely personal terms. According to this broadly Freudian model, the unconscious is said to consist of once conscious mental contents that have been either forgotten or repressed. One might, for example, bury one’s feelings of hostility to a co-worker so thoroughly that, to the conscious mind, one feels no animosity. Yet those feelings could still reside in the unconscious and cause one to ‘forget’ to invite that co-worker to the company events one has been tasked with coordinating.

            Against this Freudian model, Carl Jung argued that, in addition to a personal layer, there is a yet deeper substratum of the unconscious: the collective unconscious. Unlike the personal unconscious, the existence of the collective unconscious is not dependent on personal experience.[1] The personal unconscious is constituted by mental contents that were once consciously experienced, but later relegated to the unconscious. This means that the contents of the personal unconscious, though unconscious now, ultimately owe their existence to an individual’s conscious experience. The principle of esse est percipi would thus still apply to this stratum of the unconscious, though only remotely. The contents of the collective unconscious, by contrast, are not derived from personal experience. Rather, they antedate it, being passed on by heredity.[2] Jung likens them to biological instincts in this regard:

“Psychology is based on certain general biological factors, for instance on the sexual instinct or on the urge for self-assertion, which are by no means merely personal peculiarities. It is forced to do this because it lays claim to being an explanatory science. Neither … [medical psychology nor biology] would deny the existence of a priori instincts common to man and animals alike, or that they have a significant influence on personal psychology. Yet instincts are impersonal, universally distributed, hereditary factors of dynamic or motivating character, which very often fail so completely to reach consciousness that modern psychotherapy is faced with the task of helping the patient to become conscious of them. Moreover, the instincts are not vague and indefinite by nature, but are specifically formed motive forces which, long before there is any consciousness, and in spite of any degree of consciousness later on, pursue their inherent goals.”[3]

These instincts provide a template for possible action that precedes the undertaking of any actual action. Birds, for example, will have an instinct to migrate before they actually embark on their journey, so this instinct is not something attained only after reaching their destination. The contents are the collective unconscious similarly precede and shape the personal experiences of individual subjects on Jung’s account. The collective unconscious is, in this manner, universal; it is shared by all members of the species. It thus contrasts with the personal unconscious which varies from person to person in light of his or her individual life experiences.

            Jung thus articulates his thesis regarding the collective unconscious as follows:

“In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”[4]

Being a psychologist, not a philosopher, Jung attempts to offer an empirical proof for this thesis. “The question is simply this: are there or are there not unconscious, universal forms of this kind? If they exist, then there is a region of the psyche which one can call the collective unconscious.”[5] He believes that evidence can be furnished from three primary sources. First, Jung directs us to excavate the contents of our dreams. If we find universal elements therein that are not grounded in the individual dreamer’s personal experiences, we have evidence for the collective unconscious.[6] Second, Jung recommends a process he calls ‘active imagination’. In it, we focus on a bit of fantasy material and let it unfold on its own.[7] If we find it articulating universal themes, we have further evidence for the collective unconscious. Finally, Jung claims that we can turn to “the delusions of paranoiacs, the fantasies observed in trance-states, and the dreams of early childhood, from the third to the fifth year.”[8] If these display universal elements, we have a confirmation of the existence of the collective unconscious. Jung gives the example of a paranoid schizophrenic who told him to look at the sun. He said it had a penis from which the wind originated. Jung discounted these words as senseless ravings until years later when he discovered a mythric liturgy preserved in the Corpus Hermeticum that used the same imagery:

“Draw breath from the rays, draw in three times as strongly as you can and you will feel yourself raised up and walking towards the height, and you will seem to be in the middle of the aerial region… the path of the visible gods will appear through the disc of the sun, who is God my father. Likewise the so-called tube, the origin of the ministering wind. For you will see hanging down from the disc of the sun something that looks like a tube. And towards the regions westward it is as though there were an infinite east wind. But if the other wind should prevail towards the regions of the east, you will in like manner see the vision veering in that direction.”[9]

Jung vs Kant: The Collective Unconscious as Omnitudo Realitatus

Though Jung proposes an empirical proof for the collective unconscious, our acquaintance with it is nonetheless a priori. As a result, for Jung, the collective unconscious has been with us since the emergence of consciousness. However, despite being with us from the beginning, it has been grasped more clearly at some times than at others. Thus, Jung appeals to the Christian concept of the Imago Dei, the Platonic doctrine of the ειδος, and especially Kantian accounts of the categories of the pure understanding as particularly useful clarifications of the collective unconscious. There is certainly a continuity between Jung’s account of how the collective unconscious shapes individual experience and Kant’s account of how the pure understanding does so. But I believe that a better parallel can be found in Kant’s notion of the ideas of reason (esp. that of the transcendental ideal). The understanding, for Kant, is concerned with making discrete judgements about empirical objects (e.g. one billiard ball strikes another and causes it to go into the pocket), whereas reason demands the construction a comprehensive system of knowledge. Just as the understanding employs its pure concepts to determine any object given to it through intuition, reason employs its own non-empirical representations in pursuit of its desire for complete science. Kant calls these representations “ideas”.

“Ideas, however, are still more remote from objective reality than categories; for no appearance can be found in which they may be represented in concreto. They contain a certain completeness that no possible empirical cognition ever achieves, and with them reason has a systematic unity only in the sense that the empirically possible unity seeks to approach it without ever completely reaching it.”[10] [Ideen aber sind noch weiter von der objektiven Realität entfernt, als Kategorien; denn es kann keine Erscheinung gefunden werden, an der sie sich in concreto vorstellen liessen. Sie enthalten eine gewisse Vollständigkeit, zu welcher keine mögliche empirische Erkenntnis zulangt, und die Vernunft hat dabei nur eine systematische Einheit im Sinne, welcher sie die empirische mögliche Einheit zu nähern sucht, ohne sie jemals völlig zu erreichen.” (KrV A 568/ B 596).

Unlike the categories which are guaranteed to apply a priori to any given experience, the ideas of reason have a completeness that cannot ever be experienced empirically. While we may experience one billiard ball hitting another, we can never, for example, empirically experience the systematic totality of the universe as whole. Our empirical horizons are determined by the finite bounds of our body and thus always include an indeterminate element that transcends these  horizons. In like manner, Jung claims that the collective unconscious, which manifests itself through the archetypes, possesses a fullness that transcends any particular manifestation of an archetype.

“When one carefully considers this accumulation of data, it begins to seem probable that an archetype in its quiescent, unprojected state has no exactly determinable form but is in itself an indefinite structure which can assume definite forms only in projection. This seems to contradict the concept of a ‘type’. If I am not mistaken, it not only seems but actually is a contradiction. Empirically speaking, we are dealing all the time with ‘types,’ definite forms that can be named and distinguished. But as soon as you divest these types of the phenomenology presented by the case material, and try to examine them in relation to other archetypal forms, they branch out into such far-reaching ramifications in the history of symbols that one comes to the conclusion that the basic psychic elements are infinitely varied and ever changing, so as utterly to defy our powers of imagination.”[11]

Here Jung notes that, when latent in the collective unconscious, the archetypes are indeterminate, holding more potential than can be manifested at any given instance. Strictly speaking, then, the collective unconscious contains no types, since types are essentially determinate. When unmanifested in the collective unconscious, the archetypes contain more than can be captured by our powers of imagination. So, like Kant’s ideas of reason, the collective unconsciousness constitutes a totality which cannot be given in empirical experience.

            Indeed, there is an even more specific parallel between the two positions. For, among the ideas of reason, there is one which Kant calls the ideal of pure reason that mirrors Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious. An ideal is an archetype of an entity, a perfect exemplar of a class of objects thoroughly determined by reason alone.

“What is an ideal to us, was to Plato an idea in the divine understanding, an individual object in that understanding’s pure intuition, the most perfect thing of each species of possible beings and the original ground of all its copies in appearance.” [Was uns ein Ideal ist, war dem Plato eine Idee des göttlichen Verstandes, ein einzelner Gegenstand in der reinen Anschauung desselben, das Vollkommenste einer jeden Art möglicher Wesen und der Urgrund aller Nachbilder in der Erscheinung.] (KrV A 568/ B596).

And again,

“The aim of reason with its ideal is… a thoroughgoing determination in accordance with a priori rules; hence it thinks for itself an object that is to be thoroughly determinable in accordance with principles, even though the sufficient conditions for this are absent from experience, and thus the concept itself is transcendent.” [Die Absicht der Vernunft mit ihrem Ideale ist … die durchgängige Bestimmung nach Regeln a priori; daher sie sich einen Gegenstand denkt, der nach Prinzipien durchgängig bestimmbar sein soll, obgleich dazu die hinreichenden Bedingungen in der Erfahrung mangeln und der Begriff selbst also tranzendent ist.] (KrV A 571/ B599)

            One ideal in particular is crucial for Reason, since it allows us to think of objects as capable of falling under a complete science.  Kant calls this the transcedendental ideal or prototypon transscendentale. Reason demands that we think of objects as falling under the principle of thoroughgoing determination [unter dem Grundsatze der durchgängigen bestimmung]. This principle maintains that “among all possible predicates of things, insofar as they are compared with their opposites, one must apply to it.” [nach welchem ihm von allen möglichen Prädikaten der Dinge, so fern sie mit ihren Gegenteilen verglichen werden, eines zukommen muss.] (KrV A 572/ B600). Consider, for example, a particular sapphire. By examining it, one can perceive that it is blue, and, as a result rules out all other colors. It is not red, yellow, orange, etc. Likewise, being a gemstone, it cannot be a plant or an animal. But if we were to conceive of it as falling under a total science, we would have to think of this sapphire, not only as determinate in regards to these particular perceptual qualities given in empirical intuition, but also in reference to all possible properties. To think of something as thoroughly determined, reason thus “considers every thing further in relation to the whole of possibility, as the sum total of all predicates of things in general; and by presupposing that as a condition a priori, it represents every thing as deriving its own possibility from the share it has in that whole of possibility.” [es betrachtet, ausser dem Verhältnis zweier einander widerstreitenden Prädikate, jedes Ding noch im Verhältnis auf die gesamte Möglichkeit, als den Inbegriff aller Prädikate der Dinge überhaupt, und, indem es solche als Bedingung a priori voraussetzt, so stellt es ein jedes Ding so vor, wie es von dem Anteil, den es an jender gesamten Möglichkeit hat, seine eigene Möglichkeit ableite.] (KrV A 572/ B600). If we were to have a complete understanding of the universe, we would need to comprehend how each object is determined by the space it occupied within the totality of all possible predicates. In thus treating an object as graspable by reason, we are forced to presuppose “a material of all possibility, which is supposed to contain a priori the data for the particular possibility of every thing.” [nämlich die der Materie zu aller Möglichkeit, welche a priori die Data zur besonderen Möglichkeit jedes Dinges enthalten soll.] (A 573/ B601).

            Jung similarly takes the collective unconscious to constitute the material of all possibility. He observes:

“There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life. Endless repetition has engraved these experiences into our psychic constitution, not in the form of images filled with content, but at first only as forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action. When a situation occurs which corresponds to a  given archetype, that archetype becomes activated and a compulsiveness appears, which, like an instinctual drive, gains its way against all reason and will, or else produces a conflict of pathological dimensions, that is to say, a neurosis.”[12]

The collective unconscious constitutes a domain of all possible perceptions and actions. Like the ideas (and ideals) of reason, the archetypes are not something that can be fully presented in experience. “They are forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action.” But they are nonetheless needed for us to grasp the significance of our perceptions and actions, since, to be performed , they need to be endowed with “the specific energy” of their corresponding archetypes in the collective unconscious.[13]

            Despite this close parallel between the Kantian ideal and the Jung’s collective unconscious, there are nonetheless some important differences between the two, and these illustrate the ways in which Jung’s approach is, in fact, fundamentally unKantian.  First, and perhaps most obviously, Kant presents an ideal of reason whereas the collective unconscious can manifest itself “against all reason and will” for Jung. (Though this may be due to the fact that Jung at points appears to fail to appreciate the difference between Verstand and Vernunft).  Second, Kantian ideals of theoretical reason are formulated to facilitate the scientific cognition of objects, whereas the collective unconscious is posited to facilitate our actions, perceptions, and relationships. Finally, in light of the forgoing differences, there is a fundamental contrast in the way that the two thinkers construe the material of possibility.

            For Kant, the transcendental ideal is conceived as a totality of reality (omnitudo realitatus). To account for the material of possibility, reason posits “a transcendental substratum, which contains as it were the entire storehouse of material from which all possible predicates of things can be taken.” [Wenn also der durchgängigen Bestimmung in unserer Vernunft ein transzendentales Substratum zum Grunde gelegt wird, welches gleichsam den ganzen Vorrat des Stoffes, daher alle mögliche Prädikate der Dinge genommen werden können, enthält, so ist diesses Substratum nichts anders, als die Idee von einem All der Realität (omnitudo realitatis).] (KrV A 575/ B 604). When we think of this range of all possible predicates, we think of it as grounded in a kind of storehouse containing all possible reality. Reason then goes on to grasp this All of Reality as a unity, positing a most real being (ens realissimum) that possesses all reality.

“Through this possession of all reality, however, there is also represented the concept of a thing in itself which is thoroughly determined, and the concept of an ens realissimum is the concept of an individual being, because of all possible opposed predicates, one, namely that which belongs absolutely to being, is encountered in its determination. Thus it is a transcendental ideal which is the ground of the throughgoing determination that is necessarily encountered in everything existing, and which constitutes the supreme and complete material condition of its possibility, to which all thinking of objects in general must, as regards the content of that thinking, be traced back. It is, however, also the one single genuine ideal of which human reason is capable, because only in this one single case is an—in itself universal—concept of one thing thoroughly determined through itself, and cognized as the representation of the individual.” [Es ist aber auch durch diesen Allbesitz der Realität der Begriff eines Dinges an sich selbst, als durchgängig bestimmt, vorgestellt, und der Begriff eines entis realissimi ist der Begriff eines einzelnen Wesens, weil von allen möglichen entgegengesetzten Prädikaten eines, nämlich das, was zum Sein schlechthin gehört, in seiner Bestimmung angetroffen wird. Also ist es ein transzendentales Ideal, welches der durchgängigen Bestimmung, die notwendig bei allem, was existiert, angetroffen wird, zum Grunde liegt, und die oberste und vollständige materiale Bedingungen seiner Möglichkeit ausmacht, auf welcher alles Denken der Gegenstände überhaupt ihrem Inhalte nach zurückgeführt werden muss. Es ist aber auch das einzige eigentliche Ideal, dessen die menschliche Vernunft fähig ist; weil nur in diesem einzigen Falle ein an sich allgemeiner Begriff von einem Dinge durch sich selbst durchgängig bestimmt, und als die Vorstellung von einem Individuum erkannt wird.” (A 576/ B 604).

When we think of a single being as possessing the highest reality in this way, we come to what has traditionally been encoded in the concept of God.

 “Now if we pursue this idea of ours so far as to hypostatize it, then we will be able to determine the original being through the mere concept of the highest reality as a being that is singular, simple, all-sufficient, eternal, etc, in a word, we will be able to determine it in its unconditioned completeness through all predications. The concept of such a being is that of God thought of in a transcendental sense, and thus the ideal of pure reason is the object of a transcendental theology, just as I have introduced it above.” [Wenn wir nun dieser unserer Idee, indem wir sie hypostasieren, so ferner nachgehen, so werden wir das Urwesen durch den blossen Begriff der höchsten Realität al sein einiges, einfaches, allgenugsames, ewiges etc. mit einem Worte, es in seiner unbedingten Vollständigkeit durch alle Prädikamente bestimmen können. Der Begriff eines solchen Wesens ist der von Gott, in transzendentalem Verstande gedacht, und so ist das Ideal der reinen Vernunft der Gegenstand einer transzendentalen Theologie, so wie ich es auch oben angeführt habe.] (KrV A 580/ B 608).

            Jung, in contrast, conceives of this material of possibility not as a discrete entity but as undifferentiated dark waters. “This water is no figure of speech, but a living symbol of the dark psyche.”[14] Jung associates this water with blood, leading him to further associate it with the peripheral nervous system.

“The unconscious is the psyche that reaches down from the daylight of mentally and morally lucid consciousness into the nervous system that for ages has been known as the ‘sympathetic.’ This does not govern perception and muscular activity like the cerebrospinal system, and thus control the environment; but, though functioning without sense-organs, it maintains the balance of life and, through the mysterious paths of sympathetic excitation, not only gives us knowledge of the innermost life of other beings but also has an inner effect upon them. In this sense it is an extremely collective system, the operative basis of all participation mystique, whereas the cerebrospinal function reaches its high point in separating of the specific qualities of the ego, and only apprehends surfaces and externals—always through the medium of space. It experiences everything as an outside, whereas the sympathetic system experiences everything as an inside.”[15]

Unlike the central nervous system which allows us to manipulate a world of objects, the sympathetic nervous system, claims Jung, feels the body as a unity. It experiences all as an inside and knows no distinction between subject and object. It is thus conceived of as a wholly indeterminate unity that dissolves every determinate property.

“No, the collective unconscious is anything but an incapsulated personal system; it is sheer objectivity, as wide as the world and open to all the world. There I am the object of every subject, in complete reversal of my ordinary consciousness, where I am always the subject that has an object. There I am utterly one with the world, so much a part of it that I forget all too easily who I really am. ‘Lost in oneself’ is a good way of describing this state. But this self is the world, if only a consciousness could see it. That is why we must know who we are.”[16]

“the unconscious no sooner touches us than we are it—we become unconscious of ourselves. That is the age-old danger, instinctively known and feared by primitive man, who himself stands so very close to this pleroma. His consciousness is still uncertain, wobbling on its feet. It is still childish, having just emerged from the primal waters. A wave of the unconscious may easily roll over it, and then he forgets who he was and does things that are strange to him. Hence primitives are afraid of uncontrolled emotions, because consciousness breaks down under controlled emotions, because consciousness breaks down under them and gives way to possession. All man’s strivings have therefore been directed towards the consolidation of consciousness.”[17]

Rather than understanding the All of Reality as a determinate object possessing the highest reality, Jung takes it to be essentially indeterminate. Because of this, he does not go on to hypostatize it in the figure of a God as Kant does. As an ens realissimum, God would hold all the highest realities and exclude all lessor ones. In doing so, God would ground a particular kind of moral order. But the unconscious, according to Jung, is a syzygy and conjunction of opposites.[18]  As a result, it is fundamentally amoral. As life, it wants, “both good and bad. These categories do not exist in the elfin realm. Bodily life as well as psychic life have the impudence to get along much better without conventional morality, and they often remain the healthier for it.”[19]

 The Archetypes

Though Jung claims that the collective unconscious is essentially undifferentiated, he nonetheless holds that it actualizes itself in the world through typical structures he calls the archetypes. They are “the unconscious images of the instincts themselves,…patterns of instinctual behavior.”[20] Just as our behavior is shaped by instincts aimed at particular ends, so “our imagination, perception, and thinking are likewise influenced by inborn and universally present formal elements.”[21] The archetypes thus manifest themselves as inherited aptitudes:

“it is in my view a great mistake to suppose that the psyche of a new-born child is a tabula rasa in the sense that there is absolutely nothing in it. In so far as the child is born with a differentiated brain that is predetermined by heredity and therefore individualized, it meets sensory stimuli coming from outside not with any aptitudes, but with specific ones, and this necessarily results in a particular, individual choice and pattern of apperception. These aptitudes can be shown to be inherited instincts and preformed patterns, the latter being the a priori and formal conditions of apperception that are based on instinct. Their presence gives the world of the child and the dreamer its anthropomorphic stamp. They are the archetypes which direct all fantasy activity into its appointed paths and in this way produce, in the fantasy images of children’s dreams as well as in the delusions of schizophrenia, astonishing mythological parallels such as can also be found, through in lesser degree, in the dreams of  normal persons and neurotics. It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas. Nor are they individual acquisitions but, in the main, common to all, as can be seen from the universal occurrence of the archetypes.”[22]

The archetypes are thus specific ways of grasping the world inborn to the human mind. They articulate themselves not only in the life of the individual, but are also expressed in the broader culture through myths, fairy tales, and rituals. Though there are too many archetypes to be listed in full, a few can be noted here:

Shadow: The shadow consists of all elements of the individual personality that have been deemed unacceptable to the ordinary conscious mind. It is thus more of an element of the personal unconscious than the collective unconscious. Nonetheless, in grappling with it, one is introduced to the collective unconscious. “The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. But one must learn to know oneself in order to know who one is. For what comes after the door is, surprisingly enough, a boundless expanse full of unprecedented uncertainty, with apparently no inside and no outside, no above and no below, no here and no there, no mine and no thine, no good and no bad. It is the world of water, where all life floats in suspension”[23]

Anima: This is the feminine (yin) component of the male. It is idealistic, intuitive, and emotional, rather than pragmatic, discursive and logical. It wields the passion that drives one to venture forth into life. “Were it not for the leaping and twinkling of the soul [anima], man would rot away in his greatest passion, idleness. A certain kind of reasonableness is its advocate, and a certain kind of morality adds its blessing. But to have a soul is the whole venture of life, for soul is a life-giving daemon who plays his elfin game above and below human existence.”[24] The anima is “the a prior element in…moods, reactions, impulses, and whatever else is spontaneous in psychic life. It is something that lives of itself, that makes us live; it is a life behind consciousness that cannot be completely integrated with it, but from which, on the contrary, consciousness arises.”[25] The anima can appear either as a goddess revealing wisdom or a witch bringing curses.[26]

Animus: this is the masculine (yang) component of the female. It drives one to project a logical architectonic structure on the world. Like the anima, it can have both a positive and negative appearance. Positively, it is the logos and fosters the “capacity for reflection, deliberation, and self-knowledge.”[27] Negatively, it is mere stubbornness and a desire for power. “The woman, like the man, becomes wrapped in a veil of illusions by her demon-familiar, and, as the daughter who alone understands her father (that is, is eternally right in everything), she is translated to the land of sheep, where she is put to graze by the shepherd of her soul, the animus.”[28]

Trickster: The trickster archetype is at once superhuman and subhuman and thereby possesses a contradictory nature. “He is a forerunner of the savior, and like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness.”[29] The trickster introduces chaos into stable systems, overturning their values as in a carnival.[30] But the trickster can also be a healer and is associated with the shaman. “His universality is co-extensive, so to speak with that of shamanism…There is something of the trickster in the character of the shaman and medicine-man, for he, too, often plays malicious jokes on people, only to fall victim in his turn to the vengeance of those he has injured…Besides that, the shamanistic techniques in themselves often cause the medicine-man a good deal of discomfort, if not actual pain. At all events the ‘making of a medicine-man’ involves, in many parts of the world, so much agony of body and soul that permanent psychic injuries may result. His ‘approximation to the savior’ is an obvious consequence of this, in confirmation of the mythological truth that the wounded wounder is the agent of healing, and that the sufferer takes away suffering.”[31]

Wise Old Man: This archetype usually appears when the hero is in a hopeless situation and can be rescued only by discovering a new insight.[32] This new realization is personified in the wise old man. [33] The wise old man is also moral and “even tests the moral qualities of others and makes his gifts dependent on this test.”[34] Like the other archetypes he is capable of light and dark manifestations. “The old man … has an ambiguous elfin character—witness the extremely instructive figure of Merlin—seeming, in certain of his forms, to be good incarnate and in others an aspect of evil.”[35]

Archetypes of Transformation: Some archetypes do not take the form of particular personalities, but rather “typical situations, places, ways and means, that symbolize the kind of transformation in question.”[36] Some of these systems of symbols are the chakra system in Yoga, the meridian system, the images of the Tarot, and the I Ching.[37] “The symbolic process is an experience in images and of images. Its development usually shows an enantiodromian structure like the text of the I Ching, and so presents a rhythm of negative and positive, loss and gain, dark and light. Its beginning is almost invariably characterized by one’s getting stuck in a blind alley or in some impossible situation; and its goal is, broadly speaking, illumination or higher consciousness, by means of which the initial situation is overcome on a higher level.”[38]


Jung believed that his account of the collective unconscious had two important implications. First, it allows for a novel understanding and treatment of mental illness. He claims that neuroses, in many instances, are due to the failure to co-operate with the archetypal energies that surround us.[39] “When a situation occurs which corresponds to a given archetype, that archetype becomes activated and compulsiveness appears, which, like an instinctual drive, gains its way against all reason and will, or else produces a conflict of pathological dimensions, that is to say, a neurosis.”[40] Because these forces reside in the collective unconscious and not merely the personal experiences of clients, the Freudian approaches to talk therapy will not work. For the forces at play are not merely mental contents that have been forgotten or repressed, and, even if they were, the mere recognition of them would be insufficient to break their spell. “As the archetypes, like all numinous contents, are relatively autonomous, they cannot be integrated simply by rational means, but require a dialectical procedure, a real coming to terms with them, often conducted by the patient in dialogue form, so that, without knowing it, he puts into effect the alchemical definition of the meditation: ‘an inner colloquy with one’s good angel.’”[41] The archetypes fall upon us with a power akin to possession, and we thereby “ discover that we are the objects of unseen factors.”[42] Our only option is to try to enter into a dialogue with them in an attempt to mediate their impact on our lives and achieve a harmony between the conscious and the unconscious.

            In the same manner, Jung applies his model to account for social neuroses.

“There is no lunacy people under the domination of an archetype will not fall prey to. If thirty years ago anyone had dared to predict that our psychological development was tending towards a revival of the medieval persecutions of the Jews, that Europe would again tremble before the Roman fasces and the tramp of legions, that people would once more give the Roman salute, as two thousand years ago, and that instead of the Christian Cross an archaic swastika would lure onward millions of warriors ready for death—why, that man would have been hooted as a mystical fool. And today? Surprising as it may seem all this absurdity is a horrible reality. Private life, private aetiologies, and private neuroses have become almost a fiction in the world of today. The man of the past who lived in a world of archaic ‘représentations collectives’ has risen again into very visible and painfully real life, and this not only in a few unbalanced individuals but in many millions of people.”[43]

Jung saw the archetypes appearing in their fearsome aspects in the twentieth century. And there are fears that they are emerging once more in the twenty first, perhaps wearing masks and in the guise of cancel culture and the outrage mob. What else is the NPC phenomenon than archetypal possession?[44]

            Religion is a second area in which Jung believes the concept of the collective unconscious has profound implications. According to Jung, our religious impulses and myths are ultimately derived from the archetypes, as they come to express themselves in motifs, représentations collectives, categories of the imagination, primordial thoughts, etc.[45] Indeed, they also ground our ‘civilized’ denominations and for every modern ‘ism’.[46] The problem for contemporary man, according to Jung, is that we have forgotten these archetypes and buried them deep in the unconscious, thereby dramatically increasing their power. This repression of archetypal energy can lead either to a profound melancholy rooted in the meaninglessness of modern life or to the collective social neuroses noted earlier in this section. Jung believes that that Christian dogma no longer speaks to the Western heart, but that Westerners are also ill suited to appropriate the spiritual systems of other cultures.[47] The solution, contends Jung, lies in returning to the archetypes. The archetypes contain so much power that they can break through even against the reigning ideology of an era. For example, Jung notes that Nicholas of Flüe, Brother Klaus, Guillaume de Digulleville, Edward Maitland all had visions of a divine syzygy —a vision of God as a divine male and female pair— which conflicted with the beliefs they consciously professed.[48] The idea of a divine polarity would have been considered heretical in their day and brought with it the likelyhood of ecclesiastical censure and perhaps even death. Moreover, these men were loyal to the church, and did not seek to articulate a heretical doctrine. Yet, the archetypes nonetheless overpowered them and manifested themselves in the contents of their visions. It is to this archetypal source that we should turn, argues Jung, in addressing the spiritual crisis of our own day.

“Just as in Christianity the vow of worldly poverty turned the mind away from riches of this earth, so spiritual poverty seeks to renounce the false riches of the spirit in order to withdraw not only from the sorry remnants—which today call themselves the Protestant church—of a great past, but also from all the allurements of the odorous East; in order, finally, to dwell with itself alone, where, in the cold light of consciousness, the blank barrenness of the world reaches to the very stars.”[49]

It is in this state of solitude with the collective unconscious that may lead to a new spiritual awakening. Jung believes that this will require not merely an external imitation of the life of Christ, but a living out of our own unique lives with a similar authenticity and intensity.

“We protestants must sooner or later face this question: Are we to understand the ‘imitation of Christ’ in the sense that we should copy his life and, if I may use the expression, ape his stigmata; or in the deeper sense that we are to live our own proper lives as truly as he lived his in all its implications? It is no easy matter to live a life that is modeled on Christ’s, but it is unspeakably harder to live one’s own life as truly as Christ lived his. Anyone who did this would run counter to the forces of the past, and though he might thus be fulfilling his destiny, would none the less be misjudged, derided, tortured and crucified. He would be a kind of mad Bolshevist who deserved the cross. We therefore prefer the historically sanctioned imitation of Christ which is transfigured by holiness.”[50]

In this manner, Jung indicates that our contemporary spiritual malaise and our self-alienation are both manifestations of the same underlying problem, the sundering of our conscious egos from their ground in the collective unconscious. But, knowing this, we can see that they can also be healed in the same manner by returning to the true ground of the Self.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[1] Jung, “The Concept of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung 9.1, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 42.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 43.

[4] Ibid., 43.

[5] Ibid., 44.

[6] Ibid., 49.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 50.

[9] Ibid., 51.

[10] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason trans. Guyer and Woods. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[11] Jung, “Concerning the Archetypes, with Special Reference to the Anima Concept” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 70.

[12] Jung, “The Concept of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 48.

[13] Jung, “Concerning the Archetypes” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconsciousness, 63.

[14] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 17.

[15] Ibid, 20.

[16] Ibid., 22.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jung, “Concerning the Archetypes, with Special Reference to the Anima Concept” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 56.

[19] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 28.

[20] Jung, “Concept of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 44.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Jung, “Concerning the Archetypes, with Special Reference to the Anima Concept” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 66-67.

[23] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 22.

[24] Ibid., 27.

[25] Ibid., 27.

[26] Ibid., 29.

[27] Jung, AION: Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung 9.2, 4020.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Jung, “On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 263.

[30] Ibid., 255.

[31] Ibid., 256.

[32] Jung, “Phenomenology of Spirit in Fairy Tales” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 217.

[33] Ibid., 218.

[34] Ibid., 225.

[35] Ibid., 227.

[36] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 38.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 38-39.

[39] Jung, “Concept of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 47.

[40] Ibid., 48.

[41] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 41.

[42] Ibid. 23.

[43] Jung, “Concept of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 48.


[45] Jung, “Concept of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 42-43.

[46] Jung, “Concerning the Archetypes, with Special Reference to the Anima Archetype” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 61-62.

[47] Jung uses the personal example of losing interest in Christianity once his father admitted that he had no idea what the Catechism was talking about when it made pronouncements on the Trinity. “We have inherited this poverty from our fathers. I well remember the confirmation lessons I received at the hands of my own father. The catechism bored me unspeakably. One day I was turning over the pages of my little boo, in the hope of finding something interesting, when my eye fell on the paragraphs about the Trinity. This interested me at once, and I waited impatiently for the lessons to get to that section. But when the longed-for lesson arrived, my father said: ‘we’ll skip this bit; I can’t make head or tail of it myself.’ With that my last hope was laid in the grave. I admired my father’s honesty, but this did not alter the fact that from then on all talk of religion bored me to death.” Concept of the Collective Unconscious, 15-16.

[48] Ibid., 63-65.

[49] Jung “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious” in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 15.

[50] Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. Dell and Baynes (North American eBook, 2011), 241-242.

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