Thoughts on Synchronicity

Thoughts on Synchronicity

The term ‘synchronicity’ was coined by the psychologist Carl Jung to designate a relation between events that is both (i) explanatory and (ii) non-causal.[1] Consider the events x, in which a is F, and y, in which b is G. According to Jung’s terminology x and y would be synchronous, if a’s being F explained b’s being G (or vice versa), without a’s being F causing b to be G (or vice versa). He invented this term in an attempt to account for the experience of “meaningful coincidence.”[2] One might, for example, dream of a long lost childhood friend and then receive a call from him on the next day. In our ordinary scientific view of reality, these two events are causally unrelated. There is no way that one individual’s dream state could causally interact with the brain of a different individual across the globe and cause him to make a phone call.  Yet we nonetheless suspect that there is a meaningful connection between them.

            The term “synchronicity” itself is rather misleading for several reasons. First, taken literally, “synchronicity” would be synonymous with “simultaneity”, but simultaneity is neither necessary nor sufficient for synchronicity in the Jungian sense. Consider again the case in which one dreams of a long lost friend and then receives a call from him the next day. Since the dream and the phone call occur at different times, they are not simultaneous, but they are synchronous. Simultaneity is thus not necessary for synchronicity. Neither is it sufficient. Consider following two simultaneous events: (E1) me writing this essay, and (E2) a panda falling from a tree in China. Though these events occur at the same time, they are not synchronous, since there is no explanatory relation between the two. A second problem with the term “synchronicity” is that it suggests the wrong contrast classes for the concept. The concept synchronous, appears to contrast with the non-concurrent (occurring at different times), and the diachronous (unfolding through time). But this is not the conceptual space that Jung wants synchronicity to occupy. Rather, he wishes to contrast the synchronous with the random (that which is capable of no explanation) and the casual (that which can be explained by subsumption under the laws of natural science).

            Despite the inelegance of the terminology, Jung displayed considerable courage in broaching a subject that evokes visceral animosity within the academy and can likely result in being branded eccentric (at best) or psychotic (at worst). Jung himself noted that he postponed writing about the subject for several years because he lacked the courage.[3] The baffling level of social stigma associated with the subject makes it difficult to study.[4] Jung even speculated that it would take the courage of a Galileo to persist in carrying out research in this field:

“The main difficulty here [in the empirical study of the synchronicity] to procure empirical material from which we can draw reasonably certain conclusions, and unfortunately this difficulty is not an easy one to solve. The experiences in question are not ready to hand. We must therefore look in the obscurest corners and summon up courage to shock the prejudices of our age if we want to broaden the basis of our understanding of nature. When Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter with his telescope he immediately came into head-on collision with the prejudices of his learned contemporaries. Nobody knew what a telescope was and what it could do. Never before had anyone talked of the moons of Jupiter. Naturally every age thinks that all ages before it were prejudiced, and today we think this more than ever and are just as wrong as all previous ages that thought so. How often have we not seen the truth condemned! It is sad but unfortunately true that man learns nothing from history. This melancholy fact will present us with the greatest difficulties as soon as we set about collecting empirical material that would throw a little light on this dark subject, for we shall be quite certain to find it where all the authorities have assured us that nothing is to be found.

            Reports of remarkable isolated cases, however well authenticated, are unprofitable and lead at most to their reporter being regarded as a credulous person. Even the careful recording and verification of a large number of such cases, as in the work of Gurney, Myers, and Podmore, have made next to no impression on the scientific world. The great majority of ‘professional’ psychologists and psychiatrists seem to be completely ignorant of these researches.”[5]

Given the likely backlash he was likely to face for addressing the issue, Jung demonstrated considerable courage in bringing it to scholarly attention and in attempting to formulate an intellectual framework in which it could be studied.

Jung’s Argument for Synchronicity.

            Jung formulates his account of synchronicity in his paper “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle”.  He begins by establishing the logical possibility of such a phenomenon. He claims that advances in quantum physics have shown i) that natural laws are probabilistic rather than necessary, and ii) that these laws are “valid only when we are dealing with macrophysical quantities” (and hence not the underlying microphysical world).[6] But if natural law (and the idea of causation that underlies it) has such a limited scope, it is logically possible (and indeed practically necessary) for there to be some other kind explanatory relation between events.

            After establishing the possibility of a non-causal explanatory relation, Jung attempts to establish its actuality. He begins by noting that we require a criterion by which to distinguish events capable of causal explanation from events that cannot be so explained. He proposes a criterion of conceivability: “acausal events may be expected most readily where, on closer reflection, a causal connection appears to be inconceivable.”[7] Consider, for instance, a case in which one buys a tram ticket with a particular number. One then goes on to purchase a theater ticket and discovers that it has the same number. Later that evening one receives a call, and the same number appears again as a telephone number. Jung believes it inconceivable that there would be a direct physical causal link between these events. There is nothing about receiving a tram ticket with number x, that would cause the receiving of a theater ticket with number x, that would cause one’s friend to mention x as a phone number. We would thus assume, according to Jung, that the relation between the events was noncausal.

            Although we can use the conceivability test to discriminate between events capable of causal explanation from those that are not, we still need a way of distinguishing between events that can be explained non-causally from chance events that cannot be explained at all. Jung’s first suggestion is to appeal to our feeling that there is a meaningful connection between the events. This “certain numinous quality” would allow one to distinguish non-causally related events that are in some way explicable from those that are the mere products of chance.[8] But he notes that such a criterion would be unsatisfying, since it seems too subjective.[9] To convince the skeptic, one must also show that it is unlikely that events in question should be a matter of mere chance. Jung believes that this can be done using probability theory and appeals to studies by Gurney, Myers, Podmore, Dariex, Richet, and Flammarion to show that this criterion is satisfied in particular cases. For instance, “Dariex found a  probability of 1:4,114,545 for telepathic precognitions of death, which means that the explanation of such a warning as due to ‘chance’ is more than four million times more improbable than explaining it as a ‘telepathic’ or acausal, meaningful coincidence.”[10]  

It is J.B. Rhine, however, that Jung takes to have provided decisive evidence for the actuality of a non-causal explanatory relation between events. Rhine ran a series of experiments on psi phenomena that produced some amazing results. In one experiment, he had gifted subjects try to guess the shape depicted on a Zener card which was kept from their view. Jung explains:

“The first series of experiments consisted in each subject trying to guess the cards 800 times. The average result showed 6.5 hits for 25 cards, which is 1.5 more than the chance probability of 5 hits. The probability of there being a chance deviation of 1.5 from the number 5 works out at 1: 250,000. This proportion shows that the probability of a chance deviation is not exactly high, since it is to be expected only once in 250,000 cases. The results vary according to the specific gift of the individual subject. One young man, who in numerous experiments scored an average of 10 hits for every 25 cards (double the probable number), once guessed all 25 cards correctly, which gives a probability of 1: 298,023, 223, 876,953, 125.”[11]

These results held true even when the experiments were carried out over great physical and temporal distances. Given that the correlation seems to occur independently of space and time, it appears extremely unlikely that there would be a causal relation involved. “We must give up at the outset all explanations in terms of energy, which amounts to saying that events of this kind cannot be considered from the point of view of causality, for causality presupposes the existence of space and time in so far as all observations are ultimately based upon bodies in motion.”[12] We thus have documented cases in which (i) a causal connection between events is inconceivable, (ii) there is a felt sense of meaningfulness between the events, (iii) it is extremely unlikely that the events were merely a result of chance. Hence, Jung concludes that synchronicity is not only possible, but actual.

Jung’s Account of Synchronicity as an Explanatory Relation

Jung not only attempts to define and argue for the existence of synchronicity, but he also goes on to provide an initial theory of how it operates. His view appears to be that since space and time are dependent on consciousness, consciousness can shape the events of space and time to ensure a correspondence of meaning between one event and another.[13] Jung asserts, for example:

“Rhine’s experiments show that in relation to the psyche space and time are, so to speak, ‘elastic’ and can apparently be reduced almost to vanishing point, as though they were dependent on psychic conditions and did not exist in themselves but were only ‘postulated’ by the conscious mind. In man’s original view of the world, as we find it among primitives, space and time have a very precarious existence. They become ‘fixed’ concepts only in the course of his mental development, thanks largely to the introduction of measurement. In themselves, space and time consist of nothing. They are hypostatized concepts born of the discriminating activity of the conscious mind, and they form the indispensable co-ordinates for describing the behavior of bodies in motion. They are, therefore, essentially psychic in origin, which is probably the reason that impelled Kant to regard them as a priori categories. But if space and time are only apparently properties of bodies in motion and are created by the intellectual needs of the observer, then their relativization by psychic conditions is no longer a matter for astonishment but is brought within the bounds of possibility. This possibility presents itself when the psyche observes, not external bodies, but itself. That is precisely what happens in Rhine’s experiments: the subject’s answer is not the result of his observing the physical cards, it is a product of pure imagination, of ‘chance’ ideas which reveal the structure of that which produces them, namely the unconscious.”[14]

If we forgive Jung the barbarism of attributing to Kant the claim that space and time are a priori categories, we can see that he is nonetheless trying to offer something in a Kantian spirit.[15]  Here Jung describes space and time as “elastic”, capable of being “reduced to a vanishing point” by consciousness. Indeed, they have only “a precarious existence” as “postulated” by the mind.[16] Since space and time are “essentially psychic in origin” and not actual conditions of external bodies, the mind is capable of altering them to create relations of synchronicity through the “pure imagination” of “the unconscious.”[17]

            Jung then posits the archetypes as the mechanisms by which the unconscious shapes the world to establish synchronous events. He explains:

“The archetypes are formal factors responsible for the organization of unconscious psychic processes: they are ‘patterns of behavior.’ At the same time they have  ‘specific charge’ and develop numinous effects which express themselves as affects. The affect produces a partial abaissement du niveau mental, for although it raises a particular content to a supernormal degree of luminosity, it does so by withdrawing so much energy from other possible contents of consciousness that they become darkened and eventually unconscious. Owing to the restriction of consciousness produced by the affect so long as it lasts, there is a corresponding lowering of orientation which in its turn gives the unconscious a favorable opportunity to slip into the space vacated. Thus we regularly find that unexpected or otherwise inhibited unconscious contents break through and find expression in the affect. Such contents are very often an inferior or primitive nature and thus betray their archetypal origin.”[18]

Just as Kant believed that human cognition has a formal structure holding universally across all particular instances of cognition, so Jung here asserts that the unconscious has a formal structure that grounds its universality. Because the unconscious has a general structure shared by each particular human mind, Jung dubs it the “collective unconscious”.[19] Jung calls these formal structures of the unconscious “the archetypes”, abstract patterns of behavior that manifest themselves as affects in particular subjects. One might, for example, find himself feeling morose for no apparent reason. This feeling could be explained by the claim that he is instantiating the anima archetype. Jung then extends this explanatory of model of the unconscious to account not only for the moods of individual psychological subjects, but also for the state of the world at large in the case of synchronicities.

            Jung illustrates this account by narrating an episode that occurred in one of his sessions with a client. He had been working with a woman who was overly rational and had shut down her emotions. It seemed like the therapeutic relation was at an impasse; nothing he or she did seemed to allow her to move forward. But then one day she came in and reported that she had had a disturbing dream in which she had been given a golden scarab beetle. These scarabs were an ancient symbol of rebirth and carried with them powerful archetypal associations. For example, Jung reports that the Egyptian Book of the dead “describes how the dead sun-god changes himself at the tenth station into Khepri, the scarab, and then, at the twelfth station, mounts the barge which carries the rejuvenated sun-god into the morning sky.”[20] Just as the woman was recounting her dream of the scarab, both Jung and she heard a rattling at the window. Jung then reports with amazement what happened next:

I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, the scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the patient has remained unique in my experience.[21]

We here have the unlikely correspondence between the contents of the woman’s dream and the actual insect knocking at the window. Jung claims that it was at this point that the woman finally started to make progress in her therapy and explains this transformation as the result of the operation of the archetypes through synchronicity.[22] “When the ‘scarab’ came flying in through the window in actual fact, her natural being could burst through the armor of her animus possession and the process of transformation could at last begin to move.”[23]

Understanding the Jungian Account

Though Jung’s account is interesting, I’m still not exactly sure what it amounts to. Perhaps the most obvious worry concerns Jung’s claim that the unconscious non-causally influences reality. He speaks in some places, for instance, of the unconscious acting to bring about a state of affairs in the word. Yet action is a quintessentially causal phenomenon. When I act to bring about F, and F occurs on account of my actions, I have thereby caused F to occur. Or, worse yet, he speaks of the archetypes as having a “specific charge” and claims that they “develop numinous effects.” Now, effect and cause appear to be analytically related to one another. If x is the effect of y, then y is the cause of x. But this means that Jung is attributing causality to the archetypes while at the same time affirming that they are non-causal. To be fair, one could note that he called these “numinous effects” so maybe he means to attribute something like noumenal causation to the archetypes. But how are we to understand such a claim? I can think of three likely models of archetypal influence that Jung may have had in mind.

I. Deflationary: There is an easy non-controversial way to understand how the archetypes could bring about a non-causal explanatory relation. This reading makes use of the everyday distinction between reasons and physical causes. Say, for example, that one morning Marcel is, as usual, drinking his coffee and smoking his cigarette as he reads the daily edition of Le Figaro. In it, he comes across an advertisement which informs him that asparagus is in season and on sale at the local market. Marcel loves asparagus, and so, as a result of reading the advertisement in the paper, he goes down to the market and procures some. Nothing spooky has happened here. Marcel left his apartment, went to the market, and bought some asparagus, because he wanted asparagus and he learned that asparagus was in season and on sale at the market. This sounds like a perfectly plausible explanation. But note that it is not described in terms of physical causation. There is nothing about the chemical composition of the ink on the page of the newspaper or the physical make up of Marcel’s eyes that caused his body to go out and hunt for asparagus. Our explanation gives us the reason for Marcel’s action, not the cause of it. When we explain people’s behavior in this way, we take up what is called an intentional stance. We treat what is before us, in this case Marcel, as an agent who acts for reasons.

            The intentional stance could be extended to the case of synchronicity. To say that an archetype brings about the synchronicity of two events is to say that we treat those events as expressing a meaningful relation. Specifically, we treat them as if they were the expression of a meaning sourced in some realm beyond us. This would a provide us with a non-mysterious reading of synchronicity and archetypal action. We are simply acting as if things were meaningful, even if, in themselves they are not so. The drawback of this subjective interpretation is that it conflicts with Jung’s more substantial claims about the objectivity of synchronicity and the archetypes. Another disadvantage of the view is that it is so innocuous that it probably says nothing of substance. All it says is that some people treat causally unrelated events as if they were meaningful and attribute this meaning to the operation of a higher power. But we already knew this.

II. Noumenal Affection. This reading draws a parallel to a Kantian solution to a similar problem. Kant famously claimed that the category of causation can apply only to the objects of experience, not to things in themselves. But his theory also stipulates that our interaction with things in themselves brings about sensations, the raw material to be shaped into empirical objects through the forms of space and time and the categories of the understanding. How can things in themselves bring about sensations if the category of causation can apply to only empirical objects? One plausible response is to note that Kant limited the concept of causation to the empirical world, but nonetheless held that there was an analogous concept by which we could think about our relations to things in themselves. Jung could avail himself of a similar strategy. Evidence for him adopting a very limited definition of causation can be seen in his claim that the very idea of a transcendental cause is contradictory. He claims that “for want of a demonstrable cause, we are all too likely to fall into the temptation of positing a transcendental one. But a ‘cause’ can only be demonstrable quantity. A ‘transcendental cause’ is thus a contradiction in terms, because anything transcendental cannot by definition be demonstrated.”[24] On this reading the archetypes are fundamental realities whose actions bring about the relations that obtain in the empirical world. They ground the sychronicity between two events without thereby causing them, since cause applies only to derivative empirical realities.

            This reading fits well with Jung’s admission that he drew much of his account from Schopenhauer’s “Transcendent speculation on the apparent deliberateness in the fate of the individual.” [25]  Schopenhauer’s goal in that essay was to make sense of the common conviction that our lives are governed by fate, that despite the discreet choices we made throughout our lives, Life itself shapes them into a preordained pattern. He notes that conviction usually comes in old age as we reflect back on our lives and cites the reflections of the 90 year old writer Knebel as representative of such a perspective:

“On close observation, we will find that in the life of most people a certain plan can be found that, through their own nature or the circumstances that guide them, is, as it were, preordained for them. The conditions of their lives may be ever so varied and changeable, in the end there exists a whole that enables us to become aware of a certain consistency…. The hand of a particular fate, as much as its operations are hidden, shows itself clearly; it may be moved through external effects or internal feeling; indeed, contradictory grounds are often at work in its direction. As confused as the course may be, ground and direction always shine through.”[26]

Schopenhauer accounts for this phenomenon by claiming that because empirical reality itself flows from the deeper reality of our true self, which he calls the will, our life can unfold according to a predetermined pattern despite the seeming randomness of the world.  “In truth that hidden power which governs even external influences can ultimately have its root only in our own mysterious inner being; for in the end the alpha and omega of all existence lies within ourselves.”[27]

            Schopenhauer provides two illustrations of how our empirical lives might flow from a supersensible ground. Jung considers the first and largely ignores the second, even though the second does a better job of accounting for archetypal action. Schopenhauer’s first illustration is that of a net. Its vertical threads represent independent lines of empirical causation, whereas its horizonal ones represent pre-ordained meaning correlations between events in those causal chains. Because the net is a unity, it displays a pre-established harmony of meaning that obtains between given events in the various causal chains. [28] He elucidates this correlation by pointing to the loss and recovery of great works of art at particular moments in world history:  

 “This explains, for example, the fact that, when in the wake of the migration of peoples a flood of barbarism poured into Europe, the finest masterpieces of Greek sculpture, the Laocoön, the Vatican Apollo, and others disappeared at once, as if through a trap-door in the theatre, by finding their way down into the womb of the earth, in order to await there, unscathed through a thousand years, a gentler, nobler era that understood and appreciated the arts. When that time finally arrived, at the end of the fifteenth century under Pope Julius II, those masterpieces re-emerged into the light, as the well-preserved models of art and true type of the human form.”[29]

There is a series of casual chains that physically explain how the Laocoön was transported in space from one location to another. And there is another series of causal sequences that governs the fall of Rome, the early and late medieval periods, and the Renaissance. Yet there is also a certain pre-established harmony that ensures that it was hidden during the dark ages and re-emerged during the Renaissance.

Schopenhauer’s second illustration of how the events of our empirical life might follow from a supersensible ground concerns dreams. In our dreams we often struggle against a capricious external world that appears to thwart our designs and terrify us. Yet, upon waking, we see that, unbeknownst to us, we were, in fact, the ultimate source of that supposedly external world. In the same manner, the empirical events of our life may flow from a deeper source in our true selves. Schopenhauer explains:

“Just as we all are the secret impresarios of our dreams, so too by analogy the fate that governs the actual course of our lives ultimately springs somehow from the will. This will is our own, but here appearing as fate, it operates from a realm that lies far beyond our representing, individual consciousness, whereas the latter provides the motives that guide our empirically knowable, individual will, which therefore, has often to fight hard with the will that presents itself as fate… that looks far beyond individual consciousness and, consequently, adamantly arranges and determines through external compulsion what it could not leave for consciousness to find out and yet does not want to see being missed.”[30]

Though it might look like I, as an empirical subject, wrestle with implacable events in the external world, both are ultimately grounded in a supersensible will manifesting itself in empirical reality. This could provide Jung with a model by which to explain how the archetypes could be said to act via noumenal affection. The archetypes could be described as formal features of supersensible will. This will acts so as to manifest itself in empirical reality, but since this action constitutes spatio-temporal reality, it is not itself spatio-temporal. The empirical concept of causation would thus not apply.

            Despite providing a relatively clear metaphysical account of archetypal action, this model still suffers as an interpretation, since Jung appears to explicitly reject it. Jung set forth two objections to Schopenhauer’s model in an attempt to differentiate his own from that of his intellectual “godfather”.[31] He argues:

“Schopenhauer believed in the absolute determinism of the natural process and furthermore in a first cause. There is nothing to warrant either assumption. The first cause is a philosophical mythogem which is only credible when it appears in the form of the old paradox of ‘εν το παν, as unity and multiplicity at once. The idea that the simultaneous points in the causal chains, or meridians, represent meaningful coincidences would only hold water if the first cause really were a unity. But if it were a multiplicity, which is just as likely, then Schopenhauer’s whole explanation collapses, quite apart from the fact, which we have only recently realized, that natural law possesses a merely statistical validity and thus keeps the door open to indeterminism. Neither philosophical reflection nor experience can provide any evidence for the regular occurrence of these two kinds of connection, in which the same thing is both subject and object. Schopenhauer thought and wrote at a time when causality held sovereign sway as a category a priori and had therefore to be dragged in to explain meaningful coincidences. But, as we have seen, it can do this with some degree of probability only if we have recourse to the other, equally arbitrary assumption of the unity of the first cause. It then follows as a necessity that every point on a given meridian stands in a relationship of meaningful coincidence to every other point on the same degree of latitude. This conclusion, however, goes far beyond the bounds of what is empirically possible, for it credits meaningful coincidences with occurring so regularly and systematically that their verification would be either unnecessary or the simplest thing in the world. Schopenhauer’s examples carry as much or as little conviction as all other others.”[32]

Given that Jung explicitly rejects Schopenhauer’s model, one could argue that it is uncharitable to interpret him as a closet Schopenhauerian.

            However, despite the fact that Jung does reject Schopenhauer’s model, it is still worth asking whether he should do so. Are Jung’s arguments against Schopenhauer compelling? I believe there is reason to be doubtful. Consider first Jung’s argument against Schopenhauer’s claim that the supersensible ground of reality is a unity. Jung’s argument seems to be something like: (1) The Schopenhauerian model works only on the assumption of a unitary supersensible ground. (2) There is no reason to believe that the supersensible world is a unity. Hence, (3) the Schopenhauerian position is based on an arbitrary assumption (and so should be rejected).

But there appear to be problems with both premises here. First, it is not obvious that the Schopenhauerian model requires a unitary ground. Consider again the example of the net of fate. Suppose that rather than being produced by a single will, it was woven by the three Norns–Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld. It is conceivable that working together, they could fashion a web of fate the displays the requisite pre-established harmony between events. Second, though Jung asserts that “there is nothing to warrant” the assumption of a unitary supersensible ground, there is a rich philosophical history of such arguments.[33] The traditional arguments concern the conception of absolute reality as an ens realissimum or an ens perfectissimum. The idea is that if the supersensible ground is to be understand as the most real being or the most perfect being, then it must also be a unity. For if there were two such grounds, then either (i) they would have equal reality and so neither would be the most real being or (ii) one would have more reality than the other and thus only one of them would, in fact, be the most real being. Jung may believe that this argument is flawed, but he should at least recognize that it exists and interact with it to some degree.

            Jung’s second argument is likewise problematic. It seems to be something like the following: (1) Schopenhauer’s model requires determinism. (2) Natural science no longer uses a deterministic conception of natural laws. Hence, (3) Schopenhauer’s account is inconsistent with our current understanding of the empirical world. Premise (1) strikes me as the weakest. First, it is not obvious that one couldn’t design a net of fate that preserved several meaningful correlations despite the links in each causal chain being merely probabilistically related. Schopenhauer doesn’t need to claim that ALL events are meaningfully related to each other, only that some are. Perhaps the Norns load in many possible correlations and only some of them work themselves out in the empirical world. You would still have meaningful omens. Furthermore, I worry that Jung has given an uncharitable reading of Schopenhauer. For, in the very paper that Jung cites, Schopenhauer claims to have used the resources of the Kantian perspective to reconcile the apparently contradictory doctrines of free will and determinism. Schopenhauer contends:

“Kant’s distinction between the thing in itself and its appearance, together with my attribution of the former to the will and the latter to representation, gives us the possibility of anticipating the compatibility of three oppositions, albeit only imperfectly and from afar.

            These are: (1) The compatibility between the freedom of the will in itself and the universal necessity of all actions of the individual. (2) That between the mechanics and technique of nature, or efficient casuality and final causality, or between purely causal and teleological explicablility. (3) That between the obvious contingency of all events in the course of an individual life and their moral necessity for shaping that life in accordance with a transcendent purposiveness for the individual—or, in popular language, between the course of nature and providence.”[34]

It is thus uncharitable for Jung to assert that Schopenhauer maintains determinism simplicter. Jung may believe that Schopenhauer has failed to prove what he set out to prove, but he should at least acknowledge Schopenhauer’s actual position and point out where he thinks the arguments founder.

III. Daemonic Realism.

If we are to take Jung at his word in rejecting Schopenhauer’s account of a unitary supersensible ground of the world, how then are we to understand the activity of the archetypes. One final model suggests itself in Schopenhauer’s work. He considers the classical position that each individual, in addition to having a body and soul, has been assigned a personal daemon to direct the journey of his life. Schopenhauer believes that such a model is only partially true, and needs to be philosophically articulated (through his own position) to account for how the various phenomena of the empirical world flow from a single source. But since Jung does not want to posit a unitary ground of reality, the classical position may be the best fit for his theory.

            It is surprising for us to look back on the world of antiquity and see that they had a thoroughly realistic conception of the daemonic action.[35] Spirits were real beings capable of communicating with us and interacting with the physical world. For example, we tend to gloss over Socrates’ claims to guidance by a person daemon. Even in his famous Apology, Socrates claims that it was his daemon that prevented him from taking up a political life:

“It may seem strange that while I go around and give this advice privately and interfere in private affairs, I do not venture to go to the assembly and there advise the city. You have heard me give the reason for this in many places. I have a divine or spiritual sign (δαιμονιον) which Meletus has ridiculed in his deposition. This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never encourages me to do anything. This is what has prevented me from taking part in public affairs, and I think it was quite right to prevent me. Be sure, men of Athens, that if I had long ago attempted to take part in politics, I should have died long ago, and benefited neither you nor myself. Do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; no man will survive who genuinely opposes you or any other crowd and prevents the occurrence of many unjust and illegal happenings in the city. A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time” (Apology 31c-e).[36]

Here Socrates claims that since childhood he has been guided by the voice of a personal daemon, and it is thanks to this guidance that he is a philosopher rather than a statesman.

            Plato develops this account in the Republic when he claims that before reincarnation the soul will not only choose the kind of life it finds attractive, but will also choose its personal daemon. In the myth of Er, a voice proclaims: ‘Ephemeral souls, this is the beginning of another cycle that will end in death. Your daemon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him”  (Republic X. 617e).[37] The activity of this daemon is then described as follows:

After all the souls had chosen their lives, they went forward to Lachesis in the same order in which they had made their choices, and she assigned to each the daemon it had chosen as guardian of its life and fulfiller of its choice. This daemon first led the soul under the hand of Clotho as it turned the revolving spindle to confirm the fate that the lottery and its own choice had given it. After receiving her touch, he led the soul to the spinning of Atropos, to make what had been spun irreversible. Then, without turning around, they went from there under the throne of Necessity and, when all of them had passed through, they travelled to the Plain of Forgetfulness in burning, choking, terrible heat, for it was empty of trees and earthly vegetation. And there, beside the River of Unheeding, whose water no vessel can hold, they camped, for night was coming on. All of them had to drink a certain measure of this water, but those who weren’t saved by reason drank more than that, and as each of them drank, he forgot everything and went to sleep. But around midnight there was a clap of thunder and an earthquake, and they were suddenly carried away from there, this way and that, up to their births, like shooting stars. (Republic X. 620e-621b).[38]

Here we have the idea that not only does a soul choose its life before incarnation, but it also chooses a guardian daemon to guide him through the journey. It is this daemon that brings about the difficult process of embodiment.

In such a classical view a daemon would be considered a real entity, one capable of acting according to “higher causal principles” which “transcend the realm of nature.”[39] The Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus explains as follows:

“If I am to reveal to you the truth about the personal daemon, it is not from one part only of the heavenly regions nor from any one element of the visible realm that this entity is imparted to us, but from the whole cosmos and from the whole variety of life within it and from every sort of body, through all of which the soul descends into generation, there is apportioned to us an individual lot, assigned to each of the parts within us according to an individual authorizing principle. This daemon, then, stands as a model for us even before the souls descend into generation. When a soul has selected a daemon as its guide, then straightway it stands over it as the fulfiller of the various levels of life of the soul, and as the soul descends into the body it binds it to the body, and it supervises the composite living being arising from it, and personally regulates the particulars of the life of the soul; and all our reasonings we pursue thanks to the first principles which it communicates to us, and we perform such actions as it puts into our minds (IX. 6)”[40]

Beings capable of binding soul to body and orchestrating the events of an individual life, would likely also be capable of arranging synchronicities by exercising the same causal powers. This then suggests a straightforward reading of how the archetypes act in the world: the archetypes are classical daemons and their actions are really actions. Provided that we distinguish between empirical causation and daemonic causation, this would provide a straightforward account of Jung’s theory of synchronicity.

            The trouble with this interpretation is that it appears to conflict with Jung’s claim that the archetypes are merely formal features of the unconscious. Classical daemons are concrete agents capable of independent thought and action, and so appear to be inconsistent with Jung’s account of the archetypes. The theories may, however, be reconciled by noting further details of both accounts. First, Jung claims that synchronicity can ground the applicability of fields such as divination through the I Ching, Astrology, and Numerology. Since the world displays explanatory relations between events that are causally unrelated, it is possible to, for example, explain someone’s bellicosity by appealing to the fact that they were born under the sign of Aries. Second, in one classical school of thought, daemons were identified with astral consciousnesses; they were star souls. For example, Paracelsus claims that “in order for fate to be understood, every human being has a spirit that dwells outside of him and has its seat in the outer stars. It uses the bosses of its master. It is this spirit that produces predictions, before and after, for these continue to exist after it. These spirits are called fate.”[41] The combination of these two claims (that synchronicity grounds astrology and that daemons are astral consciousnesses) could allow us to reconcile Jung’s formalism with daemonic realism. For one could hold that the archetypes are associated with the stars constituting the zodiac as they operate together in generating the empirical world. This would mean that predictable formal features could be abstracted from the particular operations of these entities. Indeed, classical magic was predicated on just such a model.[42] The archetypes could, in a similar manner, thus be identified with the abstract formal correlates of the actions of real supersensible beings.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] “There are genuinely non-causal combinations of events for whose explanation we should have to postulate a factor incommensurable with causality. We should then have to assume that events in general are related to one another on the one hand as causal chains, and on the other hand by a kind of meaningful cross connection.” Jung, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol. 8: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 3383.

[2] Ibidl, 3382.

[3] Ibid., 3375.

[4] This leaves one to wonder about who profits from the prevailing ideology.

[5] Ibid., 3405-3406.

[6] Ibid., 3377.

[7] Ibid., 3380

[8] Ibid., 3382.

[9] I suspect that Jung takes the feeling of meaningful connection to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for synchronicity.

[10] Ibid., 3386

[11] Ibid., 3387-3388.

[12] Ibid., 3390.

[13] At this point you may be confused as to what such a shaping can consist in if it is not causal. I share this worry and will expand on it in the next section.

[14] Ibid., 3391-3392.

[15] Space and time are not categories for Kant. Categories are a priori concepts of the understanding under which it can subsume any given object of experience. Space and time, by contrast, are a priori forms of intuition through which those objects are given.

[16] Jung points to animal behavior as an additional argument for the dependent nature of space and time. See, ibid., 3393.

[17] One wonders about the coherence of a belief in the independent reality of external bodies, if space and time are dependent on consciousness.

[18] Ibid., 3392

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 3395.

[21] Ibid., 3394.

[22] For a discussion of some other truly remarkable cases of synchronicity see Stanislav Grof’s When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-Ordinary Realities (Boulder: Sounds True, 2006).

[23] Ibid., 3395. Jung takes the fact success rate of psi tests are dependent on the attention and attitude of the participant to be further evidence that the archetypes are at play. For the achetypes operate by generating affect through instinct. See, ibid., 3396.

[24] Ibid., 3402.

[25] Ibid., 3383.

[26] Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays Vol. 1 trans. and ed. Janaway and Roehr (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 281.

[27] Ibid., 287.

[28] Ibid., 289-290.

[29] Ibid., 290.

[30] Ibid., 292-293.

[31] Jung, Structure and Dynamics, 3383.

[32] Ibid., 3384-3385.

[33] One begins to have doubts about how much philosophy Jung has read and to what degree he has seriously engaged with it.

[34] Schopenhauer, Parerga, 295.

[35] Iamblichus, for example, rejects the idea that the daemon is merely a metaphor for the intellectual principle in man. “For if (the daemon) is merely a part of the soul, as for instance the intellectual part, and that person is ‘happy’ who has his intellect in a sound state, there will no longer be any need to postulate any other order, greater or daemonic, to preside over the human order as its superior (IX.8).” De mysteriis trans. Clarke, Dillon, and Hershbell (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.

[36] Plato, Complete Works trans. and ed. Cooper, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997).

[37] Plato, Complete Works.

[38] Plato, Complete Works.

[39] Iamblichus, De mysteriis (ix.9).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Loc cit., Schopenhauer, Parerga, 287.

[42] Describing the world of the Picatrix, Attrell and Porreca observe that it “presents us with an unseen world of cosmic energy currents that radiate down from the firmament of stars and pass through the planetary spheres. They are augmented and diminished before pouring into the people, places, and things disposed to them. Hiding behind these rays, however, are spiritual entities with whom the ‘wise’ individuals can communicate given the fulfilment of complex ritual conditions. Ultimately, in the world of the Picatrix, we see a seamless integration of practical magic, earnest piety, and traditional philosophy. There is no incompatibility between traditional monotheistic beliefs and the invocation of planetary spirits that might, at first glance, be reminiscent of pagan gods—particularly in name. The unity of God is preserved since the planetary powers are understood as astral volitional forces that constitute the hidden inner workings of a cosmos ruled entirely by God’s will.” Picatrix: A Medival Treatise on Astral Magic trans. Attrell and Porreca, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 8.

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