On 8/7/13, we recorded a discussion of Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols, specifically essay he wrote that kicks off the book (which includes several authors), “Approaching the Unconscious.”
This reading (written shortly before Jung’s death in 1961 and published afterwards) was recommended to us by some Jung fans on our Facebook page. It provides a straightforward overview of his psychology, written for laymen with only a couple of lightly treated case studies to bolster his claims. So it seems to be a good window into what he thought, which is interesting, but not so much a piece of philosophical argumentation. He approaches this idea of “the perennial philosophy” that we’ve discussed on a few occasions (most recently with Heidegger) by inquiring into its origins. Many religions and philosophies discuss something fundamental yet inexpressible lying at the edge of our experience, and Jung is interested in why this might be the case. The answer is that the human psyche has evolved over time just like our physiology, and just as we retain traces of our mollusk-like ancestors (as evidenced by embryological similarities between us and current mollusks and other animals), so our psyche is equipped with instincts from our pre-historic pasts.
Add to this a model of the psyche which is not just one Cartesian, decision-making, free subject, but a multiplicity of teleological centers, i.e. of personalities, most of which are not conscious. So before we become all self-conscious, able to reflect on and thus more comprehensively control our own behavior, we’re essentially in the psychic state of primitive man (so that’s more or less the state of infants), and the civilized veneer we paint over this to create our mature personality is really just one small part of our psyche, which doesn’t even end up controlling the bulk of what we do. Jung thinks that we repress the rest of it, which can cause complexes, and that if we think that we’re overall rational creatures, we’re just fooling ourselves, and dangerously so.
So what’s in this repressed mass? Well, some of it is what Freud talked about: excess energy, things related to our childhood, etc., but Jung found Freud’s reductionist analysis too constricting. While some complexes are about infant sexual hangups, the therapist needs to listen carefully to the patient and use such models as Freud’s only as rules-of-thumb: the explanation has to come out of an analysis of the patient, not an imposition of a theoretical model on the patient. So one of the theories that Jung worked up to best explain cases such as one he cites where a young girl was reporting on dreams that involved a lot of mythological imagery is that man’s psychic pre-history involves what he calls the collective unconscious, which is not a shared repository of specific symbols but more just instincts to express certain fundamental relations we have with the world. So there’s a mother-figure archetype that gets expressed in numerous myths and religious customs and stories from disparate cultures, and a hero archetype, and an all-father archetype, and many others, such that he thinks to analyze someone’s dreams requires a lot of research into the historical use of various symbols. In short, we come equipped with a symbol-making capacity that is older even than language itself, and which language perpetuates by giving each word, in addition to whatever explicit, definable meaning it may have, a prenumbra of idiosyncratic associations that amount to the word’s psychological feel.
All this is in line with Jung’s model of personality classification, which stresses that conflicts such as those between “thinking” and “feeling” are not a matter of the former being rational (i.e. philosophically correct) and the latter being soft in the head, but are a matter of value-neutral personality differences. So modern personality tests such as you might take as part of an employment application are derived from Jung’s classifications, and one of the polarities of personality (besides introvert/extrovert and thinking/feeling) is sensing vs. intuiting, where the former is just dealing with the literal, quantifiable content of each situation, and the latter is drawing conclusions by bringing together lots of disparate sensations, many of which may not have been the central focus of any given perception. So a word’s definition would correlate to sensing here, while its function as symbol correlates to intuition.
Jung’s goal for psychology is for us to achieve inner harmony, to not be so warped in favor of one one these personality characteristics or another, as we of course have all these tendencies inside of us. It’s not going to be possible to bring all of the unconscious into consciousness (we’ll need to remain partially examined), but we can at least not adopt a stance that’s actively hostile and repressive toward the mass of our own unconscious. Jung thinks that the modern mindset–characterized by a particular take on reason and technology (again, this point is similar to Heidegger)–leaves us divorced from ourselves, full of psychological complexes and unable to solve social problems. Understanding ourselves requires understanding our own symbolic expressions, which would involve, for instance, understanding at a gut level why one might embrace religion, which is not, for Jung, a matter of saying you believe or don’t believe certain obviously unprovable propositions. We need to understand that much of what we do now is motivated by the same things that motivated ancient people to venerate the sun or some current backwoods tribes to declare that their spirits are actually located in nearby bushes or any number of other crazy-seeming practices. We all need meaning to get us through the day, and much of our current, supposedly rational and freely chosen objects of our veneration (science worship, patriotism, our aesthetic choices) involve just as much irrationality at their core as anything else. The solution is to understand our need for the numinous (i.e. for things that have psychological power over us, e.g. symbols that really resonate with us in ways that are too strong for us to understand) and try to get to know this strange landscape inside of our heads instead of proceeding headlong in self-ignorance.
If you’re interested in Jung, consider joining the Not School study group I’ll be leading in August to discuss an earlier and somewhat more literary (i.e. hard to read) work by Jung: Answer to Job. This essay considers God as a symbol, dealing with the philosophical Problem of Evil by considering what would have to be packed into the notion of a singular creator: of course such a being, being everything, would have to have an evil side, and how this is dramatized in the Biblical book of Job is a particularly candid display of how we relate to this numinous symbol. Join Not School now to read it with me!