Some reflections on Carl Gustav Jung

Vision by Cornelia Kopp via Flickr

I cherish the anxious hope that meaning will… win the battle — C. G. Jung

I’ve been thinking about the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) for about three decades. Quite a few biographies have been written about Jung. Some writers are keen on recon-structing his early childhood, family influences, and so on. But as I grow older I’m becoming less interested in Jung’s personal life. I know enough of the backdrop – outlandish parties, extramarital infidelities, kissing up to the Nazi bureaucracy – to keep everything in context.

I’m more interested in Jung’s intellectual legacy. So when I talk about Jung its usually to introduce some of my own ideas about psychology, spirituality, and the journey to everlasting life.

Once a close friend and colleague of Sigmund Freud, in the early days of his remarkable career Jung found in Freud something of a kindly father figure. The elder Jew regarded the younger gentile as his star pupil among several luminaries in the emerging school of psychoanalysis. As a non-Jew, Jung was in a better position to help spread Freud’s psychoanalytic movement within a central Europe marked by anti-Semitism. But the two intellectual titans split in 1914 over a number of personal and professional differences, most notably, Jung’s rejection of Freud’s increasingly dogmatic insistence on the primacy of the libido.

What the critics say

Jung, himself, has been criticized on many counts. Conservative Christians see him as a dangerous, demonic threat, citing select quotations of his work which apparently support their arguments while ignoring, as extremists usually do, those aspects which would refute them.1 Despite this conservative backlash, Jungian ideas continue to be taken seriously in popular Catholic literature, just as some of Luther’s ideas are said to agree with core Catholic teaching. Meanwhile, parapsychologists and spiritualists, usually scorned by traditional Christians, often say that Jung’s theory is limiting.2

Until recently, the major figures in Western cultural studies and rationalism largely ignored Jung in favor of Freud. Freud’s emphasis on sexuality, sublimation and the idea of the phallus resonated with neo-Marxist and postmodern interests.

As for those who took the time to actually read Jung, his work was often dismissed as a kind of fuzzy mysticism riddled with modernist stereotypes and elements of racism. Accordingly, a body of historical reconstruction emerged, claiming that Jung kowtowed to Hitler and the Nazi Party.3

Philosophers of logic tend to wince at the very thought of Jung. Most philosophers say that his arguments contain far too many assumptions to merit any kind of serious consideration. Not only philosophers, but many in religious studies say that Jung’s analogical use of mythological and religious ideas is weak because his data is removed from historical contexts. In disconnecting religious ideas from their originally intended meanings, Jung has been heavily criticized for distorting data to make it fit his own theory.4 Moreover, feminist and women’s studies analyses suggest that his views are sexist.5

Alchemical Images Courtesy The Alchemy Web Site

Another way to understand Jung’s work looks at the big picture. By appreciating his lasting contribution to the history of ideas, value is found not so much in Jung’s theoretical particulars but rather, in his spirit of innovation and genuine concern to synthesize depth psychology, empirical observation and rationality. Writing about Jung, Naomi Goldenberg says that Jung apparently was happy to be “Jung and not a Jungian.” As a Jungian one might slavishly follow the Grand Master without thinking for him or herself. But Jung, himself, was free to revise his theories according to his ongoing thoughts and observations.6

Among Jung’s wide ranging interests, his work on projection, the shadow, inflation, symbols, numinosity, synchronicity and the collective unconscious seem most useful.7 Not unlike Gandhi who said “be the change you want to see in the world,” Jung advocated self-knowledge as an essential component for personal and societal transformation. To make this happen, Jung believed that we had actively master the unconscious. For Jung, no amount of abstract talk without doing the real work of inner change would have any kind of lasting effect on outer change.

Jung also believed that a failure to control the powerful impulses of the unconscious could result in a kind of Dorian Gray scenario where the unconscious gradually comes to control the individual and society as a whole.

The collective unconscious: Is Freud so different?

Freud and Jung’s views about the unconscious differ, but not so much as most believe. Some pop psychologists and New Age gurus quickly dismiss Freud’s ideas, unaware that his model of the unconscious contains collective elements. They prefer Jung’s notion of the archetypes, which borrows from ideas previously found in anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion and theology (the term archetype is actually traceable to St. Augustine, 354-430 CE).

Jung describes the archetype as a component of mankind’s psychological substratum—the collective unconscious. Freud similarly spoke of phylogenetic “schemata” and “prototypes.” And borrowing from ancient Greek and Jewish literature, Freud also devised the “Oedipus complex,” a “primal father” and likened the shadowy contents of the unconscious to archaeological ruins.

In addition, late in his career Freud revised his libido theory to include the general ideas of eros (life instinct) and thanatos (death instinct). Because Freud maintained that the fundamental aspects of the unconscious are universal, aspects of his theory of the self, like Jung’s, point to a collective unconscious.8 And not only that. Freud himself said that Jung introduced nothing new with the idea of the collective unconscious, for the “content of the unconscious is collective anyhow.”9

C. G. Jung at Küsnacht

Archetypes and the Unconscious

But Jung and Freud differ in that Jung’s archetypal theory elaborates on the unconscious to a greater degree than Freud’s rather basic schema of id, ego and superego.10 Jung’s archetypes, however, have themselves been criticized as ambiguous, simplistic constructs. On the charge of ambiguity, Jungians reply that archetypes are necessarily mysterious since they consist of matter/energy and a wide range of numinous potentials. Grounded in human experience, the archetypes transcend our conventional understanding of space and time. They are categories which to some extent explode contemporary assumptions about categories.

The archetypes point to essential mysteries or, in Jung’s way of speaking, they invite and sometimes demand an extraordinary encounter with the numinous. As for the apparent simplicity of the archetypes, Jungians reply that the archetypes, proper, are relatively few but their cultural expression as archetypal images are limitless.

Depth psychologist James Hillman notes that the archetypes are just another construct and should not be taken as realities in themselves. This may surprise some but Jung, himself, knew full well that his apparently ‘scientific’ work was just another myth that he believed was more appropriate for moderns times. The pseudoscientific nature of Jung’s work did not deter him. He believed his new myth was necessary. And his growing popularity seems to confirm that belief.11

Along these lines, Jung said the master archetype is that of the self, which directly or indirectly involves all lesser archetypes. As we journey through certain stages in life, the self strives to unify apparent contradictions. For Jung this process of becoming whole, called individuation, involves a multidimensional union of opposites and by implication, the experience of synchronicity and numinosity. And these two ideas of synchronicity and numinosity arguably raised Western psychology to a new plateau only hinted at by researchers such as Abraham Maslow, Alfred Alder and William James.12

Like his old mentor Freud, Jung sought to devise a fresh, meaningful map of the psyche. He sincerely tried to integrate the personal, social and spiritual dimensions of the self. A brilliant innovator, Jung anticipated the limitations that would inevitably compromise his working model. But despite these limitations, his ideas still inspire half a century after his passing.


1 Fundamentalist Christian attacks against Jung seem to abstractly echo a frightening past of Inquisitions and the torture of so-called witches, a kind of mindset where it’s easier to demonize people on the basis of incomplete data instead of carefully assessing what they have to say. See, for instance, Marsha West’s: Carl Jung: Psychologist or Sorcerer?. Jung himself says that as a practicing psychiatrist he never tried to change his clients’ religious beliefs if they were happy with them. He did critique Christian churches, but his critique was intended to help those receiving no spiritual comfort within those traditions. And his critiques were not one-sided diatribes. For instance, the Protestant Jung commended the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950 because he felt that it solidified an important feminine element within Christian belief and practice. And because Catholicism now highlights the importance of freedom of religious belief, Catholic pogroms against those interested in Jung’s model arguably come from those Catholics unable to appreciate the fullness of Catholic thought.

2 Ram Dass, for instance, said in The Only Dance There Is that Jung is afraid to go beyond identifying with the role of the famous psychologist. Dass says Jung fears taking the next step into mysticism.

3 The best example being Maidenbaum and Martin’s Lingering Shadows: Jungians, Freudians, and anti-Semitism.

4 See my papers Integration and the Orient and Ego, Archetype and Self.

5 Naomi Goldenberg, “Looking at Jung Looking at Himself,” Soundings, 73/2-3 (Summer/Fall 1990).

6 Ibid. Several recent Jungians claim to explore the psyche in the spirit of Jung, not being bound by any kind of Jungian dogma. To what extent they succeed arguably varies from theorist to theorist.

7 These concepts are accurately defined in Daryl Sharp’s Jung Lexicon.

8 Michael V. Adams illustrates this point in The Cambridge Companion to Jung, (ed.) Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 101.

9 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, p. 209, cited in R. J. Lifton with Eric Olson (eds.), Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1974 p. 90.

10 Some of Jung’s archetypes are listed here.

11 Some old school Jungians, being tied to their tidy Jungian teachings, are unwilling to further develop Jung’s concepts or, perhaps, see them in the postmodern sense of the “three C’s,” where context and connotation are taken as an important part of content.

12 More recently, Stanislav Grof and a handful of others have built on Jung’s thought with a holotropic model of the self.

Some reflections on Carl Gustav Jung Copyright © Michael Clark.


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