The Collective Unconscious

The Collective Unconscious

Photo by Uray1130

 Carl Gustav Jung did very original work in his field. One thing that seems to be largely ignored is that he was also an ingenious philosopher. Some of his theories deal with important philosophical questions rather than strictly psychological issues. One such theory has to do with what he called the collective unconscious.

When Jung entered the field of psychology around the turn of the twentieth century, there were notions of an unconscious region prevalent among those who studied the human mind, even before Sigmund Freud began writing about the subconscious as a repository of repressions. Investigators of spiritualism, such as F.W.H. Myers, author of Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, wrote about mental activity which exists below the threshold of consciousness (Bennet 60). At least two philosophers had been speculating on this subject prior to the twentieth century. According to the Dictionary of Philosophy,

the doctrine of the subconscious was foreshadowed in Leibniz’s doctrine of petite perceptions (Monadology, sections 21, 23) and received philosophical expression by A. Schopenhauer (Runes 303).

Jung immediately picked up on the idea as a possible explanation for results obtained in experiments with so-called “association tests,” that is, where the doctor gives the patient a word and instructs him/her to respond with the first word which arises in the mind. Jung claimed that this method

demonstrates very accurately the presence of conflicts in the form of “complexes” of feeling-toned ideas, as they are called, which betray themselves through characteristic disturbances in the course of the experiment (Jung, Two Essays 30).

Apparently, Jung was able to arrive at the notion that complexes exist in a region of the mind which was not known to the conscious subject. Complexes are repressed, emotionally-charged ideas which conflict with other ideas in the mind. He was also very influenced in this area by the work being done by Freud.

By observing the dreams and hallucinations of his patients at the Burghozli Hospital in Switzerland, Jung theorized that the unconscious consists of what he termed the personal unconscious, and a deeper, more primal and impersonal area, which he called the collective unconscious. This latter notion, among others, was a new idea that caused a rift between Jung and Freud. Jung was discovering that many of the images related to him by his patients were recurring mythological motifs which Jung claimed were universal. This led him to believe that the human race is connected somehow at the unconscious level. Freud vehemently denied that such a theory was needed. Jung, however, was convinced that his hypothesis was true. The two never reconciled their differences, but Freud later admitted that certain “archaic remnants” exist in the mind which he could not adequately explain.

In contrast to the personal unconscious, which Jung said contains “lost memories, painful ideas that are repressed, subliminal perceptions, . . . and contents that are not yet ripe for consciousness” (Jung, Two Essays 76), the collective unconscious harbors primordial images which are universal to mankind. These images, or archetypes, as Jung called them, are inherited motifs,

. . . mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind (Jung, Man and His Symbols 57).

Certain mythological themes occur in dreams and in the fantasies of mental patients which are common among human the world over. The claim that these motifs exist among all cultures has been much heralded by Joseph Campbell, author of many books on comparative mythology. Campbell presents strong evidence for the existence of the archetypes of the collective unconscious, even though his evidence is really empirically untestable. As one example, the figure of a mother goddess exists in the mythology of many diverse cultures, even those separated by vast oceans.

A problem with this theory, however, is that it is not falsifiable. We cannot test these assertions, since they supposedly exist at a level of the mind which is not open to our scrutiny. Saying that humans are connected in some mysterious way at the subconscious level is like saying that we have lived past lives; neither theory is testable at the empirical level. But, of course, logic breaks down in such areas of inquiry.

Jung does not agree with John Locke that the mind of a new-born infant is a tabula rasa. More akin to Kant, he believes there are certain inherited a priori structures of the mind, which are “patterns of instinctual behavior” (Bennet 66). These patterns shape our lives–who we are, how we act, and where our destinies lie.

According to Jung, the archetypes are analogous to human instincts in that they are images of the instincts. They are inborn and unlearned, just like instincts. And just as instincts evolve from repeated experiences of a species, so have the archetypes evolved in the human species from repeated inner experiences. For example, the archetype of the hero, which Joseph Campbell spent considerable time writing about, is a process that is seen in all cultures, and which seems to have evolved as a means of overcoming what we call schizophrenia. According to Campbell (who is quoting a Dr. John Perry), the way a schizophrenic loses touch with reality and turns inward corresponds to the mythical journey of the hero, who

ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men (Campbell 209).

A good example of this is in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s story of the Holy Grail, Parzifal being the hero.

Campbell (and Dr. Jung) believed that the inward journey of a schizophrenic could be a process of healing if it were left to run its course. So here we have an inner instinctual process which may have evolved as a way for the species to deal with mental illness. This is what Jung seems to have meant when he said the archetypes are images of the instincts.

Jung saw the pre-rational forms of the mind as being analogous to the inherited bodily form which we all possess. Just as most of us have two arms, two legs, a torso, and a head, so the basal layer of the mind also has its inherited structure, namely the archetypes. These are common in all humans just as our bodily form is common to all.

In one way, Jung’s theory of the archetypes is similar to Plato’s theory of Forms. Plato would say that for everything there is a Form, which is the original blueprint of a particular thing. Just so, the archetypes of the collective unconscious are patterns of inner workings which supply a certain “inborn manner of comprehension” (Bennet 69). But, instead of placing the Forms in a world totally separate from ours, as Plato did, Jung places his archetypes in the primal layer of the human mind. Jung seems closer to Immanuel Kant, even though Kant did not posit a pre-rational and unconscious archetypal storehouse (perhaps this could be tied in with noumenon?).

As much as I like this theory of Jung’s, I have certain reservations. For example, I am not fond of dichotomizing, i.e., I do not see a need to separate personal unconscious from collective unconscious. Perhaps they need to be distinguished when discussing them, but, in reality, a reciprocal flow between the personal and collective would have to occur. Actually, from reading Jung himself, I think he also had this notion, for he mentions that, sometimes, contents of the collective unconscious irrupt into the conscious mind, as when a schizophrenic hallucinates, or when we dream. He probably did not intend for personal and collective to be thought of as separate. After all, these are just metaphors for our experiences, and cannot be expected to be precise,  literal accounts of what really occurs in the mind.

Another problem I have is that it seems it would be very difficult to gain knowledge of the collective unconscious, and thereby become an integrated personality (no imbalance between conscious and unconscious), without either being extremely familiar with ancient mythological motifs oneself, or having the assistance of someone who is both trained in mythology and psychology. In Jung’s schema, it seems nearly impossible to develop one’s personality (or individuate, as Jung calls it) without such specialized knowledge or aid. Personally, I have followed my dreams for months at a time and have been baffled as to what inner workings they represent. I no longer think that the goal of human striving is a unified whole. I am of the opinion that fragmentation is natural for us. The unified view smacks of monotheism, in my opinion, and is not in line with the way we are, as we are phenomenologically.

So, is Jung’s hypotheses of the collective unconscious and the archetypes worth anything to us? In my opinion, they are extremely valuable, just as Plato’s theory of the Forms is valuable, even though they may not be totally accurate. Such theories provide for us a point of departure for future thinking. They are images and metaphors to propel us on to greater lucidity.

We are barely scratching the surface in our knowledge of the human mind. The future holds great discoveries which may reconcile the views of science and the ideas of someone like Carl Jung. There are still great mysteries to be solved, as in the areas of hypnosis and dream research, and, perhaps, how this all ties in with the enigma of quantum physics. Jung, along with Freud, provided a framework for such studies. Even though Jung’s ideas sound strange to the rational mind, we should hear him out, and consider very carefully what he said before labeling him a psychotic, as one psychology professor described Jung to me a few years ago. I was not surprised, seeing the professor’s main thrust was Behaviorism.


Bennet, E.A. What Jung Really Said. New York: Schocken, 1966.

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Bantam, 1972.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell, 1964.

—. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. New York: Meridian, 1956.

Runes, Dagobert D. Dictionary of Philosophy. Totowa: Littlefield & Adams, 1966.

This post has been read 2042 times!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

19 + 11 =