Introduction to Carl Jung – The Psyche, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

“Man has developed consciousness slowly and laboriously, in a process that took untold ages to reach the civilized state. And this evolution is far from complete, for large areas of the human mind are still shrouded in darkness.” (Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung)

These words were written by Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist who lived from 1875 to 1961.

In this video and a subsequent one, we will examine some of Jung’s most important ideas including his ideas on the conscious and unconscious realms of the mind, his theory of archetypes and what he called the individuation process which he saw as a path to self-knowledge and wholeness.

A key to appreciating Jung’s vast contributions to the field of psychology is knowledge of how Jung conceived of the psyche. The word psyche originally meant  ‘soul’ or  ‘spirit’ but by the turn of the 20th century increasingly came to refer to  ‘mind’. In Jungian psychology one’s psyche can be seen as their  total personality and encompasses all one’s thoughts, behaviours, feelings, and emotions.

Knowledge of the psyche, how it worked and how one could influence its functioning was of the utmost concern for Jung. Broadly speaking Jung divided the psyche into three main realms:  consciousness,  the personal unconscious and  the collective unconscious.

The different realms of the psyche are not completely separate from each other but instead  continually interact in a compensatory manner. This dynamic interplay between the conscious and unconscious realms of the psyche leads, as we will see, to the potential for personal  growth and change through what Jung termed the individuation process.

Before examining in more detail the unconscious realms of the psyche, we will first discuss consciousness – that realm of the psyche most familiar to us. The conscious realm of the psyche can be  described as one’s field of awareness and consists of those psychic contents that one knows. At the centre of this field of awareness  was what Jung called the ego. The ego is one’s personality as they are aware of it firsthand.

Or in the words of Jung,  the ego:

“. . .forms, as it were, the centre of the field of consciousness; and, in so far as this comprises the empirical personality, the ego is the subject of all personal acts of consciousness.” (Carl Jung, The Portable Jung)

The ego plays a crucial role in each person’s life as it acts as a  gatekeeper which influences what contents of experience are reflected in consciousness and which contents are eliminated, repressed, or ignored. The ego, in its role as gatekeeper, helps determine the content of the next main area of the psyche we will look at – the personal unconscious. As Jung  writes:

“There are certain events of which we have not consciously taken note; they have remained, so to speak, below the threshold of consciousness. They have happened, but they have been absorbed subliminally.” (Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung)

These events that have been absorbed subliminally occupy the personal unconscious. The word subliminal translates to  “below the threshold”, so what Jung means is that there are many events that  the ego represses or disregards, for various reasons, be it that they are too distressing or simply forgotten or deemed insignificant. But these events do not disappear completely from the psyche but instead  occupy the personal unconscious and continue to have the potential to influence one’s personality. It must be stressed that the unconscious realm is not merely a receptacle for forgotten memories, rather as we mentioned earlier the unconscious and conscious realms of the psyche dynamically interact, both playing an integral role in the life of the individual.

One way that the personal unconscious influences one’s behaviour is through the impact of what Jung called complexes. Many people are familiar with the term complex in psychology –  Sigmund Freud was famous for his idea of the Oedipus complex, while  Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Jung’s and Freud’s, stressed the importance of the inferiority complex.

Jung conceived of complexes as  sub-personalities which have the potential to exert powerful control over one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Or as is explained in the classic introduction to Jung, A Primer of Jungian Psychology:

“One interesting and important feature of the personal unconscious is that groups of contents may come together to form a cluster or constellation. Jung called them complexes. . .When we say a person has a complex we mean he is strongly preoccupied by something that he can hardly think about anything else. In modern parlance, he has a “hangup.” A strong complex is easily noticed by others, although the person himself may not be aware of it.” (A Primer of Jungian Psychology)

Freud, who was Jung’s mentor for a period of time, believed that a complex largely arose due to traumatic childhood experiences, however,  Jung was not satisfied with this explanation. His dissatisfaction with Freud’s explanation led him on a search for what it was in the psychic realm that gave rise to complexes, and what he was to discover was  that the roots of complexes resided in a layer of the unconscious that was  deeper and more fundamental than the personal unconscious, which he called the collective unconscious.

This discovery was spurred by extensive analysis of the unconscious material of his patients, such as their  dreams and fantasies, as well as his study of  comparative religion and mythology. What Jung noticed was that not only were there uncanny similarities between the unconscious material of different patients but more interestingly there were also uncanny similarities in the major mythological motifs and religious symbols of different civilizations. This led Jung to propose that in addition to the conscious and personal unconscious realms of the psyche, there existed another realm of the psyche.

As Jung wrote:

“From the unconscious there emanate determining influences…which, independently of tradition, guarantee in every single individual a similarity and even a sameness of experience, and also of the way it is represented imaginatively. One of the main proofs of this is the almost universal parallelism between mythological motifs…” (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung)

Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious was one of his most important contributions to the field of psychology. What Jung was proposing was that in addition to the personal unconscious, which  is mainly composed of elements drawn from the individual’s life experiences, the  collective unconscious contains universal elements which are inherited:

“We can also find in the unconscious qualities that are not individually acquired but are inherited, e.g., instincts as impulses to carry out actions from necessity, without conscious motivation. In this deeper stratum we…find…archetypes… The instincts and archetypes together form the “collective unconscious”. I call them collective because unlike the personal unconscious, it is not made up of individual and more or less unique contents but of those which are universal and of regular occurrence.” (The Essential Jung, Carl Jung and Anthony Storr)

According to Jung archetypes are psychic structures which are common to all humans and constitute  ‘the archaic heritage of humanity’. Archetypes  can be described as cognitive categories, or predispositions that humans are born with to think, feel, perceive and act in specific ways.

It is important to note that Jung did not believe that one could directly perceive an archetype, rather one can note their existence only by observing the images or symbols which are manifested as a result of their existence in the unconscious. Archetypes shouldn’t be equated with symbols or images instead archetypes manifest images and symbols along with various other phenomena.

In the words of Anthony Stevens, archetypes

“[possess] the capacity to initiate, control, and mediate the common behavioral characteristics and typical experiences of all human beings. Thus, on appropriate occasions, archetypes give rise to similar thoughts, images, mythologems, feelings, and ideas in people, irrespective of their class, creed, race, geographical location, or historical epoch.” (Jung: A Very Short Introduction, Anthony Stevens)

Some of the archetypes that Jung examined included those of the  mother,  birth,  death,  rebirth,  power,  the hero and  the child, to name but a few. However, as Jung stated:

“There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life. Endless repetition has engraved these experiences into our psychic constitution, not only in the forms 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.” (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung)

The archetypes of the collective unconscious have a deep evolutionary basis and Jung considered them to be inherited parts of the psyche. Jung thought it obvious that, just as the  body has evolved over long periods of time, so too must the  psyche have evolved certain predispositions and inherent tendencies as well throughout our vast evolutionary lineage:

“Just as the human body represents a whole museum of organs, each with a long evolutionary history behind it, so we should expect to find that the mind is organized in a similar way. It can no more be a product without history than is the body in which it exists. By “history” I do not mean the fact that the mind builds itself up by conscious reference to the past through language and other cultural traditions. I am referring to the biological, prehistoric, and unconscious development of the mind in archaic man, whose psyche was still close to that of the animal.” (Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung)

While archetypes are formed over extremely long periods of time in an evolutionary manner and are common to all humans, they express themselves differently in each person. In other words, the archetypes interact  in a dynamic manner with the individual experience of each person and this leads to the formation of a  unique personality.

Jung believed it was of paramount importance for each individual to confront and integrate the contents of their unconscious, and thought the failure to do so would result in a fragmented individual:

“For the sake of mental stability and even physiological health, the unconscious and the conscious must be integrally connected and thus move on parallel lines. If they are split apart or “dissociated,” psychological disturbance follows.” (Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung)

This process of confronting the unconscious was, according to Jung, a path to self-knowledge which he called the individuation process. As Jung commented:

“I use the term ‘individuation’ to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘individual,’ that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole’” (Carl Jung)

The individuation process will be examined in more detail in the next video along with a number of other important Jungian concepts such as the  persona, and various archetypes which are encountered during the individuation process such as the  shadow, the  anima and the animus, and the  archetype of wholeness, which Jung called the self.

Further Readings

A Primer of Jungian Psychology – Calvin Hall & Vernon Nordby

Boundaries of the Soul: The Practice of Jung’s Psychology – June Singer

Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue: Retrieving the Soul, Retrieving the Sacred – Michael Smith

Jung: A Very Short Introduction – Anthony Stevens

Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction – Murray Stein

Man and His Symbols – Carl Jung

Meeting the Shadow – Connie Zweig & Jeremiah Abrams

Memories, Dreams, Reflections – Carl Jung