Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious — Jung and Synchronicity

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This is part of a series. Three other Medium writers are seeking to persuade readers that there is nothing transcendent or metaphysical about Jung’s understanding of the collective unconscious, and therefore the archetypes it contains, that these can be understood exclusively through human evolution, biology, and instincts. I am arguing that this is not the whole truth, perhaps not even the main truth, therefore that Jung’s thinking on this topic is primarily metaphysical. For the full background, see here. For a traditional understanding of the term archetype, thus the position I am defending, see here. For my first foray into this topic, see here.

Now the series begins in earnest. I’m going to begin by examining Jung’s thinking on synchronicity, a term he himself coined to describe the phenomenon of meaningful coincidences. His main text on this theme is called Synchronicity¹, which was part 1 of The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche, co-authored with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli.

Before delving into that, however, it is important to make four preliminary remarks. I’m trying to get to the bottom of what Jung really thought about the archetypes and the collective unconscious. This is not as easy a task as one might hope. Firstly, as I have already remarked, his thinking developed over the years, so there is no overall consistency.

Secondly, and most importantly, in his published writings he always sought to avoid metaphysical speculation, and restricted himself to what could be observed empirically; in simple terms, he wanted to appear as ‘scientific’ as possible, given the difficulties associated with exploring the nature of the unconscious and its contents, which by definition can only be inferred from their effects in consciousness. The most obvious evidence of this was his unwillingness to have the two texts Seven Sermons to the Dead, and what is now known as The Red Book published during his lifetime. We cannot assume therefore that what we read in his published works is necessarily what he really thought, and we sometimes may have to read between the lines and speculate as to the implications. That is a theme to which I’ll return later in the series.

Thirdly, because of the difficulty of the subject matter, Jung tended to circumambulate around any given topic. I discovered this term in relation to Jung in the writing of philosopher Bernardo Kastrup: “It is important to notice that, regardless of the period in which it was written, Jung’s discourse on metaphysics and related topics comes nowhere near the level of conceptual clarity, consistency and precision that today’s analytic philosophers demand. Jung was an extremely intuitive thinker who favoured analogies, similes and metaphors over direct and unambiguous exposition, appearing to frequently contradict himself. This happened because he didn’t use linear argument structures, but instead circumambulated — a handy Jungian term meaning ‘to walk around about’ — the topic in question, in an effort to convey the full gamut of his intuitions about it”². In simple terms this means that picking out one sentence may not give us the full picture.

Finally, let’s remind ourselves that we are not trying to decide whether Jung’s beliefs are true or not, merely what he actually believed. All this needs to be born in mind with everything that will follow in this series.

I’ll now begin my discussion of Jung’s understanding of synchronicity. I assume that readers understand what he meant by this term. My primary source will be his book, but I will also enlist in my aid another book, Marie-Louise von Franz’s On Divination and Synchronicity³. She was his greatest disciple, a close confidante, and the writer of many erudite and brilliant books in the Jungian tradition. My point is therefore that, if anybody knew what Jung really thought, it would be her.

Having made those four points in relation to Jung’s general thinking, on this particular topic his views seem reasonably clear. I’ll try to keep this as brief and simple as possible, focussing on the main points.

Jung insists that synchronicity is “an acausal connecting principle”, which is the actual subtitle of the book. It is important therefore to understand what he means by ‘acausal’. He presumably doesn’t mean that such events have no cause whatsoever, because then they would be merely random coincidences, albeit subjectively meaningful to the person concerned. They would be pure accidents. He means therefore that such events are not caused by any known laws of cause and effect, thus the laws of physics and its assumed determinism. These laws are associated with the spacetime universe, so Jung is suggesting that any ‘cause’ of a synchronistic event is operating from outside spacetime. The back cover (which is presumably the publisher rather than Jung) describes synchronicity as “a psychic factor which is independent of space and time”. Jung himself says: “Since experience has shown that under certain conditions space and time can be reduced almost to zero, causality disappears along with them, because causality is bound up with the existence of space and time and physical changes, and consists essentially in the succession of cause and effect. For this reason synchronistic phenomena cannot in principle be associated with any conception of causality. Hence the interconnection of meaningfully coincident factors must necessarily be thought of as acausal”(p42).

Such statements have persuaded my current favourite philosopher Bernardo Kastrup to say that Jung’s synchronicity “has a metaphysical character”⁴, and I agree with him. Here Jung appears to cast some doubt on that suggestion: “Here, for want of a demonstrable cause, we are all too likely to fall into the temptation of positing a transcendental one (his italics). But a ‘cause’ can only be a demonstrable quantity. A ‘transcendental cause’ is a contradiction in terms, because anything transcendental cannot by definition be demonstrated”. I interpret this to mean, however, that he is not denying the transcendental origin of synchronicities, merely saying that we cannot use the word ‘cause’, because this cannot be demonstrated in line with normal scientific practice. It is because the ‘causal’ factor is outside spacetime, therefore metaphysical, that we cannot use the word ‘cause’.

If you accept my argument so far, then the next step is much clearer. Jung unequivocally associates synchronicity with the archetypes: “Meaningful coincidences… seem to rest on an archetypal foundation. At least all the cases in my experience… show this characteristic” (p33). He had earlier said: “Certain phenomena of simultaneity or synchronicity seem to be bound up with the archetypes” (p29). Putting Jung’s understanding of synchronicity and archetypes together leads me to conclude that Jung believed that archetypes have a metaphysical dimension.

Further reflecting on synchronicity in relation to the collective unconscious, Jung says that:

  • “we are finally compelled to assume that there is in the unconscious something like an a priori knowledge or an ‘immediacy’ of events which lacks any causal basis”
  • “there seems to be an a priori, causally inexplicable knowledge of a situation which is at the time unknowable” (p43–44).

On the same theme Marie-Louise von Franz says: “The unconscious knows things; it knows the past and future, it knows things about other people” (p39). In agreement, Jung talks about “the absolute knowledge of the unconscious, and to the presence in the microcosm of macrocosmic events” (p100), and later “a foreknowledge of some kind”, “a self-subsistent ‘unconscious’ knowledge which I would prefer to call ‘absolute knowledge’ ” (p107). Von Franz says that this knowledge is demonstrated in the phenomenon of synchronicity, and my suggestion is that a possible synonym for it might be ‘omniscience’. How can this be, if the collective unconscious and the archetypes are purely the culmination of human evolution, biology, and instincts?

Also interesting on this theme is Jung’s discussion of number. I’m assuming that the position of my three debating companions, if they believe that the collective unconscious is purely the consequence of evolution, is that human beings must have invented numbers.

Jung, however, believes the opposite: “It is generally believed that numbers were invented or thought out by man, and are therefore nothing but concepts or quantities, containing nothing that was not previously put into them by the human intellect. It is equally possible that numbers were found or discovered. In that case they are not only concepts but something more — autonomous entities which somehow contain more than just quantities”. “I incline to the view that numbers were as much found as invented, and that in consequence they possess a relative autonomy analogous to that of the archetypes… The archetypes too, as a priori ideal forms, are as much found as invented… It would seem that natural numbers have an archetypal character…”. He concludes therefore that number has an archetypal foundation, and defines “number psychologically as an archetype of order which has become conscious” (quotes p58, p59).

Marie-Louise von Franz says that “Jung has called number the most primitive expression of the spirit”. Although it is too complicated to go into here, she goes on to explain how humans come to believe that they have created something that was originally autonomous, and the history of that tendency.

If humanity found or discovered numbers, then they preceded humanity, and therefore (by definition?) have a transcendent or metaphysical origin. All this leads me to suggest that Jung stands in the ancient esoteric tradition which goes back at least as far as Pythagoras, who believed that numbers were of divine origin. In modern times, such thinking has led astrophysicist Mario Livio to ask the question ‘Is God a Mathematician?’, and mathematician Ian Stewart to ask ‘Is God a Geometer?’.

I’ll turn now to what Jung considered to be forerunners to his ideas on synchronicity. He begins by spending quite a long time discussing Taoism (p96–100). He mentions Richard Wilhelm’s translation of ‘Tao’ as ‘meaning’. (Wilhelm is the translator and commentator on the Chinese book of wisdom and divination, the I Ching. Jung believes that I Ching consultations are manifestations of synchronicity.) He goes on to quote the Tao Te Ching, and concludes that “ ‘Nothing’ is evidently ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’, and it is only called Nothing because it does not manifest itself in the world of the senses, but is only its organizer”. (By ‘Nothing’ he is referring to the mysterious source of everything, the Tao.)

Wilhelm further describes “a borderline conception lying at the extreme edge of the world of appearances… These three things (the visible, the audible, and extension in space) are not clearly distinguished and definable, they are a non-spatial and non-temporal unity, having no above and below or front and back”. (The words I’ve italicised clearly indicate that Jung is talking about a realm outside spacetime.) He goes on to quote the Tao Te Ching again: “Incommensurable, impalpable, yet latent in it are forms; impalpable, incommensurable, yet within it are entities. Shadowy it is and dim”. (The words I’ve italicised strongly suggest what we now call archetypes — in the metaphysical sense.)

Moving on from Taoism, Jung refers to the theory of correspondences “propounded by the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages”, and the classical idea of the sympathy of all things (his italics). He quotes Hippocrates: “There is one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy. The whole organism and each one of its parts are working in conjunction for the same purpose… the great principle extends to the extremest part, and from the extremest part it returns to the great principle, to the one nature, being and becoming” (p101).

He then quotes Philo of Alexandria, including: “God… made heaven the beginning and man the end… (man is) in very truth, a miniature heaven. He bears about within himself, like holy images, endowments of nature that correspond to the constellations…” (Holy images are, I would suggest, an obvious reference to what we now call archetypes.) Jung comments: “Here the great principle or beginning, heaven, is infused into man the microcosm, who reflects the star-like natures and thus, as the smallest part and end of the work of Creation, contains the whole”.

He then says that “similarly in Plotinus the individual souls born of the one World Soul are related to one another by sympathy or antipathy, regardless of distance” (p102).

He then says of Pico della Mirandola, prominent figure of the Italian Renaissance: “For him the world is one being, a visible God, in which everything is naturally arranged from the very beginning like the parts of a living organism. The world appears as the corpus mysticum of God”, (arranged, perhaps, through the medium of the archetypes.) He then says that “the behaviour of the parts depends on a central control which is superordinate to them” (p104). Not biology or instincts then.

Jung then quotes Agrippa von Nettesheim: “As in the archetypal World, all things are in all; so also in this corporeal world, all things are in all, albeit in different ways, according to the receptive nature of each. Thus the Elements are not only in these inferior bodies, but also in the Heavens, in Stars, in Devils, in Angels, and lastly in God, the maker, and archetype of all things”.

He continues: “The ancients had said: ‘All things are full of gods’. These gods were ‘divine powers which are diffused in things’. Zoroaster had called them ‘divine allurements’, and Synesius ‘symbolic inticements’ (sic). This latter interpretation comes very close indeed to the idea of archetypal projection in modern psychology…” (p106). (‘Gods’ are one way of expressing the idea of archetypes.)

Then, discussing Agrippa and the “absolute knowledge” referred to above, Jung says: “It is not cognition but, as Leibnitz so excellently calls it, a ‘perceiving’ which consists — or to be more cautious, seems to consist — of images, of subjectless ‘simulacra’. These postulated images are presumably the same as my archetypes… Expressed in modern language, the microcosm which contains ‘the images of all creation’ would be the collective unconscious” (p107). The archetypes of the collective unconscious are therefore the images of all creation, not the accumulation of thousands and millions of years of evolution.

Jung continues, but I hope that this is enough to make my point. Not every quote, for example the one from Plotinus, refers directly to the archetypes. My purpose, however, is to demonstrate that these are the figures that he considers forerunners to his ideas.

SUMMARY

Let me remind you that my purpose here is not to debate whether Jung’s ideas are true or not, merely to discover his beliefs. He believes in the phenomenon of synchronicity or meaningful coincidence, which he believes is strongly connected with his understanding of archetypes. He says that forerunners to this conception are the philosophy of Taoism and its core text the Tao Te Ching, and a number of spiritually oriented philosophers down the ages. If all these authors are indeed the forerunners of his thinking on synchronicity, then his understanding, I would suggest, is clearly of a metaphysical nature. As he says: “Synchronicity postulates a meaning which is a priori in relation to human consciousness and apparently exists outside man. Such an assumption is found above all in the philosophy of Plato, which takes for granted the existence of transcendental images or models of empirical things, the forms whose reflections we see in the phenomenal world” (p118).

CONCLUSION

Jung’s book was published in 1952, towards the end of his life. No one can claim therefore that these were early ideas, which he subsequently modified.

I’ll leave the final word to Marie-Louise von Franz: “I want to remind you that Jung defines synchronistic events as an act of creation. A synchronistic event is an acausal event and is therefore, one could say, an act of creation. Jung believed in a creatio continua, like certain modern physicists who believe that there is in the world in which we live a place where from time to time new things are created… this hole where heaven and earth meet.” (p107). That ‘hole’ would be the realm of the archetypes.

There is much more that could be said about a metaphysical understanding of Jung’s archetypes. So this is a topic I can return to, depending on the response of my debating companions.

Carl Jung

I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. The edition I am using is by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972 edition in the 1977 reprint

2. Decoding Jung’s Metaphysics, iff Books, 2021, p9

3. Inner City Books, 1980

4. as 2, p64