Carl Jung, Archetypes, and the Collective Unconscious — Part 1

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I’m hoping that this won’t end up just as a discussion between me and three other Medium writers, and that others will be able to make helpful contributions. What follows will make most sense if you’ve read this brief introduction to the series; however, what follows will tune you in, if you want to go straight ahead. In a nutshell I’ve set myself the challenge of defending my interpretation of Jung’s understanding of archetypes and the collective unconscious, which is very different from that of these other three.

Before I begin, however, I’ll outline in a little more detail the position I’m trying to defend. I believe that the word archetypes literally means ‘original types’, therefore something like ‘blueprints’. They are along the lines of divine ideas, organising causal factors operating from a metaphysical dimension of the collective unconscious, shaping life primarily at the psychological level. In a loose sense they are something like Platonic ideas, or what in Kabbalism are called Sephirot (aspects of the Creator).

My understanding from what I’ve read by Jung and other commentators about him, admittedly quite a long time ago, is that this is how he understood the archetypes, but that over the years he modified and expanded his position to include more of the instinctual and material aspects. The evidence for this is that he latterly coined the term ‘psychoid’ to describe the archetypes as partly material/instinctual, in addition to being psychic/metaphysical. The three other writers believe that this was his exclusive belief without the metaphysical dimension.

So I believe that what they are saying is at best only half the story. The instinctual aspect was gradually incorporated in his later years, while his earlier period was more metaphysical. An interesting question along the way is to what extent the later development was emphasised in his thinking, whether it became more important, and to what extent he retained the metaphysical understanding.

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Here is my first offering in defence of my position, admittedly the understanding of someone who agrees with me, and containing only one quote from Jung. This is Keiron Le Grice, taken from his book The Archetypal Cosmos:

“The archetypes were conceived by Jung as principles that are both instinctual and spiritual, both natural and transcendent. Indeed, such is the complex character of the archetypes that Jung felt it necessary to employ a wide variety of terms to describe them: gods, patterns of behaviour, conditioning factors, primordial images, unconscious dominants, organizing forms, formative principles, instinctual powers, dynamisms — to give but a few examples. He suggests, furthermore, that the archetypes are ‘active, living dispositions, ideas in the Platonic sense, that preform and continually influence our thoughts, feelings and actions’. Jung therefore situates his theory of archetypes firmly in the mythic-Platonic tradition*. Like the mythological gods, the archetypes are the formative principles, superordinate to human consciousness and will, that structure, order, and animate our life experience”¹.

* at this point Le Grice introduces a footnote, quoting Jung in order to back up his point: “Within the limits of psychic experience, the collective unconscious takes the place of the Platonic realm of eternal Ideas. Instead of these models giving form to created things, the collective unconscious through its archetypes, provides the a priori condition for the assignment of meaning”.

This Jung quote is taken from Mysterium Coniunctionis, which is a very late text (1955). So even at this stage, only a few years before his death, he would appear to be saying that the archetypes and the collective unconscious are the psychic equivalent of Platonic Ideas. But what exactly did he mean? What exactly does “takes the place of” mean? Also Le Grice asks what is meant by “the limits of psychic experience”. His own interpretation is that: “If the psyche, as Jung suggests elsewhere, rests on a transcendental background and is fundamentally connected to nature and the external world, then Jung’s theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious, in its later formulation, is closer to the Platonic position than has generally been assumed. This implication is strongly reinforced by Jung’s observations of synchronistic phenomena”.

His phrase “ a transcendental background and fundamentally connected to nature and the external world” could not be a clearer exposition of my belief that Jung’s understanding of archetypes includes both metaphysical and instinctual/material aspects. It’s also worth noting that the context of Jung’s statement was that he was placing the discovery of the collective unconscious in opposition to naturalistic and personalistic interpretations, of the type which have developed during the period of secularization since the Renaissance.

Another passage from Le Grice relevant to the discussion is as follows. He talks about “the ambiguity in Jung’s own thought”, and “the sheer complexity, scope, and profundity of his ideas, that Jungian theory has left itself open to different, often widely varying interpretations and emphases. The established interpretations… invariably tend to emphasize some aspects at the expense of others. Most important, these interpretations generally fail to take into account the evolution of Jung’s thought, particularly the radical shift in his thinking about archetypes in his later years, or to accommodate his many brilliant, although sometimes conflicting insights that often seem to transcend his more systematic theoretical formulations”³. (I’ve italicised the points which highlight the error I believe the others have made.)

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. Floris Books, 2010, p158

2. paragraph 101 in the Collected Works, p87 in the Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press edition, 1977 printing

3. as 1, p160

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com