The Unconscious

The Unconscious: Personal and Collective
In ‘The Handbook of Jungian Psychology: Theory, Practice and Applications’
Edited by Renos Papadopoulos
Published by Routledge in 2006


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The unconscious before we named it

The idea of the unconscious – whether ‘collective’ or ‘personal’ – does not, of course, begin with Jung or Freud. The concept of a mind, or spirit or ‘will’ outside of, and beyond, the everyday ‘conscious’ mentality of human beings seems – as far as we can tell – to have existed across cultures and throughout human history. In other eras, the degree to which this ‘mind’ resided in powerful others such as gods, animals, elements like the wind and rivers, or a single God, was emphasised much more than the modern idea that this was an aspect of the minds of human beings themselves. The way that serious attention was paid to dreams seems to be clear evidence of mankind’s respect for, and interest in, a non-conscious aspect of mind. But we know from anthropological investigations that the conceptual separation of a conscious and an unconscious mind as we do now, is not necessarily the form of understanding shared by humans living far from our own contemporary urban, industrialised lives. For example, Benjamin Paul writes of a case of fugue and mental breakdown in a Guatemalan village woman where an expert Shaman attributes her condition to ancestral spirits who are expressing anger at her and her husband’s mother and father, and all the grandparents, thus requiring a form of penance. (B. Paul, in Robert Hunt, ed., 1967, pp. 150-165). Traditional practices such as investigating dreams or ingesting psychotropic drugs in an effort to achieve personal communion with deities – sometimes experienced in animal forms – which would then supply the practitioner with special knowledge to bring back to the world of normal consciousness, bear close comparison to the way that C.G. Jung conceived an ‘unconscious’ that had something to tell us. Moreover, such ritual practices – whether by individual shaman, groups at religious ceremonies, or as part of rites of passage – were conducted in an agreed social context. The revelations from the spirit world – or the ‘unconscious’ – thus carried a shared meaning for the whole group, and one that became established over many generations of repetition of instruction, practice and story-telling. Viewed in this way, we note how development of the idea that humans could usefully access religious and practical knowledge not normally present in the (conscious) mind arose both as an individual and as a collective experience. Contemporary scholarship now emphasises that our human nature as communal beings is every bit as important as our biological being and provides a robust means of examining phenomena which has previously relied solely on biological or evolutionary explanations (see, K. Malik, 2000). We shall be returning to these speculations about the unconscious when we come to consider Jung’s modern reformulation of the collective unconscious early in the 20th century .

The unconscious just before Freud and Jung

Our contemporary ideas around the personal and collective unconscious also have their roots somewhat earlier than Freud and Jung – partly in Enlightenment thinking (although, ironically, the unconscious mind was rejected as a concept by Enlightenment) and notably in the German Romantic philosophy of Carus, Schopenhauer, von Hartmann and von Schelling. Whyte has written of how, ‘The general conception of unconscious mental processes was conceivable ….around 1700, topical around 1800, and fashionable around 1870-1880’ (Whyte, 1960, pp. 168-69). I suggest that earlier literature such as the plays of William Shakespeare (died, 1616) indicate ideas of inherent conflict between the known and the unknown aspects of our mental processes seen in the depiction of characters such as Hamlet and King Lear. Furthermore, references from one character to another such as “she doth protest too much” draws attention to a defensive psychological strategy, suggesting that Shakespeare and his audience held an idea of human mentality where the subject was less aware of him or herself, but such hidden ‘unconscious’ processes were revealed to others through attitude, language and behaviour.

Around a century after Shakespeare, the Enlightenment was, on the one hand, keen to investigate the human soul and so engendered an early psychology. However, the emphasis on rationality and reason above all else tended to  hierarchise aspects of our psychology which resulted in emotions and ‘irrational’ thinking (called ‘superstition’ amongst other things) being displaced as inferior activities of the mind. This meant that  the notion of an unconscious became devalued if not redundant. Descartes’s ,“I think, therefore I am” was the summation of our human ‘being’ depicted as consisting solely of our conscious rational awareness. Where we perhaps notice a precursor of the contemporary unconscious in Enlightenment thinking is in its curiosity  about, and search for, the origins of human knowledge and wisdom. From time to time this involved ideas about an ancient, wise early humanity – located in Atlantis or in Egypt or one swept away by Noah’s Flood – leaving a few wise minds to pass on such original wisdom to the present day. This speculation and investigation of the depths of human knowledge – beyond and outside conscious rational thinking of the day – also seems to predict an idea of the unconscious. It is as if the hyper-rationalism that began with the scientific Enlightenment engendered a compensatory swerve towards everything the rational mind refused to accommodate. These aspects persisted in the margins of Enlightenment thinking ready to re-emerge when there was space for doubting Enlightenment ‘certainties’. They re-appeared towards the end of the nineteenth century in the form of beliefs in the paranormal, mediumship, spirit contact and the new psychological ideas of an Unconscious Mind.

However, it is the German Romantics who are the most explicit writers on the unconscious in the fifty years up to the birth of Sigmund Freud (1857-1939), C.G. Jung (1875-1962) and of course, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). The ‘philosophy of nature’ founded by von Schelling (1775-1854) clearly implied the unconscious as ‘the very fundament of the human being as rooted in the invisible life of the universe and therefore the true bond linking man with nature’ (Ellenberger, 1994, p. 204). For the eighteenth century Romantics, attention to the unconscious enabled us to have direct understanding of the universe – and therefore of our ‘original’ selves – through dreams, mystical ecstasy and poetic imagination. It is no coincidence that these aims and methods were among those used by mankind from the earliest times – a fact that comes together quite explicitly in the psychology of C.G. Jung some seventy years later.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) published The World as Will and Representation (or Idea) in 1819 in which he regarded man as being driven by blind, internal forces of which he is barely aware: centrally these were the instincts towards conservation and towards reproduction or the sexual instinct. For Schopenhauer, the Will – an analogy of the unconscious – not only drives many of our thoughts which are often in conflict with our Intellect (ego-consciousness), but it also causes us to repel unwanted cognitions from consciousness. The similarity to later formulations of the unconscious have been spotted by many such as the writer Thomas Mann who, ‘felt that Freud’s description of the id and the ego was “to a hair” Schopenhauer’s description of the will and the intellect translated from metaphysics into psychology’ (Ellenberger, 1994, p. 209). It was then up to Hartmann in his book Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869) to bring together the early ideas, re-label Schopenhauer’s Will the ‘unconscious’ and relate it specifically to various psychological phenomena such as personality, perception, association of ideas and the emotions as well as investigating the role of the unconscious in language, religion, history and the life of society. He also divided the unconscious into three levels. The first was an absolute, a kind of cosmic unconscious which was the source of the other two forms: a physiological unconscious ‘at work in the origin, development, and evolution of living beings, including man’ (Ellenberger, 1994, p. 210).; and a third, more psychological, unconscious which provides the ground for conscious mental life.

The second level just mentioned corresponds most closely to the formulations of C.G. Carus (1789-1869) who was perhaps the closest influence upon Jung’s own formulations of the personal and the collective unconscious. Sounding very much like Jung himself, Carus begins his 1846 book Psyche with these words,

‘The key to the knowledge of the nature of the soul’s conscious life lies in the realm of the unconscious. This explains the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of getting a real comprehension of the soul’s secret…..But if this impossibility is only apparent, then the first task of a science of the soul is to state how the spirit of Man is able to descend into these depths.’

(Carus, 1846 quoted in Ellenberger, 1994, p. 207).)

Carus also distinguished  three levels of the unconscious: one that is absolute and unknowable, the second, a type of pre-conscious which influences our emotional life through the vital organs of the body. Consciousness may affect this level of the unconscious which is why, Carus believed, a person’s face and body can reflect their personality. The third level of the unconscious corresponds to the repressed material – once conscious feelings, representations and perceptions that subsequently become unconscious. These levels are clear precursors of, respectively, the psychoid unconscious, the collective unconscious and the personal unconscious (the third level) in Jung’s structure of the psyche. Carus also mentions characteristics of the unconscious that Jung was later to repeat: the unconscious, unlike the strenuous efforts of the conscious mind, uses little energy and thus does not ‘need rest’ like consciousness does. It is the source of healing for the mind and body, and it is through the unconscious that we remain in connection with the rest of the world and other individuals.

How different patients gave rise to a different ‘unconscious’ for Freud and Jung

Freud’s formulation of the concept of the unconscious arose out of his and Breuer’s work with young women suffering from hysterical symptoms – a diagnosis that was popular in several urban centres of the new psychiatry such as Vienna, Berlin and especially Paris where Charcot and Janet were the leading specialists. The innovation in attitude to these patients and their symptoms was the way in which psychiatry was replacing the idea of organic causes for mental problems with the idea that symptoms were psychological in origin. Through his work, Freud developed what his key patient Anna O. called the ‘talking cure’. Freud had tried pure suggestion and hypnosis but found that encouraging patients to say whatever came into their minds by a process  of ‘free association’ enabled him to make links backward to the source or cause of their symptoms. Once such causal links were made and understood, that is, made conscious, the symptoms went away – thus apparently proving there was no organic cause but one arising from some mechanism of psychological trauma. According to this approach, the traumatic experience had been repressed in the unconscious because it was unbearable to the conscious mind, and the task of the Freudian psychoanalyst was to trace back, discover and reconstruct the cause like a sort of archaeologist -detective.

However, Freud also wished to establish the science of psychoanalysis as one of the exact sciences of his day and to this end he combined psychological with more materialistic biological theories. Thus, in his first formulations around 1896,  he claimed that the repression of a traumatic experience was linked to the repression of instinct – specifically the sexual instinct. From this hypothesis he developed the idea that human psychology – and, eventually, all civilised life – was underpinned by the repression of our instinctual life, and exclusively of our sexual and aggressive instincts. Sexual instinct provided the psychic energy  or libido (Latin for ‘desire’) for the psyche which, in its sublimated form, gave rise to human achievements ranging from artistic creativity to intellectual curiosity and scientific inventiveness. Although Freud expanded his theories with the structural model of ego (partly unconscious but with conscious functions of reality testing, discriminatory thinking and protection), the unconscious id (the instincts or ‘the passions’) and the super-ego, the idea of sexual instinct as the motor of the psyche prevailed. Even his last ideas on Thanatos (the psychic drive towards inertia or Death) in constant tension with Eros (the life preservative instinct manifested in relatedness) never overrode the centrality of sexuality.

While Freud was working on his theory and method through the treatment of young, ‘hysterical’ Viennese, bourgeois women, Carl Jung, nineteen years his junior, had abandoned his desire to be an actual archaeologist, trained as a doctor and began working in the famous Burgholzi psychiatric hospital linked to the University of Zurich. He arrived at a time when the director (who became his mentor) was Eugene Bleuler, a psychiatrist enlightened towards the idea that not only were psychiatric problems not necessarily caused by organic disease, but that there was meaning to be found in the utterances and symptoms of such patients despite the way they seemed baffling at first sight. There is another key difference between the early psychiatric experience of Jung and Freud in that the Burgholzi  treated many patients suffering from serious psychotic illness. Psychiatry then, as so often now, was managed by men who, by virtue of their education and class, were far removed from the patients they treated. In Switzerland with its cantons and local dialects, apart from their illness, patients were not easily intelligible to their urban upper-class doctors, but both Jung and Bleuler had Swiss countryside backgrounds and had the advantage of being familiar with Swiss peasant dialects thus making them more accessible to their patients even before attending empathically to their patients’ words. In addition, it was Bleuler who first distinguished mania (since known as manic-depressive illness or ‘bi-polar disorder’) from dementia praecox – the early name for  schizophrenia, a term which he introduced. It was Jung’s work with these psychotic patients, in addition to others more like Freud’s hysterics, that gave him a different insight into the psyche and, eventually, a different conception of the unconscious.

According to Jung, in his autobiography ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’, his interest in and conceptualising of the unconscious had its earliest roots in three sources: his awareness of his own personality, his interest in psychic phenomena and in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Since his childhood, Jung had an awareness of what he came to call his #1 personality and his #2 personality. The first expressed itself in his day-to-day world of friends, school, family and social play, while his #2 personality seemed darker, secretive and more mysterious. It seemed to have its source elsewhere than the world of an intelligent country boy, son of a minister in rural Switzerland. It was the side of his personality connected with dreams as well as fears and fantasies. This was his first awareness of the unconscious. His mother was a highly intuitive woman, possibly with psychic abilities and sensitivities, alongside with an otherworldly-ness and moods that often accompanies this temperament. It was she who seems to have influenced the #2 personality and, when he was a young student, Jung became very interested in psychic phenomena to the extent that his PhD thesis was in this area. Using his cousin Helen Prieswerk as a subject, he investigated her apparent abilities as a medium – a trend that was highly prevalent at the time in Europe. In doing so, he became less convinced of her psychic ‘powers’ and more convinced that the phenomena and knowledge she displayed in trance – which her conscious mind was unaware of – were stemming from her unconscious psyche. Moreover, this was not material known personally to the subject and so implied some sort of cultural collective unconscious. Jung reasoned that unconscious material that emerged from a subject, frequently as dream imagery (not just the trance speeches as with Prieswerk) which could not be accounted for through the subject’s personal learning or experience may stem from a collective general and universal aspect of the unconscious mind, a collective unconscious derived through aeons of repetition of human cultural imagery and experience that, despite difference in detail, remains typically human with recognisable common qualities and meanings. Jung developed this idea throughout his life, but at its earlier stage it had much in common with ideas stemming from early anthropology such as Frazer’s The Golden Bough which sought to show similarities between human cultures and behaviours previously regarded as bizarre and barely human by those who first encountered them through European colonisation.

Nietzsche was always an influence upon Jung as indeed he was upon Freud – although Freud was not as keen to acknowledge this. Jung regarded the Ego as the ‘centre of consciousness’, but he also absorbed Nietzsche’s ideas on the unconscious as the central source for the psyche as a whole, thus utterly relativising the centrality of Ego-consciousness. Nietzsche’s emphasis on the fact that ‘I’ do not think thoughts, but ‘thoughts think me’ and how ‘dreaming is a recreation for the brain, which by day has to satisfy the stern demands of thought imposed by a higher culture’ (Nietzsche, 1878, pp. 24-27) are both picked up in Jung’s psychology and his ideas of the personal and collective unconscious. But once Jung began his professional life as a psychiatrist at the Burgholzi, he sought a more scientific method to establish the concept of the unconscious and its processes. To this end he used the Word Association Test, first invented by Sir Francis Galton, which Jung developed through extensive research applying the Test to a wide range of psychiatric patients. Initially used as a diagnostic tool, this, one of the first psychological experiments of its type, generated further hypotheses on the nature of human mental processing (Jung, 1906).

In quite the reverse direction to the speculative, ‘mystical’ approach Jung has often been accused of, his word association experiments were very much in line with quantitative approaches used by psychology experiments today. The Test involved a procedure which Jung adapted, with a colleague, to compile a series of stimulus words that were read to patients who were required to respond as quickly as possible with the first word that came to mind  Their response word and the time it took to reply were all recorded. The results were analysed in an effort to map the emotional blocks that interrupted consciousness in the task. Jung hypothesised that the blocks were evidence of complexes – his word for unconscious knots of affect that distorted rational conscious functioning. Here was experimental evidence for the concept of unconscious repressions that Freud had been developing through his clinical practice in Vienna using his own method of requiring a patient to free associate to the first thing that came into their head. Analogous to the links made in the Word Association Test, Freud found his patients’ associations could lead them to a core experience, the memory of which had been repressed and kept from consciousness. However he lacked the more robust (meaning quantitative) evidence of the linking and blocking of ideas that Word Association Tests appeared to provide. Jung sent his findings to Freud and the two began a collaboration that lasted from 1906 until 1912. Central to what they shared was the idea of a personal unconscious which, for Jung, had the complexes as its main content.

Jung’s difference becomes apparent

Jung began as a supporter of Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas and defended them at conferences and in publications; but he was also an independent thinker and sought to develop what Freud had started, to tackle anomalies and generally expand psychoanalytic theory according to his own experience, new data and insights. Thus, in 1913 he published The Theory of Psychoanalysis (Jung, 1913, paras.203-522) in which he expounds Freud’s original theory and its development (as Jung sees it) and goes on to provide his own expansion of the theory. It is here that we find some of his most succinct statements on the unconscious in a Freudian sense. Although Jung had been pondering his idea of a collective unconscious for some time, this text deals with the unconscious before he formulated the two spheres of the personal and the collective unconscious. For this reason, when Jung refers to the ‘unconscious’ in the context of psychoanalysis, he means what he later refers to as the personal unconscious.

Jung writes about the way in which Freud’s early work on hysteria and trauma resulted in,

‘a concept that was to lead far beyond the limits of the trauma theory. This concept he called “repression”. As you know, by “repression” we mean the mechanism by which a conscious content is displaced into a sphere outside consciousness. We call this sphere the unconscious, and we define it as the psychic element of which we are not conscious’.

(Jung, 1913, para.:210)

One of Jung’s innovations occurs soon after this passage. Jung had long been dissatisfied with Freud’s dogmatic emphasis on the sexual instinct and infantile sexuality as the sole source of psychic energy or libido. Jung points out that the Latin word libido is used to mean ‘hunger’ (analogous to the nutrition instinct) and also ‘passionate desire’ and – along the lines of Physics where forces previously seen as separate were now regarded as one ‘energy’ but channelled into different forms – Jung proposes that sexuality is not the sole source of psychic energy, but that ‘libido’ is a general psychic energy which may flow in channels serving the sexual, reproductive, nutrition or whatever instinct. This is what is known as his generalised or genetic theory of psychic energy and marks a fundamental break with Freudian psychoanalytic views on the unconscious. Jung notes how neurotics have exaggerated functions that are over-invested with libido,

‘The libido is there, but it is not visible and is inaccessible to the patient himself….It is the task of psychoanalysis to search out that hidden place where the libido dwells and where the patient himself cannot get at it. The hidden place is the “non-conscious”, which we may also call the “unconscious” without attributing to it any mystical significance.’

(Jung, 1913, para: 255).

Furthermore, Jung is explicit in his rejection of the way Freud stretches sexual terminology to encompass infant activities such as sucking: ‘this very act of sucking could be conceived just as well from the standpoint of the nutritive function and that, on biological grounds, there was more justification for this derivation than for Freud’s view’ ( Jung, 1913, para.:262).

Jung’s further views on the unconscious are to be found in this early book which, despite the two examples above, clearly aims to defend the psychoanalytic view – and tries to do so by offering ‘improvements’. Jung describes infantile fantasy as part of the unconscious sphere – and intensified in the case of neurotics,

‘It never crosses his [the neurotic’s] mind that he has still not given up certain infantile demands….he indulges in all sorts of pet fantasies, of which he is seldom, if ever, so conscious that he knows that he has them. Very often they exist only as emotional expectations, hopes, prejudices, and so forth. In this case we call them unconscious fantasies.’

(Jung, 1913, para.:313).

However, even while Jung is seeking to defend psychoanalysis against its detractors, he succeeds in slipping in his own view which Freud, eventually, could not tolerate. This is how he counters the objection, from the famous psychiatrist Aschaffenburg, ‘that the so-called unconscious fantasies are merely suggested to the patient and exist only in the mind of the analyst.’

‘only people with no psychological experience and no knowledge of the history of psychology are capable of making such accusations. No one with the faintest glimmering of mythology could possibly fail to see the startling parallels between the unconscious fantasies brought to light by the psychoanalytic school and mythological ideas. The objection that our knowledge of mythology has been suggested to the patient is without foundation, because the psychoanalytic school discovered the fantasies first and only then became acquainted with their mythology. Mythology, as we know, is something quite outside the ken of the medical man.’

(Jung, 1913 para.: 316).

While apparently offering a text in support of Freud’s psychoanalysis, Jung is now seen to make a claim for the authenticity of unconscious fantasies, not along the lines of Freudian sexual fantasy or trauma, but in the area – of all things! – of mythology. This is after Jung has already replaced Freud’s sexual libido with a generalised psychic energy and dared to question the significance of Freud’s pivotal emphasis on infantile sexuality. In citing mythology, Jung may be hinting at the Oedipus fantasy but, in downplaying the element of sexual tension in the Oedipus narrative in favour of its status as a myth per se, he is departing from psychoanalysis in a cloud of dust. Although it excited him, the non-scientific, non-biological realm of the mythological was resisted by Freud and under-emphasised in favour of bio-evolutionary theorising. Now his ‘heir apparent’ Carl Jung brings back Myth firmly into the fold of psychoanalytic theory. In doing so he engineers his rejection by the psychoanalysts for not adhering to the party line, but, on the other hand, Jung initiates his own perspective which will come to be known as analytical psychology and launches his key concept of the collective unconscious.

Conceiving of the collective unconscious

Jung had long been dissatisfied with the Freudian conception of the unconscious, but it was not until he was able to formulate his idea of the collective unconscious that he was able to provide a model for the structure of the psyche that not only put the collective unconscious on the map, but also clarified the concept of the personal unconscious along distinctly Jungian lines. Jung reports how he had a dream when on the voyage to America with Freud in 1909 which began to answer some pressing questions that he had formulated:

‘They were: On what premises is Freudian psychology founded? To what category of human thought does it belong? What is the relationship of its almost exclusive personalism to general historical assumptions?’

(Jung, 1963/1983, p. 185).

In Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Jung, 1963/1983, pp.182-183), Jung details the dream which, he tells us, ‘became for me a guiding image which in the days to come was to be corroborated to an extent I could not at first suspect’ (Jung, 1963/1983, p.185). The dream involved Jung descending through the layers of a house where each room he entered he identified as progressively older in architectural style. The upper storey had

‘a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in a rococo style’

(Jung, 1963/1983, p.182),

below this the next room dated from the fifteenth or sixteenth century,

‘The furnishings were mediaeval; the floors were of red brick’

(Jung, 1963/1983, p.182).

Beyond this Jung describes his descent into

‘a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks, and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this I knew that the walls dated from Roman times’

(Jung, 1963/1983, p.182).

The final layer of the building is a cave –

‘Thick dust lay on the floor, and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture.’

(Jung, 1963/1983, p.183).

Jung reports this dream in the context of discovering how there were aspects of his inner world and his theorising about the psyche which he was finding difficult to share with Freud. He was struggling at the time with his questions about Freud’s psychoanalysis and he tells us how Freud produced a personalised interpretation of the dream, but, for Jung, the dream building meant something quite different: it suggested something distinct from Freud’s model of the psyche and the original conception of the psychoanalytic project. In pondering the question of the relationship between the personal and impersonal-historical, Jung found that

‘My dream was giving me the answer. It obviously pointed to the foundations of cultural history – a history of successive layers of consciousness. My dream thus constituted a kind of structural diagram of the human psyche; it postulated something of an altogether impersonal nature underlying that psyche’

(Jung, 1963/1983, p.185).

The dream inspired Jung to return to a study of archaeology, myths and the Gnostics which, in combination with his study of the fantasies of the patient Miss Miller, eventually led to the publication of The Psychology of the Unconscious (Jung, 1912/1916/1952, CW 5) – arguably Jung’s first text of analytical psychology as distinct from psychoanalysis. Of this book Jung has written, referring to his time with Freud, ‘One of my principal aims was to free medical psychology from the subjective and personalistic bias that characterized its outlook at the time, and to make it possible to understand the unconscious as an objective and collective psyche’ (Jung, 1956, CW 5, p. xxiv).

Defining the personal and the collective unconscious

Once Jung had begun to get to grips with this other, objective, cultural and collective unconscious it became more pressing, and yet easier, to define what he meant by the personal unconscious. The collective unconscious is certainly different from Freud’s conception, but is Jung’s concept of the personal unconscious identical to Freud’s? There are similarities: it holds repressed  contents and material often of an infantile nature and deriving from the biographical history of the person.  Jung says in his revision of the trauma theory of hysteria, childhood experiences may act as a sort of reminiscence which restricts psychic energy and then provides a form for the stage-managing of hysterical symptoms in the adult. But this is rather different to saying that the childhood experiences cause the symptoms; Jung, instead, finds that symptoms have an aim or teleology (a ‘future cause’), and the childhood experience simply provides the form by which the patient attempts to solve a crisis in the present. He cites the case of a woman who hysterically ran ahead of charging horses in a way that recalled a childhood trauma with a coach and horses, but who in fact was unconsciously driven to this hysterical reaction by a difficult current situation of wishing to be with her lover who was already married. Jung concludes that, ‘the cause of the pathogenic conflict lies mainly in the present moment’ (Jung, 1913, CW4, para.373. Italics in original).

A greater clarification of Jung’s more or less conventional position on the personal unconscious comes in the 1927 essay ‘The Structure of the Psyche’ (Jung, 1927, CW8, pp. 283-342).

‘The personal unconscious consists firstly of all those contents that became unconscious either because they lost their intensity and were forgotten or because consciousness was withdrawn from them (repression), and secondly of contents, some of them sense-impressions, which never had sufficient intensity to reach consciousness but have somehow entered the psyche.’

(Jung, 1927, CW8, para.321)

Later, in ‘On the Nature of the Psyche’ (Jung, 1946, CW8, paras.343-442) Jung details the history of the concept of the unconscious (including those historical precursors I mention above) with the aim of separating out the roles of instinct on the one hand, and will or spirit on the other. Where psyche loses itself in the organic material of the body – the instinctual sphere – it is so unconscious as to never have access to consciousness and this realm he refers to as the psychoid. There is a continuum between the unknown instinct and the image which may become known to consciousness and a later chapter on the archetypes shall deal with this in more detail. But here is Jung’s later, more developed definition of the unconscious as originally conceived in psychoanalysis,

‘So defined, the unconscious depicts an extremely fluid state of affairs: everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all the future things that are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness: all this is the content of the unconscious. These contents are all more or less capable, so to speak, of consciousness, or were once conscious and may become conscious again the next moment…..To this marginal phenomenon…there also belong the Freudian findings we have already noted’

(Jung, 1946, CW8, para.382)

Jung saw the ego as the centre of consciousness, but he also saw the creativity of the unconscious in that the unconscious may influence our conscious thinking and that it is often ‘truer and wiser’. The contents of the personal unconscious include the complexes and Jung extends this idea to include personifications or dissociated fragments of personality most clearly seen in our dreams. A further important way of understanding the personal unconscious – and connected with this fragmentation – is Jung’s concept of the shadow which may appear in dreams or when the patient projects it onto another person.

‘The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly – for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies’

(Jung, 1939,CW9, I, para.513).

The shadow is everything that is ‘not me’, and this might include creative qualities that could benefit the whole personality but have been lost or repressed due to the upbringing or social conditions of the subject. For our purposes in tracking a  definition of the personal unconscious it is interesting to note Jung’s emphasis that

‘the shadow….represents first and foremost the personal unconscious, and its content can therefore be made conscious without too much difficulty’.

(Jung, 1950, CW9 pt.2, para.19)

– a statement which reinforces his earlier assertion that,

‘The shadow coincides with the “personal” unconscious (which corresponds to Freud’s conception of the unconscious)’

(Jung, 1939,CW9 pt. I, para.513).

The Collective Unconscious itself

Jung asserts that consciousness grows out of the unconscious psyche which is older than it – not that the unconscious is merely the remnants of older material. In saying this, Jung refers to a sphere of the unconscious that he defines negatively against the personal unconscious. The collective unconscious is the part of the psyche that is not a personal acquisition  and has not been acquired  through personal experience. Its contents have never been in consciousness – they are not repressed or forgotten – and they are not acquired  but owe their existence to a form of heredity . Jung summarises thus,

‘My thesis, then, is as follows: In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents’.

(Jung, 1936, CW9 pt.1, para.90).

Jung notes how earlier psychoanalytic theories such as those of Freud and Adler also had an a priori general base in the instincts which were similarly impersonal, inherited and universal. In fact, he says, the archetypes are analogous to the instincts and a later chapter in this book will go into more detail about the relationship of the archetype to instinct on the one hand, and to images on the other.

Before he had settled on the term ‘archetype’, Jung lectured in 1927 on ‘The Structure of the Psyche’ where he formulates his idea of the collective unconscious with evidence along the lines we read in his 1913 revision of Freud’s psychoanalysis – namely, the presence of mythological material in his patients’ images and dreams. The collective unconscious consists of ‘primordial images’ and ‘mythological motifs’ and Jung concludes that our myths, legends and fairy-tales are carriers of a projected unconscious psyche. Jung analogises this process to the way in which humans have projected meaningful images onto the stars and ‘constellated’ them in forms which are then named. He disagrees with the functionalist argument that early man sought to explain natural events by anthropomorphising them. Instead, Jung argues that over millions of years, the psyche, like the body, has adapted to physical events in the environment and produced the mythological material out of a participation mystique where the separation of subject and object is not distinct. And it is not the physical phenomena – the thunder or clouds or earthquakes – that remains in the psyche but

‘the fantasies caused by the affects they arouse’

(Jung, 1927, CW8, para.331. My italics).

Bodily functions like hunger and sex similarly produce engrained fantasy images as do dangers, sickness and death. But, above all, it is the most ordinary, everyday events,

‘immediate realities like husband, wife, father, mother, child…. which are eternally repeated, [and] create the mightiest archetypes of all, whose ceaseless activity is everywhere apparent even in a rationalistic age like ours’.

(Jung, 1927, CW8, para.336).

So, the collective unconscious is a record in, and of, the psyche of humankind going back to its remotest beginnings just as we still have ancestral traces in our body morphology and our ‘reptilian brain’. But it is far from being,

‘a dead deposit, a sort of abandoned rubbish heap, but a living system of reactions and aptitudes that determine the individual’s life in invisible ways…. the archetypes are simply the forms which the instincts assume. From the living fountain of instinct flows everything that is creative; hence the unconscious is not merely conditioned by history, but is the very source of the creative impulse’.

(Jung, 1927, CW8, para.339)

While being just as relevant for the individual as the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious is, therefore, even more important to take into account when Jung considers the psychological aspects of ‘civilised’ society – modernity – in general. Freud had linked instinct to ‘universal’ psychological phenomena when he conceived of the Oedipus complex which also had a mythological expression long before he named it. But his emphasis was reductive and used the myth motif to merely express the ego-development and particular family dynamics of a certain class of individuals. Freud even went as far as rooting the Oedipus in his own fantasy reconstruction of the father-murdering sons of the primal horde in Totem and Taboo (Freud, 1912-13), but in the main he specialised in the pathologies of the individual psyche and it is to Jung we turn when we wish to grasp the significance of the modern psyche in general.

Jung points out that since archaic times, the collective unconscious has found its relation with, and expression in consciousness through various forms of philosophy and religion. But when these forms degenerate under the pressure of rationalism and the epistemological restrictions of science – especially since the end of the mediaeval period – psyche has fewer and fewer symbolic or ritual ways in which it may be expressed and then tends to get projected collectively as and where it will. A purely personalistic psychology tends to deny and distort this effect,

‘Since neuroses are in most cases not just private concerns, but social  phenomena, we must assume that archetypes are constellated in these cases too.’

(Jung, 1936, CW9 pt.1, para.98).

By the time he was writing the essay to be given as a talk to London doctors in 1936, history – in the form of the rise of the Nazis in Germany – gave Jung the opportunity to see this all too clearly.

‘Today you can judge better than you could twenty years ago the nature of the forces involved. Can we not see how a whole nation is reviving an archaic symbol, yes, even archaic religious forms, and how this mass emotion is influencing and revolutionising the life of the individual in a catastrophic manner? The man of the past in us is alive today to a degree undreamt of before the [First World] war, and in the last analysis what is the fate of great nations but a summation of the psychic changes in individuals?’

(Jung, 1936, CW9 pt.1, para.97).

More recently, the figure of Princess Diana and the mass response to her death have been viewed by Jungians as an example of the collective unconscious seeking an object for its projections (Haynes and Shearer, 1998). The view I express in Jung and the Postmodern. The Interpretation of Realities (Hauke, 2000) is the way in which Diana seemed to possess qualities which are ambivalently valued by our contemporary, dominant consciousness; human qualities that are marginalised in certain times are still present in the collective unconscious and will seek a form in which they can be expressed. This is achieved through unconscious projection, and then, as in the case of Diana, a form of ‘taking back’ the projection through relating to the image – exemplified by those queuing at her funeral who said, “It is as if I knew her”.  The ‘knowing’ of the Virgin Mary through her image worked in the same way for over a thousand years, Jung claims in making the point that such symbols, were far more common in less rationalistic times than our own. They once functioned for humans and the psyche but have now lost their power to connect consciousness to its roots in the psyche’s instinctual base and thus retain for humans a link to Nature and the rest of the (non-human) world.

In another way, the contents of the collective unconscious can have a harmful effect on the ego and the personality when, instead of being projected out into the world, they overwhelm ego-consciousness with their powerful affects and images. This was how Jung viewed psychotic delusions, and, in fact, the universal and mythological character of his seriously ill patients’ words and images convinced him of the fact of the collective unconscious. Jung first published material along these lines as early as 1912 (Jung 1912, 1916, 1956 CW5). Dreams, and Jung’s own experiences (Jung, 1963/1983, pp. 194-225) with active imagination – a type of lucid dreaming where unconscious material arises spontaneously but ego is still ‘awake’ enough to observe it – provided him with further evidence.

Is there other evidence for the collective unconscious?

The Jungian analyst, Anthony Stevens (Stevens, 1995) notes how innate structures – which have been out of fashion for much of the twentieth century due to the prevalence of behaviourism – now seem to feature in many scientific perspectives in biology, psychology and neuroscience. Tinbergen found what he calls ‘innate releasing mechanisms’ in animals especially when it comes to the relationship between parents and their young. Bowlby took this up in his theory of Attachment. Noam Chomsky’s ideas of ‘deep structures’ in the brain which give humans the potential for a universal grammatical structure in language despite the vast surface differences in human languages, seems corroborated by more and more evidence. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology both argue for adaptive psychic structures produced over millennia of evolution which sound very much like what Jung meant by the archetypes of the collective unconscious:

‘specialized learning mechanisms that organize experience into adaptively meaningful schemas or frames’

(Cosmides 1985).

In further support of Jung’s views, Stevens also notes how Paul Maclean (1976) demonstrated that mammalian and reptilian parts of the human brain still function in modern human beings. He cites Michel Jouvet’s sleep laboratory experiments where he showed that dreams arise from biologically ancient parts of the brain and seem to have a clear evolutionary adaptive function (Jouvet, 1975).

However, the most up-to date investigations into unconscious processes come from the field of cognitive science and its employment of computer modelling and brain imaging to investigate neural substrates of brain function. As Soren Ekstrom writes,

‘the speculations by both Freud and Jung left the specific synaptic and neural manifestations of unconscious processes to be inferred’

(Ekstrom, 2004, p.662).

Now, Lakoff and Johnson in their book Philosophy In The Flesh (1999) have used studies in neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, and neural modelling to conclude that ‘most of our thought is unconscious, not in the Freudian sense of being repressed, but in the sense that it operates beneath the level of cognitive awareness, inaccessible to consciousness and operating too quickly to be focused on (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, p.10).  Jung’s conception of the unconscious combined religion and science, but he clearly anticipated the time when neurological studies would add further scientific evidence to his speculations when he spoke in England back in 1935,

‘Consciousness is like a surface or a skin upon a vast unconscious area of unknown extent….we need a laboratory with very complicated apparatus in order to establish a picture of that world apart from our senses and apart from our psyche….very much the same with our unconscious – we ought to have a laboratory in which we could establish by objective methods how things really are when in an unconscious condition’

(Jung, 1935/1976, para. 12)

Cognitive science today seems to have the investigative equipment that Jung sought, and which he knew would complement the hundred years of philosophical and psychological speculation on the unconscious psyche that had preceded it.

Concluding thoughts

I often ask myself and my students, ‘What would Jung have become if there had not been Freud?’ Would he have remained as marginal and perhaps forgotten like C.G. Carus who so eloquently conceived of the unconscious before either of them? The reason that Jung and Freud became world-famous (and Carus did not) seems to lie with the fact that psychoanalysis and analytical psychology  are methods of treatment. With this new method of treating mental distress, initiated by Freud, depth psychology shifted from being a philosophical theory to being an applied psychological theory that, through its methods, could enlighten and change individuals for the better. With C. G. Jung, the method goes even further in so far as analytical psychology addresses not only individual concerns, but also the way in which these are seen to imply a critique of how the human psyche in general has been affected by social changes in the industrialised West since the Enlightenment. Much like Nietzsche before him, Jung emphasises how on the one hand, modern consciousness has evolved in a specialised way thus enabling the greatest manipulation of the world humans have ever seen. On the other hand, however, neglect of the unconscious has resulted in great losses to humanity in the way that the creative potential of the psyche is, at best, ignored in favour of an assumption that progress may be achieved through the application of conscious rationality alone. At worst, this gives rise to great damage arising from neglect of the relationship between humans and the world and the failure to recognise the projections we place upon it. Thus, Jung’s view of the unconscious offers a way of healing not only for the individual soul, but also for the ‘soul’ of twenty-first century society in general.

This is far from being a purely sociological project either, because Jung always emphasises the importance of the individual and the development of their full potential in the process he calls individuation. However, in a psychology where each and every individual also carries their own share of the universal, collective unconscious psyche, each individuating subject that fosters the integration of the conscious and unconscious psyche contributes to change in a mass collective sense. In this way I have linked postmodern philosophical and social critique with Jung’s psychology in the sense that in both the validation of subjective experience is able to stand authentically and pluralistically beside the claims of the dominant epistemologies that have relied on ‘objectivity’ alone (Hauke, 2000). In another way, the post-Jungian Andrew Samuels (Samuels, 1995, 2001) also uses Jungian perspectives to discuss the way in which our political behaviour (including the politics of gender, race and class) may be understood better – and perhaps revitalised out of their cynicism – by paying attention  to the psychology of the unconscious. In both cases the use of a psychological perspective -wrongly regarded in modern times as the sole province of individual concerns – is being employed as a new tool of critical social theory analogous to the way in which Frankfurt School theorists once used Freudian ideas. The difference is that myself and Samuels are not welding a depth psychology to social theory, but restoring and amplifying a connection already present in Jung’s psychological perspective that has included collective phenomena and has been driven by his need to understand the psychology of  collective human behaviour throughout the century in which he lived.

The psychology of C. G. Jung is more vital today than ever before as a way of thinking about, and acting upon, not only individual issues of mental distress as in psychoanalysis, but the wider implications of psyche in the world. By developing a psychology of the unconscious that has both a personal and a collective aspect, Jung has supplied the theoretical tools which enable psychotherapists – and academics in other fields like film, literature, international relations, art and social policy to name but a few – to offer fresh perspectives on who we are, and where we are heading, at the start of the twenty-first century.


Cosmides, L., (1985) ‘Deduction of Darwinian Algorithms? An explanation of the “elusive” content effect on the wason selection task’. Doctoral dissertation. Dept. of Psychology and Social Relations, Harvard University. Quoted in Walters, S., 1994 op cit.

Ekstrom, S., (2004) ‘The mind beyond our immediate awareness: Freudian, Jungian and cognitive models of the unconscious’, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2004, Vol.49 No.5, pp. 657-682

Ellenberger, H., (1994) orig.1970, The Discovery of the Unconscious. The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry, London: Fontana Press

Freud, S. (1912-13/1983) Totem and Taboo , London, Ark/Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Haynes, Jane and Shearer, Ann, eds. (1998) When a Princess Dies. Reflections from Jungian Analysts, London, Harvest Books.

Hauke, Christopher (2000) Jung and the Postmodern. The Interpretation of Realities, London and Philadelphia, Routledge.

Hunt, R. (1967) Personalities and Cultures. Readings in Psychological Anthropology, New York, The Natural History Press.

Jouvet, Michel, (1975) ‘The function of dreaming: a neurophysiologist’s point of view’. In Handbook of Psychobiology, ed. M. S. Gazzaniga and C. Blakemore. 1975, New York, Academic Press.

Jung, C.G.     Except where a different publication or translation is noted below, all references are, by volume and paragraph number, to the hardback edition of C.G.Jung, The Collected Works,(CW) edited by Sir Herbert Read, Dr. Michael Fordham and Dr. Gerhard Adler, and translated in the main by R.F.C.Hull, London: Routledge.

Jung, C.G., (1963/1983) Memories, Dreams, Reflections, London, Flamingo/Fontana.

Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York, Basic Books.

Maclean, P.D. (1976) ‘Sensory and perceptive factors in emotional function of the triune brain’. In Biological Foundations of Psychiatry, ed. R.G. Genell and S.Gabay (Vol. 1, pp.177-98). New York, Raven.

Malik, K. (2000) Man, Beast and Zombie. What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature. London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson/Phoenix.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1878),  Human, All Too Human, trans. Zimmern and Cohn quoted in Jung, CW5, para.27

Paul, B. (1967/1953), ‘Mental Disorder and Self-Regulating Processes in Culture: A Guatemalan Illustration’ in Hunt, R. (1967) op.cit.

Samuels, Andrew (1995) The Political Psyche, London, Routledge

– –       (2001) Politics on the Couch. Citizenship and the Internal Life, London, Profile Books and New York,

Stevens, Anthony, (1995) ‘Jungian psychology, the body, and the future’. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1995, 40, 353-364

Walters, S., (1994) ‘Algorithms and archetypes: evolutionary psychology and Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious’. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 17, 3, 287-306.

Whyte, L. L. (1960) The Unconscious Before Freud. New York: Basic Books.

REVISED  30/11/04

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