The Depth Coach | Is Complex Psychology an Empirical Science?
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25 Dec / Is Complex Psychology an Empirical Science?

Figure 1. Carl Jung

        In this blog, I consider whether complex psychology is an empirical science. The challenge of answering such a question is that empiricism, as a subset of epistemology, means different things to different people. In most cases, empiricism is generally accepted as the knowledge gained through the physical senses or experimentation. The second viewpoint defines the term more broadly suggesting that empiricism relates to experiential modes of inquiry not necessarily restricted to sensation. The Greek root of the word empeiria underscores its principal focus on experience. Thus, one could generalize that knowledge is based on experience. Moreover, it is important to point out that empiricism as an epistemological theory extends along a continuum with scientism at one end and experientialism arguably at the other. Throughout his writings, C. G. Jung (Figure 1) repeatedly emphasized his adherence to empiricism:

“You seem to forget that I am first and foremost an empiricist, who was led to the question of Western and Eastern mysticism only for empirical reasons” (Jung, 1973, p. 195).

“I was particularly satisfied with the fact that you clearly understand that I am not a mystic but an empiricist” (Jung, 1973, p. 237).

“My conceptions are empirical and not at all speculative. If you understand them from a philosophical standpoint you go completely astray, since they are not rational but mere names of groups of irrational phenomena” (Jung, 1976, p. 302).

“If the psyche must be granted an overriding empirical importance, so also must the individual, who is the only immediate manifestation of the Psyche” (Jung, 1958, p. 34).

“Psychology is an empirical science and deals with realities” (Jung, 1951/1968a, CW9i, para. 98).

“I am an empiricist, not a philosopher; I cannot let myself presuppose that my peculiar temperament, my own attitude to intellectual problems, is universally valid. Apparently this is an assumption in which only the philosopher may indulge, who always takes it for granted that his own disposition and attitude are universal, and will not recognize the fact, if he can avoid it, that his personal equation conditions his philosophy” (Jung, 1951/1968b, CW9i, para 49).

“The empiricist does not think from above downwards from metaphysical premises, but comes from below upwards from the phenomenal world” (This is the way of induction) (Jung, 1973, p. 196).

The abovementioned passages are but a small sampling of the dozens of statements Jung made about empiricism. Thus, it is quite clear that Jung considered himself an empirical scientist who felt that we should view psychic experiences as no less important than physical or sensory ones. So we return to the central question, in spite of Jung’s adamant claims can we still consider complex psychology an empirical science?

        In his essay “Explanation and Interpretation,” scholar Robert A. Segal (2014) argued that Jungian analysis is not scientific, suggesting that Jungian concepts are rarely tested, a central pillar to the scientific method. Segal further suggested that Jung’s complex psychology is not predictive and Jungian analysis tends to be ex post facto. Segal also distinguished between an explanation and an interpretation, adding that an interpretation must be supported by an explanation” (p. 83). For instance, if one interprets a myth a certain way, one needs to provide an explanatory support to that interpretation: “an interpretation of a myth answers the question what is the meaning of the myth. An explanation answers the questions why was the myth created and why did it last” (p. 83). Of course, to be clear Segal is referring to “Jungian analysis,” which is a form of psychotherapy. Analysis is only one part of complex psychology. In fact, Shamdasani (2003) suggested that Jung intentionally used analytical psychology to describe the analytic aspect of his psychology and complex psychology as its theoretical part psychology (p. 14).

Figure 2. William James.

         Jung, at least on the surface, seemed to subscribe to empiricism as a scientific method. However, Jung’s brand of empiricism was less rigid than the contemporary application of the term. The American psychologist Williams James (Figure 2) seemed to play a formative role at shaping Jung’s early ideas and scientific approaches. In 1910, Jung met James who took an immediate liking to Jung, who was 33 years his junior. Of James, Jung wrote “aside from Theodore Flournoy, he was the only outstanding mind with whom I could conduct an uncomplicated conversation. I therefore honor his memory and have always remembered the example he set for me” (Jung as cited in Shamdasani, 2003, p. 58).

        James proposed what he called Radical Empiricism, which suggests that the only proper subject matter of philosophy is that which a person may define in terms of experience and that relations are a part of experience (Radical Empiricism). James (1909/1974) articulated his radical postulate as follows: “The only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience” (p. xii). James added “the statement of fact is that the relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves” (p. xii). James’ description considers not only the object of experience but the dynamic relationship between experiencing subject and experienced object that makes knowledge possible in the first place. James concluded his statement by writing that

the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience. The directly apprehended universe needs, in short, no extraneous trans-empirical connective support, but possesses in its own right a concatenated or continuous structure. (p. xiii).

Figure 3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty

        Although not explicitly articulated, James’ words evoke his earlier idea of “a stream of consciousness” (1892) which conjunctively connects experiences together in a seamless cascade of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Experience presupposes a relationship between at least two things, which intimates Jung’s notion of the tension and reconciliation of opposites. James pioneered provocative ideas that Jung would later adopt and use to construct his then-nascent complex psychology. The phenomenologist Maurice Jean Jacques Merleau-Ponty’s (Figure 3) ontological metaphor “the flesh of the world” is also a helpful way to consider what James was suggesting. This refers to the environmental interaction that takes place between the body and the world and thus sparks the engine of experience. Merleau-Ponty (1945/2005) wrote:

When we say that the life of the body, or the flesh, and the life of the psyche are involved in a relationship of reciprocal expression, or that the bodily event always has a psychic meaning, these formulations need to be explained. Valid as they are for excluding causal thought, they do not mean that the body is the transparent integument of Spirit. The return to existence, as to the setting in which the communication between body and mind can be understood, is not a return to Consciousness or Spirit, and existential psychoanalysis must not serve as a pretext for a revival of mentalistic philosophy (spiritualisme). (p. 185)

Compare this passage to Jung’s (1921/1971) own from Psychological Types:

Somewhere the psyche is living body, and the living body is animated matter; somehow and somewhere there is an undiscoverable unity of psyche and body which would need investigating psychically as well as physically; in other words, this unity must be as dependent on the body as it is on the psyche so far as the investigator is concerned. (CW6, para. 961)

Merleau-Ponty went on write:

Saying that I have a body is thus a way of saying that I can be seen as an object and that I try to be seen as a subject, that another can be my master or my slave, so that shame and shamelessness express the dialectic of the plurality of consciousness, and have a metaphysical significance. (p. 193)

Thus, consciousness is what results from this interaction, which again parallels complex psychology in that consciousness suggests a synthesis of a variety of unconscious psychic processes.

        Shamdasani has observed that “radical empiricism was intended to pave the way for the development of psychology,” (p. 59) which did not take place largely due to the emerging dominance of behaviorism and psychoanalysis as the most widely accepted models. With radical empiricism, one could say that James extended the meaning of empiricism to encompass experience as a whole which was not limited to “sensory” experience. Radical empiricism is hardly radical in itself but more practical, as evidenced by James’ following passage:

It seems obvious that the pragmatic account of all this routine of phenomenal knowledge is accurate. Truth here is a relation, not of our ideas to non-human realities, but of conceptual parts of our experience to sensational parts. Those thoughts are true which guide us to beneficial interaction with sensible particulars as they occur, whether they copy these in advance or not. (p. 82)

With radical empiricism James was proposing a phenomenological approach to the experience and he seems to have influenced Jung’s thinking on this point. It is known that, as indicated above, that Jung not only admired James but was intellectually influenced by him, especially in light of the number of times Jung mentions him in his early work his theory of psychological types.

        Jung was familiar with the meaning of empiricism and tried to apply it to psychic phenomena. One could say that Jung’s psychology was really a hybrid between empiricism and phenomenology, which is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. One should note the similarities between this definition and that of radical empiricism. Similarly, complex psychology was not comprised of intellectual formulations, but rather, as Jung (1954/1968) wrote, “names for certain areas of experience” (CW9i, para. 485). This feature of Jung’s psychology highlights the extent by which phenomenology played a role. Jung’s (1939/1969) reliance on the phenomenological approach is further substantiated by this passage

The point of view I have adopted is that of modern empirical psychology and the scientific method… Psychology cannot establish any metaphysical “truths,” nor does it try to. It is concerned solely with the phenomenology of the psyche…. For modern psychology, ideas are entities, like animals and plants. The scientific method consists in the description of nature. (CW17, para. 742)

For his efforts, people often accused Jung of psychologism, the misattribution of a psychological explanation to a phenomenon that could be explained otherwise.

        In Psychological Types, Jung presented his psychology as a mediatory science and wrote:

We have a psychology, a mediatory science, and this alone is capable of uniting the idea and the thing without doing violence to either. This capacity inheres in the very nature of psychology, though no one would contend that psychology so far has accomplished this task. (CW6, para. 71).

Jung set off on the task of creating a mediatory science in his psychology that could unite the exact and social sciences through interdisciplinary dialogue. As Shamdasani (2003) noted, “For Jung, psychology was the discipline to unite the circle of sciences” (p. 18). In the same text, Jung introduced esse in anima, a psychological postulate based on psychic realism (i.e., the reality of the psyche). Jung (1921/1971) further expounded on the same postulate in Psychological Types: “Living reality is the product neither of the actual, objective behavior of things nor of the formulated idea exclusively, but rather of the combination of both in the psychological process, through esse in anima” (CW6, para. 77). Jung’s psychic realism is based on the idea that the psyche is indispensable to experience: “The psyche creates reality every day” (para. 78). Jung (1989/2012) subsequently provided further explanation of his psychological postulate in a 1925 lecture series:

Our idea is esse in anima. This principle recognizes the objectivity of a world outside ourselves, but it holds that of this world we can never perceive anything but the image that is formed in our minds. We never see an object as such, but we see an image which we project out upon the object. (p. 144)

Per Jung (1926/1969), the psychological standpoint reconciles the realistic and idealistic positions (CW8, para. 624), and is predicated on an intermediate world of images (i.e., psyche) as a tertium between idea and thing. The psychological postulate, esse in anima, would subsequently become the bedrock of Jung’s (1989/2012) psychology:

The esse in anima admits the subjective nature of our world perception, at the same time maintaining the assumption emphatically that the subjective image is the indispensable link between the individual entity, or entity of consciousness, and the unknown strange object. I even hold that this case of the subjective image is the very first manifestation of a sort of transcendent function that derives from the tension between the entity of consciousness and the strange object. (p. 145)

Although Jung (1937/1969) does not name James as an influence, the idea seems to have gained some inspiration, directly or indirectly from James, as this passage suggests:

In my survey, far too condensed, I fear, I have left unmentioned many illustrious names. Yet there is one which I should not like to omit. It is that of William James, whose psychological vision and pragmatic philosophy have on more than one occasion been my guides. It was his far-ranging mind which made me realize that the horizons of human psychology widen into the immeasurable. (CW8, para. 262)

Moreover, it is important to point out that Jung mentions James several times in Psychological Types, the book wherein he introduced esse in anima. One can glean some parallels between James’ ideas in The Meaning of Truth and Jung’s in Psychological Types:

My own account of this relation is ambulatory through and through. I say that we know an object by means of an idea, whenever we ambulate towards the object under the impulse which the idea communicates. If we believe in so-called sensible realities, the idea may not only send us towards its object, but may put the latter into our very hand, make it our immediate sensation. But, if, as most reflective people opine, sensible realities are not real realities, but only their appearances, our idea brings us at least so far, puts us in touch with reality’s most authentic appearances and substitutes. In any case our idea brings us into the object’s neighborhood, practical or ideal, gets us into commerce with it, helps us towards its closer acquaintance, enables us to foresee it, class it, compare it, deduce it, in short, to deal with it as we could not were the idea not in our possession. (James, 1909/1979, p. 140)

James’ description above seems to parallel Jung’s early thinking of psychic reality as formulated in esse in anima.

        In conclusion, the evidence suggests very strongly that complex psychology is a form of empirical science, however, it follows a more radical trajectory in the tradition of James’ conception of radical empiricism. Jung is looking at the psyche as a mode of experiencing the world through images or representations, which as a matter of psychic fact, are just as real as the physical objects they hang from. In this regard, empiricism in Jung’s broad usage contrasts sharply from materialism, but constitutes a means of gaining knowledge through experience. The psyche, Jung would argue, enables knowledge as a result of its ability to form images. Jung (1914/1960) wrote:

The psyche is the point of intersection, hence it must be defined under two aspects. On the one hand it gives a picture of the remnants and traces of all that has been, and, on the other, but expressed in the same picture, the outlines of what is to come, in so far as the psyche creates its own future. (CW3, para. 405)

At the same time, Jung emphasized that we can only make approximate descriptions of what the psyche is and does, but can hardly ascribe a comprehensive explanation for what it is. “We know as little about what underlies it [libido] as we know about what the psyche is per se” (Jung, 1912/1967, CW5, para. 195). In this vein, Jung acknowledges the limitations of science and tried to leverage complex psychology to provide a counterweight to scientism—”an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation” (Scientism). Jung was working well within the scope of empiricism, but outside the definition of scientism. Thus, certain aspects of complex psychology are empirical and scientific. They just do not fit the mold of what the contemporary paradigm of scientism would consider as empiricism. The twenty-first century has charged us with advancing complex psychology into the future. We should seriously consider the epistemological value of Jung’s theories beyond the narrow confines of the reigning scientific paradigm.


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Shamdasani, S. (2003). Jung and the making of modern psychology: The dreams of a science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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