22 Jan / The Unconscious According to Jung
What is the unconscious? What did Jung mean by the term and how does the idea fit into Analytical Psychology? The unconscious is another big idea in the Jungian lexicon, one of which literally and figuratively underpins the very foundation of not only Jung’s psychology, but arguably depth psychology as a whole. Depth psychology assumes that there is activity in depth, or put differently, there is something taking place beneath the surface of appearances. Naturally, this assertion buttresses any psychology of the unconscious. So again, what is the unconscious? Jung provided an introductory definition in his 1921 publication of Psychological Types:
As Jung’s definition suggests, there is nothing metaphysical about the unconscious. It is purely an empirical concept. Jung accredits the philosopher Immanuel Kant for having introduced the idea of “negative borderline concept” which could be said to be a clever way to affirm a negative.
In 1932, Jung wrote
In other words, just because one cannot concretely put their hands around something does not mean it is not there. Strange as it may sound, one can still bracket an unknown as an unknown even if one does not know what it is. In mathematics these are called variables. We accept that “X” must mean something but it is not known until the equation is solved. As such, a negative concept is still a concept and one should not prohibit its existence. The idea is similar to the via negativa doctrine found in apophatic theology.
Elsewhere, Jung stated that
Jung was suggesting that there is an implicit and compensatory relationship between the conscious ego and the unconscious, which regulates the entire psychic system of the individual. Just as a boat is at the mercy of the behavior of waves and sea currents, the ego is surrounded on all sides by what Jung termed the unconscious. If a person is not conscious of something, it is said to be an unconscious content until it is made conscious and this process requires energy, which points back to the self-regulation of the psyche I described earlier. The greater part of the world, both inner and outer is unconscious, which may strike some as alarming, though nevertheless it is a fact. Even current cosmological models place the “known” universe as merely 4% of what’s actually out there (e.g., dark matter, energy, and other things that we do not have the proper words to describe).
Lastly, there is an entire range of phenomenology for what Jung viewed as the unconscious. Jung also viewed multiple degrees of the unconscious ranging from the personal to the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious belongs wholly to the individual whereas the collective unconscious is the repository for the combined natural history of the species: humankind. In fact, this model could extend to the entire animal kingdom and all life, large and small. Jung also reasoned that the unconscious is structured by what he would eventually call archetypes or universal patterns and possibilities of psychic functioning that are inherited not unlike certain genetic or biological features are.
The following description aptly summarizes the idea of a collective layer of the psyche:
So to recap: According to Jung, the unconscious is an empirical concept. There were a number of thinkers that influenced Jung’s formulation of the said concept, and among them, Eduard Von Hartmann, C.G. Carus, and Kant deserve honorable mention. The unconscious makes up everything we do not know. Metaphysical assertions aside, Jung usually identified the unconscious as a psychic phenomenon rather than a metaphysical one. Yet to be clear, his thinking on this particular evolved throughout his long life, and I might add gradually changed as he speculated there was a transcendental ground beyond the psyche, or what the alchemists called the unus mundus.
Jung, C. G. (1971). Psychological types. In H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler & W.
McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) (2nd ed., Vol. 6). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1921)
Jung, C.G. (1972). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. In H. Read, M. Fordham,
G. Adler & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) (2nd ed., Vol. 7). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1928).
Jung, C.G. (1973). C. G. Jung letters, Vol. 1:1906-1950 (G. Adler, Ed.). (R. F. C Hull, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C.G. (1981). The psychological foundation of belief in spirits. In H. read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (R.F.C. Hull, Trnas.) (Vol. 8, pp. 301-318). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (original work published 1948).