The Depth Coach | Understanding Consciousness: Some Jungian Considerations
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02 Oct / Understanding Consciousness: Some Jungian Considerations

        Few experiences are as immediate as consciousness. While you are aware, consciousness is always there. Each of us are intimately familiar with consciousness and as you read this blog you are exercising a conscious act of attention. However, consciousness as a phenomenon is as mysterious as it is familiar. Its protean and ethereal qualities are perplexing make explanation difficult and problematic. Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers has dubbed this thorny issue the hard problem of consciousness, writing:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does. (Chalmers, 1995, p. 201)

        In the same paper, he also wrote, “The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect” (p. 202).

        In this blog, I suggest that Jung’s model of the psyche and his phenomenological approach is tremendously helpful while addressing this so-called hard problem of consciousness and its implications. For experience suggests that consciousness has a few basic qualities that any serious-minded person will acknowledge. Consciousness seems to display the following features (although this list is hardly exhaustive):

  • Consciousness is sequential. Consciousness seems analogous to a spool of film running through a projector as a light momentarily projects each single image on the screen. It occurs sequentially in space-time coordinates. I can ostensibly attend to only one object of experience at a time.

  • Consciousness is a local phenomenonand is connected to the body and its senses. I can only be conscious of one object (i.e., experience) that I (i.e., my body) am proximal too, or subjective experience (i.e., memory) that originated from my personal history and any prior relationship to proximal objects or contents of experience.

  • Consciousness probes through the senses but deliberates and reflects through the interior mind. One can direct his or her attention toward an inner subjective state or at external objective conditions.

  • Consciousness can dissociate and splinter or even disintegrate completely.

  • Consciousness consists of an act of will. Accordingly, consciousness requires sustained attention.

  • Consciousness requires energy to sustain it.

  • We may consider consciousness a field phenomenon. The ego is located near the center of this field, the part of the psyche where our conscious awareness resides, our sense of identity and existence. The ego has provisional control of consciousness, just as military commander has provisional command and control of his soldiers and unit.

  • Consciousness is an epiphenomenon of unconsciousness. Along these lines, Jung (1943/1969) wrote that

consciousness does not create itself – it wells up from unknown depths. In childhood it awakens gradually, and all through life it wakes each morning out of the depths of sleep from an unconscious condition. It is like a child that is born daily out of the primordial womb of the unconscious . . . It is not only influenced by the unconscious but continually emerges out of it in the form of numberless spontaneous ideas and sudden flashes of thought. Thus, Consciousness is a requisite component of any valid model of the psyche. Consciousness is an exceptional condition and not the norm. Jung wrote: We must always bear in mind that conscious psychic phenomena are only a very small part of our total psyche. By far the greater part of the psychic elements in us is unconscious. (CW11, para. 171).

        Jung came to view the psyche as a semi-regulating system divided into multiple parts. Jung’s psychological model consists of three parts: Consciousness, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. The psyche however encircles them all:

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 (Jung, 1913, CW3, para. 404)

        Jung (1905) acknowledged that consciousness is but one class of psychic phenomena: “We must always bear in mind that conscious psychic phenomena are only a very small part of our total psyche. By far the greater part of the psychic elements in us is unconscious” (CW1, para. 171). Jung further reasoned that the psyche was a phenomenon sui generis which we could not reduce to a material or biological substrate.
        It is important to point out that Jung considered the ego as the provisional ruler of the personality and the center of consciousness. As Jung (1958) wrote: “Consciousness is essentially the psyche’s organ of perception, it is the eye and ear of the psyche” (p. 98). In fact, when we refer to consciousness it would be more accurate to say “ego-consciousness.” The ego is what is conscious or self-aware, at least under normal psychic conditions. For something to be conscious, it must be related to the ego.

        The personal unconscious is made up of complexes, which could be described as a “complex” interaction of associations, patterns of memories, emotions, perceptions, and desires. These patterns that are formed from experience and by an individual’s reactions to that experience. The ego too is a complex, albeit, the dominant one of the personality. One could argue that the psyche, as it were, represents a total number of possible conscious states. So consciousness is really a special kind of psychic state that I will call ego-consciousness. The ego is conscious of something. The ego desires something. The ego sees something, or “I see something. I am hungry. I want a drink of water.” One could view the personality as a spine with protrusions that radiate out from it and form their own little splinter psyches. The spine (ego) is the central hub of consciousness, but beyond is a hinterland of unconsciousness populated by a great number of complexes. On this point, Jung wrote:

All our thinking and acting, the vast bulk of which appears to us to be conscious, actually consist of all those little bits that are finely determined by innumerable impulses completely outside consciousness. To our ego-consciousness the association-process seems to be its own work, subject to its judgment, free will, and concentration; in reality, however, as our experiment beautifully shows, ego-consciousness is merely the marionette that dances on the stage, moved by a concealed mechanism. (CW2, para. 609)

Thus, consciousness is really a matter of dynamic interactions between multiple parts and functions. Consciousness seems to arise from a combination of material conditions and energetic processes.
        Elsewhere, Jung (1912/1967) associated the psyche with energy: “The life of the psyche is the life of mankind” (CW5, para. 298). Jung added that “The psychic life-force, the libido, symbolizes itself in the sun or personifies itself in figures of heroes with solar attributes” (para. 297). The psyche is difficult to define but seems related to life’s ability to form images or representations from experience. The psyche has enabled the species to form a picture of not only the world, but of itself. The psyche’s image making faculty has the capacity to bend back on itself in a reflective way. Through the psyche, consciousness can ostensibly construct a picture of the world (i.e., weltanschauung). That Jung viewed the psyche as a world-constituting factor is important to note and further consider. For he wrote that “the psyche is the greatest of all cosmic wonders and the sine qua non of the world as an object. (Jung, 1954/1968, para. 357). Elsewhere, Jung (1912/1967) suggested that

though we do not possess a physics of the soul, and are not even able to observe it and judge it from some Archimedean point “outside” ourselves, and can therefore know nothing objective about it since all knowledge of the psyche is itself psychic, in spite of all this the soul is the only experient of life and existence. It is, in fact, the only immediate experience we can have and the sine qua non of the subjective reality of the world. (CW5, para. 344)

Thus, if we are to put any stock into what Jung has to say, the psyche’s image (i.e., representation) making role seems indispensable to the world of conscious experience.
        Although we have hardly explained consciousness or how it has emerged, I have proposed that Jung’s model of the psyche presents a helpful heuristic tool to better contextualize consciousness as a product of the psyche proper.
        The world itself is an image of conscious experience and suggests, as discussed above, a psychic construct. That’s not to say that there is not a real world “out there,” but the world per se (i.e., noumenon) and the one of experience (i.e., phenomenon) are vastly different and never the twain shall meet. This picture evokes Jung’s reliance on Kantian epistemology to scaffold his theories. The psyche suggests a phenomenon that emerges from complexity, that is to say, when the right conditions are formed. When life reaches a certain level of complexity, unique features begin to emerge, wherein life itself learns how to modify its own unconscious drives (i.e., instincts) by assimilating typical stimuli (i.e., experiences) to a pre-existing psychic pattern. Jung termed this process as psychization. Although hardly an explanatory principle in and of itself, the concept may help to advance one’s understanding of consciousness as a complex psychic process.


Chalmers. D. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2(3):200-19, 1995.

Jung, C. G. (1905). Cryptomnesia. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 8, pp. 112-135). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1910). The reaction time ratio in the experiment. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 256-290). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1913). On psychological understanding. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 3, pp. 205-230). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1954)

Jung, C. G. (1940). Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 11, pp. 501-29). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1958). Modern psychology: The ETH lectures. B. Hannah (Ed.). Unpublished.

Jung, C. G. (1967). Symbols of Transformation. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 5, pp. 3-440). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1912)

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