THE JUNGIAN APPROACH TO SYMBOLIC INTERPRETATION


NB: It is important to remember that Carl Jung's thought evolved and changed over his long life, and also that his preferred method of exploring a topic was suggestive, metaphoric “amplification” rather than logical exposition (see Wehr 49). In this course, we shall adopt and use certain definitions of core Jungian terms that I feel are best suited for our purpose (the exploration of archetypal symbolism) without claiming that these definitions provide a complete explanation of Jung's psychological theories.

SCHEMATIC FREUD-JUNG CONTRAST: Freud's approach to symbolic interpretation rested primarily on his model of psychic structure, charting a kind of “outside==>inside” and “conscious==>unconscious” movement which emphasized the importance of external influences and individual experiences (especially infantile experiences). Jung developed a different model of psychic structure which, while not denying the significance of individual experience, added an inherited collective component whose influence worked from “inside==>outside” and “unconscious==>conscious.” Hence Jung's approach to symbolic interpretation was less rigid than Freud's, paid more attention to the actual symbols and their contexts (since he viewed symbols as the natural language of the unconscious), and claimed that symbols could point toward future directions needed by the person rather than solely reflecting problems created by repression of past experiences.

THE PERSONAL UNCONSCIOUS: similar to Freud's concept of the Id, the personal unconscious contains forgotten or repressed materials or experiences of an individual that were once conscious

Eric Pettifor, “Process of Individuation”:

The personal unconscious is pretty much self defining and doesn't need to be perceived as mysterious or supernatural (though it is occult in the truest sense of the word - 'hidden'). The personal unconscious contains all the stuff that simply isn't conscious. It contains stuff that can be made conscious by simple act of will, stuff that requires some digging, as well as stuff that may never be recalled to consciousness ever again. It is made up of the things you've experienced every day of your life. I'm not sure if it is strictly true that nothing is ever really and truly lost, totally forgotten, but it seems that the psyche is very reluctant to let much go in the event that it might come in handy someday. The psyche is a pack rat, the unconscious full of its stuff.
The personal unconscious is also a dumping ground for things we aren't comfortable with and which we'd really rather not have in consciousness very often. Repressed memories are a hot issue at the moment, but even without total all out suppression of memory, we are adept at not thinking about things we'd rather not think about.

THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS (also termed the Objective Psyche): a genetically inherited psychological structure that is common to all human beings and is not based on personal experience—therefore objective rather than subjective and transpersonal rather than individual (see Wehr 51); analogous to the genetically inherited anatomical structure common to all human beings.

C. G. Jung, “The Concept of the Collective Unconscious”:

1. Definition: The collective unconscious is part of the psyche which can be negatively distinguished from a personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition. While the personal unconscious is made up essentially of contents which have at one time been conscious but which have disappeared from consciousness through having been forgotten or repressed, the contents of the collective unconscious have never been individually acquired, but owe their existence exclusively to heredity. Whereas the personal unconscious consists for the most part of complexes, the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of archetypes.
The concept of the archetype, which is an indispensable correlate of the idea of the collective unconscious, indicates the existence of definite forms in the psyche which seem to be present always and everywhere. . . . 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.
2. The Psychological Meaning of the Collective Unconscious: Medical psychology, growing as it did out of professional practice insists on the personal nature of the psyche. By this I mean the views of Freud and Adler. It is a psychology of the person, and its aetiological or causal factors are regarded almost wholly as personal in nature. Nonetheless, even this psychology is based on the sexual instinct or on the urge for self-assertion, which are by no means merely personal peculiarities. It is forced to do this because it lays claim to being an explanatory science. Neither of these views would deny the existence of a priori instincts common to man and animals alike or that they have a significant influence on personal psychology. Yet instincts are impersonal, universally distributed, hereditary factors of a dynamic or motivating character, which very often fail so completely to reach consciousness that modern psychotherapy is faced with the task of helping the patient to become conscious of them. Moreover, the instincts are not vague and indefinite by nature, but are specifically formed motive forces which, long before there is any consciousness, and in spite of any degree of consciousness later on, pursue their inherent goals. Consequently they form very close analogies to the archetypes, so close, in fact, that there is good reason for supposing that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves, in other words, that they are patterns of instinctual behavior.
The hypothesis of the collective unconscious is, therefore, no more daring than to assume there are instincts. One admits readily that human activity is influenced to a high degree by instincts, quite apart from the rational motivations of the conscious mind. So if the assertion is made that our imagination, perception, and thinking are likewise influenced by inborn and universally present formal elements, it seems to me that a normally functioning intelligence can discover in this idea just as much or just as little mysticism as in the theory of instincts. Although this reproach of mysticism has frequently been leveled at my concept, I must emphasize yet again that the concept of the collective unconscious is neither a speculative nor philosophical but an empirical matter. The question is simply this: are there or are there not unconscious, universal forms of this kind? If they exist, then there is a region of the psyche which one can call the collective unconscious. It is true that the diagnosis of the collective unconscious is not always an easy task. It is not sufficient to point out the often obviously archetypal nature of unconscious products, for there can just as well be derived from acquisition through language and education. Cryptomnesia should always also be ruled out, which it is almost impossible to do in certain cases. In spite of all these difficulties, there remains enough individual instances showing the autochthonous revival of mythological motifs to put the matter beyond any reasonable doubt. But if such an unconscious exists at all, psychological explanation must take account of it and submit certain alleged personal aetiologies to sharper criticism.

Eric Pettifor, “Process of Individuation”:

The collective unconscious likewise is pretty much self defining. While you participate in it, it isn't your exclusive property, we all share in it. It belongs to the species. When Jung had his official doctor hat on and was defining things ex cathedra , the collective unconscious was something passed on genetically. It was like an edition of a book of which we each had our own copy. However, in more off the record materials such as letters, Jung seemed to possess a more spiritual understanding of something which we are all tapped into somehow, an understanding which would not have sold in medical circles then and doesn't sell in any academically oriented circles now, though Jung has become very popular with the general reading public who seem to enjoy very much those ideas of Jung's which are farthest out on a limb.
In any event, it was a theory which took courage to advance, but Jung felt it necessary to do so, since he was noticing a strong degree of correspondence between dreams of patients, both private and institutionalised, and mythological motifs. In alchemy he found not only parallels in terms of content, but process as well. What he was seeing he felt to be a psychic fact, and the only acceptable explanation for the persistence of these patterns down through millenniums was biological inheritance.

ARCHETYPES: innate, non-experiential, emotion-charged tendencies or predispositions to symbolize reality in certain ways; the organizing structures of the collective unconscious (see Wehr 51-52).

C. G. Jung, “Concerning the Archetypes with Special Reference to the Anima Concept” (Carl Jung: Anthology):

They are the archetypes, which direct all fantasy activity into its appointed paths and in this way produce, in the fantasy-images of children's dreams as well as in the delusions of schizophrenia, astonishing mythological parallels such as can also be found, though in lesser degree, in the dreams of normal persons and neurotics. It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas.

C. G. Jung, “A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity” (Carl Jung: Anthology):

I have often been asked where the archetype comes from and whether it is acquired or not. This question cannot be answered directly. Archetypes are, by definition, factors and motifs that arrange the psychic elements into certain images, characterized as archetypal, but in such a way that they can be recognized only from the effects they produce. They exist preconsciously, and presumably they form the structural dominants of the psyche in general. They may be compared to the invisible presence of the crystal lattice in a saturated solution. As a priori conditioning factors they represent a special, psychological instance of the biological "pattern of behaviour," which gives all living organisms their specific qualities. Just as the manifestations of this biological ground plan may change in the course of development, so also can those of the archetype. Empirically considered, however, the archetype did not ever come into existence as a phenomenon of organic life, but entered into the picture with life itself.

ARCHETYPAL IMAGES: Archetypes are always unconscious; they cannot be directly known or experienced in themselves, but can only be hypothesized through their effects, their manifestations in images and symbols. Though Jung was not always clear about the distinction between archetypes (which are universal and unconscious) and archetypal images (which are at least partially conscious and personally and culturally conditioned), in the later part of his life he did explain that these were different things:

C. G. Jung, “On the Nature of the Psyche” (Carl Jung: Anthology):

We must constantly bear in mind that what we mean by "archetype" is in itself irrepresentable, but has effects which make visualizations of it possible, namely, the archetypal images and ideas. We meet with a similar situation in physics: there the smallest particles are themselves irrepresentable but have effects from the nature of which we can build up a model. The archetypal image, the motif or mythologem, is a construction of this kind.

C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” Man and His Symbols, ed. C.G. Jung and Marie_Louise von Franz (New York: Dell, 1964):

Just as the biologist needs the science of comparative anatomy, however, the psychologist cannot do without a “comparative anatomy of the psyche.” In practice, to put it differently, the psychologist must not only have a sufficient experience of dreams and other products of unconscious activity, but also of mythology in its widest sense. . . . My views about the “archaic remnants,” which I call “archetypes” or “primordial images,” have been constantly criticized by people who lack a sufficient knowledge of the psychology of dreams and of mythology. The term “archetype” is often misunderstood as meaning certain definite mythological images or motifs. But these are nothing more than conscious representations; it would be absurd to assume that such variable representations could be inherited. The archetype is a tendency to form such representations of a motif—representations that can vary a great deal in detail without losing their basic pattern. . . . . My critics have incorrectly assumed that I am dealing with “inherited representations,” and on that ground they have dismissed the idea of the archetype as mere superstition. . . . [Archetypes] are, indeed, an instinctive trend, as marked as the impulse of birds to build nests, or ants to form organized colonies. ( 57-58)

Polly Young-Eisendrath, “Myth and Body: Pandora's Legacy in a Post-Modern World”:

Carl Jung often used the idea of archetype in a way that now seems antiquated -- to mean something like a Kantian category or a Platonic idea, a sort of organizing form for our mental life. In his later work, after about 1944, he revised his thinking. He defined archetype to mean a universal inclination (predisposition) to form an image in a highly charged emotional state. The image would have the same form, recognizable the world over, as for example the image of a Great Mother. Jung began to link emotion with his idea of archetype in a new way. His final definition of archetype was an innate releasing mechanism. . . . Universal emotions are connected with universal images that recur everywhere: great and terrible parents, dragons/monsters, magicians, madonnas, whores, heroes and demons/devils. These are the archetypal images that Jung initially thought arose from a substrate outside human experience. We can now say that they arise quite directly from human experience. They are universal because they occur in every human being in our emotional hard-wiring, our perceptions of a particular world, and our biological life cycle and what it demands of us.

HOW TO RECOGNIZE ARCHETYPAL IMAGES:

  1. they carry a high emotional charge (positive, negative, or both simultaneously); they have a powerful, compelling effect
  2. for an individual, they frequently recur in situations when the rational, conscious mind is not in full control (e.g., recurring dreams and fantasies, obsessive behavior patterns which have no fully rational explanation)
  3. this recurrence occurs also in many different eras and cultures (e.g., commonly used symbols in literature, art and life; recurring types of dreams; mythic patterns, etc.)

Archetypes constitute a theory to explain the constant recurrence, persistence, and emotional power of certain ways of symbolizing reality. Their manifestations (“archetypal images”) are always personally and culturally conditioned. In given individuals and cultures, some archetypes are activated and others dormant; we say that their “triggers” are based on personal and cultural experience, though the archetypes are universal. A study of archetypal symbolism in myth provides us with maps, not dictionaries.

NB: The Carl Jung: Anthology of Works web site appears to be currently off-line.

February, 1999
Barbara F. McManus
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