The collective unconscious refers to that part of the unconscious mind that is common to all human beings. The term was originally used by Carl Jung and is a key concept in analytical psychology. The collective unconscious can be understood as the totality of human experience. However, it is not directly available to us; rather it is encountered in symbolic form through dreams and other mystical experiences. Jung believed that the collective unconscious guides us to self-fulfillment, and thus each person should strive to bring their individual self into harmony with it. Those who are successful would then be able to fulfill their potential as individuals and also live in harmony with humankind as a whole.
Collective unconscious defined
Collective unconscious is a term originally coined by Carl Jung, and refers to that part of a person's unconscious that is common to all human beings. It is distinguished from the personal unconscious, which is unique to each human being.
In his earlier writings, Jung called this aspect of the psyche the collective unconscious; later, he preferred the term objective psyche. It may be considered objective for two reasons:
- It is common to everyone.
- It has a better sense of the self ideal than the ego or conscious self has, and thus directs the self, via archetypes, dreams, and intuition, to self-actualization. Jung called the unconscious the great friend, guide and advisor of the conscious.
According to Jung, the unconscious is made up of two layers. The top layer contains material which has been made unconscious artificially; that is, it is made up of elements of one's personal experiences, the personal unconscious. Underneath this layer, however, is the collective unconscious: an absolute unconscious that has nothing to do with personal experiences. Jung described this bottom layer as "a psychic activity which goes on independently of the conscious mind and is not dependent even on the upper layers of the unconscious—untouched, and perhaps untouchable—by personal experience" (Campbell 1971). The difference in the way the unconscious was conceptualized by Jung and Freud is one of the more conspicuous differences between their psychologies, and had a major impact on the development of psychology as a discipline.
Jung considered the collective unconscious as the whole spiritual heritage of mankind's evolution born anew in the brain-structure of every individual. It can be considered as an immense depository of ancient wisdom. It contains archetypes, which are forms or symbols that are manifested by all people in all cultures.
Jung made the exploration of the unconscious and collective unconscious his life's work. He examined his own unconscious to better understand the unconscious of his patients. At one period, he used his childhood games (sand play and building blocks) to release in him streams of fantasy, which he recorded. He recorded his patients' dreams, as well as his own, and classified his psychic inventory as scientifically as possible. He went equipped with a background in Freudian theory and with a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of mythology, religion, and philosophy. Jung was especially knowledgeable in the symbolism of complex mystical traditions such as Gnosticism, Alchemy, Kabala, and similar traditions in Hinduism and Buddhism. He once said that just as a biologist needs the science of comparative anatomy, a psychologist needs the experience and knowledge of the products of unconscious activity and mythology.
From his research, Jung found that the concept of archetype was already in use at the time of St. Augustine in De deversis quaestionibus, which speaks of "ideas...which are not yet formed...which are contained in the divine intelligence." His studies revealed that archetype was synonymous with the "Idea" of Platonic usage (arche, "original"; typos, "form"). The Corpus Hermeticum from the third century describes God as to archetypon phos—the "archetypal light"—expressing the idea that God is the prototype of all light. Jung also found expressions of the archetypes in his study of tribal folk lore, mythology and fairy tales, as well as through his travels to Algiers, Tunis, New Mexico, Uganda, Kenya, Mount Elgon, Egypt via the Nile River, Rome and India.
Discovering the Collective Unconscious
Jung's interest in the unconscious was not just theoretical; it was born of his own experience of vivid dreams and visions. As a boy he had already experienced powerful dreams, and his doctoral dissertation was on the occult. After breaking with Freud, Jung deliberately allowed this part of his nature free expression, recording in detail his dreams and fantasies.
At one point in this process Jung began to fear for his own sanity, and indeed his critics have suggested that he was mentally ill. However, he realized that his most vivid dreams and visions were connected to reality. The most potent example is his vision of a "monstrous flood" which he saw engulfing most of Europe, up to the mountains of his native Switzerland. He saw thousands of people drowning, civilization crumbling, and waters turning into blood. For weeks he had dreams of eternal winters and rivers of blood. He started having these experiences in 1913, and within a few months, in August of 1914 World War I began. At that moment Jung no longer believed he was suffering from psychosis; he understood his experience as a connection, through what he later termed "synchronicity," between his unconscious and humanity in general (Boeree 2006).
Thus, for Jung, the "collective unconscious" of all humankind became his focus. In this, he believed could be found the history of humanity, the "ghosts" as it were of all of history, not merely our own personal experiences. This constitutes the difference between his approach and that of Freud. For Freud, the unconscious is where our own past has been buried, where our unsatisfied desires lurk and influence us uncontrollably. Only through bringing the unconscious into consciousness can we resolve our past and achieve a stable personality. For Jung, the collective unconscious is a treasure trove of good and bad, from ages past and present. The mentally ill, in his estimation, were under the influence of the spirits of other, now dead, people, not their own past. Healing, therefore, involved reconciliation with them, and a reorienting of one's own personality to be in harmony with the greater collective unconscious.
Jung's life work was to make sense of the unconscious and its habit of revealing itself in symbolic form through archetypes of the collective unconscious. He believed that it was only possible to live the fullest life when one is in harmony with these archetypal symbols. Through the understanding of how an individual patient's unconscious integrates with the collective unconscious, that patient can be helped towards achieving a state of individuation, or wholeness of self.
Freud was a pioneer in the use of dreams to explore the unconscious. However, while Freud believed that dreams consisted of repressed desires, Jung found in dreams a source of myths and symbols that would be a key in his own and his patients' self-understanding and journey to wholeness. Jung postulated that the archetypes of the collective unconscious can be discovered by the primitive, analogical mode of thinking specific to dreams.
Jung did not see dreams as a way to hide the dreamer’s true feelings from the conscious mind, as Freud did. Instead, he saw dreams as providing a guide to the waking self and helping the dreamer achieve a kind of wholeness. To Jung, dreams were a way of offering solutions to problems the dreamer was experiencing in his or her waking life. Dreams, in Analytical psychology, are considered an integral, important, and personal expression of the individual's unconscious. They reveal the symbols and archetypes contained in the person's unconscious, which can be keys to the individual's growth and development.
The most important facet of dream interpretation associated with Jung is that of archetypes—universal themes and images common to every culture and every civilization around the world. To Jung, these universal archetypes were proof of the existence of the collective unconscious. Jung hypothesized that all of mythology could be taken as a type of projection of the collective unconscious.
Archetypes that Jung felt were especially important include the "persona," the "shadow," the "anima/animus," the "mother," the "child," the "wise old man," and the "self."
The persona is the mask we wear to make a particular impression on others; it may reveal or conceal our real nature. It is an artificial personality that compromises a person's real individuality and society's expectations—usually society's demands take precedence. It is made up of things like professional titles, roles, habits of social behavior, etc. It serves to both guarantee social order and to protect the individual's private life.
The shadow is the negative or inferior (undeveloped) side of the personality. It is said to be made up of all the reprehensible characteristics that each of us wish to deny, including animal tendencies that Jung claims we have inherited from our pre-human ancestors. However, when individuals recognize and integrate their shadows, they progress further towards self-realization. On the other hand, the more unaware of the shadow we are, the blacker and denser it becomes. The more dissociated it is from conscious life, the more it will display a compensatory demonic dynamism. It is often projected outwards on individuals or groups, who are then thought to embody all the immature, evil, or repressed elements of the individual's own psyche.
The anima/animus personifies the soul, or inner attitude. Following a person's coming to term with their shadow, they are then confronted with the problem of the anima/animus. It is usually a persona and often takes on the characteristics of the opposite sex. The anima is said to represent the feminine in men and the animus is the comparable counterpart in the female psyche. The anima may be personified as a young girl, very spontaneous and intuitive, as a witch, or as the earth mother. It is likely to be associated with deep emotionality and the force of life itself. The animus may be personified as a wise old man, a sorcerer, or often a number of males, and tends to be logical, often rationalistic, and even argumentative.
The great mother archetype would be expected to be almost the same in all people, since all infants share inherent expectation of having an attentive caretaker (human instinct). Every surviving infant must either have had a mother, or a surrogate (common experience); and nearly every child is indoctrinated with society's idea of what a mother should be (shared culture). Mother is the source of life and nurture and the images are nearly inexhaustible: Mother Earth, Divine Mother, deep water, womb (both literal and symbolic), a vessel, the sea and the moon are but a few.
The child archetype represents original or child-like conditions in the life of the individual or the species, and thus reminds the conscious mind of its origins. This archetype also takes many forms: living creature—child, god, dwarf, hobbit, elf, monkey; or objects—jewels, chalices or the golden ball. It becomes a necessary reminder when the consciousness become too one-sided, too willfully progressive in a manner that threatens to sever the individual from the roots of his or her being. It also signifies the potentiality of future personality development, and anticipates the synthesis of opposites and the attainment of wholeness. As a result, it represents the urge and compulsion towards self-realization.
The wise old man is the archetype of meaning or spirit. It often appears as grandfather, sage, magician, king, doctor, priest, professor, or any other authority figure. It represents insight, wisdom, cleverness, willingness to help, and moral qualities. His appearance serves to warn of dangers, and provide protective gifts, such as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. As with the other archetypes, the wise old man also possesses both good and bad aspects.
The self, according to Jung, is the most important archetype. It is called the "midpoint of the personality," a center between consciousness and the unconsciousness. It signifies the harmony and balance between the various opposing qualities that make up the psyche. The symbols of the self can be anything that the ego takes to be a greater totality than itself. Thus, many symbols fall short of expressing the self in its fullest development. Symbols of the self are often manifested in geometrical forms (mandalas) or by the quaternity (a figure with four parts). Prominent human figures which represent the self are the Buddha or Christ. This archetype is also represented by the divine child and by various pairs—father and son, king and queen, or god and goddess.
Less mystical proponents of the Jungian model hold that the collective unconscious can be adequately explained as arising in each individual from shared instinct, common experience, and shared culture. The natural process of generalization in the human mind combines these common traits and experiences into a mostly identical substratum of the unconscious.
Regardless of whether the individual's connection to the collective unconscious arises from mundane or mystical means, the term collective unconscious describes an important commonality in all human beings.
- Bouree, C. George. 1997, 2006. Carl Jung
- Gallo, Ernest. 1994. "Synchronicity and the Archetypes." Skeptical Inquirer18: 4.
- Jung, C. 1981. The Development of Personality (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.17). Bollingen Publishers. (Originally published 1954) ISBN 0691018383.
- Jung, C. G., & A. Jaffe. 1962. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London: Collins. This is Jung's autobiography, recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe. ISBN 0679723951
- Whitmont, Edward C. 1979. The Symbolic Quest. Princeton University Press. (Originally published 1969) ISBN 0691024545.
- Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism: A pictorial and written archive of mythological, ritualistic, and symbolic images from all over the world and from all epochs of human history.
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