A critical analysis of Jung’s contribution to depth psychology of the Collective Unconscious and its value for psychotherapy.

A critical analysis of Jung’s contribution to depth psychology of the Collective Unconscious and its value for psychotherapy.

IMG-20150910-WA014This is a copy of public lecture delivered to Psyche at the University of Pretoria 9 September 2015


Carl Gustav Jung, (1875 – 1961), the Swiss psychiatrist and academic,  was an early and key collaborator of Freud’s; and at one time the heir apparent to the psychoanalytic legacy. He made a big impact in medical and forensic psychology, early in his career, whilst at Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic, with his word association experiment. The word association experiment had a particular significance for psychoanalysis and was a catalyst to his association and collaboration with Freud. After Jung and Freud split around 1913, under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, as a consequence of both personal and theoretical differences, Jung went on to develop his own school of psychoanalytic thought, initially called complex psychology and later analytical psychology (most often referred to simply as Jungian psychology).

Jung’s writing is contained in the 20 volumes of his Collected Works which offer a detailed exposition of his thought, and application of his technique both clinically and culturally. Jungian psychology, whilst for most of the 20th century in the shadow of Freud and psychoanalysis, went on to thrive and become perhaps the most well-known and popular alternative in depth psychology to Freudian psychoanalysis. The schism that developed between Jung and Freud lasted their entire careers and has remained as a gulf between their two respective, competing, schools of psychodynamics.

In my talk today I will focus on one of key theoretical differences between the two schools, and a defining concept for Jungian psychology, Jung’s hypothesis of the “collective unconscious.” The theoretical point of departure is summed up quite succinctly in this statement from the forward to Symbols of Transformation, originally published in 1912, and later substantially revised in 1952

“To free medical psychology from the subjective and personalistic bias that characterized its outlook at that time, and to make it possible to understand the unconscious as an objective and collective psyche”[1]

Above the door to his home and later engraved on his tombstone Jung had the following phrase, in Latin,

Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.

(Bidden or unbidden, God will be present.)

That phrase expresses the essence of the collective unconscious. This statement, at least as it applies to Jungian theory, should not be read as a metaphysical assertion, posting an absolute and divine being. It is rather a recognition of the phenomenological and consequently psychological reality, and ubiquitous presence, of a transpersonal, objective, dimension of the psyche, that structures and conditions our psychology.

Neither is this intended as a denial of the subjective, personal and developmental factors and their determining influence on the subject’s psychology. In this regard Jung follows very much in the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition. He understands and accepts the subjective experience as the central domain of inquiry for psychology. He appreciates the coordinates of the subject’s personal existence and her developmental history as not only having a significant impact on the subject’s psychology but also being the first and primary field of inquiry for the psychologist.

Furthermore, Jung is largely sympathetic to the defining role of infantile sexuality and even the Oedipal Complex. Whilst he does not give it the same exclusive accord that Freud does, he is entirely satisfied that its effects can hardly be denied.

However, Jung holds that any analysis that stops at the personal subjective and developmental factors is incomplete and fails to recognise the objective, transpersonal, collective dimension which plays, perhaps, an even more foundational role in determining the coordinates of the subject’s psychology and subjective responses to any given situation.



What exactly is the collective unconscious and how is it supposed to operate?

The collective unconscious is an aspect of the subject’s psychology that is not predicated on their personal, developmental, history. It is an inherited, a priori, condition of subjective experience, related to “the phylogenetic[2] and instinctual foundation of the human race.”[3] The mind, even at birth, is not a tabula rasa (a blank slate). The mind like the body is governed and structured by a priori forms, dynamics, imaginal capacities and cognitive pathways. This collective unconscious, as Jung understood it, is populated by and structured around what he referred to as ‘archetypes’. These are nodal points, described by the Jungian analyst, Robin Robertson, as cognitive invariants,[4] from which the network of the collective unconscious emerges.

Jung explains the collective unconscious, as follows.

“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. The collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and give definite form to certain psychic contents.”[5]



The technique of engaging the collective unconscious in psychotherapy

Jung’s meta-psychological model is one which focusses on psychic structures, called complexes in the personal unconscious which broadly correspond to archetypes in the collective unconscious. Each complex is a personal expression of a universal form, and has at its core either one or more archetypes around which it is constituted.

To use a popular example from psychoanalysis, the subject has a particular relation to his mother that we can refer to as his mother-complex. This complex contains all the memories, feelings, associations and images, constituted by his personal relationship with his mother. Where such a patient is presenting adaptive challenges in relation to the feminine gender, for which he is seeking psychotherapy and that possibly has its roots in his relation to his mother, the Jungian analyst would proceed from the premise that a thorough analysis of the subject’s relation to his biological mother would be the most intuitive starting point. His mother complex would be the primary target or at least starting point of such any such analysis.

The analysis of the subject’s personal relationship with his mother as the acknowledged starting point, an appreciation of the collective or objective dimension of the subject’s psychology, in such a case, affords the analyst the possibility of amplification.

The Jungian analyst, whilst in no way depreciating the value of the personal analysis, recognises that the subject’s inner image of “mother” and his relationality to “mother” is not wholly and exclusively determined by his relationship to his own, biological, or even surrogate, mother. That the designation ‘mother’, and in this case more specifically, the relation of a son to his mother, has, in part, an archetypal, collective or objective, character.

That the very idea of an anomalous or neurotic relationship between the subject and his mother, is predicated on a comparison to a normative, functional and optimal ideal. And that both the dysfunctional and functional models of relationality between a son and his mother can be mapped onto the coordinates of a universal model (or in Jungian terms “archetype”) of the relationship of a son to his mother.

In pursuing such an approach, the Jungian analyst, is liberated, to a degree, from the vagaries of memory and subjective distortion that is inherent in any psychoanalytic narrative. Her analysis has at its disposal a tool to inquire into the subject’s relation to the mother archetype, which whilst no doubt influenced by his relation to his own mother, is not, as classical psychoanalysis suggests, an analogue for it. In other words, he may present certain very constructive, deeply connected, feelings, thoughts and imaginations of the mother archetype whilst the narrative of his personal history with his mother is absent of such properties. The analyst frequently recognises a dissonance, such as exaggerated affect, between the personal-historical relationship to the mother and the relationship to the mother archetype.


Where does the material for such an archetypal analysis emerge from you might wonder.

From an analysis of:

  1. The subject’s relation to his own mother.
  2. The subject’s relationship to the cultural artefact, or meme, of mother.
  3. The subject’s inter-personal relationship’s to the female, and in some cases even the masculine, gender, in its displaying, or the subject situating it as, motherly.
  4. From the transference relation with the analyst.


And the analyst here is sensitive to dissonance between the subject’s inner, imaginary, relationships and the objective coordinates of these relationships, as well as dissonance between the relation to biological mother and the universal or abstracted mother i.e. the mother archetype. Using this information to distinguish between what has arisen out of developmental circumstances and intrinsic or innate factors in the relationship to the mother archetype.

This distinction between the personal developmental history and relationship and the innate relation to the mother archetype offers the analyst a significant and partly independent coordinate, which along with the developmental history and relationship, can be used to map the subjects psychology and facilitate the psychotherapeutic process.

So as opposed to couple of son and mother with the classical analyst has to work with, in this model we get a triangulation of (son – mother archetype – biological mother).

The Jungian analyst, Mary Williams[6] suggests that repression only occurs because the ego is threatened by the archetypal power of the content[7]. In a brief vignette she mentions the case of a doctor who had learnt to deal in a professional and detached fashion with his biological mother’s attacks of mania. He was however terrified of his wife’s temper tantrums, and had some difficulty overcoming his fear in the transference relationship to his female analyst.  In working through his initial fear of the analyst in the transference he was able to access his fear of

“the terrible archetypal mother, which was attached to the repressed fear of his mad mother from his childhood; attached also to his fear of the maniacal aggressor in himself based on his identification with her.”[8]

The Jungian idea here being that what the subject was relating to in all three cases, his mother, his wife and his female analyst,  whilst having its roots in his early relationship to his mother, is informed, at the level of the imaginary, by the relationship to a primal archetypal being, the consuming mother. The dark clothonic feminine, portrayed in fable by the witch, the baba yaga character. In the subject’s imagination, coloured by the archetype, his mother and later the feminine gender, were displaced by an inhuman, one sided, monstrous character.[9]

“Experience suggests that the integration of this image by the ego leads to its humanization; it becomes a suffering human being, a mixture of loving and hating propensities, instead of a one-sided monster that has to be repelled and repressed. As a result, the patient is humanized too and ceases to project this one-sided image. If, however, the personal and collective aspects are divided, the collective aspect alone cannot be integrated and may remain a threat to all relationships.”[10]

In recognising the presence of this archetype in his inner world, his imagination, and its projection onto the feminine, in this case the subject was able to form a more human image of his mother and his wife, and develop a more balanced and warmer relationship with them.[11]


Value and utility

There is much that can be said for this method of analysis, too much to try and summarise in this short talk. I will focus on a very few points, which by no means should be understood as a complete exposition of this method and its value.

Amplification: An understanding of the collective or group consciousness in which an individual is contextualized provides valuable insight into the nature of their personal psychology, both in terms of issues being faced and possible solutions.  There are almost invariably historical accounts, journal entries, cultural narratives or myths where an encounter of a similar structure and dynamic is addressed. Familiarity and insight into such material provides a roadmap of the current dilemma.

Connection: All too frequently in addition to the direct effect of the subjects pathology there is the added undesirable effect of experiencing alienation. However as we know and as is made explicit with the hypothesis of the collective unconscious, very few, if any, psychological challenges are personal or unique.  Recognising this is itself healing. The fact that the subject is not alone in the experience of her condition, in her suffering as it were, is itself a psychological and spiritual balm.

Whilst it would seem folly to deny the possibility of a ‘first encounter’, i.e. the first time a single individual encounters and has to grapple with a psychic challenge, this situation would constitute a truly tiny percentage of the total of such encounters across human history. Someone somewhere has had to grapple with the same or a very similar situation. In encountering this situation you are grappling with a transpersonal condition of being a human being that transcends your personal context. The manner in which a psychological challenge presents itself to you, the feelings that such a challenge arouses in you and the thoughts, images and ideas, that you bring to bear on the situation, follow pre-established pathways.

Whilst Einstein may have revolutionized the foundations of Newtonian physics, his desire to solve the riddles of nature, his perseverance beyond initial setbacks, his cognitive processing and analytical comprehension of the problems involved, his reliance on creative imagination and ultimately the satisfaction in discovering working solutions to such challenges would have been more similar than dissimilar to Newton’s.

Self-knowledge, (mapping the psyche), this recognition of the collective or objective dimension of the psyche allows a greater and deeper mapping to take place for the subject. The recognition that their identity is not only predicated on their personal history but has its roots in their membership of the human race, of their particular ancestry, the culture into which they are born and from which they emerge, gender identity, the historical period in which they live and so on. Now not all of these are archetypal dimensions in the traditional application of the concept, some are rather social or memetic in nature. However this way of considering the objective cultural dimeson of the psyche which frames and contextualises the subjective experience, affords the subject a far deeper level of understanding and hopefully acceptance of their identity as an amalgamation of personal and collective factors .

Archetypal insights (the application of the mythological lens), this recognition that there the personality develops along typical or more properly archetypal pathways can be usefully applied in psychotherapeutic context. Assuming that either or both the analyst and analysand and are sufficiently literate metaphors for what the subject is grappling with can be found. The most popular place for Jungians to source this material is from myth or fable. However one can reliably say all stories that stand the test of time are fertile hunting ground for such metaphors.

Jung considered mythology, fable, fairy-tales to be expressions of collective or archetypal dreams. Myth is a form of collective dream ad dreams are a form of personal myth.

All of which has a very practical application in clinical work. Through identifying the appropriate story or stories, two significant effects are achieved. One, the subject’s (or analysand’s – in psychoanalytic jargon) material, previously the source of shame or anguish, is symbolised in a fashion that elevates it above the prosaic into something meaningful, something mythological. Secondly the narrative, mood, challenges, characters, thresholds and so on of the story can be investigated for possible clues that may help the subject in her personal quest to work through this archetypal dynamic.

Dream interpretation (objective – subjective juxtaposition)
The recognition of this objective dimension of the psyche has a significant implication for dream analysis. Allowing the analyst to investigate the archetypal dimensions of the dream content to amplify their meaning for the subject. And also the recognition that the dream does not only relate subjective content but also objective context; and these two elements the subjective  feelings, behaviour, fantasies of the dream ego can be evaluated in light the objective context in which the dream takes place.

The dangers of conscious or unconscious identification with an archetype.

“The chief danger is that of succumbing to the fascinating influence of the archetypes.”[12]

Identification with an archetype, consciously or unconsciously, leads to displacing of the ego’s authority by a transpersonal form. The archetype is inhuman, one sided and transcends the bounds of rational consciousness. Identification with it leads the subject into a state of possession, of singular one-sidedness, transgressing the boundaries of reason and conscious evaluation; rushing in where angels fear to tread. This is so very well portrayed by the myth of the sirens who enchant sailors leading them to leap into the ocean and a consequent watery death.

The archetypes by their very nature have the capacity to fascinate, to mesmerise, they have, to use a popular Jungian phrase, a numinous quality – invoking awe or terror in the subject. When circumstances are favourable and when engaged by a robust ego consciousness, these are the catalysts to creativity, inspiration, great achievement, art, scientific discovery and so on. These archetypal attractors provide the energy and the motivation, they stimulate and channel the libido necessary to move beyond defunct boundaries. However where circumstances are less than favourable for whatever reason, where the ego is vulnerable, this is the path to pathology and even psychosis.

Commenting on the archetypes of the anima and animus, but relevant to identification with any archetype, Jung says the following,

“[W]hen the unconscious contents – these same fantasies- are not “realised,” they give rise to a negative activity and personification i.e. to the autonomy of the animus and anima. Psychic abnormalities then develop, states of possession ranging in degree from ordinary moods and “ideas” to psychoses. All these states are characterised by one and the same fact that an unknown “something” has taken possession of a smaller or greater portion of the psyche and asserts its hateful and harmful existence undeterred by all our insight, reason, and energy, thereby proclaiming the power of the unconscious over the conscious mind, the sovereign power of possession.”[13]

Jung is here referring specifically to the archetypes of the animus and anima, two that he gave a particular focus in his work. However this is more broadly the power of the irrational to possess, enchant and enrol the conscious ego and frequently to lead it astray. As is so amply demonstrated in the world today, rationality meets is match and is so frequently overcome by its shadow the irrational, which is always archetypally constituted. So much so that where reason, or what we prosaically would call good sense prevail, be it in inter personal, social or political affairs there is always cause for celebration. Far too often these relationships are dominated by the irrational, with consequent destruction. Jung puts it like this.

“No matter how beautiful and perfect man may believe his reason to be, he can always be certain that it is only one of the possible mental functions, and covers only that one side of the phenomenal world which corresponds to it. But the irrational, that which is not agreeable to reason, rings it about on all sides. And the irrational is likewise a psychological function – in a word, it is the collective unconscious; whereas the rational is always tied to the conscious mind.”[14]

Bidden or unbidden, God is present.  And all too often these natural, primal, instinctive or even divine if you will impulses overwhelm man’s fragile and relatively youthful consciousness. A good example of this is encountered in the transference dynamic, where the patient projects unconscious aspects of her psyche onto the analyst. Investing the analyst with characteristics and affects which properly speaking belong to the patient. In such a case the nature of the transference is most typically characterised by, and understood as, an unconscious recreation of the parental relationship.

However as Jung points out, and as many psychotherapists bear testimony to, at times even this is insufficient to explain the degree to which the psychotherapist becomes a magical being in the imagination of the patient. The therapist takes on divine or demonic qualities. And the hypothesis of the collective unconscious explains this by recognising that not only does the patient carry an unconscious image of her parents, but also of a pantheon of magical beings, which irrespective of the patients conscious beliefs, are present in the unconscious.

A good cultural example of this is the phenomenon is the idolisation of sports stars; and their all too frequent consequent fall from grace. These are people who, naturally, being human are subject to the same fallibilities and shortcomings as the rest of us, but as related to as super-human, as possessing transcendent, godlike, qualities. No doubt this phenomena has been around as long as sport has. One thinks of the tremendous honour bestowed on the victors in the ancient Olympics, and the shame of the losers. Recent history has given us an abundance of examples. Going back a few years one thinks of Iron Mike Tyson and his fall from grace with his rape conviction, or more recently and more spectacularly the fall of that great sporting icon Lance Armstrong. And of course we have no shortage of local examples of this phenomenon (Hansie Cronje, Oscar Pistorius, Joost van der Westhuizen).

These so called “stars” are invested by the public with superhuman characteristics, and tragically, many of them take on this mass illusion, which then creates hubris and only precipitates their consequent fall from grace. Jung speaks of this the enantiodromia (from the ancient Greek philosopher – Heraclitus) this inverse course that follows any one sided condition, typical of identification with an archetype.  The point is this type of phenomenon is only disposed to happen because we have the latent image in our unconscious of super human or godlike characters. There are archetypal forms that pre-exist our interaction with the world and inform what we see and the way we see it. So in a secular age, in the absences of roil-hoil divine beings, gods and angles etc., we turn our sports stars and celebrities into gods.


Some  concerns for the hypothesis

Philosophically, nominalism vs. essentialism and the “archetypal” response of James Hillman. It is hard to get away from the fact that archetypal theory in order to be meaningful, as a metaphysical hypothesis, is essentialist. Essentialism as a metaphysical position is not to everyone’s taste. It is seen by many contemporary philosophers as an antiquated and redundant metaphysical model. It is also associated with some very unhelpful political positions such as fascism.One possible response to this was developed by the American Jungian James Hillman who speaks of archetypal phenomena, but does not posit the ghostly archetype as source, rather seeing the archetypal as an emergent property along similar lines to the theory of memes.[15]


The displacing of focus on the personal dynamics of the patient with the focus onto the archetypal element. Michael Fordham makes this point, that there is a concern that focusing on the archetypal dimension, dilutes the analyst’s focus on the analysand personal circumstances.


The need for the analyst to be widely read, especially in the classics. If the archetypal dimension is to be usefully applied in analysis it creates a high and quite broad educational demand on the analyst. Naturally this is going be out of the reach of many psychotherapists, who simply do have the necessary time to devote to such a study.


A final note: There is an interesting comparison to be made between paradigms emerging from the archetypes, archetypal forms and patterns and Lacan’s symbolic order. In both cases all relationships and subjective experience are conditioned and to a degree constituted for the subject by the pervasive influence of these fields which are external to their subjectivity. The location of the subject in an objective and objectifying field.

In conclusion I propose that depth psychology is enriched by Jung’s contribution of the Collective Unconscious, it is an immensely valuable tool in the hands of the appropriately trained analyst, problems notwithstanding, and the veracity of Jung’s theory in this respect very difficult to challenge. It seems reasobly intuitive, not to say obvious, that the psyche has both subjective and objective dimensions and both must be considered if a holistic psychotherapeutic approach is to be attempted. A tremendous debt is owed to Jung by depth psychology for this contribution and its articulation throughout his work.



[1] Jung, symbols of transformation, CW. 5, p.xxiii

[2] Phylogenetics (greek: φυλή, φῦλον – phyléphylon = tribe, clan, race + γενετικός – genetikós = origin, source, birth) – in biology – is the study of phylogenesis, or the evolutionary history, development and relationships among groups of organisms (e.g. species, or populations). These are discovered mainly through molecular data matrices, based on nucleic acids sequences and protein structures. Thus, the result of phylogenetic studies are hypotheses about the evolutionary history of taxonomic groups or their phylogeny (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phylogenetics)

[3] A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis; pp. 155-156.

[4] Robertson, A beginner’s guide to Jungian psychology.

[5] C. G. Jung, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 9, part 1, p. 43

[6] Williams, M. (1963), ‘The indivisibility of the personal and collective unconscious.’ JAP, vol. 8

[7] Ibid, p. 2

[8] Ibid

[9] ibid

[10] Ibid.

[11] ibid

[12] Jung, C.W., 9, i, p. 39

[13] C. G. Jung, The relations between the ego and the unconscious, Collected Works, vol. 7, par. 370

[14] C. G. Jung, The personal and collective unconscious, Collected Works, vol. 7, par. 110

[15] “cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures” (Wikipedia)

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *