Jung, Archetypes, Arts, Religion


Arising from recent dialogue with a friend, I’m posting this one-off to try to clarify my thinking about Carl Jung, archetypes, the arts and religion. In Jung’s view, the human psyche has three different but interacting ‘levels’, which should not be thought of as separate ‘compartments’. There is consciousness, which enables us to perceive, and function in, the day-to-day world. There is the personal unconscious, which stores forgotten memories, repressed ‘unwelcome’ memories, marginal sense perceptions which didn’t make it into consciousness, and mental contents slowly forming but not ready to emerge into the light of day. 

Then there is the collective unconscious, which we ‘inherit’ as a reservoir of ‘primordial images’ common to all humanity, which are impersonal and transpersonal. These ‘images’ Jung calls ‘archetypes”, and they owe their origin to what have been the most constant experiences in the lives of human beings since earliest times. The word ‘image’, however, is potentially misleading. Jung isn’t talking about pictures hard-wired into the brain, but about basic ‘frameworks’ out of which images can emerge. What is inherited is ‘form’, but not ‘content’. The latter is supplied by individuals, using the resources they possess in their conscious minds.

An obvious analogy is that of ‘instincts’ which can undoubtedly be hard-wired into brains. Who teaches a chick when and how to crack its egg shell?  Who teaches a bird the complex task of building a nest? No one ‘teaches’ them. They already ‘know’ in principle, what they have to achieve in practice. We’re talking, then, in human terms, about shared, inbuilt ‘patterns’ which trigger and guide outward action, but don’t determine its precise nature. That will depend on the resources, both material and personal, accumulated by, and available to, each individual. There are, after all, innumerable shapes, ingredients, sizes and locations of birds’ nests. 

What is ‘inherited’ is not precisely formulated images, but ’dispositions of the mind’ towards similar but distinctive patterns of perception, thought and action. The mythographer Joseph Campbell wrote a book about the archetype of ‘the hero’. He outlined a succession of features including the call to adventure ; the crossing of the threshold ; the encounter with trials and tribulations ; assistance from unexpected sources ; the achievement of goals ; the return with lessons learned ; the sharing of these with others. All hero stories will include some, if not all, of these features, though not necessarily in that order, and so there will be innumerable hero stories, some quite different though, at root, the same. 

These archetypes are fundamental to our predispositions and potentialities for experiencing and responding to our world. They are basic to our centuries’ old human experience, and have the power to captivate our minds, engage our hearts and energise our actions. They have the potential to create an intellectual, emotional and spiritual impact on us, particularly when filled with content from sensitive, imaginative, cultured and creative minds.

Jung has demonstrated how the same basic archetypes, however varied the dress in which they appear, can be found throughout all the myths, religions, poetry, literature, dramas, paintings, music and dance of humanity, down through the centuries and across the globe. As I noted in a previous post, our myths and religions give us, over and again, their ageless stories of creation from chaos, devastating floods, gods who cherish and punish, miraculous births, madonnas with child, venturing heroes, dying and rising gods, angels and devils, heaven and hell and so on. 

These archetypes are here to stay but, although the form and framework stay the same, the content and clothing need to constantly change if they are to have a continued impact on, and meet the needs of, succeeding generations of men and women. Just as language and literature, poetry and drama, music and dance, continually change and develop, so must religion if it is to continue to capture minds and hearts. The age old forms will be retained, as in the various arts, but must be refreshed with new content, however challenging for some, that may well be.

The question I asked previously, remains. Are these ‘archetypes’, like the God archetype, simply “poetic inventions, the products of human consciousness”, or are they “intuitions, however imperfect, of an unseen reality which preceded and transcended humanity”? For a scientific and philosophical analogy, did we ‘invent’ or ‘discover’ mathematics? This can’t be about ‘knowledge’, but must be about ‘faith’. Mine is in the transcendental Ground of All Being, whatever that might be, but you can call it God if you so choose.

8 responses to “Jung, Archetypes, Arts, Religion”

  1. I suppose my main argument against Jung’s archetypes as described I am sure faithfully here is Ockham’s Razor. It is not that I do not have a great respect for the unconscious rooted as I would see it in the long period of consciousness from foetus onwards before we come to be capable of conscious participation through touch and speech ( I’ve always found Bk 2 of Wordsworth’s Prelude inspiring on this and also D.H. Lawrence) No great poem-or great work of art- is created simply from the rational mind and will. But Jung’s archetype’s within something called the “collective unconscious ” seems to me to be beyond validation or requirement. You illustrate by quoting Joseph Campbell on the hero. Every tribal community in history has required the hero to survive. So the tribe naturally has developed practices to ensure qualities of leadership, rites of passage etc are passed on. So I would apply Ockham’s Razor to Campbell’s argument..


    1. I don’t think there’s anything particularly difficult about the idea of a collective unconscious. It seems fairly simple and straightforward, as I’ve pointed out in what I’ve written, in that it’s paralleled by the ‘collective’ instinctual behaviour inherited by newly born animals, birds etc. because hard-wired into their brains, which is a very strong argument in its favour in my view.
      To quote Michael Palmer, “the theory of the collective unconscious is ‘biologically unimpeachable’ and fully consistent with the approach adopted by ethologists studying animal behaviour.”
      In addition to being paralleled by the inherited instincts, Jung’s idea is also based on, and arguably validated by, his wide-ranging, historical, intensive, empirical research into the common or ‘collective’ motifs, themes and imagery consistently found in human fantasies, dreams, myths, rituals, religions, poetry literature etc. etc.
      Joseph Campbell, for his part, has written a book on the ‘hero myth’, and 4 volumes on the “Masks of God”, not to mention his other works.
      To dismiss all of this requires a good understanding of what they have said, and a detailed refutation based on that. I’d respectfully suggest that a reference to Ockham’s Razor carries no weight whatsoever. I think what you’re actually saying is that you don’t like Jung’s idea. That’s fine, you don’t have to, but I’ll stick with it. I find it not only eminently reasonable, but also emotionally moving, and intellectually stimulating. The richness of the Old and New Testaments would be, for me, diminished without it. We’re all different, are we not?


      1. Actually I have no doubt of the commonality of “motifs, themes, imagery..” etc that Jung has found. What I find difficult is the theory to explain all of it when there are other means of doing so-as I briefly suggested with my comments on leadership being essential for tribal community.. Jung and Campbell -against whom I have no prejudice -want however to go beyond what can be empirically observed and impute an entity to explain it- a little like Chomsky goes beyond observation of languages to drag in the distinctly unlikely concept of universal grammar; as if people required to have a structural grammar in their brains before they learned to speak. You speak of “hard-wired about behaviour that is not necessarily instinctual or pscyhic-so apparently as such developed before con sciousness or language have developed. Why I think it worth commenting on is because I see it essentially (as is Chomsky) a devaluation of language and what is made possible when communities develop language. You say I need to read all they say before rejecting it. well that’s not possible- like you with your rejection of Collingwood we have to follow our deepest inclinations where our deepest reading has led us. Hammering out what is right is something we have often to recognise will have to wait for fa future consensus.


      2. With regard to the “leadership being essential for tribal community”, I repeat what I wrote earlier – “These ‘images’ Jung calls ‘archetypes”, and they owe their origin to what have been the most constant experiences in the lives of human beings since earliest times.” What you talk about may constitute one factor in the development of the archetype but can hardly explain its manifold richness as demonstrated by Campbell.
        Jung’s findings in the areas I’ve previously outlined were the empirical foundation for his ‘theory’ of the archetypes. You’re entirely free to reject it, but nothing you’ve written persuades me to alter my own views. We’ll agree to differ. – nothing new about that.
        I’m intrigued to learn about my “rejection of Collingwood”. I didn’t know I’d rejected Collingwood, and can’t even say I know who Collingwood is. You have me at a disadvantage there.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Sorry, I forgot your Chomsky point. Analogy is not identity. Analogies have similarities but also differences, so they are of interest, but prove nothing, I think, one way or another. I’m in agreement with your last point. As I make clear on the home page of my blog, my views are “not intended to convert anyone to my ideas and opinions, but only to explore different ways of seeing things, and to be thought provoking … ideas in my view are for playing with, not fighting over.” So feel free to disagree.


  2. Yes sorry if the Collingwood pt. is obscure. I think it may have been based on a misunderstanding of mine. I told you once in an email I was reading in two or three things one of them Collingwood-you were interested in two of them but not the Collingwood(I may have the language wrong). from this I picked up mistakenly from what you said here a false impression. I just add that Collingwood the British philosopher is well worth reading in the two works of his I have read on The Idea of History and The principles of Art.


    1. After some rapid research on Robin George Collingwood, I came on this which I found interesting in relation to my current exploration of the 1st century Palestinian, Jewish, ‘historical’ Jesus –

      “Since the internal thought processes of historical persons cannot be perceived with the physical senses and past historical events cannot be directly observed, history must be methodologically different from natural sciences. History, being a study of the human mind, is interested in the thoughts and motivations of the actors in history. Therefore, Collingwood suggested that a historian must “reconstruct” history by using “historical imagination” to “re-enact” the thought processes of historical persons based on information and evidence from historical sources. Re-enactment of thought refers to the idea that the historian can access not only a thought process similar to that of the historical actor, but the actual thought process itself.” (not too sure about the last bit.)
      Interesting too in relation to my point in my latest blog post that people should not dismiss the ‘miraculous’ stories in the gospels but value them for their creativity and emotional and spiritual worth is this –
      “As he states in Principles of History, sometimes a historian will encounter “a story which he simply cannot believe, a story characteristic, perhaps, of the superstitions or prejudices of the author’s time or the circle in which he lived, but not credible to a more enlightened age, and therefore to be omitted.” This, Collingwood argues, is an unacceptable way to do history. Sources which make claims that do not align with current understandings of the world were still created by rational humans who had reason for creating them. Therefore, these sources are valuable and ought to be investigated further in order to get at the historical context in which they were created and for what reason.”
      And, of course, I’m especially interested in this one –
      “In his Autobiography, Collingwood confessed that his politics had always been “democratic” and “liberal”, and shared Guido de Ruggiero’s opinion that socialism had rendered a great service to liberalism by pointing out the shortcomings of laissez-faire economics.”
      So, thank you for introducing me to Collingwood, though I doubt if I’ll find the time to explore him further.


      1. Thanks for this Ray. Collingwood is a very interesting writer with much to teach us. On politics of course he was writing in the 1930’s with the rise of Fascism in the foreground. How he would have reacted to modern cultural Marxism might well be another matter.


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