Carl Jung and the Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung was a student and follower of Freud.  He was born in a small town in Switzerland  in 1875 and all his life was fascinated by  folk tales, myths and religious stories.    Although he had a close friendship with Freud  early in their relationship, his independent and questioning mind soon caused a break. 

Jung did not accept Freud’s contention that the primary motivation behind  behavior was sexual urges.  Instead of Freud’s instinctual drives of sex and aggression, Jung believed that people are motivated by a more general psychological energy that pushes them to achieve psychological growth, self-realization., psychic wholeness and harmony.  Also, unlike Freud, he believed that personality continues to develop throughout the lifespan.

It is for his ideas of the collective unconscious that students of literature and mythology are indebted to Jung.  In studying different cultures, he was struck by the universality of  many themes, patterns, stories and images.  These same images, he found, frequently appeared in the dreams of his patients.  From these observations, Jung developed his theory of the collective unconscious and the archetypes.

Like Freud, Jung posited the existence of a conscious and an unconscious mind. A model that psychologists frequently use here is an iceberg.  The part of the iceberg that is above the surface of the water is seen as the conscious mind.   Consciousness is the part of the mind we know directly.  It is where we think, feel, sense and intuit.  It is through conscious activity that the person becomes an individual.  It’s the part of the mind that we “live in” most of the time, and contains information that is in our immediate awareness  Below the level of the conscious mind, and the bulk of the ice berg, is what Freud would call the unconscious, and what Jung would call the “personal unconscious.”    Here we will find thoughts, feelings, urges and other information that is difficult to bring to consciousness.  Experiences that do not reach consciousness, experiences that are not congruent with who we think we are, and things that have become “repressed” would make up the material at this level.  The contents of the personal unconscious are available through hypnosis, guided imagery, and especially dreams.  Although not directly accessible, material in the personal unconscious has gotten there sometime during our lifetime.  For example, the reason you are going to school now, why you picked a particular shirt to wear or your choice of a career may be a choice you reached consciously.  But it is also possible that education, career, or clothing style has been influenced by a great deal of unconscious material: parents’ preferences, childhood experiences, even movies you have seen but about which you do not think when you make choices or decisions.  Thus, the depth psychologist would say that many decisions, indeed some of the most important ones that have to do with choosing a mate or a career, are determined by unconscious factors.  But still, material in the personal unconscious has been environmentally determined.

What is the Collective Unconscious

The collective unconscious is different.  It’s like eye color.  If someone were to ask you, “How did you get your eye color,” you would have to say that there was no choice involved – conscious or unconscious.  You inherited it.    Material in the collective unconscious is like this: inherited.  It never came from our current environment.  It is the part of the mind that is determined by heredity.  So we inherit, as part of our humanity, a collective unconscious; the mind is pre-figured by evolution just as is the body.  The individual is linked to the  past of the whole species and the long stretch of evolution of the organism.  Jung thus placed the psyche within the evolutionary process.

 What’s in the collective unconscious?  Psychological archetypes.  This idea of psychological archetypes is among Jung’s most important contributions to Western thought.  An ancient idea somewhat like Plato’s idea of Forms or “patterns” in the divine mind that determine the form material objects will take, the archetype is in all of us.   The word “archetype” comes from the Greek “arche” meaning “first, and “type” meaning “imprint or pattern.”  Psychological archetypes are thus first prints, or patterns that form the basic blueprint for major dynamic counterparts of the human personality.   For Jung,  archetypes pre-exist in the collective unconscious of humanity.  They repeat themselves eternally in the psyches of human beings and they determine how we both perceive and behave.  These patterns are inborn within us.  They are part of our inheritance as human beings.  They reside as energy within the collective unconscious and are part the psychological life of all peoples everywhere at all times.  They are inside us and they are outside us.  We can meet them by going inward to our dreams or fantasies.  We can meet them by going outward to our myths, legends, literature and religions.  The archetype can be a pattern, such as a kind of story. Or it can be a figure, such as a kind of character.

What are some common archetypes?

In her book Awakening the Heroes Within, Carolyn Pearson identifies twelve archetypes that are fairly easy to understand.  These are the Innocent, the Orphan, the Warrior, the Caregiver, the Seeker, the Destroyer, the Lover, the Creator, the Ruler, the Magician, the Sage, and the Fool.  If we look at art, literature, mythology and the media, we can easily identify some of these patterns. One of the most familiar to contemporary western culture is the Warrior.  We find the warrior myth encoded in all the great heroes who ever took on the dragon, stood up to the tyrant, fought the sorcerer, or did battle with the monster: and in so doing rescued himself and others.  The true Warrior is not just macho.  The macho man (or woman) fights to feel superior to others, to keep them down.  The warrior fights to protect and ennoble others.   The warrior protects the perimeters of the castle or the family or the psyche.  The warrior myth is active in each of us any time we  stand up against unfair authority, be it a boss, teacher or parent.  The highest level warrior has at some time confronted his or her own inner dragons.  We see the Warrior archetype  in the form of pagan deities, for example the  Greek god of war, Mars.  David, who fights Goliath, or Michael, who casts Satan out of Heaven are familiar Biblical warriors.  Hercules, Xena (warrior princess) and Conan the Barbarian are more contemporary media forms the warrior takes.    And it is in this widely historical variety that we can find an  important point about the archetype.  It really is unconscious.   The archetype is like the invisible man in      famous story.  In the story, a man invents a potion which, when ingested, renders him invisible.  He becomes visible only when he puts on clothes.  The archetype is like this.  It remains invisible until it dawns the clothing of its particular culture: in the Middle Ages this was King Arthur; in modern America, it may be Luke Skywalker.  But if the archetype were not a universal pattern imprinted on our collective psyche, we would not be able to continue to recognize it over and over.  The love goddess is another familiar archetypal pattern.  Aphrodite to the Greeks, Venus to the Romans, she now appears in the form of familiar models in magazines like “Elle” and “Vanity Fair.”  And whereas in ancient Greece her place of worship was the temple, today is it the movie theatre and the cosmetics counter at Nordstrom’s.  The archetype remains; the garments it dawns are those of its particular time and place.

This brings us to our discussion of the Shadow as archetype.  The very clearest and most articulate discussion of this subject is contained in Johnson’s book Owning Your Own Shadow.  The Shadow is not a difficult concept.  It is merely the “dark side” of the psyche.  It’s everything that doesn’t fit into the Persona.  The word “persona” comes from the theater.  In the Roman theater, characters would put on a mask  that represented who the character was in the drama.  The word “persona” literally means “mask.”  Johnson says that the persona is  how we would like to be seen by the world, a kind of psychological clothing that “mediates between our true elves and our environment” in much the same way that  clothing gives an image.  The Shadow is what doesn’t fit into this Persona.  These “refused and unacceptable” characteristics don’t go away; they are stuffed or repressed and can, if unattended to, begin to take on a life of their own.  One Jungian likens the process to that of filling a bag.  We learn at a very young age that there are certain ways of thinking, being and relating that are not acceptable in our culture, and so we stuff them into the shadow bag.  In our Western culture, particularly in the United States, thoughts about sex are among the most prevalent that are unacceptable and so sex gets stuffed into the bag.  The shadow side of sexuality is quite evident in our culture in the form of pornography, prostitution, and topless bars.  Psychic energy that is not dealt with in a healthy way takes a dark or shadow form and begins to take on a life of its own. As children our bag is fairly small, but as we get older, it becomes larger and  more difficult to drag. 

With this in mind, it is not difficult to see that there is a shadow side to the Archetypes discussed earlier  The shadow side to the warrior is the tyrant, the villain, the Darth Vader, who uses his or her skills for power and ego enhancement.  And whereas the Seeker Archetype  quests after truth and purity,  the shadow Seeker is controlled by pride, ambition, and addictions.  If the Lover follows his/her bliss, commits and bonds, the shadow lover is a seducer a sex addict or interestingly enough, a puritan. 

But we can use the term “shadow” in a more general sense.  It is not merely the dark side of a particular archetypal pattern or form.  Wherever Persona is, Shadow is also.  Wherever good is, is evil.  We first know the shadow as the personal unconscious in all that we abhor, deny and repress:  power, greed, cruel and murderous thoughts, unacceptable impulses, morally and ethically wrong actions.  All the demonic things by which human beings betray their inhumanity to other beings is shadow.  Shadow is unconscious.  This is a very important idea.  Since it is unconscious, we know it only indirectly, projection, just as we know the other Archetypes of Warrior, Seeker and Lover.  We encounter the shadow in other people, things, and places where we project it. The scape  goat is a perfect example of shadow projection. The Nazis projection of shadow onto the Jews gives us some insight into how powerful and horrific the archetype is.  Jung says that when you are in the grips of the archetype, you don’t have it, it has you.

This idea of projection raises an interesting point.  It means that the shadow stuff isn’t “out there” at all; it is really “in here”; that is inside us.  We only know it is inside us because we see it outside.  Shadow projections have a fateful attraction to us.  It seems that we have discovered where the bad stuff really is: in him, in her, in that place, there!  There it is!  We have found the beast, the  demon, the bad guy.  But does Evil really exist, or  is what we see as evil all merely projection of our own shadow side?  Jung would say that there really is such a thing as evil, but that most of what we see as evil, particularly collectively, is shadow projection.  The difficulty is separating the two.  And we can only do that when we  discover where the projection ends.  Hence, Johnson’s book title “Owning Your own Shadow.”  

  The archetypes and the collective unconscious. / Jung, C. G. (Carl Gustav), 1875-1961 / 2d ed. / Princeton, N.J. / 1969

 BF 23 J763 1966 V.9 PT.1 PCL Stacks

From years of psychiatric work and phenomenological research in religions and mythologies, Jung identified several key motifs that the archetypes can take. The ones that he felt were especially important include: the persona, the shadow, the anima/animus, the mother, the child, the wise old man, and the self. To Jung, abstract figures, situations, places and processes can also give expression to them.


 Deeper in the psyche, beneath the layers of the personal unconscious, are other layers that have been formed over the millennia and in every member of our species. Here, Jung says, lies deposits of the experience of pre-human evolutionary forms. All of these layers form the collective unconscious, which is the most important and controversial of Jung's theories. In the dreams and fantasies of his patient's Jung found ideas and images whose origins, he felt, could not be traced to the individual's personal experiences. The resemblance of these ideas to religious and mythical themes led Jung to refer to them as primordial images or archetypes.

 The archetypes, Jung thought, are not memories of past experiences but "forms without content" representing the possibility of a certain type of perception and action. They offer a certain kind of readiness to produce the same or similar mythical ideas over and over again. To Jung they are "the ruling powers, the gods, images of the dominant laws and principles, and of typical, regularly occurring events in the soul's cycle of experience." They are responsible for the human quality of human beings, are on the effects and deposits of experience but are also active agents that cause the repetition of these same experiences.

 Because we can only know of the manifestations of the archetypes--historical and individual--we can say very little about them. Jung speculates that there are as many archetypes as there are typical persons and situations in human experience. Because a fluid interpenetration is part of their nature, however, they cannot be clearly circumscribed or reduced to a formula. Thus to Jung reductive explanation is neither desirable nor possible.