Carl Jung’s Discovery of The Collective Unconscious

“The one thing we refuse to admit is that we are dependent upon “powers” that are beyond our control.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, Part I. Approaching the Unconscious

One of Carl Jung’s most well-known (and controversial) concept is the collective unconscious, the aspect of the unconscious mind which manifests inherited, universal themes which run through all human life. As is described in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung experienced exceedingly vivid dreams throughout his life, the first one starting at the age of three, where he encountered the so-called man-eater, a giant cyclops sitting on a golden throne with a single eye gazing upwards, symbolising a ritual phallus. Jung would think of this subterranean God “not to be named” as the underground counterpart and dark side of Lord Jesus, a frightful revelation which had been accorded to him without him seeking it. This haunted him for years and was his initiation into the realm of darkness.

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12 “Psychology and Alchemy”

As is characteristic of Jung’s life, he stumbled upon the idea of the collective unconscious after a dream.

In the dream, Jung found himself in the upper floor of a house which he did not know but which seemed to be his house. The salon was surrounded by fine old furniture and paintings. He descended the stairs to the ground floor and everything was much older, with medieval furnishing. Here he came upon a heavy door and opened it, discovering a stone stairway that led down into a cellar. Descending, he entered a room from Roman times. There was a stone slab on the floor which lifted as he pulled a ring, he descended and entered a low cave with scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. He discovered two human skulls. Then he awoke.

Jung believes that this house was a kind of image of the psyche, the first floor representing consciousness and the lower he went, the deeper into the unconscious he descended, and the more alien and the darker the scene became, until he reached the deepest layer, the collective unconscious. These point to the foundations of cultural history, a history of successive layers of consciousness.

Jung’s investigation into the psyche spans over 60 years, most of which is gathered in his 20-volume set “The Collected Works.” Throughout his life, Jung studied gnosticism, alchemy, comparative religion and mythology to acquire a wider knowledge of the origins and significance of mankind’s collective unconscious.

During his work, he encountered similar patterns in the dreams of patients suffering from schizophrenia and from his travels around the world observing the lives of primitive people. The universality of certain myths which repeat themselves in strikingly similar detail in very different cultures and societies gave him the idea of a source springing universally within man. This was Jung’s first inkling of a collective unconscious, beneath the personal unconscious. Later, with increasing experience and on the basis of more reliable knowledge, Jung recognised them as forms of instinct, that is, as archetypes. But before explaining what archetypes are, we must distinguish the collective unconscious from the personal unconscious.

Personal Unconscious (Complexes)

The collective unconscious does not 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 in consciousness, and therefore have never been individually acquired, but owe their existence exclusively to heredity. Just as we have evolved biologically, we have also undergone a psychic evolution.

The personal unconscious consists for the most part of complexes, a term coined by Jung which represents a knot of unconscious feelings and beliefs that can be detected through one’s behaviour and may prevent us from achieving psychic wholeness.

Jung found evidence for complexes while conducting word association tests in a psychiatric clinic. In the experiment, the patients must respond to a list of words as quickly as possible, saying the first thing that comes to mind in response to each word. After the test, Jung would note any unusual reactions such as hesitations, slips of the tongue or signs of emotion – which may hint at unconscious feelings or beliefs.

He soon found out that it was the matter of intimate personal affairs that people were thinking of. Nevertheless, an inhibition came from the unconscious and hindered the expression in speech.

Collective Unconscious (Archetypes)

On the other hand, the content of the collective unconscious is made up of archetypes, collectively-inherited forms or patterns of behaviour. A complex is associated with an archetype, such as a mother complex associated with the mother archetype.

These primordial images reflect basic patterns common to us all, and which have existed universally since the dawn of time. They include archetypal events such as birth, death, the union of opposites; archetypal figures such as the trickster, the hero, the wise old man; and archetypal motifs such as the creation of the world and the apocalypse.

Jung did not attempt to provide an exhaustive and systematic list of all the archetypes, as some have attempted to do. That would be a largely futile exercise – since archetypes can combine with each other or one archetype may also appear in various distinct forms. He rather tells us that there are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life. Endless repetition has engraved these experiences in our psychic constitution. Jung writes, however, that his years of observation and investigation of the unconscious gave way to recurring archetypal figures, the chief of them being:

“the shadow, the wise old man, the child, the mother… and her counterpart the maiden, and lastly the anima in man and the animus in woman.”

Carl Jung, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, C.W. Vol 9. Part I

The archetypes are actualised when they enter consciousness and express themselves as images or certain behaviour based on our interaction with the outside world. They are autonomous living personalities within us, that is, they are not within our control – but are rather given particular expression by individuals and their cultures. As Jung writes:

“My views about the ‘archaic remnants’, which I call ‘archetypes’ or ‘primordial images’, have been constantly criticised by people who lack 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. Such variable representations cannot 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.”

Man and His Symbols, Part I: Approaching the Unconscious – Carl Jung

Archetypes are forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action. This is a crucial point, which he reiterates:

“A primordial image is determined as to its content only when it has become conscious and is therefore filled out with the material of conscious experience.”

Carl Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, C.W. Vol. 8

Archetypes guide us towards psychic wholeness through the individuation process, the path towards the Self, activating unconscious primordial images through exposure to unexplored potentials of the psyche, bringing them into consciousness.

“In the course of my investigations of the collective unconscious, I discovered the presence of an apparently universal symbol of a similar type, the mandala symbol. To make sure of my case, I spent more than a decade amassing additional data, before announcing any discovery for the first time. The mandala is an archetypal image whose occurrence is attested throughout the ages. It signifies the wholeness of the self. This circular image represents the wholeness of the psychic ground or, to put it in mythic terms, the divinity incarnate in man.”

Carl Jung, Memories Dreams Reflections. Chapter XII: Late Thoughts

From a psychological point of view, Jung saw the God-image as a manifestation of the ground of the psyche, which takes the form of circular symbols of unity, representing a synthesis of opposites within the psyche. The Self is the archetype of orientation and meaning, and to have a balanced relation with it, one’s conscious and unconscious personalities must have learned to live at peace and to complement one another. For Jung, the only real adventure remaining for each individual is the exploration of his own unconscious.

The Psychological Meaning of The Collective Unconscious

Before Jung’s discovery, psychology insisted on the personal nature of the psyche. It was a psychology of the person, where the causes are regarded almost wholly as personal in nature. However, it is based on general biological factors, such as the sexual instinct or need for self-assertion, which are by no means merely personal peculiarities. They are a priori instincts common to man which pursue their inherent goals.

Therefore, human activity is influenced to a high degree by instincts, quite apart from the rational motivations of the conscious mind. Modern psychotherapy is faced with the task of helping the patient to become conscious of them.

Jung believes that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves. In other words, archetypes are patterns of instinctual behaviour. The hypothesis of the collective unconscious is, therefore, no more daring than to assume there are instincts. While many have called this mysticism, Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious is neither a speculative nor a philosophical matter, but an empirical one. The question is: 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.

If we consider the tremendous powers that lie hidden in the mythological and religious sphere in man, the aetiological significance of the archetype appears less fantastic. In numerous cases of neurosis the cause of the disturbance lies in the very fact that the psychic life of the patient lacks the co-operation of these forces.

A purely personalistic psychology, by reducing everything to personal causes, tries its best to deny the existence of archetypal motifs and even seeks to destroy them by personal analysis. Jung considers this a rather dangerous procedure which cannot be justified medically.

The fate of great nations is a summation of psychic changes in individuals. Neuroses are in most cases not just private concerns, but social phenomena, which are influenced by the archetypes.

Dreams and Active Imagination

But how can we prove the existence of a collective unconscious? Jung tells us that the main source is dreams, which have the advantage of being involuntary, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche and are therefore pure products of nature not falsified by any conscious purpose.

An individual can experience motifs appearing in his dreams that are known to him, but also motifs which could not possibly be known to the dreamer and yet behave functionally in his dream in such a manner as to coincide with the functioning of the archetype.

Jung’s visit to the primitive people of Africa informed him on the subject of dreams and the difference between what he calls Big Dreams and Little Dreams. This has to do whether the dream comes from the collective unconscious or whether it was from the personal unconscious.

Another way to experience the archetypes is through active imagination, a sequence of fantasies produced by deliberate concentration. Jung found that the existence of unrealised, unconscious fantasies increases the frequency and intensity of dreams, and that when these fantasies are made conscious the dreams change their character and become weaker and less frequent.

From this he has drawn the conclusion that dreams often contain fantasies which “want” to become conscious. The sources of dreams are often repressed instincts which have a natural tendency to influence the conscious mind.

In active imagination, the patient is simply given the task of contemplating any one fragment of fantasy that seems significant to him, or something he has become conscious of in a dream, elaborating the fantasy by observing the further fantasy material that adds itself to the fragment in a natural manner. The method, however, is not entirely without danger, because it may carry the patient too far away from reality.

Confrontation with the Unconscious

Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious brought about a period of inner uncertainty and disorientation. He felt that he needed a point of support in “this world”, which his family and work provided him – the unconscious contents would otherwise have made him lose his wits. At the same time, these years of pursuing his inner images were the most important in Jung’s life, providing him with invaluable insights for his life’s work.

“Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force which was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I. He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air, and added, “If you should see people in a room, you would not think that you had made those people, or that you were responsible for them.” It was he who taught me psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche. Through him the distinction was clarified between myself and the object of my thought. He confronted me in an objective manner, and I understood that there is something in me which can say things that I do not know and do not intend, things which may even be directed against me. Psychologically, Philemon represented superior insight. He was a mysterious figure to me. At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality…”

Carl Jung, Memories Dreams Reflections. Chapter VI: Confrontation with the Unconscious


Carl Jung’s Discovery of The Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung’s collective unconscious is one of his most well-known (and controversial) concepts. The collective unconscious is the aspect of the unconscious mind which manifests inherited, universal themes which run through all human life. He encountered the idea in a dream.

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