Collective Unconscious (Analytical Psychology)

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The "collective unconscious" is the part of the collective psyche that is unconscious, the other parts being consciousness of the perceptible world and consciousness itself. The collective unconscious is different from and in addition to the personal unconscious in that it is a stratum of reality that "does not derive from personal experience and is not a personal acquisition but is inborn...universal...[and] more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals." (Jung, 1934 [1948]).

The term collective unconscious was first introduced by Carl Gustav Jung in 1916 in a talk to the Zurich School for Analytical Psychology entitled "Uber das Unbewesste und seine Inhalte." The German manuscript for this talk was not found until 1961, after Jung's death. The earliest written appearance of the term was found in the French translation of the Zurich talk published in 1916 in the Archives de Psychologies (Jung, 1916).

Jung's notion of the collective unconscious ranges from a passive repository that records the history of all human reactions to the world to an active substratum that is the ground out of which all reality emerges. The components of the collective unconscious were first said by Jung to be primordial or ancestral images and later archetypes that manifest in consciousness through images, strong affects, and behavioral patterns. When the energies of the collective unconscious break through into consciousness, consciousness itself is altered, and reactions vary from insanity to a significant reordering of major attitudes.

The notion of the collective unconscious first came to Jung from a dream he had in 1909 on board a ship returning from the United States with Freud. The dream depicted a house that had a cellar below the normal cellar and below that a repository of prehistoric pottery, bones, and skulls. "I thought, of course, that he [Freud] would accept the cellars below this cellar [i.e., the personal unconscious], but the dreams [during the writing of his first book, from 1910 to 1912] were preparing me for the contrary" (McGuire, 1989). In fact, Freud acknowledged primordial ancestral patterns but regarded them as simply inheritable traits (Lamarckianism) posited in each individual (the biogenetic law). For Freud such experiences were phylogenetic recapitulations unrelated to a transcendent structure such as the collective unconscious, but for Jung they arise anew from the collective unconscious in each person in each instance just as they did in one's ancestors.

By 1925 Jung had theorized that the collective unconscious and the external world are opposites between which lies the observing ego which accesses the collective unconscious through the anima or animus and the world through the persona. The personal unconscious of Freud is regarded as the shadow of the ego. This schema remained unchanged for Jung.

Jung's collective unconscious can be seen as a variation within the tradition of philosophical idealism. It shares characteristics with the Apeiron of Anaximander, the One of Parmenides, and the Forms of Plato. It also calls to mind the Pleroma of the Gnostics, the Categories of Emmanuel Kant, and the Will of Arthur Schopenhauer. What justifies Jung's notion as psychology and not philosophy is his insistence that the collective unconscious is an empirical fact attested to by the common experiences of humankind over many ages and cultures. Jung's proof is phenomenological, and he avoids claiming a priori truths whether or not he believes they exist.

In spite of his avoidance of ontological affirmations, Jung often appears to suggest that the collective unconscious is a metaphysical reality, which invites less sophisticated analysts to engage in ideological thinking and inflated claims to transcendent knowledge. In his review of Jung's autobiography, Winnicott says that the positing of a collective unconscious results from Jung's split psyche and "was part of his attempt to deal with his lack of contact with what could now be called the unconscious-according-to-Freud." (Winnicott, 1964) With this criticism, Winnicott dismissed Jung's and perhaps all efforts to speculate about and derive heuristic guidelines consonant with an ultimate ground against which lie subjectivity, consciousness, and the very mystery of life. As Jung points out, the alternative is a void (Jung, 1948).

David I. TrÉsan

See also: Amplification; (analytical psychology); Animaanimus (analytical psychology); Archetype (analytical psychology); Desoille, Robert; Event; Midlife crisis; psychology of the unconscious; Numinous (analytical psychology); Shadow (analytical psychology); Transference (analytical psychology).


Jung, Carl Gustav. (1916). The structure of the unconscious, Coll. works, vol. VII, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

. (1931-34). The practical use of dream analysis. Coll. Works, vol. VIII, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

. (1934 [1948]). A review of the complex theory. Coll. works, vol. VIII, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

. (1947 [1954]). On the nature of the psyche, Coll. works, vol. VIII, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

(1948). On the conception of psychic energy and the nature of dreams. Zurich: Rascher Verlag.

McGuire, William. (1989). C.G. Jung, Analytical psychology, Notes of the seminar given in 1925. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1963). Memories, dreams, reflections. By C.G. Jung. London, Collins & Routledge, 1963. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 45, 450-455.

collective unconscious

views updated May 29 2018

collective unconscious According to C. G. Jung's psychological theory, the inherited aspect of the unconscious that is common to all members of the human race. The collective unconscious has evolved over many centuries and contains images (archetypes), which are found in dreams and numerous religious and mystical symbols.

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