Paul Bishop argues that there is a real philosophical heart to Carl Jung’s psychoanalysis
Few people think of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung as a philosopher. In fact, even he didn’t think of himself as one, and he made a series of nasty remarks about philosophers. (Any exclusively “rational” enterprise was regarded by Jung with great suspicion.) But, if we set aside our own prejudices about Jung, and plough our way through the eighteen volumes of his collected works, it’s hard not to get a nagging sense that, across these thousands of pages, a coherent philosophical argument emerges.
For one thing, philosophical names and concepts keep cropping up. For instance, Jung mentions the pre-Socratics (the ancient Greek thinkers that equally fascinated Jung’s contemporary, Heidegger), such as Diogenes the Cynic, and other pupils of the school of Antisthenes, who urged us to be comfortable about our sexual urges; Antiphon of Rhamnos, who stumbled across the fact that, by talking about their problems, people sometimes get better; Empodecles of Acragas, whose theory of the opposites fascinated Jung; and Heraclitus of Ephesus, dubbed “the Obscure”, to whom Jung attributed the idea of a sudden and unexpected change or reversal – an enantiodromia – a central idea in the therapy Jung proposed to his patients.
Jung was also genuinely excited by the problems posed by medieval Scholastic thought. For him, the apparently tedious debates about nominalism and realism (whether concepts exist only in language or in “reality”), reflected in the controversy over transubstantiation, revealed a historical fact – the permanence of two different “types”. As the German poet, Heinrich Heine, put it: “Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems – they are also types of two distinct human natures.” And these two different human natures tend to think in two entirely separate ways – two different psychologies. Most our problems, Jung believed, don’t come from our disagreement about the solutions to problems. They come from the fact that we don’t actually see a problem in the same way and so can’t even agree about what the problem is.
When pushed about his philosophical views, Jung usually came up with one name in particular: Kant. What Kant had done for the theory of knowledge – his “Copernican revolution”, according to which we bring forms and categories to bear upon the world, rather than the world itself actually consisting of those categories – Jung wanted to do for our psychology of behaviour. If we analyse our knowledge, Kant argued, it turns out to be structured by various sets of categories.
Jung takes this idea of categories (though not the categories themselves) and applies it to human attitudes toward what goes on in our lives. If we analyse human behaviour, he suggested, we find certain emotional structures keep occurring. He called these “archetypes”. We might keep finding ourselves, for instance, in situations that remind us of our earlier relationship to our mother or to our father (the maternal or paternal archetype). Or we relate to members of the opposite sex in a way that reflects, not the reality of the individuals in front of us, but the secret wishes and desires we project onto them (in the case of men, the “anima” or – for women – the “animus”). In some situations, having recourse to the playful, spontaneous attitude of the child can be an appropriate, even helpful response (this is, using the Latin word, activating the puer archetype). Those moments when we become aware of the dark, unwelcome aspects of ourselves we tend to hide away, and which are nevertheless part of what (and who) we are, Jung termed the encounter with the “shadow”. One of the most intriguing of these archetypes is called the “trickster”: sometimes charming, sometimes a bit difficult to handle (“tricky”, in fact), it can be a source of dynamic, creative thought.
Unfortunately, Jung tended to talk about these archetypes as if they were, in some sense, external to the human individual, and hence “out there”. This makes the archetypes seem something mysterious, even spooky, and definitely un-Kantian. But Jung’s essentially Kantian model makes it clear he is talking about the world as we see it and as we live in it – in Kant’s terms, the world “for us” – and precisely not, as Kant thought impossible, the world “in itself”.
So reading the history of philosophy helped Jung develop his idea of the psychology of types, and Kant’s argument that human consciousness actively constructs the picture of the world-as-we-see-it sparked in him the idea that, unconsciously, we categorise our affective or emotional experiences in certain “archetypal” forms.
But a particular strand of philosophical thought informs Jung’s thinking at such a deep level, that it gives it a coherence not even most followers of Jung seem to have recognised. This school of thought consists largely of German thinkers, and includes among them Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. In relation to these philosophers Jung’s psychology acquires its distinct, philosophical flavour.
Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche emphasized the dynamic, energic aspect of life, which they described as the will. And both sought to reconnect reflective thought with lived experience, to connect philosophy with life. The school of thought they represent is called vitalism, which reflects their concern with philosophical problems, not just on the technical level, but in relation to our living, our lived – vital – experience.
Although both men are frequently cited by Jung, he tends to gloss over a major difference in their respective vitalist positions, and in the way both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche relate meaning to life. For Schopenhauer, life is essentially meaningless: the will-to-life keeps compelling us onwards, but our satisfactions are, in fact, delusional; only our sufferings are real. His solution is to escape from life (and hence from suffering) by turning to art or by becoming a saint. In both cases, we see through the pointlessness of it all, and redeem ourselves.
In the case of Nietzsche, the starting-point is the same: life is essentially meaningless, but its pointlessness is precisely its point. His solution: at all costs avoid religion, but instead, by means of the will-to-power, turn the world itself into a work of art. There is no meaning; but we can create the meaning; and by this artistic-aesthetic act, we redeem the world.
So what does Jung do with these ideas? In one of Jung’s early lectures, he talks about developing a special kind of psychological understanding. He asks, how do we go about understanding a literary text, such as Goethe’s Faust, or admiring a work of architecture, such as Cologne cathedral? We can reduce a book to its historical sources, and we can understand a Gothic cathedral in terms of its mineral composition, as a pile of stones, even. But if we do that, we also lose sight of their meaning. What we need, he says, is an understanding that is “synthetic-constructive”, not “analytical-reductive”. Such an understanding should – in a phrase used by Ludwig Feuerbach – stand in “accord with the understanding of other reasonable beings”, and in this sense be “objective”. But the real reason why such an understanding is “real and effective” (wirklich und wirkend) is because it “connects with life”.
And it is how to develop a way of thinking that “connects with life” that lies at the heart of Jung’s philosophical project. One of the slogans he liked to repeat was “wirklich ist, was wirkt” – “whatever is real, works [i.e., has an effect]”. In other words, what is “real”, what is “objective”, is whatever makes an actual impact on our lives. Jung is trying to bridge – to heal, even – the disconnect, as he sees it, between Western philosophy and “real life” – our daily lives, the lives we actually lead in the (so-called) “real world”. What “really” matters, then, is what matters in life, because it makes a difference to our lives. Wirklich ist, was wirkt.
Seen in this light, Jung’s position is an amalgam of Schopenhauerian and Nietzschean thought. For a start, their (differing) concepts of the will re-emerge in Jung’s energic approach. On his account, the psyche is not simply a structure, it is something dynamic, something permanently becoming. (In his use of the energicy concept of libido, Jung believed he had found a “quantitative formula” for the “phenomenon of life”.) Moreover, he argues that we need to become aware of the “symbolic” dimension of life. Only the “symbolic” approach, Jung seeks to persuade us, can unite what, to other (non-vitalist) philosophical systems, are forever divided: body and mind/soul, the sensuous and the intellectual, the irrational and the rational. To paraphrase Nietzsche, we redeem the world when we see it – including ourselves – as a “symbolic phenomenon”.
Some of the most arresting pages in Jung’s works are those in which he outlines his conception of the symbol. “The symbol,” he tells us, “is always a creation of an extremely complex nature, since data proceeding from every psychic function have entered into its composition.” This is because “not only the data of reason, but also the irrational data of pure inner and outer perception, have entered into its nature.” Moreover, he tells us, “the prospective meaning and pregnant significance of the symbol appeals just as strongly to thinking as to feeling, while its peculiar plastic imagery, when shaped into sensuous form, stimulates sensation just as much as intuition.”
This all risks sounding very abstract. So what, in his aesthetic-vitalist philosophy, does Jung mean by the symbol and its “life-promoting significance”? In practical terms, Jung is trying to bring about in us a “symbolic attitude”, so that we may come to see, as Goethe did, our lives “symbolically”. For there is one view of things – a (superficially) “objective” view – which “places emphasis on pure actuality, and subordinates meaning to facts.” But opposed to this, Jung says, is another view of life – and, in a far richer sense, an “objective” one – that “endows all occurrences, whether great or small, with a meaning to which a deeper value is given than to pure actuality.” To see our lives as more than “pure actuality”, as possessing a “deeper value”, is what Jung means when he speaks (in a rather high-flown way) of “psychic transformation”.
But it’s not as esoteric as it sounds. Jung bases his conception of the symbol on Friedrich Schiller’s: it is lebende Gestalt or “living form”, both a form that lives, and a life that is lived in (aesthetic) form. By changing the way we see ourselves, we also change the world. By endowing what happens to us in our lives with meaning; by understanding our lives, as we would a book or a cathedral, in aesthetic terms; we engage on a project that is at once psychological and philosophical.
Today, in France, the philosopher Bertrand Vergely talks about the importance of “the symbolic life” (la vie symbolique) in terms that strongly echo Jung’s. “The discovery of the world as a symbolic world,” Vergely writes, “is a journey which procures an infinite joy.” For whereas “the world was silent, insignificant” – pure actuality, meaning subordinated to fact – “now, suddenly, it begins to resonate with thousands of meanings, which in turn animate an entire interior life unknown up to this point.” It is significant that Vergely offers this description of “the symbolic life” in a book dedicated to the philosophy of happiness.
Despite his banishment from the philosophy shelves in bookshops, Jung’s thought represents, in fact, a highly sophisticated philosophical position. (True, Jung was interested in Swedenborg, but then, so was Kant. True, Jung was fascinated by the occult, but even Nietzsche attended a séance.) Maybe it’s time we began to take Jung seriously as a philosopher. At the end of the “process of psychic transformation” stands, for Jung, the “happiness of the individual”. Using a beautiful image from the tradition of alchemy, we celebrate and exult in the “true May”. Rooted in the vitalist tradition of European thought, Jung’s aesthetic conception of the self turns out to be a vision of joy.
Paul Bishop is professor of German at the University of Glasgow and author of the two-volume Analytical Psychology and German Classical Aesthetics: Goethe, Schiller, and Jung (Routledge)