Author Anthony Stevens explores Jung's hypothesis of the collective unconscious, which asserts that human beings are born with certain inherited, rather than learned, modes of functioning.
Archetypes and the collective unconscious
In 1909 Jung and Freud were both invited to lecture at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. They were away for seven weeks and they spent long periods every day talking and working on each other's dreams. Of all the dreams they analysed, two were to be critical for their friendship. The first was one of Freud's, which Jung did his best to interpret on the basis of only a few associations from Freud. When Jung pressed him for more, Freud looked rather suspiciously at him and declined: 'I cannot risk my authority,' he said. At that moment, commented Jung, he lost it altogether. 'That sentence burned itself into my memory; and in it the end of our relationship was already foreshadowed. Freud was placing personal authority above truth'.
The other dream was one of Jung’s. He dreamt that he was on the top floor of an old house, well furnished and with fine paintings on the walls. He marvelled that this should be his house and thought 'Not bad!' But then it occurred to him that he had no idea what the lower floor was like, so he went down to see. There everything was much older. The furnishings were medieval and everything was rather dark. He thought, 'Now I really must explore the whole house.' He looked closely at the floor. It was made of stone slabs, and in one of these he discovered a ring. When he pulled it, the slab lifted, and he saw some narrow stone steps leading down into the depths. He went down and entered a low cave cut out of the rock. Bones and broken pottery were scattered about in the dust, the remains of a primitive culture, and he found two human skulls, obviously very old and half-disintegrated. Then he awoke.
All that interested Freud about this dream was the possible identity of the skulls. He wanted Jung to say who they belonged to, for it seemed evident to him that Jung must harbour a death-wish against their owners. Jung felt this was completely beside the point, but, as was habitual with him at that stage in the relationship, he kept his doubts to himself. To Jung, the house was an image of the psyche. The room on the upper floor represented his conscious personality. The ground floor stood for the first level of the unconscious, which he was to call the personal unconscious, while in the deepest level of all he reached the collective unconscious. There he discovered the world of the primitive man within himself. To him, the skulls had nothing to do with death-wishes. They belonged to our human ancestors, who helped shape the common psychic heritage of us all.
When he [Jung] finally summoned up the courage to announce his hypothesis of a collective unconscious, it proved to be his most significant departure from Freud, and his most important single contribution to psychology. Although Freud did make some passing reference to there being 'archaic vestiges' in the psyche, he remained intractably resistant to the enormous implications of Jung’s bold and revolutionary idea.
What Jung was proposing was no less than a fundamental concept on which the whole science of psychology could be built. Potentially, it is of comparable importance to quantum theory in physics. Just as the physicist investigates particles and waves, and the biologist genes, so Jung held it to be the business of the psychologist to investigate the collective unconscious and the functional units of which it is composed - the archetypes, as he eventually called them. Archetypes are 'identical psychic structures common to all', which together constitute 'the archaic heritage of humanity'. Essentially, he conceived them to be innate neuropsychic centres possessing the capacity to initiate, control, and mediate the common behavioural characteristics and typical experiences of all human beings. Thus, on appropriate occasions, archetypes give rise to similar thoughts, images, mythologems [recurring themes of myths], feelings, and ideas in people, irrespective of their class, creed, race, geographical location, or historical epoch. An individual's entire archetypal endowment makes up the collective unconscious, whose authority and power is vested in a central nucleus, responsible for integrating the whole personality, which Jung termed the Self.
Jung never disagreed with Freud's view that personal experience is of crucial significance for the development of each individual, but he denied that this development occurred in an unstructured personality. On the contrary, for Jung, the role of personal experience was to develop what is already there - to activate the archetypal potential already present in the Self. Our psyches are not simply a product of experience, any more than our bodies are merely the product of what we eat.
A diagrammatic representation of Jung's model of the psyche...should be visualized as a globe or a sphere, like a three-layered onion. At the centre, and permeating the entire system with its influence, is the Self. Within the inner of the three concentric circles, is the collective unconscious, composed of archetypes. The outer circle represents consciousness, with its focal ego orbiting the system rather like a planet orbiting the sun, or the moon orbiting the earth. Intermediate between the conscious and the collective unconscious, is the personal unconscious, made up of complexes, each of which is linked to an archetype: for complexes are personifications of archetypes; they are the means through which archetypes manifest themselves in the personal psyche.
To a limited extent Jung’s archetypes resemble Plato's ideas. For Plato, 'ideas' were pure mental forms existing in the minds of the gods before human life began and were consequently above and beyond the ordinary world of phenomena. They were collective in the sense that they embodied the general characteristics of a thing, but they were also implicit in its specific manifestations. The human fingerprint, for example, is instantly recognizable for what it is on account of its unmistakable configuration of contours and whorls. Yet every fingerprint has a configuration unique to its owner, which is why those who turn their hands to burglary must remember to wear gloves if they wish to escape detection and arrest. Archetypes similarly combine the universal with the individual, the general with the unique, in that they are common to all humanity, yet nevertheless manifest themselves in every human being in a way peculiar to him or to her.
Where Jung’s archetypes differ from Plato's ideas is in their dynamic, goal-seeking properties. Archetypes actively seek their actualization in the personality and the behaviour of the individual, as the life cycle unfolds in the context of the environment.
The actualization of archetypes
The most important archetype to be actualized in the personal psyche of a child is the mother archetype. Actualization (Jung also speaks of 'evocation', and 'constellation') of an archetype seems to proceed in accordance with the laws of association worked out by psychologists at the end of the nineteenth century. Two of these laws are particularly apposite [pertinent]: they are the law of similarity and the law of contiguity [intimate relationship]. Thus, the mother archetype is actualized in the child's psyche through the contiguity of a female caretaker whose behaviour and personal characteristics are sufficiently similar to the built-in structure of the maternal archetype for the child to perceive her and experience her as 'mother'. Then, as the attachment relationship develops, the archetype becomes active in the personal psyche of the child in the form of the mother complex. At the same time, through similarity and contiguity, the infant constellates the child archetype in the mother. Each partner of this dyad [relationship] creates the perceptual field responsible for evoking the archetype in the other.
Throughout Jung's lifetime, most psychologists maintained that children were passive recipients of maternal care and that they became attached to their mothers because they were fed by them (the so-called 'cupboard love' theory). Jung maintained, on the contrary, that children actively participated in the formation of all their relationships with the world, insisting that it was 'a mistake to suppose [as did the majority of his contemporaries] that the psyche of the newborn child is a tabula rasa [blank slate] in the sense that there is absolutely nothing in it'. We bring with us an innate psychic structure enabling us to have the experiences typical of our kind. Thus the whole nature of man presupposes woman, both physically and spiritually. His system is tuned into woman from the start, just as it is prepared for a quite definite world where there is water, light, air, salt, carbohydrate, etc. The form of the world into which he is born is already inborn in him as a virtual image. Likewise parents, wife, children, birth, and death are inborn in him as virtual images, as psychic aptitudes. These a priori categories have by nature a collective character; they are images of parents, wife, and children in general, and are not individual predestinations. We must therefore think of these images as lacking in solid content, hence as unconscious. They only acquire solidity, influence, and eventual consciousness in the encounter with empirical facts, which touch the unconscious aptitude and quicken it to life. They are, in a sense, the deposits of all our ancestral experiences, but they are not the experiences themselves.
All those factors, therefore, that were essential to our near and remote ancestors will also be essential to us, for they are embedded in the inherited organic system.
Very similar ideas to Jung’s have become current in the last forty years in the relatively new science of ethology (that branch of behavioural biology which studies animals in their natural habitats). Every animal species possesses a repertoire of behaviours. This behavioural repertoire is dependent on structures which evolution has built into the central nervous system of the species. Ethologists call these structures innate releasing mechanisms, or IRMS. Each IRM is primed to become active when an appropriate stimulus - called a sign stimulus - is encountered in the environment. When such a stimulus appears, the innate mechanism is released, and the animal responds with a characteristic pattern of behaviour which is adapted, through evolution, to the situation. Thus, a mallard duck becomes amorous at the sight of the handsome green head of a mallard drake, the green head being the sign stimulus which releases in the duck's central nervous system the innate mechanism responsible for the characteristic patterns of behaviour associated with courtship in the duck.
This is very much how Jung conceived of archetypes operating in human beings, and he was aware of the comparison. An archetype, he said, is not 'an inherited idea' but rather 'an inherited mode of functioning, corresponding to the inborn way in which the chick emerges from the egg, the bird builds its nest, a certain kind of wasp stings the motor ganglion of the caterpillar, and eels find their way to the Bermudas. In other words, it is a "pattern of behaviour". This aspect of the archetype,' concludes Jung, 'the purely biological one, is the proper concern of scientific psychology'. In a sense, ethology and Jungian psychology can be viewed as two sides of the same coin: it is as if ethologists have been engaged in an extraverted exploration of the archetype and Jungians in an introverted examination of the IRM.
The currency of archetypal theory
Many other disciplines have produced concepts similar to the archetypal hypothesis, but usually without reference to Jung. For example, the primary concern of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the French school of structural anthropology is with the unconscious infrastructures which they hold responsible for all human customs and institutions; specialists in linguistics maintain that although grammars differ from one another, their basic forms - which [American linguist] Noam Chomsky calls their deep structures - are universal (i.e. at the deepest neuropsychic level, there exists a universal [or 'archetypal'] grammar on which all individual grammars are based); an entirely new discipline, sociobiology, has grown up on the theory that the patterns of behaviour typical of all social species, the human species included, are dependent on genetically transmitted response strategies designed to maximize the fitness of the organism to survive in the environment in which it evolved; sociobiology also holds that the psycho-social development in individual members of a species is dependent on what are termed epigenetic rules (epi = upon, genesis = development; i,e. rules upon which development proceeds); more recently still, ethologically oriented psychiatrists have begun to study what they call psychobiological response patterns and deeply homologous neural structures which they hold responsible for the achievement of healthy or unhealthy patterns of adjustment in individual patients in response to variations in their social environment. All these concepts are compatible with the archetypal hypothesis which Jung had proposed decades earlier to virtually universal indifference.
This raises an important question. If Jung’s theory of archetypes is so fundamental that it keeps being rediscovered by the practitioners of many other disciplines, why did it not receive the enthusiastic welcome it deserved when Jung proposed it? The explanation is, I think, twofold: namely, the time at which Jung stated the theory, and the way in which he published it.
In the first place, throughout Jung's mature lifetime, researchers working in university departments of psychology were in the grip of behaviourism, which discounted innate or genetic factors, preferring to view the individual as a tabula rasa whose development was almost entirely dependent on environmental factors. Jung’s contrary view that the infant comes into the world with an intact blueprint for life which it then proceeds to implement through interaction with the environment, was so at variance with the prevailing Zeitgeist as to guarantee it a hostile reception.
Secondly, Jung did not state his theory in a clear, testable form, nor did he back it up with sufficiently persuasive evidence. His book Transformations and Symbols of the Libido in which he first put forward his idea of a collective unconscious giving rise to ‘primordial images' (as he originally called archetypes) was so densely written and so packed with mythological exegesis as to make it virtually impenetrable to any but the most determined reader. Moreover, in arguing that 'primordial images' were derived from the past history of mankind, Jung exposed himself to the accusation that he, like Freud, subscribed to the discredited theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, originally proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), i.e. that ideas or images occurring in members of one generation could be passed on genetically to the next and subsequent generations.
In fact, the collective unconscious is a respectable scientific hypothesis and one does not have to adopt a Lamarckian view of biology to entertain it. Indeed, as we have seen, it is entirely compatible with the theoretical formulations of contemporary ethologists, sociobiologists, and psychiatrists. Precisely in order to acquit himself of the charge of Lamarckism Jung eventually made a clear distinction between what he termed the archetype-as-such (similar to Kant's das Ding-an-sich) and the archetypal images, ideas, and behaviours that the archetype-as-such gives rise to. It is the predisposition to have certain experiences that is archetypal and inherited, not the experience itself. The French molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod reached an identical conclusion: 'Everything comes from experience, yet not from actual experience, reiterated by each individual with each generation, but instead from experience accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species in the course of its evolution.'
Thus, the Jungian archetype is no more scientifically disreputable than the ethological IRM. Just as the behavioural repertoire of each species is encoded in its central nervous system as innate releasing mechanisms which are activated in the course of development by appropriate sign stimuli, so Jung conceived the programme for human life to be encoded in the collective unconscious as a series of archetypal determinants which are actualized in response to inner and outer events in the course of the life cycle. There is nothing Lamarckian or unbiological in this conception.
Archetypes versus cultural transmission
Those who reject the archetypal hypothesis remain unimpressed by the discovery of parallel themes in myths derived from different parts of the world, maintaining that these can be explained just as well by human migration and cultural diffusion as by an innate predisposition. Jung sought to refute this interpretation by pointing to the spontaneous occurrence of the same themes in the dreams, hallucinations, and delusions of unsophisticated patients, who had never previously encountered them in waking life: 'Typical mythologems were observed among individuals to whom all knowledge of this kind was absolutely out of the question,' he declared, concluding that 'we must be dealing with "autochthonous" revivals independent of all tradition, and, consequently, that "myth-forming" structural elements must be present in the unconscious psyche'. One example which Jung frequently quoted was that of a schizophrenic patient who told him that if he stared at the sun with half-closed eyes he would see that the sun had a phallus and that this organ was the origin of the wind. Years later Jung came across a Greek text describing an almost identical vision: 'And likewise the so-called tube, the origin of the ministering wind. For you will see hanging down from the disc of the sun something that looks like a tube...'. The patient was a poorly educated man who could not, in any case, have seen the text, even if he could have understood it, since it was published after his admission to hospital, where no such literature was available.
Although this seems to have been Jung's favourite example to illustrate his thesis, it is not readily explicable as the result of archetypes operating in different individuals living in different places at different times in history. Much more persuasive examples could have been given, such as the one we have just used, namely, the behaviour of generations of mothers and children as they live out the mother-child archetypal programme. To explain Jung's example it is necessary to postulate three archetypal objects (sun, phallus, and wind), an archetypal principle (that of masculine generativity), and an archetypal association between them (the sun's phallus generating the wind). Although such an association is statistically improbable, it is not impossible, as Jung’s example would seem to demonstrate. But he could have found a more persuasive example to support his theory.
Essentially, the theory can be stated as a psychological law: whenever a phenomenon is found to be characteristic of all human communities, it is an expression of an archetype of the collective unconscious. It is not possible to demonstrate that such universally apparent phenomena are exclusively due to archetypal determinants or entirely due to cultural diffusion, because in all probability both are involved. However, the likelihood is that there will be a strong bias for those phenomena which are archetypally determined to diffuse more readily and more lastingly than those that are not. Behavioural characteristics such as maternal bonding, dominance striving, sexual mating, and home building satisfy three critical biological criteria, namely, universality, continuity, and evolutionary stability, and as such are liable to be archetypally based, giving rise to typical psychological experiences as well as typical patterns of behaviour in all human communities wherever they exist.
Source: Stevens, Anthony. Jung. Past Masters series. © 1994.