The Collective Unconscious
A Reservoir of Qualia that Connects Us All
In the year 1916, Dr. Carl Gustav Jung coined the term “collective unconscious”. He used it to refer to a hypothetical set of shared mental concepts that are thought to exist below the level of the conscious mind, somewhere deep within us, in a reservoir of qualia that connects us all. Simply put, according to Jung, there is a part of everyone’s mind that contains memories and impulses of which they are not aware. Moreover, the strange thing is that, according to Jung’s theory, we all somehow seem to share that same part of the mind. With that being said, in an effort to not put too many words in his mouth, going straight to the source on this, the collective unconscious is rather eloquently described in “The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology” (published in 1929), in which Jung stated that:
in dreams, fantasies, and other exceptional states of mind the most far-fetched mythological motifs and symbols can appear autochthonously at any time, often, apparently, as the result of particular influences, traditions, and excitations working on the individual, but more often without any sign of them. These “primordial images” or “archetypes,” as I have called them, belong to the basic stock of the unconscious psyche and cannot be explained as personal acquisitions. Together they make up that psychic stratum which has been called the collective unconscious.
Of course, the primary source on the subject came out three decades later in 1959. That’s when Jung finally published The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, just two years before he died in 1961.
Nonetheless, the point is that according to Jung and his followers, there is a collective unconscious that is populated by a number of different things, such as instincts and archetypes — which are basically just recurrent symbols and themes that serve as the basic building blocks of consciousness, specifically as they relate to humanity. To put it another way, the collective unconscious is expressed through a certain set of human universals — known as archetypes. Jung ultimately traced the notion back to the writings of Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish philosopher), Iranaeus (a Greek bishop), and the Corpus Hermeticum (a collection of texts about alchemy, astrology, etc…), which tended to associate the concept with the creation of the world, as described in many different, yet surprisingly similar, Creation myths reaching far back through time and all across the globe. As part of it all, Jung also noted the close relationship that archetypes have with the notion of Platonic “Forms” — which represent what each individual thing is supposed to be like in order for it to be that specific thing.
This ties into the philosophical concept of idealism, meaning any of various systems of thought in which the objects of knowledge are held to be in some way dependent on mental activity. With that in mind, Jung described archetypes as imprints of momentous or oft-recurring situations in the human past, gradually developing on an evolutionary timescale, going all the way back to the first people — if not much further, as I would argue. After all, plants and animals have instincts, and the various predetermined scripts for behavior (known as “innate releasing mechanisms”) would seem to suggest that there is a shared memory bank of some sort (i.e. the collective unconscious), at the very least, among our species, if not others, as well. Either way, according to Jung, the collective unconscious is made up of a collection of mental imagery that every person is born with and that is shared by all people due to ancestral experience, in general. Granted, that was and in many ways still is, a revolutionary way of thinking about the mind.
Of course, it’s important to understand that, as far as Jung was concerned, the collective unconscious only relates to psychology, not ethology. Although there are some modern Jungian psychoanalysts who are beginning to think in terms of a spectrum of consciousness among increasingly complex organisms rather than thinking of the mind solely as an emergent property that is only found in humans. Regardless, Jung personally believed that the collective unconscious underpins and surrounds the unconscious mind of every human being, thereby distinguishing it from the personal unconscious described in Freudian and Adlerian psychology. However, as part of the psychoanalytic school of thought, in general, Carl Jung linked the collective unconscious to what Sigmund Freud called “archaic remnants”. Jung also called archetypes “dominants” because of their profound influence on our minds. In line with that, he related that the collective unconscious is similar to Levy-Bruhl’s “collective representations”, Hubert and Mauss’ “categories of the imagination”, and Bastian’s “primordial thoughts”.
Furthermore, Dr. Jung argued that the collective unconscious has a profound influence on the lives of individuals, who live out its symbols and give them meaning through their own individual personal experiences. That’s why so many Jungian psychoanalysts seek to analyze the relationship between a person’s individual consciousness and the deeper commonalities that underlie the phenomenon in general. After all, according to Jung’s teachings, the collective unconscious is responsible for deep-seated erotic and thanatonic instincts that express themselves through one’s sexuality and spirituality. As such, the therapeutic practice of Jungian psychoanalysis revolves around examining a patient’s relationship to the collective unconscious and the content thereof — such as the shared primordial thoughtforms of our species. The point is that there are ways of either individually or collaboratively deciphering the subliminal messages sent to us by our innermost selves, and it’s all part of what Jung called the “archaic heritage of humanity”.
In line with that, Jung concluded that there are certain archetypes that are more directly related to an individual’s day-to-day life than others. For instance, the “anima and animus” (the feminine part of a man’s personality and vice-versa) and the “shadow” (the unconscious aspect of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself) are both thought of as autonomous personalities within a patient. So, those sub-personalities, or “complexes” became a special focus of Jung's work — with the anima and animus acting as a representative of the collective unconscious, and the shadow personifying the personal unconscious. Jung even went so far as to encourage the direct dialogue of his patients’ egos with those perceived personalities. This is a way of confronting the mind known as “individuation” — which is a concept that Jung adapted from various Gnostic and Hermetic teachings, tracing all the way back to Hellenized Roman-Egypt.
Regardless, it’s the greater implications of the collective unconscious that interest me most. As a perfect example of what I mean, morality (particularly regarding concepts of fairness) could be explained with the collective unconscious being at least partially responsible. That means the conscience could be part of the collective unconscious. On top of that, based on Jung’s interpretation of concepts such as synchronicity and telepathy, he correctly argued that extrasensory perception (ESP) transcends the brain. Carl Jung even went so far as to cite a number of recurring themes as evidence of the existence of mental elements shared among everyone. Ultimately, his claim was that, at some level, our minds are all interconnected. This could mean that we all have latent telepathic potential, but for some reason, it only manifests in certain people. What’s more, Jung used his theory of the collective unconscious to try and explain how certain fears (such as social phobias) can manifest for seemingly no apparent reason.
Dr. C. G. Jung also believed that the concept of the collective unconscious helps to explain why similar themes tend to occur in different myths from all around the world. That is to say, rather than thinking that every society in history somehow came from an original society in prehistory, Jung’s hypothesis is that they didn’t need to contact each other by sailing from one continent to another in order to spread information around the world. Instead, he believed that the similar content in myths, legends, and fairytales came out of the collective unconscious. As part of that overall theory, Jung believed that “the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious”. This is actually a rather important point that Jung was making. After all, if it’s true then psychologists can learn a lot about the mind by looking at what theologians say about the soul, what alchemists say about the spirit, and what astrologers say about the personality, among other things. This is why the New Age movement was so drawn to his work.
The thing is that the standard Popperian criticism of the notion of a collective unconscious is that it isn’t falsifiable. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the collective unconscious doesn’t exist, just that it can’t be proven to exist (which may not even be true). Philosophically speaking, the all-important distinction that needs to be made is that one is an ontological issue, while the other is epistemological. All this means is that no one has ever successfully devised a peer-reviewed set of experiments that prove anything conclusive about the validity of the theory of a collective unconscious. In line with that, Jung came to believe that proof of the existence of the collective unconscious, and insight into its true nature could best be gleaned from our dreams and daydreams. This correlates to Freud’s theories of latent content in dreams. However, as part of Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, he believed that our dreams compensate for parts of the psyche that are underdeveloped in our waking lives. This differed from Freud’s views, in that Jung believed that something specific in a dream (such as a boat) could mean something different to each dreamer.
In line with that, Jung also believed that imagination draws on the content of the collective unconscious, including classic mythic content — the parallels of which seem to prove the existence of a collective unconscious in our species. In my humble (albeit hyperbolic) opinion, the notion that there are inherited parts of the mind was one of the most important contributions ever made in the field of psychology. I mean think about it, based on years of observations as a leading psychiatrist, Carl Jung realized that we all have a different personal unconscious, but the same collective unconscious. That’s utterly profound! Unfortunately, like so many things regarding the philosophy of mind (in a world full of reductionistic materialists), Jung’s big idea has been largely dismissed by much of the academic community. Nonetheless, if his theory is right (which I think it is), then the whole point I want to make is that our experiences activate archetypes in the mind and then we give them individual meaning, thereby enriching life with sentimental symbols. So, you and I are both on our own sort of monomythic Campbellian “hero’s journey” (the ultimate narrative archetype) out of the collective unconscious and into the personal conscious mind — with the teachings of Carl Jung as our guide.