Tag Archives: Jung’s comparative method

The Spirit of the Times

Jung’s model of the psyche was a basic one with an immense body of empirical material behind it. It often requires going back to fundamentals to re-think the misconceptions he strove to clarify. Even more so today than in his time, an object-focused perspective has difficulty connecting with the subjective nature of knowledge he advanced.

The discoveries of depth psychology: our animalness, our bisexuality, and the inherently religious character of the psyche — all of which knowledge is supported by the respective disciplines — are only loose, dissociated facts until we can incorporate them into a meaningful whole. Today’s specialized sciences are so exclusive that it’s easy to lose sight of the psychological implications of all our knowledge. One of the tasks of psychology is to give our search a human direction.

What Jung saw as scientific materialism in the twentieth century — a counter-swing away from the Church toward natural inquiry — only gains momentum into the new millennium as commercial interests attempt to enhance and exploit our fascination with things and technology in ever more deceptive ways.

Just as an unconscious worldly spirit worked through alchemy to balance an otherworldly religious perspective and guide it back toward earthly reality, the new viewpoint swings toward the opposite extreme. Symbolic disorders have a spiritual aspect, though more often than not treated with medications — projections which, if not in theory at least in practice, are designed to relieve us of our spiritual confusion. What were once religious problems between man, god, and nature are now conflicts between man, his culture, and his own nature. 

A neglected soul imparts little wisdom to an intellect bound to the senses, and the universal mysteries once projected into religious ideas have fallen back into the personal psyche. As Jung showed, consciousness can in no way contend with such powerful instinctual forces solely on its own devices. Though we would be superhuman, animal tendencies yet make us inhuman, and we treat others as such without knowing it.

Jung saw the image of man as being pre-determined. Just as every seed contains its future form, each is compelled toward what nature intended it to be. From the very dawn of self-consciousness symbolized in the story of Eden through our evolution into civilized societies, natural instinctive processes have guided our development. The idea of being “made in the image of God” was a symbolic intuition of it, intended to carry forward that distant seed of reflection. 

Psychologically, the energy needed to produce consciousness is generated by unconscious conflicts between contending stages of development. Every child is outfitted with the forms corresponding to their progression. On a deeper level than parental instruction, these archetypes support and prepare the developing mind and push it through its evolutionary history into the contemporary stage — or thereabout.

The process of becoming self-aware condensed in the story of Eden was felt as disobedience (or opposition) to the law of unconscious wholeness. It reflected a capacity for choice, for weighing possibilities beyond animal instinct. As it grew, it gradually split the psyche into two separate systems. As the myth says, it was initiated not by a god but by the conflicts of conscious choice amid opposing impulses symbolized by the snake. It requires an earthly spiritual function to mediate instinct in a split mind, and all choice is relative to it. Images of space and other worlds still describe our dissociation from nature’s inner reality.

As we evolve, we identify with certain functions which signal new stages of development. New forms supersede older ones, though the old functions don’t disappear. The original Adam (consciousness) who emerged from the blind world of nature constitutes a profound spiritual conflict — one we can no more outgrow than the mind can outgrow the body.

The soul as mediator of spirit, of instinct, in its consciously developed form is a religious function which took centuries to define. Though it was a form of consciousness, intellectual understanding wasn’t necessary to connect with it even a century ago. The development of thought has outpaced the older form of awareness, and today we need psychological tools to understand who we are beneath the subjective meanderings of conscious focus.  As we once bowed to God as an image of unity, of unconscious wholeness, so we yield to natural laws.

In The Origins and History of Consciousness, Erich Neumann addressed the uneven psychological development of the modern individual: “This betrays itself in many ways — for example, as a technologist he may be living in the present, as a philosopher in the period of the Enlightenment, as a man of faith in the Middle Ages and as a fighter of wars in antiquity — all without being in the least aware how, and where, these partial attitudes contradict each other.”

We’re products of nature. Beneath the illusion of conscious unity, we live on in old philosophical assumptions which have passed unexamined from generation to generation: symbols which would define the split in our natures. The scientific materialism of today is too deeply opposed to the symbolic view to facilitate reconciliation. Its truth is in need of its opposite. The door to that opposite was opened by Jung’s comparative method, and we need to swing it wide to contend with the dangerous extremes produced by an unconscious nature.

For an idea of the emotional processes which lead back into the symbolic world of reflection, read more here, or visit Amazon.

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The Science of Psychology: When Subject is Object

One misconception of mainstream psychology seems inescapable: beneath the studies and statistics, for anything to be known there must be a perceiving subject. Subject and object form a basic pair of philosophical opposites in the history of ideas; the confusion between them is only magnified when the subject is an object of science.

Jung’s work penetrated to the core of this problem, though his comparative method remains almost as misunderstood today as it was a century ago. An understanding of it begins with the facts of perception.

As he showed in Psychological Types, the argument has always turned around the projection of more or less extraverted and introverted viewpoints. These two ways of seeing the world determine how we experience it. To get a clearer picture of their effects on psychology, Jung’s general description of how we perceive is important:

The introvert is “… oriented by the factor in perception and cognition which responds to the sense stimulus in accordance with the individual’s subjective disposition. For example, two people see the same object, but they never see it in such a way that the images they receive are absolutely identical. Quite apart from the variable acuteness of the sense organs and the personal equation, there often exists a radical difference, both in kind and degree, in the psychic assimilation of the perceptual image.

Though the extravert’s accent is on a concrete world of objects, due to the subjective nature of perception, Jung’s description applies to both viewpoints:

The difference in the case of a single apperception may, of course, be very delicate, but in the total psychic economy it makes itself felt in the highest degree, particularly in the effect it has on the ego.

The scientific method began as the extraverted study of objects. Projections flowed only in one direction; repetition, verification, and prediction reduced the subjective effects of individual viewpoints to the extent that certain physical processes could be considered objective. Even so, Jung cautioned:

We must not forget — although the extravert is too prone to do so — that perception and cognition are not purely objective, but are also subjectively conditioned. The world exists not merely in itself, but also as it appears to me. Indeed, at bottom, we have absolutely no criterion that would help us to form a judgment of a world which was unassimilable by the subject.” Perception means assimilation which mean judgment which means subjective. 

Jung explained that because of this subjective factor, “absolute cognition” is impossible. We are only as objective as our senses allow. Objectivity is relative not only to the limitations of the senses (even when artificially magnified) but to personal judgments about what we perceive and for what purposes. Beyond these unconscious pre-conditions, the mere accrual of information is “the effect it has on the ego.”

This is “… an attitude of intellectual arrogance accompanied by crudeness of feeling, a violation of life as stupid as it is presumptuous. By overvaluing our capacity for objective cognition we repress the importance of the subjective factor, which simply means a denial of the subject. But what is the subject? The subject is man himself — we are the subject. Only a sick mind could forget that cognition must have a subject, and that there is no knowledge whatever and therefore no world at all unless “I know” has been said, though with this statement one has already expressed the subjective limitation of all knowledge.

This applies to all psychic functions: they have a subject which is just as indispensable as the object. It is characteristic of our present extraverted sense of values that the word “subjective” usually sounds like a reproof… brandished like a weapon over the head of anyone who is not boundlessly convinced of the absolute superiority of the object.” The freight train of objective science and its ego-effects have steam-rolled psychology into a glaring contradiction:

By the subjective factor I understand the psychological action or reaction which merges with the effect produced by the object and so gives rise to a new psychic datum.” As surely as we identify images with things, they are at once personal, collective, subjective, and objective. Here’s the stick dangling the apple in front of a scientific psychology:

Insofar as the subjective factor has, from the earliest times and among all peoples, remained in large measure constant, elementary perceptions and cognitions being almost universally the same, it is a reality that is just as firmly established as the external object. If this were not so, any sort of permanent and unchanging reality would be simply inconceivable, and any understanding of the past would be impossible. In this sense, therefore, the subjective factor is as ineluctable a datum as the extent of the sea and the radius of the earth.

A fact is a fact, right? Not until we have a wider conception of how relative they are to a perceiving medium. Grandiose notions of a “theory of everything” will sooner or later stumble onto these limitations:

By the same token, the subjective factor has all the value of a co-determinant of the world we live in, a factor that on no account can be left out of our calculations. It is another universal law, and whoever bases himself on it has a foundation as secure, as permanent, and as valid as the man who relies on the object. But just as the object and objective data do not remain permanently the same, being perishable and subject to chance, so too the subjective factor is subject to variation and individual hazards. For this reason its value is also merely relative.

For an example of how Jung’s comparative method may be applied to find subjective meaning beyond the limitations of intellect, read more.

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The Hidden Language of Symbols

Jung’s historical studies are a sturdy, empirical foundation for uncovering the hidden meaning in dreams and fantasies. His comparative method produces real results and provides essential tools for interpreting the strange picture-language of unconscious functioning.

I remember my confusion when I first applied myself to his concepts. I could understand every word in sentences I couldn’t yet comprehend. For my causal thinking, even the notion of symbols baffled me. Many conceive them as signs or metaphors, but Jung discovered that symbols and the associations they give rise to are images concealing unconscious ideas.

Often, however, they’re embedded in an historical context which isn’t accessible by association. As Jung showed, the collective unconscious contains images of instinctual processes which are only partially translatable to consciousness. Its depth, like nature, is impersonal and inexhaustibly creative, and it works unceasingly to inform us of where we are.

As an example, I’d like to relate how I became aware of this symbolic language. In the course of studying Jung at mid-life, I was compelled to write a song, a parody of today’s culture. After going over it for months, it dawned on me that it had also created another picture beyond my intent.

Consciously, it was about our evolution; the fascination with technology, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, growing obesity, and artificial viewpoints. I wanted to paint a satirical picture of future possibilities and like all psychic products, it can be read symbolically. Hidden in the song was an unconscious description of what was happening in me.

The end of the first stanza reads: “When all of nature’s circumstances quietly concur/Consider all the prospects which this process can incur.” Then the chorus: “My genes it seems got carried away with me!/ Help! I’m evolving into something I can’t see!/Is it fate or choice or probability/That’s turned me into what I seem to be?”

The second stanza goes: “My eyes are getting bigger from all the things I watch/From TV’s to calories to clocks./My body hair has yielded to my shirts and pants and socks/And all of these anxieties are thinning out my locks./My pelvic girdle’s widening, my girth is growing round/From the gravitational pull of sitting down./My legs are short and stunted, the circulation’s poor/As they dangle from the chair’s edge and never touch the floor.”

The third stanza: “My mouth’s become a cavern of enormous shape and size/From all the pull and pressure it withstands./My functions of ingestion are so greatly mechanized/That prudence must be practiced in not swallowing my hands./My arms are long and wiry from reaching out to grasp;/Their joints are more elastic I can vouch/From the constant craning motions for all the things I ask/To gratify my cravings without getting off the couch.”

The last stanza begins: “Well, nature’s got the best of me, I readily admit./Like some modern Humpty Dumpty, here I sit…” The conclusion describes a humanity which is consuming the world that sustains it. At the time, I had no notion that it also referred to the deeper process consuming me. Unaware of it, I projected it onto society, the body, even genes.

As I considered earlier dreams, I began to relate associations. I’d dreamed of a man pointing at me penetratingly, “It’s time for you to have a baby!” I thought I was crazy, until I read an alchemical parable of a king “who had a baby in his brain.” Psychologically, pregnancy and birth symbolize new psychic contents: my widening pelvic girdle, my growing girth, and the gravitational pull of the unconscious.

I thought of how the song depicted my legs, my emotional foundations: short and stunted, unable to reach the floor: the depth of an unconscious reality. As I compared and collated the ideas, they began to form a broader image.

The third stanza found me ravenous, consuming everything within reach, my arms exaggerated tools for grasping hands to feed the enormous cavern my mouth had become. Around that time, a friend told me: “I dreamed you were stuffing food into your mouth feverishly, eating everything in sight! It was crazy!”

Erich Neumann wrote that eating in dreams is an analogy for the digestion of unconscious contents. My friend’s unconscious had taken note of what was happening in me and described it in his dream.

The idea of self-consumption is expressed; the mouth as a cavern, an entrance to the dark internal depths, Jonah and the whale, the ancient idea of self-fertilization, the alchemical serpent with its tail in its mouth to form a circle: all symbols of nature’s transitional cycles. The core of these ancient ideas evolved into the ritual of Communion: the eating of Christ’s body and the drinking of his blood as the symbolic taking in of the spirit.

Another dream found me in the kitchen of a restaurant amid the rush of workers busily preparing meals. At the entrance, a man was was taking reservations. He looked at me uncannily, “You need to finish your art project!” He tossed me an egg which fell out of my hands and broke on the floor. There was nothing in it.

It was the Humpty-Dumpty of the last stanza, the egg of potential which, filled with personal experience and nurtured with devotion, brings the spirit to birth. “And all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again.”: a reference to the individual nature of coming to terms with the unconscious.

These processes are embedded in the history of symbols, and only when we understand their impersonal context can we connect with the personal realities they express.

Jung and Neumann meticulously described how symbols reveal the history of our functioning. Psychological knowledge and reflection can bring these realities into consciousness. The wider our exposure to ideas, the greater our ability to understand what’s working in us.

For an example of mid-life development and the symbolic elaboration of ideas using Jung’s comparative method, read more.

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