Steve Beyer on Jung’s Collective Unconscious

For me, Jung’s conception of the collective unconscious is not essential to a comprehensive perspective concerned with how it is symbols, meaningfulness, and evocative patterns are necessary to, and featured in, human personal and social generativity.

Beyer, in his fine overview, gently presents an obvious critique. I’ve excerpted below Beyer on James Hillman.

The Collective Unconscious

Just how many archetypes are there? There appears to be no constraint on their number or nature. Steven Walker, a scholar of comparative literature sympathetic to Jung, says that “the list of archetypes is nearly endless.” There can be an archetype for just about any possible human situation, it seems; and conversely each archetype can produce an indefinite number of archetypal images. And apparently we can make up archetypes at will. Is there a solar penis archetype? That seems surprisingly narrow for a fundamental a priori category of the imagination. A few minutes thought can yield a dozen archetypal possibilities, from masculine generativity to magical control of the weather. In the endless list of archetypes, how do we decide?

And if the person who has produced the numinous image gets to decide with which mythic motif or fairy tale situation it most clearly resonates, then it is not clear why we need to postulate transcendental archetypes of the collective unconscious at all.

Psychologist James Hillman faced this issue squarely, and he chose to eliminate the noun archetype altogether, while preserving the adjective archetypal. The problem, he says, is that Jung moved “from a valuation adjective to a thing and invented substantialities called archetypes… Then we are forced to gather literal evidence from cultures the world over and make empirical claims about what is defined to be unspeakable and irrepresentable.”

But we do not need to take the idea of the archetypal in this reified sense. Any image can be archetypal, Hillman says; it need only be given value — archetypalized or capitalized — by the person experiencing it. “By attaching archetypal to an image,” he says, “we ennoble or empower the image with the widest, richest, and deepest possible significance.”

This view informs Hillman’s approach to dreams, which is not hermeneutic, as it is for Jung, but rather phenomenological or, in Hillman’s term, imagistic, image-centered. “To see the archetypal in an image,” he says, “is not a hermeneutic move.” He thus sees little value in traditional amplification. “Hermeneutic amplifications in search of meaning take us elsewhere, across cultures, looking for resemblances which neglect the specifics of the actual image.” Instead of asking how an image is related to an archetype, the patient begins with and concentrates on images in all their multiple implications — a process psychologist Stephen Aizenstat calls animation, “entering the realm of the living dream.” The idea is to personify the image, ask it questions, interrogate its purposes, engage it as a teacher — even identify with it and question its meaning as one’s own. Hermeneutics is replaced by imagination.

By all means, read the entire article over at singingtotheplants.

Hillman’s heresy is mostly on the money for me.

Although many so-called and self-identifying Jungians tend to live in their own Jungian universe, and do this without comprehending that this is something each projects onto other subjects, there are some coherent universals implicate in analytic psychology.

However, these seem to be–in the main–conceptions about patterns of manifest human life given by the lower order of instinctual (evolutionary) psychology, and, by higher orders of behavioral patterns; patterns given in kin and local relations, and, aggregated into patterned activities at the level of social order.

(I wonder if archetype is better viewed as token of concrete vectors, or patterns, discoverable in human relationships at any scale of organization? This could include the level of personal self-organization. With respect to this inchoate idea of mine, the archetype would be a way of signifying specific patterns of behavior.)

Is the unconscious structure a simulacrum of the conscious structure? This “introspective” conceit–that oft demands a collective unconscious, and, supposes that the interior structure expresses its own separate ‘lower’ intentionality–seems unwarranted. I associate many of the conceptions of classical analytic psychology with the notional mechanical, “hydraulic,” pre-semiotic, prejudices of good ol’ 19th century European idealists.

Perhaps the oddest of thing of all about analytic psychology is that it has spent almost no mindful resources aimed at verifying its own suppositions and operationalizations. There exist means in experimental psychology to better define and then verify/falsify many of the conceptions of analytic psychology. Jung was intellectually a figure of the 19th century. I don’t blame him for this contemporary shortfall.

There’s no such similar pressure on these same conceptions if the goal is to provide a means for poetical experiential inquiry into, and, poetically speaking of, what is valuable and meaningful, and challenging, in one’s own human journey.

Grant some necessary, implicit constraints, and extending “archetypal” perspectives into the realm of participant/observer inquiry into human culture, into anthropology, also seems untroubled.

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