psychology; art

Humans as purely materialist individuals? Perhaps it’s time to (re)read Jung.


Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung offered what he viewed as a diagnosis and therapeutic treatment plan for the modern West. Born in Switzerland in 1875, his methods are practised and taught to this day but his concepts are generally considered out-dated in regards to contemporary theory. His understanding of archetypes is often useful in the analysis of visual culture, especially film and television but his concerns for the condition of “modern man” are not so freely referenced. Jung saw the image as a way in which the human being was somehow in touch with transcendent truth, a philosophy which jars with post-modern scepticism. And yet, to delve more deeply into his system we find a sophisticated account of human development through imagery and symbolism that offers a refreshing perspective and an optimism of sorts. A forward looking approach is perhaps what our culture is in need of in troubled times, and in rereading Jung we are offered a route into fresh and hopeful dialogues, or at least an encouragement in this direction.

Jung’s ideas have never really managed to completely break through to the general public, while the ideas of his contemporary Sigmund Freud have become a part of the “Psychology 101.” This is perhaps because Freud’s work fits with the predominant materialist vision of Western science and philosophy. Freud offers a cynical account of human life. In contrast, Jung’s theories are of interest because they offer an alternative vision of the human mind. His concepts offer a vision of therapeutic progression; what follows is a consideration of Jung’s theory of the image, the active imagination, the archetypes, and individuation. These are ideas that understand the human being as capable of standing in charge of their own life, where the imagination and creative force of an individual contribute to a more complex understanding of the world, and thus present a more positive image of human potentiality.

Freud saw himself as a scientist filling the gaps in our knowledge of human behaviour; he defined sexuality (or ‘pansexualism’) to be the foundation of all human behaviour. Jung and Freud both agreed on the existence of the unconscious, but Jung broke with Freud, seeing wider implications of psychology and thus exposing the importance of the human psyché in parallel to scientific discovery. Freud’s theory, based on the principles of attraction and aversion, is a conceptually simpler way of assessing the psyché, but it does not pose the same therapeutic quality or metaphysical understanding present in Jung’s work. Freud’s theories, based upon materialism and mechanism, offer the prognosis of continual misery because he assesses the human subject to be full of irrational longings that society cannot accept, hence the subject is destined to deny aspects of their being and suffer.

Jung insists that this fatalistic summary is flawed, arguing that there is potential in human beings to become individuated. Philosophically, individuation expresses the general idea of how a thing is identified as an individual thing that “is not something else”. For Jung it is the process by which the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated fluctuating being into an integrated whole. This is a form of mental maturity that not only allows for, but depends on the interplay of opposites; the conscious and the unconscious, the personal and the collective, the divine and the human, life and death, female and male. This state of equilibrium calms and fulfils the individual. Jung maintains that we are symbolic animals who are alienated from the symbolic aspect of life. The archetypes are symbols similar to Platonic ‘ideas’ or forms, which are the most true reality, existing in and also beyond physical being, so whether manifested or imagined, each image or emotion of the human world fits into an autonomous and transcendent archetypal category.

Jung defined the human being as directed by the mind, or psyché, which is made up of the conscious and the unconscious, connected by the ‘active imagination,’ which mediates between them. He described the conscious mind as in charge of our awareness at the present moment, controlling our immediate experience of the external world. The unconscious mind is instinctual and translates our experience of the world and of ourselves. For Jung the unconscious is collective and holds knowledge of universal archetypes. When the bridge between the conscious and the unconscious is made, a potential for a fullness of real selfhood becomes possible, which Jung called Individuation.

The creative aspect of the mind, what we might term imagination, is seen by Jung not as the slave of sexual instinct but as an autonomous attribute of the human being which illuminates archetypal knowledge. His work presents the imagination as a source and means of knowing the archetypes and the locus of our creative impulses and our psychological wellbeing. He sees it important that the human being should drop down into their unconsciousness via their imagination, whether by direction for example with the guidance of a therapist, in dreams or by artistic expression. The active-imagination engages with the healing power of art and dreams and is the guide to individuation.

For this process, it is necessary for the individual to understand the symbolic and archetypal, which aids the recognition and integration of the deeper and, at times, darker, unconscious aspects of the psyche, which must be reconciled. Jung believes the modern world to propagate an environment of conflict because humans have repressed their unconscious, and are unaware of what they have lost. These “lost” contents can be destructive, erupting as negative actions and emotions. He poses that the modern West puts inordinate responsibility on the conscious mind, and in the process humans become divided, their active-imagination becoming inert. This forced splitting between the unconscious and the conscious mind leads to psychological distress, or what Jung termed ‘neurosis’. For Jung it is the unconscious mind which communes with archetypal images, the images which properly connect us to ourselves and the world around us. The archetypes are shared concepts which permeate the collective unconscious and emerge as themes and characters in our dreams and surface in our culture – in myths, books, films and paintings.


The archetypes are not specific images in themselves but categories of imaginative experiences that inform the imagination and image making. Jung saw all imaginative images to fit within certain archetypal themes. There are many Jungian archetypes but some examples are; ‘the great mother’, ‘the child’, ‘the trickster’, ‘the flood’, ‘the locked door’, ‘the shadow’, ‘the wise old man or woman’ etc. Myths and legends are always highly symbolic and channel the archetypes into ones conscious; Jung believes this to be healthy.

Jung’s theories can be seen as reconciling the tension between subject and object, in response to the potent question in modern philosophy of how the human subject is adequate to object. Jung posits that the dichotomy between subject and object becomes blurred by the unconscious, because objects and phenomena in the world stimulate symbolic meaning which feeds the imagination, the external and internal world become intertwined and expressed on a non-physical level. The imagination offers a different way of approaching ‘knowing’, opposing the positivist scientific model of knowledge. Positivism being the philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof- the system therefore rejects metaphysics and any kind of theism. The ways of thinking that come from this are all based on materialism, which is to hold physical matter as the fundamental substance.

A comparison which contextualises what the term symbol implies is to explain how symbols are theoretically differentiated from signs. The German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer elucidates a philosophical understanding of a symbol in his book Truth and Method. He explains that while a sign points to something else outside itself, “a symbol manifests the presence of something that really is present… and makes something immediately present.”  Gadamer gives the example of a picture; “a picture is certainly not a sign… a picture points to what it represents only through its own content. By concentrating on it, we too come into contact with what is represented.” A sign for example, a road sign, stands to signify a curve in the road but is not also that curve in the road. The symbolic image thus opposes a Cartesian attitude that allows the world to be interpreted as dead thing; the archetypes dynamically connect an image to the world; thus a Jungian approach provides a useful alternative to the current opposing positions of deconstruction and essentialism.

The potential for individuation is represented in culture, which constantly presents archetypal offerings, e.g. the struggle between good and evil. This is an argument for why we actively need art and culture for our wellbeing. Creative work with its origin in the active-imagination becomes representational of both the conscious and unconscious. Art is often highly symbolic which stimulates the active-imagination of artist and onlooker. There is some sense of a primordial experience of wholeness that the artwork tries to capture, this resists Freud’s reduction and exemplifies the healing power of art, exposing the creative impulse as essential to our nature. The film Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders is a prime example of a Jungian narrative. Set in the divided Berlin, the film is a motif for the individuation process itself. In the film, the city is populated not only by humans but angels too and follows the romantic union of an angel and human, which is representational of the unconscious and the conscious mind synthesising.

As a mediating force between subject and object, the imagination opens up a space for creative knowing and understanding. At a time when enlightenment mentality is being continually reassessed, to reflect on Jung’s work is to gain confidence to delve into the realm of imagination and work dynamically with our subjectivity, yielding knowledge past the limits of positivism.

A Jungian perspective presents us as biocultural beings who need cultural knowledge of ourselves to develop, and to aid further acquisition of knowledge in all disciplines.


This article is an edited extract of a talk that was given at the Chisholme Institute in the Scottish Borders, 23rd April 2017.


Selected Bibliography

Dissanayake, E. 1999. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. Seattle; London: University of Washington Press.

Dunlap, P. T. The Unifying Function of Affect: Founding a theory of psychocultural development in the epistemology of John Dewey and Carl Jung. Educational philosophy and theory. Vol 44. Issue 1. P53-68. 01/02/2012.

Jung, C.G. 1960. Psychology and Religion. Based on the Terry lectures delivered at Yale University 1938. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jung, C.G. 1960. The Collected Works of C.G Jung, Vol. 8. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. 1969. Collected Works of C.G Jung. Vol. 11. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. 1979. Man and his Symbols. Ed. by Jung C, G, von Franz, M.-L. London: Aldus Books Ltd.

Young-Eisendrath, P & Dawson, T. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Jung. 2008. Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Welland, M. Active imagination in Jung’s Answer to Job. Studies in Religion/Sceinces Religieuses. Sept 1997. Vol. 26. No.3. P297-308.