The Collective Unconscious

I find the "Collective Unconscious" a compelling concept that explains (for me) the origins of religious faith. It would seem that Jung was close to bridging scientific thought and faith based thought with a concept that both can embrace in very similar terms. It also would give authority to religious teachings when those teachings articulate the archetypes, morality and symbols that exist in the collective unconscious. It seems to me that most religions do a pretty good job of providing credible access to the collective unconscious whereas science offers no access at all. 

The definitions and commentary below were gathered from Internet searches. Several schools of thought are represented but it is easy to be confused. One reason is that the same psychological terms are defined differently in each school. For instance Jung maintains that the Self defines the Ego (Self Centric), while modern psychology holds that the Ego defines the Self (Ego Centric). Another defining difference stems from different thoughts regarding the origin of archetypes. The Platonic tradition says that archetypes have a spiritual origin and therefor have always existed. Jung interprets archetypes in a biological sense.  He says that they are  "inherited", and that they "have existed since remotest times". Modern psychology sees archetypes arising from cultural influence. Jung maintains “It is necessary to point out once more that archetypes are not determined [by cultural experience] as regards their content, but only as regards their form and then only to a very limited degree."

Dictionary definition:

collective unconscious

In Jungian psychology, a part of the unconscious mind, shared by a society, a people, or all humankind, that is the product of ancestral experience and contains such concepts as science, religion, and morality.

Scientific definition:

collective unconscious

Memories of mental patterns that are shared by members of a single culture or, more broadly, by all human beings; originally proposed by the psychologist Carl Jung to explain psychological traits shared by all people. He theorized that the collective unconscious appears as archetypes: patterns and symbols that occur in dreams, mythology, and fairy tales.

From Wikipedia:

Collective unconscious is a term of analytical psychology originally coined by Carl Jung. While Freud did not distinguish between an "individual psychology" and a "collective psychology", Jung distinguished the collective unconscious from the personal unconscious particular to each human being.


The collective unconscious refers to that part of a person's unconscious which is common to all human beings. It contains archetypes, which are forms or symbols that are manifested by all people in all cultures. They are said to exist prior to experience, and are in this sense instinctual. Critics have argued that this is an ethnocentrist view, which universalized Jung's European-styled archetypes into human beings' archetypes.

Less mystical proponents of the Jungian model hold that the collective unconscious can be adequately explained as arising in each individual from shared instinct, common experience, and shared culture. The natural process of generalization in the human mind combines these common traits and experiences into a mostly identical substratum of the unconscious.



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ar·che·type (är'kĭ-tīp') pronunciation

  1. An original model or type after which other similar things are patterned; a prototype: “‘Frankenstein’ . . . ‘Dracula’ . . . ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ . . . the archetypes that have influenced all subsequent horror stories” (New York Times).

  2. An ideal example of a type; quintessence: an archetype of the successful entrepreneur.

  3. In Jungian psychology, an inherited pattern of thought or symbolic imagery derived from the past collective experience and present in the individual unconscious.


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Primordial image, character, or pattern of circumstances that recurs throughout literature and thought consistently enough to be considered universal. Literary critics adopted the term from Carl Gustav Jung's theory of the collective unconscious. Because archetypes originate in pre-logical thought, they are held to evoke startlingly similar feelings in reader and author. Examples of archetypal symbols include the snake, whale, eagle, and vulture. An archetypal theme is the passage from innocence to experience; archetypal characters include the blood brother, rebel, wise grandparent, and prostitute with a heart of gold.

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Jung's Conception Of The Collective Unconscious


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Jung saw the human psyche as made up of layers or strata (see diagram above).

 First is the conscious mind.  The ego is the term given to the organisation of the conscious mind, being composed of conscious perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings [Calvin S. Hall & Vernon J. Nordby, A primer of Jungian Psychology, p.34 (1973,  New American Library)].

 Those mental contents that the ego does not recognise fall into the Personal Unconscious.  The Personal Unconscious is made up of suppressed and forgotten memories, traumas, etc.  All psychic contents which are either too weak to reach consciousness, or  which are actively supressed by the ego, because the latter is threatened by them.

 Thus far Jung is in agreement with his old teacher Freud, in supposing the existence of the Unconscious mind, which includes all that is not immediately accessible to everyday waking consciousness (i.e. the  Conscious mind or Ego).  Conscious and Unconscious  are thus the two opposed parts of the psyche.

Jung's great contribution however was to divide the Unconscious itself into two very unequal levels: the  more superficial Personal, and the deeper Collective, Unconscious.

 Everyone has their own Personal Unconscious.   The Collective Unconscious in contrast is universal.   It cannot be built up like one's personal unconscious is; rather, it predates the individual.  It  is the repositary of all the religious, spiritual,  and mythological symbols and experiences.  Its  primary structures - the deep structures of the  psyche, in other words - Jung called "Archetypes"; a  later-Hellenistic Platonic and Augustinian Christian  term that referred to the spiritual forms which are  the pre-existent prototypes of the things of the  material world.  Interpreting this idea psychologically, Jung stated that these archetypes were the  conceptual matrixes or patterns behind all our  religious and mythological concepts, and indeed, our  thinking processes in general.

 Actually, Jung's choice of the term "archetype" is in some senses misleading.  For in the late Platonic tradition, the archetypes con-stitute a totally spiritual reality; the original  perfect spiritual reality or realities which generates the imperfect physical realities; the "thoughts in the mind of God" of Stoicism and Platonic Christianity.

 But Jung interprets his archetypes in a biological sense.  He says (no doubt due to the Darwinian influence of his age) that they are  "inherited", and that they "have existed since remotest times".  Yet even "remotest times" can still be located temporally.  Such times may have occured an enormously long time ago, but they are  still temporal.  Plato and his successors would  never speak of the Ideas or Archetypes or Spiritual  Prototypes coming into being in some primordial  past; for they saw these as spiritual realities, and  therefore eternal; beyond time altogether.

The Archetypes

by Yakov Leib HaKohain

The Nature of the Archetypes

At the outset, it's important to realize that Jung conceived of the archetypes as autonomous structures within the collective unconscious. They were pre-existent, self-generating "forces of nature," as he sometimes called them, rather than (as many mistakenly believe) artifacts of cultural experience. For example, he writes:

"The archetype is . . . an irrepresentable, unconscious, pre-existent form that seems to be part of the inherited structure of the psyche and can therefore manifest itself spontaneously anywhere, at any time . . .Again and again I encounter the mistaken notion that an archetype is determined [by cultural influences] in regard to its content . . . It is necessary to point out once more that archetypes are not determined [by cultural experience] as regards their content, but only as regards their form and then only to a very limited degree."

(Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pages 392-393)

To illustrate: the "Goddess" archetype is a "pre-existent form" of the "inherited structure of the psyche," but manifests herself in the "psychic costume," as it were, of Kali in India, Athena in Greece, the Shekinah in Kabbalah, and the Virgin Mary in Western Christianity -- all very different in their culturally determined, outer appearance but identical in their inner psychic content. This is no less true of the archetype of the Self.

The Archetype of the Self

Jung defined the Self in many places and in many ways, but always with the same archetypal overtones. Here are two examples, all relevant to our present discussion, in which he clearly states that the Self is not (as some mistakenly believe) the same as the "ego" but "superordinate" to it:

"The self is a quantity that is supra ordinate to the conscious ego. It embraces not only the conscious but also the unconscious psyche, and is therefore, so to speak, a personality which we also are."

(Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7, par. 274)

"The self is not only the centre but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the center of consciousness."

(Link to Amazon com Psychology and Alchemy, CW 12, par. 44)

In other words, the individual Ego emerges from the Self -- the Self does not emerge from the Ego -- and just as the Self gives birth to the Ego, the Ego gives birth to individual consciousness. (Readers will recall that I discussed and diagrammed this process of what I called "psychic mitosis" in my previous lectures on prenatal consciousness in the Jung Seminar series.)


What is crucial in all of this is that the Self is an autonomous archetype "supra ordinate" to the individual Ego. This is the purport of Krishna's statement in the Bhagavad Gita, "They are of me, I am not of them." But even more relevant to our discussion is this:

If the Self is not a byproduct of human consciousness, but vice versa, it therefore has an intelligence and will of its own separate from and superior to that of the individual Ego, of which it is the psychic parent.

Here is what clearly distinguishes Jung's conceptions from those of psychology, and places them into the category of theology. Whereas modern psychology sees the Self as a creation of human consciousness, Jung sees the Ego as a creation of the Self and, furthermore, subordinate to it. Thus, Jung's metaphysical formulations are "Self-Centric" while those of Psychology are "Ego-Centric." Thus, as Jung finally concludes, and with which we concur, "the Self is our life's goal, for it is the completest expression of that fateful combination we call individuality." (Link to Amazon com Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7, par. 404)

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