Middle Way Thinkers 4: Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the great Swiss psychoanalyst, had a long and rich life and left a huge body of writings behind him. I think he offers a huge contribution to our thinking on the Middle Way. Though his approach has been dismissed by some who regard themselves as hard scientists or analytic philosophers, I would argue that these criticisms are often based on prejudicial misunderstandings of his work and its significance. More than anything, I think his contribution is philosophical, in the sense of offering us new and helpful ways of understanding and assessing our beliefs and the ways we interpret our experience. He also offers a personal narrative of his incredibly rich and inspiring inner life. Questions remain about his effectiveness as a therapist – a point that I don’t feel in any position to assess – but even if he ‘cured’ nobody, his interactions with patients provided a strong basis of experience that supports the philosophical and cultural value of his work.

Jung was the son of a Protestant pastor, and qualified in medicine before specialising in psychiatry. He encountered and was influenced by Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, but rejected some of Freud’s dogmatic assumptions, such as his materialism and his reduction of desire to sexuality. In this respect you could compare Jung’s position to that of other philosophical disciples who have learnt much from but greatly surpassed their masters (such as Plato and Aristotle), primarily by identifying dogmatic assumptions that were holding back their masters and freeing themselves of those assumptions.Carl_Gustav_Jung

Jung saw himself as a man of science, and constantly  strove to meet the standards of objectivity that he felt were necessary to meet what he saw as the exacting standards of science. This is what led him to be so cautious during his lifetime in publishing accounts of his inner experience. This commitment seems to me double-edged: it led him towards a genuine objectivity of approach, but also led him to attempt what was probably impossible, to convince those committed to a naturalistic approach to science that phenomena as remote from publically-verifiable, reproducible proof as the unconscious or the archetypes should be taken seriously in scientific terms. In my view it is science that needs to try to live up to Jung’s high standards of objectivity, not the other way round. Jung was not afraid of the use of ‘private’ experience, or of material from cultural or religious traditions, and thus did not unnecessarily narrow the field of investigation, or impose likely conclusions that are the result of limitations in the methodology, in the way that those who insist on ‘hard’ scientific evidence have to do. His hypotheses about these areas of experience provide us with a valuable basis of understanding that is well supported by Jung’s experience, and by the provisionality that went with his scientific approach.

Jung’s biggest contribution to our understanding of the Middle Way has to be the concept of integration – which Jung more commonly referred to as individuation. Recognising that our experience comprises a variety of energies, symbols and beliefs that may be in conflict, with some repressing others and the repressed elements often unconscious, Jung saw the goal of human life as overcoming these conflicts and bringing these energies together. This insight has huge implications far beyond the medical model of psychotherapy – for example as the basis of moral objectivity – though this is a point that Jung himself only seems to recognise implicitly rather than advertise explicitly.

I prefer the term ‘integration’ to ‘individuation’, because this makes it clear that integration is not only the process of psychological development in an individual, but can also be applied at a social level. Again, I would say that Jung also recognised this point implicitly, but did not discuss it explicitly because of the extent to which exploring these philosophical implications might potentially threaten the scientific credentials he wanted to maintain. I see integration as the Middle Way inside out: rather than just avoiding dogmatic beliefs on either side, integration brings together experiential beliefs and energies that at first were unnecessarily opposed. Each supports the other, because it is only by avoiding metaphysical beliefs (that cannot be integrated) that we can make integration possible.

Jung’s other huge contribution to our understanding of the Middle Way lies in his development of the concept of archetypes. There has been much confusion about what Jung meant to assert about the status of archetypes, much of which has arisen from his use of the term ‘collective unconscious’ where he placed the archetypes. Some people have mistaken the collective unconscious for some kind of Platonic realm of absolutes, but Jung makes it clear that he is only referring to the universality that comes from genetic similarity between human beings, that gives us all similar psychic functions. These psychic functions need to be expressed by symbols, but the form of those symbols will differ between cultures. Thus, for example, the Shadow archetype is the one we encounter in symbols like Satan, Darth Vader, Sauron and Voldemort – an embodiment of evil found in all cultures because it reflects the psychic function of rejecting what we do not identify with. Any creature with aversions will have a Shadow of some kind, however it is expressed.

Archetypes are very important in understanding the Middle Way, because they allow us to distinguish between meaningful symbols that are found universally (because of their psychic function) and metaphysical ‘truths’. So, in the case of God, for example, the God archetype came first, and is meaningful to us because it represents a psychic function, regardless of whether or not we ‘believe’ in God. Belief or disbelief in God seems to me completely irrelevant to the meaning of the archetype. I think this is what Jung probably meant when he said that he did not believe in God, but that he ‘knew’ God, probably in the sense that he directly encountered God in experience.

After the Buddha, perhaps, I can’t think of any thinker whom I think is quite so rich and rewarding as a source of insights into the Middle Way as Jung. I am not really well-read in later Jungians that others recommend, such as James Hillman, so I must reserve judgement on their value. But whether you read more recent Jungians as well or not, I’d highly recommend going directly to the source. His autobiographical book ‘Memories, dreams, reflections’ is a very good place to start, because it gives you a big picture of Jung the man, and of his rich inner life, as well as of his scientific development.


Link to index of posts in the ‘Middle Way Thinkers’ series

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

3 thoughts on “Middle Way Thinkers 4: Jung

  1. Hi Robert,
    Just to mention how much I enjoyed this article. I rememember a quote from Henri Matisse which went along the lines that he, Matisse believed in God only while he was painting.

  2. Good review of Jung, avoiding most of the mistakes that people make. However, it does injustice to Jung to call him a “psychoanalyst” as that term usually connotes a follower of Freud. Jung should be called an analytical psychologist. I agree that “misunderstandings of his work and its significance” are the main reason that he has not had more appreciation. To me, he is the Einstein of psychology who has given us the equivalent of a General Field Theory of the psyche.

    It is quite a stretch to say his contribution is “more than anything” philosophical. His contribution is psychological. He was a psychologist not a philosopher, and that is an essential distinction to make. The only sense in which he was a philosopher is the one in which every person is a philosopher because we all have our ideas about reality with a worldview.

    I agree 100% that “it is science that needs to try to live up to Jung’s high standards of objectivity, not the other way round.” After Jung, so-called scientific psychology gave up on the psyche and became an adjunct field of physiology generally and neurophysiology specifically. This was done primarily under the monetary pressures of universities in bed with pharmaceutical and other such corporations looking for mechanical fixes and drugs sales for psychological disorders.

    Jung would not agree that individuation is to be accomplished or realized “only by avoiding metaphysical beliefs.” I emphasize this because Jung’s analytical psychology does not advocate such avoidance which is actually another form of repression. Saying that a “metaphysical belief” is bad and to be avoided shows the presence of an archetype at work, and instead of going along with such an archetypal influence, Jung would question the premise of the archetypal belief that certain ideas need to be avoided. The point of inquiry is what is the myth that underlies the negative feelings toward metaphysics? Jung would point out that metaphysics is myth at work, and avoiding metaphysics per se, is a form of myth avoidance in the name of a more powerful myth.

    The God archetype is not meaningful because it “represents” a psychic function; the God archetype’s psychic function is to organize our sense of what is meaningful without representation. It is this lack of representation that makes the God archetype so overwhelmingly influential and easy to take literally for granted. It is through the active imagination process, where representation can be developed in the act of reflection, that allows us to get some individuated distance form the God archetype and a measure of liberation and emancipation from its domination.

    Jung’s focus on the integration of the opposites in the process of individuation seems to be the most directly relevant to the idea of the Middle Way. This same emphasis on the integration of the opposites is found in Zen Buddhism in the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor Huineng. When Jung was on his death bed, he was reading “Chan and Zen Teachings: First Series” and told his secretary to write the author Charles Luk to express Jung’s enthusiasm saying that what Zen master Hsu Yun was saying “was just ‘it.’”

    1. Hi Gregory,
      Thanks for this comment, though for some reason I had to rescue it from the spam folder.

      For me the difference between a ‘psychoanalyst’ and an ‘analytic psychologist’ doesn’t convey much, although I can appreciate that it might to someone involved in the profession. The sense in which I use the term philosopher is similar in some ways to the one you suggest: however, I think it’s not views about ‘reality’ but rather critical reflection on our beliefs that is the basic philosophical activity. Anyone who reflects critically on their beliefs is to some extent a philosopher, although of course we vary in the degree of awareness we bring to that task.

      However, I think you are misunderstanding the discourse around the Middle Way and metaphysics here. ‘Metaphysics’ is understood as absolute belief that is non-incremental and cannot be justified through experience (see Middle Way/ About Metaphysics page). Metaphysics can just as easily take a negative as a positive form, and thus any repression of a metaphysical belief is not the Middle Way, but rather a negative metaphysical belief. One can of course deceive oneself by calling a negative metaphysical belief ‘the Middle Way’, but in the society we are at least aware of that danger and working to avoid it through a balanced critical perspective linked to practice.

      You may well be correct that this is not a point that was appreciated explicitly by Jung, so to that extent I would disagree with him. I suspect that the reason for this was that he did not make a clear distinction between meaning and belief (as I think you are not, if I interpret your comments correctly). Archetypes are meanings, not beliefs, and the full appreciation of an archetype does not need to entail holding beliefs about what it ultimately is or is not. I’d suggest that separating meaning from belief is crucial to separating an archetype from its projections. So, far from being ‘myth at work’, metaphysics is the very thing that disrupts myth from working by leading us to project and literalise myth. The separation of meaning from belief can be supported by the embodied meaning thesis, which has itself emerged from psychology and neuroscience since Jung (see ’embodied meaning’ page).

      For the same reason I disagree with you (and Jung) that the God archetype organises meaning. It is the body that ‘organises’ meaning (to the extent that it needs organising) not the God archetype. But the God archetype can nevertheless be experienced through our embodied meaning. I agree that that experience is not just a representation of God or equivalents – but that’s because a representation of God emerges from a wider bodily experience and is understood in its context.

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