Metaphysics, Subjectivity, and the Limits of Consciousness:
The Epistemological Parameters of Analytical Psychology
This essay reviews some of the relevant literature and presents the conceptual premises underlying analytical psychology which structure and guide the Jungian understanding of psyche. These premises are essential to the comprehension of Jung’s approach as reflected in his writing which, although spanning half a century and crossing disciplines, reflects the natural progression and unity of his work.
Throughout his professional life, Jung maintained that he had “set up neither a system nor a general theory [of psychology], but ha[d] merely formulated auxiliary concepts to serve [him] as tools” (cited, von Franz, 1975, p. 9; Fordham, 1995). Jung (1954) believed that “theories in psychology are the very devil …[that] theory is the best cloak for lack of experience and ignorance” (p. 7). At first glance, Jung’s assessment of psychological theories and methods may seem rather harsh, in fact, foolhardy, since analytical psychology is, after all, an empirical science and, as one, is based upon the principles of the scientific method - observation, description, hypothesis, and, to a certain extent, generalizability. Without a method and theory, how can a practitioner of psychology think about, let alone practice, his or her craft?
Perhaps Jung is a bit too adamant in his disavowal and disapproval of what are essentials of any responsible psychology. The reason, I think, is that he is making a point. In a field where so much was, and still is, unknown about psyche, to concretize the dynamic archetypal process of psyche into a theory and to practice in a one-size-fits-all model is to deny the reality of psyche - the unique expression of the individual and the expression of humanity throughout time. Jung’s avoidance of anything related to psychological dogma, such as systematized theory and method, is rooted in his deep understanding that psyche is a living reality and must be experienced anew with each engagement within the analytic container. Any attempt to fit the facts of psychic phenomena into a ready-made frame or to reduce them to causal factors, subverts and changes the encounter with the unconscious psyche. This is so because psychic phenomena present themselves in the moment to a perceiving consciousness, so that everything is available in the present now - the present, the future to which it points and the past that gave it shape. Although our consciousness is not able to access all of the information presented to it in the moment, it can take in even less when covered by a cloud of assumptions, as will happen when a theory and method are substituted for actual experience of the phenomenon. This phenomenological understanding, that it is the immediate experience of phenomena (psychic and physical) as they present themselves to the therapist’s perceiving consciousness within the analytical encounter, sets analytical psychology apart from the purely empirical psychologies which are rooted in scientific materialism or the belief that the only reality is physical reality (with mind an epiphenomenon of brain). That said, Jung does develop a theory of psyche and does have a method of working with the patient’s psychic material. Jung (1971) addressed the influence of certain philosophers and philosophical systems on the development of his understanding of psyche early on in his work on typology. Others have dealt with the philosophical issues in Jung’s psychology (Nagy, 1991), but this topic will not be addressed here.
Chapman (1988) suggests that Jung actually has not one but three different though interrelated theories, while Heisig (1979) and Jacobi (1973) present a longitudinal analysis of Jung's work on psyche. Obviously there is an all too apparent contradiction between what Jung says about his work, and what is said by those critiquing it. However, neither is wrong. Jung (1933) considered theories to be working hypotheses, always open to revision based on new information. These theories are phenomenologically derived, founded on Jung’s direct observation and accurate description of observed behaviors in patients, as well as his own self-analysis. The phenomenological method was the tool that led him to draw certain conclusions or theories based upon his data. These hypotheses concerning the nature of psyche, its makeup, and functioning form a working model of psyche, to be revised, added to, or scrapped dependent upon further research. In addition to the careful observation and description of phenomena made possible through the use of the phenomenological method, a number of conceptual premises inform Jung’s working theory and method. They are: metaphysics, epistemology, and hermeneutics. These are important to keep in mind; taken all together they form the basis and define the parameters of the Jungian approach. The role of phenomenology and hermeneutics in Jung’s method have been discussed in an essay which appeared in an earlier Jung in Vermont issue (May 2009), the metaphysical and epistemological basis of his work are addressed below.
Similar to all theories or systems of ideas, Jung’s theory of psyche is a metaphysic, a postulate for something perceived by the senses and therefore real, but which can never be known in its entirety due to the conditions and limits of consciousness. We come to know the world first through our subjectively-based experience. This psychological fact - that “all experience [italics added] is a subjective, psychological experience” (Edinger, 1996, p. 9) - is the starting point of analytical psychology. Everything is mediated through the psyche, making everything essentially psychological and therefore the proper study for psychology. As to “what lies beyond the phenomenal world [of fact], we can have absolutely no idea, for there is no idea that could have any other source than the phenomenal world” (Jung, 1968). All knowledge is thus, in the final analysis, speculative. We experience this first at the practical level; what we know to be true today is liable to change tomorrow, based on new evidence. Discoveries such as those in quantum physics and contributions from the new sciences practiced at the periphery of conventional science are made possible by more advanced technology or brought about by a shift in perspective (Marshall & Zohar, 1997; Rubik, 1996). Knowledge is incremental; it builds on what came before, and does not spring full-grown like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. Regarding theory formation, this means that there is no such thing as absolute objective knowledge uninfluenced by subjectivity, since we experience and know the world because of our subjectivity, not in spite of it. Thus who I am as a person influences what I do, what I choose to study, how I select my material, the way in which I interpret my data, and, finally, what I choose to do with my new found knowledge. The personal factor does not account for all of it, of course; the objective psyche via the archetypes (collective unconscious) influences the way in which the individual fulfills (or not) his or her life.
The understanding of the subjective ground of experience is in sharp contrast to the traditional theory of scientific objectivity, a belief based upon Cartesian dualism. Scientific objectivity operates on the premise that the investigator is able to divorce himself or herself from the data and engage in the research process free from personal bias. This process of separation of knowledge, however, is inherently value-laden in that the subjective factor which is intrinsic to the process is not acknowledged. Based on the researches in quantum physics, most people today accept the fact that there is no such thing as complete objectivity. The principle of complementarity, which is based on wholeness - the coming together of two correspondent things to make something what it is - seems to be more in keeping with the recently revealed reality of the subatomic world. At the most basic level of existence, where energy molecules interact irrespective of container, boundaries become meaningless (Singer, 1997). Objective knowledge based on the principle of boundary (division), such as observer-observed and cause-effect, becomes meaningless as well.
In a unitary reality, wherein the cosmos is conceived as being a creative whole alive with potential, and mind and matter are only two aspects of the same thing, knowledge arises out of the ground of subjectivity (Jung, 1969a; Peat, 1987; von Franz, 1988;). It is through our subjective knowledge, informed by all our senses, that we are able to know the “psychophysical unity” of a world that otherwise eludes us when we ignore the whole for the detail (von Franz, 1988). To understand this point, one need only think of the furor caused by Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe which came into direct conflict with the geocentric belief dominant up until the Renaissance. This conflict about the true center of the universe came about because certain scientists such as Copernicus became conscious of their subjective experience and aware of their humanity rather than being identified with it (Jung, 1970; 1971).
Most recently, scientists researching the human genome believed they would be able to fully map its territory, only to discover the limits of their knowledge in the face of genetic complexity. Limits are permeable boundaries, however. Each new discovery pushes the edge of knowledge out a little further from where it was before both adding to and advancing the base. This in turn brings about a change - a shift in perspective and a broadening of consciousness, thus presenting us with new questions and opening up new avenues for exploration.
Connected to the idea that all knowledge (ergo theory) is ultimately metaphysical are epistemological concerns, that is, concerns related to the nature and limits of knowledge - what do we know and how do we know it. Human knowledge is limited just because we are human - because we are conscious. We can only know as true or real what is made available to consciousness through our senses. Anything which cannot be known in this way is outside the scope of empirical science - this is as true for Jung’s psychology as it is for the other sciences (von Franz, 1975).
An important epistemological issue is the tendency of some writers to consider only pieces of Jung's work, rather than the whole. This has led to serious misunderstandings of his work from those looking in from outside of the discipline (McLynn, 1996; Noll, 1994). Throughout his long and productive professional life, one that encompassed the beginnings of psychology as a distinct discipline separate from philosophy and religion, Jung (1969e) experienced himself as being caught between the monster Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis - science and religion - because his work was forever being misunderstood as promoting one or the other.
Jung’s tendency to, in his words, “formulate my thoughts only as they break out of me…like a geyser” (cited, Jaffe, 1971, p. 8), and let others worry about organizing the material later, resulted in some rough spots or problem areas within his work as covered in the previous chapter. The resultant misunderstandings about it and his intent (Heisig, 1979; Hostie 1957; McLynn, 1996; Noll, 1994) are made even more difficult by the breadth of Jung's work. Jung developed his ideas, geyser-like in their eruptions from his psyche, in lectures, papers, publications, and correspondence over a sixty year period, dating from his early student days as a member of the Zofingia Society in 1896 until 1956, when he published his last written work. (The exception to this being his posthumously published memoir which Jaffe transcribed and also edited [Jung, 1965].) The final years of Jung’s life were devoted to correspondence and the reworking of previously published material (Jung, 1975; McLynn, 1996). Within this span of time, discernible stages of influence and interest can be identified: the scientific empiricism of his early years, the phenomenological-mythological approach of the middle period, and the metaphysical-theological approach of his late work (Chapman, 1988; Heisig, 1979; Hostie, 1957). To a certain extent this perspectival grouping of Jung’s evolving ideas into time periods is somewhat arbitrary, since throughout his work is traceable a consistency of thought and approach regarding the workings of the unconscious and its influence on the growth of consciousness. Thus, although mythology, for example, is identified as a focus in Jung’s work on psyche during the middle stage of his professional life (from c. 1930 to the late 1940’s), Jung (1969b) realized early on that the archaic language of myth, based on the symbol and an expression of the irrational aspect of psyche, conveyed a meaning vital to psychic growth and development. A mythological motif led Jung to his discovery of the collective unconscious and archetypes in 1910, and his first publication in 1912 deals specifically with mythological motifs and the symbols thereof analogous to the individual psyche’s purposive function of psychological transformation and individuation. As the perfect expression of the constellation of the archetypal-existential situation of humankind, mythology is an ever-present concern throughout Jung’s work. If his interest in mythology is more overt during his middle years, this is directly attributable to the innate psycho-developmental task directing the second half of life, the search for meaning, a meaning that is found in the world of matter through connection with the religious dimension of life. By the 1930’s Jung had established the scientific base for his psychology of religion, which enabled him to focus his interest more specifically on religion and eastern philosophy and the mythologies which structure them.
The two primary “threads” that Jung weaves together in his depth psychology to comprehend the workings of psyche - religion and science - will be discussed below. But, to return to the immediate subject, the “stages” of Jung’s writing, a central point must be made. As has been identified by numerous researchers, there is a consistent thread running through Jung’s work - it is the search to understand the religious function of psyche (discussed in a previous chapter as the movement to greater consciousness, a process known as individuation). Jung developed a synthetic approach to psyche, meaning that he looked outside the field of psychology for the correspondences or parallelisms that exist between disciplines in order to ground his observations of psychic phenomena in the existential situation of humankind - this in order to interpret psychic material and the meaning that it held for the individual experiencing it. However, although Jung looked to other fields in order to understand psyche and its functioning, his perspective is always psychological, and his work must be approached as such; when it is not, his work can be, and has been, misconstrued. Although Jung’s work is progressive in the sense that it is developmentally oriented and follows the natural course of growth - postulates were refined over time or discarded based on more recent discoveries, for example - it always reflects his main concern with the religious functioning of psyche. Jung is an intuitive writer, not a logical one. His thinking twists and turns and reaches backwards as well as forward in order to express what must be given voice. When Jung’s work is treated selectively by pulling out bits and pieces from his oeuvre absent a context such as its placement within the whole, and when his intuitive process-style of writing is not understood, his work can be and has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. For this reason, Jung’s writings, etc. must be read as a whole to fully grasp his intent and the richness of his work. Absent the time or inclination to do this, Hopke (1992) offers a “guided tour” of Jung’s Collected Works, while Jung’s (1965) posthumously published memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, is an intimate portrait of Jung and his life long journey to understanding psyche.
As an analyst, Jung was concerned with the scientific study of the unconscious and with the products of the unconscious (archetypes) made accessible to consciousness through symbols (archetypal representations). Jung (1970) believed that because “consciousness is a precondition of being” (pp. 271), and “alone makes …man [sic]” (Jung, 1969a, p. 210), “every step forward, even the smallest, along the path of consciousness, adds to the world” (Jung cited, Jacobi, 1953, p. 29). His aim was the growth of consciousness through the integration of psychic material from the unconscious made available to consciousness by way of the symbol. In analytical psychology, a well-developed person is one who is able to tolerate and work with the psychic conflicts that necessarily arise due to the inherent tension between consciousness and the unconsciousness (Jung, 1982). It was, Jung (1933) believed, only through individual expansion of consciousness toward the point at which an individual “is fully conscious of the present” with “a minimum of unconsciousness” (p. 197), that collective change was made possible. The moral and ethical dimensions of this challenge to ever-greater consciousness was made all too obvious to Jung as the 19th century turned into the 20th century and the world experienced the horrors of first one world war and then another, both played out on a scale and with weaponry never before experienced or imagined - a consequence he believed of too little consciousness in relation to the unconscious and its projection out into the world.
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Clinical presentation given at The Assisi Conference, The Confluence of Matter and Spirit: Patterning in the Psyche and the Natural World, Woodstock, VT.
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- Submitted by Stephanie Buck