Collective Unconscious

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The term was originally coined by the German psychologist Carl Jung, though it now carries a much broader definition than was originally intended. Jung conceived of the collective unconscious as a warehouse beneath the threshold of consciousness that housed the ideas, instincts, and thoughts of our collective humanity inherited throughout the generations. Beyond our personal consciousness (which is the accumulation of individualistic experiences, thoughts, and actions) is a collective unconsciousness which is universal, impersonal, and present within all individuals. In contrast to collective consciousness, the collective unconsciousness glides beneath the awareness of consciousness and only becomes conscious secondarily, manifesting itself in dreams, visions, aesthetics, fantasies, and trances.

The content of the collective unconscious is composed entirely of archetypes. Understood broadly, an archetype is any form of the mind that influences our thoughts which is present in human thinking across cultures and across time. Common examples include religious motifs, artistic imagery, and fantastical delusions. Much like instincts, archetypes are inherited, impersonal, serve a very specific function, and occur undetected beneath the threshold of consciousness. In fact, the only difference between an archetype and an instinct is that the latter influences our actions while the former influences our thoughts—and even this distinction has much gray area, being easily permeable both ways.

Hence, the concept of a collective unconscious is no more daring or speculative than the idea of instincts. Jung insisted that the existence of the collective unconscious was a matter of empiricism and not a matter of philosophical speculation. He argued that if one could find a universal form, an archetype, than it would be evidence for the existence of a region of our psyche which was collective in nature. Some classical examples of specific archetypes are the mythological motif of a virgin birth, the religious understanding of the fall and redemption of man, and the artistic portrayal of mandalas.

In contemporary culture, the term has taken on a much broader definition, typically more occultish and speculative in nature. Whereas Jung understood it in terms of archetypes, our culture ethos understands it in the sense that we are all connected psychically. The term is often misunderstood as meaning that we have the conscious power to remember experiences of past lives, to access the minds of other individuals, and to communicate telepathically. This understanding is far more speculative and less conducive to empirical research than Jung’s original conception of the term.

Sources

  • Jung, Carl. The Portable Jung. Edited by Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

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Author: Michael Dieciuc