Carl Jung and the Concept of Collective Consciousness

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The 20th century witnessed the destruction of the notion we had about ourselves as human beings. Rather than the dividing line on the Great Chain of Being, we were nothing more than the products of our childhood traumas suggested by Sigmund Freud’s tripartite theory of mind.

According to Freud, a person’s subconscious is shaped through their relations with certain people in their life. He also thought that organized religion, like the state and the culture, works as a collective superego that controls and represses the human urge to be a self. This notion of collective superego was extended by Carl Gustav Jung.

Training neuroscience development concept as a group of cog wheels and gears shaped as human heads with information transfer as a technology brain symbol or psychology exchange success.
The notion of collective consciousness was put forward by Carl Gustav Jung (Image: Lightspring/Shutterstock)

Jung’s Theories about Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung was Freud’s best student and closest disciple, who continued Freud’s psychoanalytic movement. Jung did not see eye to eye with Freud about the notion of organized religion. He considered the religious impulse to be naturally and universally a part of human consciousness. His belief in the universal consciousness was the central difference between him and Freud, which permanently separated the two.

Photographic portrait of Sigmund Freud, signed by the sitter ("Prof. Sigmund Freud")
Sigmund Freud did not accept the concept of the collective unconscious. (Image: Max Halberstadt/Public domain)

While Freud did not tolerate any ideas that were against his, Jung had different views. He agreed with Freud about the subconscious as a repository of primal desires. He also believed in the Freudian concept that many forms of neurosis were the result of the conflicts between the conscious and the unconscious. But he held that Freud had failed to take into account what he called the ‘collective consciousness’ as an expansion of the id. The human subconscious is not only the repository of personal experiences and memories but also those of the whole of humanity. All human beings share a subconscious mind that stores the memories of all human beings, alive and dead.

According to Jung, we carry the memories of our ancestors in our subconscious. We use this collective unconscious to assign structure and meaning to the world.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What are Jungian Archetypes?

Jung had observed similar patterns in images, characters, and events recurring in myths, religions, and cultural beliefs. These communities and societies were unlikely to have been in contact with each other, but their central stories featured the same elements with the same roles.

Jung refers to these central elements as archetypes. Also, he called the repeated occurrences of these archetypes in cultures isolated from each other synchronicities.

Carl Jung outside Burghölzli in 1910
Carl Jung discovered patterns among cultures and societies and called them archetypes (Image: Prints & Photographs Division Library of Congress/Public domain)

We can’t get specific detail of human history form the collective unconscious. What we get is a set of vague patterns, or archetypes. Our mind interprets the world and events using these archetypes and gives meaning to the world.

The differences we see in the specific features of each culture stems from the fact that each culture applies these shared archetypes based on their own geographical and historical peculiarities. But the central values are peculiarly common, so much so that, we cannot believe these cultures are independent of each other.

According to Jung, these patterns are both seen in the human mind and the whole world. He calls them collective unconscious noumena.

Learn more about the wisdom of crowds.

The Noumena and the Phenomena

The noumena had been distinguished from the phenomena by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. According to this German philosopher, the phenomena are the experience of a thing by the human, and the noumena are the actual thing.

For example, when we look at a pen, we get an image of it and think we know something about the pen. But the image does not have a physical manifestation; it is just in our mind. There is no way of knowing that what is in the mind is similar to the real thing creating that image. Does it really have the same features, or do we just think that the features are the same? According to Kant, metaphysics is of no use since we only have access to phenomena. We can never get outside of our minds. Therefore, we can’t be sure about the reality.

But Jung had a different idea. For him, the collective unconscious connects the mind to the world. We can get to reality through the collective unconscious, to which all the human species are all connected. Jung stated that there were curious coincidences that could not be explained while they were not completely random. They cannot be happening randomly and must have some explanation. We take them as signals sent by the universe to us. Jung believed that these synchronicities show that this collective unconscious connects us.

Another similarity between Freud and Jung’s ideas is that both of them study humans not in a vacuum but in relation to other entities. For Freud, the relation between father and child determines the nature of the human mind and behaviors.

Jung’s final step is that he dismisses the object as an individual and considers a unified whole. The object does not matter in its own right; it is just a mode of the larger collective reality.

Learn more about where do people’s personalities come from?

Common Questions about Carl Jung and the Concept of Collective Consciousness

Q: What is Carl Jung’s theory?

Carl Jung’s theory is the collective unconscious. He believed that human beings are connected to each other and their ancestors through a shared set of experiences. We use this collective consciousness to give meaning to the world.

Q: What did Freud and Jung disagree on?

Freud and Jung disagreed on some key aspects. For example, Jung believed that religion was a natural part of human consciousness, but Freud thought of religion as a form of collective neurosis. Also, Jung believed in the collective consciousness, which permanently split the two.

Q: What is the best definition of archetype?

According to Jung, archetypes are similar patterns in image, characters, and events that repeat in myths, religions, and cultural beliefs from different communities that were unlikely to have been in contact with each other.

Q: What are synchronicities?

Jung considers synchronicities as the repeated occurrences of archetypes. Since these occurrences are seen in isolated cultures with no connection between them, Jung concludes that humans are connected through a collective unconscious.

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