The Undiscovered Self by Carl Gustav Jung; a Summary

Part 1

The Undiscovered Self is a short but dense book consisting of seven essays written by Carl Jung later in his life. The year in which it was written – 1957 which witnessed the Cold War and the aftermath of the two World Wars, the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust – is important to contextualise the nature of these essays. This book serves as an exhortation from Jung for finding ourselves as whole individuals before collectivist organisations such as communism, dictatorships, consumerism and technology (nuclear weapons) render our vulnerable neglected unconscious faculties astray and cause the destruction of the world and mankind. For ease of understanding, I have divided this summary into two parts. Part 1 provides a background into the premise of the essays and the issues that Jung takes up in the book. Part 2 aims to summarise the resolutions that Jung elucidates in response to these issues.

Carl Gustav Jung, born in 1875 was a Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist best known for conceiving Analytic Psychology. Like Freud, Jung believed there are three distinct yet inter-relating parts to a person’s functional network namely the ego-conscious, personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The ego-conscious is the conscious mind of a human relating to its external environment whereby elements of rationality, scientific discovery, awareness of emotions, memories and identity reside. The unconscious is the realm that is defined by the unknown, that ascribes to a spiritual and religious soul, contributes to “personality,” that which is irrational and violent and driven by instincts which he, further to Freud’s theories, purports has evolutionary ties with our ancestral past (transpersonal/collective unconsciousness). His most unique and influential contribution to psychiatry and neurosis analysis is, however, the division of the collective unconsciousness into sub-types of personalities namely, ancestral imagery and archetypes. The latter is a discussion reserved for another time, as ‘The Undiscovered Self’ is not so much a guide to his work in the field of psychology as it is a simple plea to the modern man to empower himself through self-knowledge – to individualise – by integrating the conscious (light) self with the unconscious (shadow) self.

Jung claims that the modern man, who focuses heavily on scientific rationalism and considers it “the only intellectual and spiritual authority,” has lost sight of the unconscious. This great split between the conscious and unconscious parts seems to have resulted in a rise in general neuroticism. He claims that, unlike the past where religion played a greater role, there is now a lack of an attitude to our external conditions (politics, materialism and the like) with a standpoint outside of it which allows us to exercise judgement and the power of decision – religion served as a counterpoise to the external developments of the “World and its reason.” Now, however, especially in the Western world, the focus is so heavy on scientific and statistical knowledge that the unconscious is suppressed, thus suppressing our individuality.

Religion paves a way for the man to get in touch with his unconscious through what we commonly call “spiritual experiences,” however modern religion which Jung annotates as “creeds” is not too differing from the authoritarian State; we are very aware of the present state of the Church and in the East, of Islam, where either for political gains or expediency of practice, religious orientation has turned into a mass movement where external power is employed, introducing the element of fear, to compel people to remain obedient to their ideologies.

 “The State has taken the place of God; that is why, seen from this angle, the socialist dictatorships are religions and State slavery is a form of worship.”

This corruption of the psychic metaphysical connection between man and an extramundane (out of the physical world) entity has morphed into religious fanaticism. Analogous to psychic indoctrination, Jung warns that when men subscribe to religion instead of a personal inner experience as they relate to God, they run the risk of losing their self and their individuality. The veneration of words like society and religion combined with the focus on the conscious has made man credulous, looking for meaning and validation in the external world as he is insensible to it from within. Consequentially, some of these men can work up the hierarchy for power, become leaders or tyrants and exercise their whims on the masses.

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Part 2

“The paradoxical evaluation of humanity by man himself, is in truth a matter for wonder, and one can only explain it as springing from an extraordinary uncertainty of judgement – in other words, man is an enigma to himself. This is understandable, seeing that he lacks the means of comparison necessary for self-knowledge. He knows how to distinguish himself from the other animals […] but as a conscious, reflecting being, gifted with speech, he lacks all criteria for self-judgement.”

To gain self-knowledge, Jung states that man must be aware of the individual psyche which harbours the consciousness. However, in today’s practice of Psychology, the first and only psychic recognition is ego, the possibility of a second psychic recognition is met with resistance and is treated as a by-product of an irrational mind. The development of the human mind over the past millennia has lead to the forlornness of the conscious mind born of a general contempt for the naturally/accidental and  a loss of instinct. Despite this resistance, Jung urges the individual to try to discover it even if this resistance is based on a fear of the unconscious – the irregularities and exceptions to the generalised, the uncontrollable or sometimes inexplicable nature of the archetypal images, that emerge on further digging. So, the psychologist uses statistics and generalised approaches to find solutions which Jung warns can only jeopardise the wellbeing and recovery of a patient. He urges that a psychologist or a person on the path of self-discovery operate between the convergence of knowledge and “understanding,” the former being scientific methods and the latter being non-verifiable “metaphysical convictions and assertions”.

Here, Jung highlights the positive dissonance of a religious person in successfully hindering the monarchy of the ego; a religious person is accustomed to the thought of not being “the sole master of the house”. However, he is quick to warn that the modern practice of “creeds” whereby a religious person measures his beliefs and conduct by the traditional ethical standard and thus by a collective value falls into the same trap. Jung does not say that the unconscious is equal to God but is the medium through which religious/spiritual experiences seem to flow, “we are dealing with an anthropomorphic idea whose dynamism and symbolism are filtered through the medium of the unconscious psyche;” whether someone believes in God or not, they can draw themselves near to the source of such experience. Gaining a knowledge of the unconscious can aid an individual in having a truly meaningful religious experience. Jung states that an individual experience of God is psychological, numinous and metaphysical and the ideologies of “creeds” should not determine an individual’s orientation in the world.

Apart from these two approaches, Jung advises us to understand the duality of the good and bad in each of us, to come to terms with the capacity of an individual for violence and evil and not only confine it to the criminals and enemies. However, since it is universally believed that man is merely what his consciousness knows of itself, he regards himself as harmless and so adds stupidity to iniquity. Consciousness has broadened and differentiated, so morality has lagged behind; Jung contends that reason is not enough for man in such a split state to avoid getting embroiled in mass-thinking and violent protestations. What is worse is that man tends to shift blame consistently to another. Regular self-criticism, questioning our own beliefs no matter their absolutism and comparing them with objective facts can help to avoid getting stirred up in mass-dynamics, losing ourselves and being unhappy.

The Undiscovered Self by Carl Jung gives a summarised background of the scope of his work and in my opinion, must be treated as a letter from Jung to us without the academic prospect of his other work; through his essays he hopes to quell a contemptuous repression, of which we are guilty, of our “shadow” selves and to open up our sense of curiosity about ourselves. Like Freud, Jung believes that our neglected and forgotten unconsciousness is a source of inner turmoil but unlike Freud, Jung tells us not to ignore or suppress the unconscious mind and desires to continue living but to accept that it can be violent, impure and challenging. By coming to terms with it, he claims that we can achieve a great strength and happiness and the power to make our own decisions than relying on the mass even though it is our infantile tendency to seek refuge and comfort in numbers.

Mass crushes the insight and reflection of individuals leading to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny. Once we have figured out our individual, we will be less prone to falling in the hands of dictators and authority who bid “sameness” and demonise and deny the individual. Instead, the society could become a collective comprising of individualised people. By narrowing the split between the conscious and unconscious, spirit and nature, knowledge and faith, we can prevent the pathological influence of scientific rationalism which operates under the assumption that an individual is an average and not a unique and singular set of irregularities. According to Jung, what will “save” us is an understanding of this set of irregularities, the individual consciousness and unconsciousness.

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