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Jung's Archetypes

A Critique of Jung’s Concept of Archetypes

(07 October 2007)

Jung defined an archetype as ‘an irrepresentable, unconscious, pre-existent form that seems to be part of the inherited structure of the psyche and can therefore manifest itself spontaneously anywhere, at any time’ [Collected Works, 10, paragraph 847]. Archetypes, according to Jung, constitute the contents of the collective unconscious. This, Jung says, ‘contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual.’ [Collected Works, 8, paragraph 342].

In scientific terms, these are problematic definitions. For example, what is meant by Jung’s assertion that the collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution? Arguably, we are the products of our DNA. How does Jung’s ‘spiritual heritage’ relate to our genetic inheritance? Does Darwinian natural selection apply to this spiritual heritage? If so, what is selected and what is discarded, and how is this process conducted? Have some archetypes fallen by the wayside? Is there scope for random mutations in archetypes, as in genes? We have no fossil record to study, but we do have cave paintings. These show, unsurprisingly, animals (prey and predators), tracings of human hands, and little else.

We can’t examine archetypes directly since they exist in the twilight zone of the collective unconscious, a location as inaccessible as Kant’s noumenal world. We must infer their existence from how – via dreams, images, symbols, myths and stories – they allegedly manifest themselves in our consciousness.

Human evolution began with the appearance on earth of single-celled creatures. It is difficult to conceive where in the long trek from amoebas to humans, Jung’s archetypes might be involved. Humans and chimpanzees have 98% of their DNA in common. Analysis of chimpanzee behaviour reveals that it has many similarities with human behaviour. A theory that explains human behaviour is likely to have validity in terms of chimpanzee behaviour too, albeit at a level that is more primitive.

Chimpanzees and other non-human animals are not traditionally considered to be conscious, let alone have any kind of psychological unconscious. If a baby chimpanzee can have a perfectly good relationship with its mother and engage in all of the activities necessary for its survival without any resort to concepts such as archetypes and the collective unconscious, why should we, as humans, be different? Non-human animals know how to find mates. They have no requirement for anima/animus archetypes to guide this process. Is it plausible to imagine that humans should operate entirely differently in terms of this basic function? Occam’s Razor says that unnecessary entities should be omitted in explanations. Shouldn’t Occam’s Razor be applied to Jungian archetypes?

Jung’s hypotheses seem to treat humans as though they have nothing in common with other animals. Viewed in this light, his ideas are anti-Darwinian. In a sense, he has merely resurrected Descartes’ questionable mind/body dualism in a new guise. Although a great physicist like Wolfgang Pauli was once attracted to Jung’s ideas, no contemporary reputable scientists have engaged with Jung’s hypotheses, and it’s difficult to imagine how they could. Arguably, Jung’s hypotheses have no predictive power. They rely on ‘new-age’ activities such as the interpretation of dreams and divining the meaning of obscure symbolic representations supposedly generated by the unconscious. These are speculative, subjective undertakings that put Jung’s ideas on a par with mysticism, metaphysical speculations and religious beliefs.

Is it possible to conceive of human societies that do not as a matter of course contain all of the figures that Jung asserts are archetypal? In any human group, there will inevitably be fathers, mothers, children, mentors, heroes, cowards, cheats, liars, friends, enemies, girlfriends, boyfriends, jokers, sages, priests etc. If members of the tribe dream about such figures, has the existence of archetypes been demonstrated? Wouldn’t we expect members of a tribe to dream about the various people with whom they interact every day? After all, what else should they dream about?

Apparently, Jung began formulating his ideas about archetypes when he observed that insane people were seemingly invoking a collective fund of common symbols in their dreams and delusions. We are in no position to know if their dreams when sane were any different; nor is it clear that the symbols they were reporting were not susceptible to alternative interpretations, or if they were in any way led or ‘encouraged’ to report certain symbols. Did other investigators reach the same conclusions as Jung? Scientific methodology and objectivity appear to be lacking. Certainly, Jung has provided no credible proof of the existence of archetypes.

Atheists, on the face of it, lack the God archetype. What happened to it? In homosexuals, did something go wrong with their anima/animus archetypes? What role do archetypes play in the lives of autistics or people suffering from Down’s Syndrome? People who suffer brain damage often undergo significant personality transformations. What does this mean in terms of their archetypes and associated complexes? A Jungian analyst might say that the Ego is struggling with the Shadow, but why should a specific brain injury cause this? It is more logical to conclude that the personality derives from material considerations: the brain’s biophysics and biochemistry. These, of course, are susceptible to physical and chemical damage.

The interpretation of dreams forms a vital part of Jung’s analytical method. The problem here is that any interpretation whatever can be assigned to a dream and never be demonstrated to be true or false. To believe in a particular interpretation is simply to engage in an act of faith. As a form of therapy, science would rank it alongside something like homeopathy or faith-healing where any perceived benefits are attributed to the placebo effect.

If archetypes have any value in evolutionary terms, why are they so shadowy? What is the point of mysterious symbols appearing in our dreams when many of us can barely remember our dreams never mind meaningfully interpret them? Is this science or spiritualism? When we go to sleep, much of our brain remains active. Why should a dream be anything more than an epiphenomenal representation of residual brain activity? Jung assigns archetypes fundamental importance. If they are so significant and useful, as eyes and ears are to us, why are they so elusive?

It is telling that the arena in which Jung’s ideas about archetypes have perhaps had their greatest impact is in the creative writing industry. Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was strongly influenced by Jung’s ideas. Famously, Star Wars is closely modelled on the story-telling template outlined by Campbell. More recently, Christopher Vogler has written The Writer’s Journey which borrows heavily from Campbell’s work. Many creative writers use this book as a guide for how to structure their novel/screenplay and to decide which characters they should use to populate it. Hollywood is replete with screenplays following Campbell and Vogler’s ‘Hero’ template.

The field of literary criticism is perhaps the best arena for Jung’s ideas since they provide a framework for story analysis, and their subjective nature is in keeping with the rest of literary criticism. That’s not to say that such criticism would be without its difficulties. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is often cited as an example of the Jungian conflict between the Ego and the Shadow. Of course, it could equally well be interpreted as Freud’s Id versus the Superego. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is said to be another example of the Ego contra Shadow in literature, but perhaps it’s a cautionary tale about the pathological consequences of the Peter Pan syndrome. Is the TV series The Prisoner an additional example of Ego versus Shadow given that ‘No.1’ and ‘No.6’ are the same person, or is it telling us that we are our own gaolers, that the one inescapable prison is ourselves?

In Table A (below), the steps of the so-called Hero’s Journey are shown. In Jungian terms, this is considered an archetypal story, common to all human cultures. In the same table, I have shown how these steps have much in common with the rather unheroic task of a patient visiting a psychotherapist and undergoing a course of treatment. Equally, I could have chosen a trip to the dentist, applying for a job or any other rather humdrum task. In each case, many similarities with the Hero’s journey can be established readily. Far from being an archetype of a Hero’s journey, the twelve steps might be describing a typical event in any ordinary person’s life.

This, as we have seen, is the central problem with Jung’s hypotheses: plausible alternative interpretations are always available.

Table A



1) Ordinary World

Normal life; problem has not yet manifested itself

2) Call to adventure

First appearance of problem

3) Refusal

Reluctance to confront problem; denial; anger

4) Meeting with the Mentor

Meeting with Therapist

5) Crossing the Threshold

Negotiate programme of treatment with Therapist

6) Tests, Allies, Enemies

First attempts to overcome problem; encounter setbacks

7) Approach to Inmost Cave

The need to overcome problem is more urgent; danger of failure more apparent; depression setting in

8) Ordeal

Painful acceptance of problem and confronting it head-on

9) Reward (Seizing the Sword)

Possible cure; shining moment

10) The Road Back

Renewed tests, trials, temptations that threaten to reverse the cure

11) Resurrection

Cure tested almost to destruction, but survives

12) Return with the Elixir

Return to normal life, cured                                             

  In Jung: A Very Short Introduction by Anthony Stevens, we read on P.156: ‘What he refused to tolerate was the prevalent fallacy of scientism – the denial of everything that is not susceptible to scientific explanation. He preferred to give due weight to those irrational, acausal experiences which science declines to consider worthy of its attention.’ Perhaps the current prevalent fallacy is that weight can be attached to irrational, acausal experiences. A hypothesis based on such experiences might itself be considered irrational and it’s entirely proper that science should dismiss hypotheses of this kind since they lack the essential features demanded by the scientific method.

When Jung makes remarks, ‘Science comes to a stop at the frontiers of logic, but nature does not; she thrives on ground as yet untrodden by theory’ [Collected Works, 16, paragraph 524], he seems to be inviting us to embrace illogic. Paradoxically, Jung once held the stance appropriate to science when he said: ‘It is unprofitable to speculate about things we cannot know. I therefore refrain from making assertions that go beyond the bounds of science.’

Unfortunately, as has been demonstrated, most of his thinking, with archetypes at its core, appears to do nothing but go beyond the bounds of science.