Notes Psychology

What are the Achetypes and the Collective Unconscious?

The Collective Unconscious

Your mind is made up of your conscious self and the unconscious. Your unconscious influences your thoughts and behavior without your conscious consent, it is the hand behind the curtain. But what is the unconscious? Jung diverged from the materialistic and restricted definition of unconsciousness that was the consensus among psychologists. He agreed that the unconscious depends on the individual’s personal experiences, but he believed that there was an extra layer to the unconscious – this was what he called the collective unconscious. While the personal unconscious is mostly made up of personal complexes, the collective unconscious is made up of archetypes.

And contrary to the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious is passed down from generation to generation – it is inherited the same way your physical characteristics are inherited. And it consists of pre-existing forms, archetypes, which can be made conscious. These archetypes can embody certain contents of the psyche.

Jung criticizes what he calls ‘Medical psychology’, the insistence of psychologists to think of the psyche in purely personal terms. The Freudian and Adlerian schools taught that the contents of the unconscious were caused by the direct experiences of the individual. But Jung argues that this psychology is still based on biological factors. Sexual instinct and the will for self-assertion are not by-products of personal experiences but are biologically inherited.

This is not so different from archetypes. Both instincts and archetypes are impersonal, distributed universally, and hereditary. They often fail to reach the consciousness of the individual, and these both instincts and archetypes are not vague and indefinite. They have distinct goals that they pursue, before the individual is conscious of them, and even after he is conscious of them.

The personal unconscious is a superficial layer of the unconscious. The deeper layer is the collective unconscious. That is, the deeper layer influences the superficial layer. The roots of the inferiority complex and the Oedipal complex are in the collective unconscious.

Jung believed that this collective unconscious existed, not only because of his experience with his own patients, but his study of mythology led him to discover that these archetypal symbols existed in all civilizations, during all time periods. That is, these symbols were not the by-products of a particular social group, they were not socially constructed. The only explanation to their ubiquity is that they are biologically predetermined, thus making them an inextricable part of the human psyche.

These symbols are not the same as archetypes, they are determined by them – the archetypes manifest themselves through images and symbols.


The archetypes are the contents of the collective unconscious. The anima, for example, is an archetype. It is the female personality in men. The shadow is another. Jung says that it isn’t enough to only become aware of the archetypes and reflect on them, when dealing with the shadow.

Archetypes are complexes of experience that come upon us like fate, and their effects are felt in our most personal life. The anima no longer crosses our path as a goddess, but, it may be, as an intimately personal misadventure, or perhaps as our best venture. When, for instance, a highly esteemed professor in his seventies abandons his family and runs off with a young red-headed actress, we know that the gods have claimed another victim. This is how daemonic power reveals itself to us. Until not so long ago it would have been an easy matter to do away with the young woman as a witch. 

In other words, the archetypes may have a positive or negative effect on your life, and they suddenly will appear in your life. There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in your life. Endless repetition of patterns of behavior has engraved these experiences into your psyche, and not in the form of images with content, but initially, only as forms without content, representing the possibility of a certain kind of behavior or thought.

When you are in a situation that happens to correspond to an archetype; that archetype becomes activated and a certain compulsiveness appears. For example, it may be that when you encounter a specific personality type, you become anima possessed.

Like an instinctual drive, this archetype will overcome your reason and will, otherwise, it will result in neurosis. There is no point in brushing archetypes away as being ridiculous, they are an essential part of the human psyche.

They form the “treasure in the realm of shadowy thoughts” of which Kant spoke, and of which we have ample evidence in the countless treasure motifs of mythology. An archetype is in no sense just an annoying prejudice; it becomes so only when it is in the wrong place. In themselves, archetypal images are among the highest values of the human psyche; they have peopled the heavens of all races from time immemorial. To discard them as valueless would be a distinct loss. Our task is not, therefore, to deny the archetype, but to dissolve the projections, in order to restore their contents to the individual who has involuntarily lost them by projecting them outside himself. 

Think of someone who is excessively aggressive towards a certain group of people. He may blame them for many problems, he may despise certain characteristics that they have, such as their propensity for evil, and their aggression. What this individual is doing is he is projecting archetypes into the world. Instead of recognizing the existence of these archetypal contents within himself, he lays the blame on others. The danger is that psychotic and neurotic disorders can develop when these archetypes are neglected for long enough, and not taken seriously.

We are, surely, the rightful heirs of Christian symbolism, but somehow we have squandered this heritage. We have let the house our fathers built fall into decay, and now we try to break into Oriental palaces that our fathers never knew. Anyone who has lost the historical symbols and cannot be satisfied with substitutes is certainly in a very difficult position today: before him there yawns the void, and he turns away from it in horror. What is worse, the vacuum gets filled with absurd political and social ideas, which one and all are distinguished by their spiritual bleakness.

Based on his theory of the collective unconscious, Jung doesn’t think its appropriate for a westerner to embrace Eastern mythology, but rather Christian symbolism, since this the heritage of the west.

Our intellect has achieved the most tremendous things, but in the meantime our spiritual dwelling has fallen into disrepair. We are absolutely convinced that even with the aid of the latest and largest reflecting telescope, now being built in America, men will discover behind the farthest nebulae no fiery empyrean; and we know that our eyes will wander despairingly through the dead emptiness of interstellar space. Nor is it any better when mathematical physics reveals to us the world of the infinitely small. In the end we dig up the wisdom of all ages and peoples, only to find that everything most dear and precious to us has already been said in the most superb language. Like greedy children we stretch out our hands and think that, if only we could grasp it, we would possess it too. But what we possess is no longer valid, and our hands grow weary from the grasping, for riches lie everywhere, as far as the eye can reach. All these possessions turn to water, and more than one sorcerer’s apprentice has been drowned in the waters called up by himself—if he did not first succumb to the saving delusion that this wisdom was good and that was bad. It is from these adepts that there come those terrifying invalids who think they have a prophetic mission. For the artificial sundering of true and false wisdom creates a tension in the psyche, and from this there arises a loneliness and a craving like that of the morphine addict, who always hopes to find companions in his vice.

What Jung is saying, in a way only he can, is that modern man has fatally sacrificed spirituality for the intellect. This is the gap that Nietzsche talks about, after the death of god, and the end of Christian belief. When you rely on the intellect alone, it is not that you will not find wisdom, it is that you will find wisdom everywhere, and will not know how to discriminate.

Instead of relying on the wisdom of Christian symbolism, or the contents of the Bible if you are from the west, you are hoping that science can give you the answer to the questions you are looking for. But according to Jung, these answers have already been answered, and you are looking in the wrong places. And the final consequence of relying on rationality alone for these answers, is a descent into the abyss. The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century are what happens when the wrong people make this descent, and rise up with their ‘prophetic missions.’

The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1)What are the Achetypes and the Collective Unconscious? 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.