What is the unconscious? What did Jung mean by the term and how does the idea fit into Analytical Psychology? The unconscious is another big idea in the Jungian lexicon, one of which literally and figuratively underpins the very foundation of not only Jung’s psychology, but arguably depth psychology as a whole. Depth psychology assumes that there is activity in depth, or put differently, there is something taking place beneath the surface of appearances. Naturally, this assertion buttresses any psychology of the unconscious. So again, what is the unconscious? Jung provided an introductory definition in his 1921 publication of Psychological Types:
The concept of the unconscious is for me an exclusively psychological concept, and not a philosophical concept of a metaphysical nature. In my view the unconscious is a psychological borderline concept, which covers all psychic contents or processes that are not conscious, i.e., not related to the ego in any perceptible way. My justification for speaking of the existence of unconscious processes at all is derived simply and solely from experience. (1921/1971, CW 6, par. 837)
As Jung’s definition suggests, there is nothing metaphysical about the unconscious. It is purely an empirical concept. Jung accredits the philosopher Immanuel Kant for having introduced the idea of “negative borderline concept” which could be said to be a clever way to affirm a negative.
In 1932, Jung wrote
In a certain sense I could say of the collective unconscious exactly what Kant said of the Ding an Sich—that it is merely a negative borderline concept, which however cannot prevent us from framing . . . or hypothesis about its possible nature as though it were an object of human experience. (1973, p. 15)
In other words, just because one cannot concretely put their hands around something does not mean it is not there. Strange as it may sound, one can still bracket an unknown as an unknown even if one does not know what it is. In mathematics these are called variables. We accept that “X” must mean something but it is not known until the equation is solved. As such, a negative concept is still a concept and one should not prohibit its existence. The idea is similar to the via negativa doctrine found in apophatic theology.
Elsewhere, Jung stated that
The unconscious processes that compensate the conscious ego contain all those elements that are necessary for the self-regulation of the psyche as a whole. On the personal level, these are the not consciously recognized personal motives which appear in dreams, or the meanings of daily situations which we have overlooked, or conclusions we have failed to draw, or affects we have not permitted, or criticisms we have spared ourselves. (1928/1972, CW 7, par. 275)
Jung was suggesting that there is an implicit and compensatory relationship between the conscious ego and the unconscious, which regulates the entire psychic system of the individual. Just as a boat is at the mercy of the behavior of waves and sea currents, the ego is surrounded on all sides by what Jung termed the unconscious. If a person is not conscious of something, it is said to be an unconscious content until it is made conscious and this process requires energy, which points back to the self-regulation of the psyche I described earlier. The greater part of the world, both inner and outer is unconscious, which may strike some as alarming, though nevertheless it is a fact. Even current cosmological models place the “known” universe as merely 4% of what’s actually out there (e.g., dark matter, energy, and other things that we do not have the proper words to describe).
Lastly, there is an entire range of phenomenology for what Jung viewed as the unconscious. Jung also viewed multiple degrees of the unconscious ranging from the personal to the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious belongs wholly to the individual whereas the collective unconscious is the repository for the combined natural history of the species: humankind. In fact, this model could extend to the entire animal kingdom and all life, large and small. Jung also reasoned that the unconscious is structured by what he would eventually call archetypes or universal patterns and possibilities of psychic functioning that are inherited not unlike certain genetic or biological features are.
The following description aptly summarizes the idea of a collective layer of the psyche:
The other part of the unconscious is what I call the impersonal or collective unconscious. As the name indicates, its contents are not personal but collective; that is, they do not belong to one individual alone but to a whole group of individuals, and generally to a whole nation , or even to the whole of mankind. These contents are not acquired during the individual’s lifetime but are products of innate forms and instincts. Although the child possesses no inborn ideas, it nevertheless has a highly developed brain which functions in a quite definite way. This brain is inherited from its ancestors; it is the deposit of the psychic functioning of the whole human race. The child therefore brings with it an organ ready to function in the same way as it has functioned throughout human history. In the brain the instincts are preformed, and so are the primordial images which have always been the basis of man’s thinking— the whole treasure-house of mythological motifs. It is, of course, not easy to prove the existence of the collective unconscious in a normal person, but occasionally mythological ideas are represented in his dreams. These contents can be seen most clearly in cases of mental derangement, especially in schizophrenia, where mythological images often pour out in astonishing variety. Insane people frequently produce combinations of ideas and symbols that could never be accounted for by experiences in their individual lives, but only by the history of the human mind. It is an instance of primitive, mythological thinking, which reproduces its own primordial images, and is not a reproduction of conscious experiences. (1948/1981, CW8, para. 589)
So to recap: According to Jung, the unconscious is an empirical concept. There were a number of thinkers that influenced Jung’s formulation of the said concept, and among them, Eduard Von Hartmann, C.G. Carus, and Kant deserve honorable mention. The unconscious makes up everything we do not know. Metaphysical assertions aside, Jung usually identified the unconscious as a psychic phenomenon rather than a metaphysical one. Yet to be clear, his thinking on this particular evolved throughout his long life, and I might add gradually changed as he speculated there was a transcendental ground beyond the psyche, or what the alchemists called the unus mundus.
Jung, C. G. (1971). Psychological types. In H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler & W.
McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) (2nd ed., Vol. 6). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1921)
Jung, C.G. (1972). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. In H. Read, M. Fordham,
G. Adler & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) (2nd ed., Vol. 7). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1928).
Jung, C.G. (1973). C. G. Jung letters, Vol. 1:1906-1950 (G. Adler, Ed.). (R. F. C Hull, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C.G. (1981). The psychological foundation of belief in spirits. In H. read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (R.F.C. Hull, Trnas.) (Vol. 8, pp. 301-318). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (original work published 1948).