Was Jung a “Crazy Stoner Wizard?” – The Foundations of Jungian Psychology

I imagine you’ll feel tempted to skip this article, and honestly, I debated with myself if was going to bring this discussion to the layman. However, I see Jungian Psychology being ridiculed and treated as something outdated every day, as for Carl Jung, many people still think he was a “crazy stoner wizard trapped in a tower”. It’s very regrettable what people in new age groups did to his reputation. In all fairness, most “Jungians” contribute to this circus as few of them actually spend time reading Jung in the source.

That’s why I feel it’s my duty to not only defend Jungian Psychology but to give you the keys to unlock a new level of psychological understanding. In just a few pages, I’ll attempt to summarize what took me a few years and countless restless nights to understand. After this first chapter, you’ll never see Jungian Psychology the same way, everything will become clearer. Lastly, I’d like to express my gratitude to my teacher, Heráclito Pinheiro, who was a great guide to this Herculean task. This first chapter wouldn’t be possible without one of his books called “O Pensamento Vivo de Jung”, which loosely translates as “Jung’s Living Thought”. It sounds better in Portuguese, anyway, buckle up! 


Facts first and theories later!

“Although I have often been called a philosopher, I am an empiricist and adhere as such to the phenomenological standpoint. […] As this statement indicates, I approach psychological matters from a scientific and not from a philosophical standpoint. Inasmuch as religion has a very important psychological aspect, I deal with it from a purely empirical point of view, that is, I restrict myself to the observation of phenomena and I eschew any metaphysical or philosophical considerations” (C.G. Jung – V11 – §2).

The first thing we have to understand about Carl Jung’s methodology is that he had an empirical approach and was completely averse to metaphysical claims. Furthermore, he used the comparative and descriptive method, in other words, he was interested in describing the phenomenon instead of formulating theories. In that sense, a theory would be a closed and fixed system, where you reduce the phenomena to a definite cause and strive to create a formula or a recipe that can be generally applied.

When Jung started developing his own ideas and epistemology, he was mainly moving away from psychoanalysis and Freud’s sexual theory. Jung regarded Freud’s ideas as one possible explanation among many and what drove them apart was Freud’s desire to raise his sexual theory to a religious level. When you operate with a fixed system, everything will be filtered through these lenses, consequently, this will always give you the same answers and promote a reductionistic attitude that strives to fit everything in a tiny box.

A grotesque example would be a few somatic approaches that claim that if you have pain in the right side of your body, you have problems with your father and the masculine, but if the pain is in the left side of your body, you have problems with your mother and the feminine. I know it sounds sketchy, but this is what happens when you try to create a formula, it’s something that appears to explain what’s going on, but in reality, it doesn’t. Furthermore, a generally valid formula will always disregard individuality, that’s why Jung was interested in describing the nature of psychological processes, rather than formulating a fixed theory.

With his epistemology, Carl Jung also criticized positivism and the statistical method, without completely abandoning it, as he was always striving to conciliate the paradox between the collective and the individual truth. In order to do so, Jung proposed the use of the dialectical method in the therapeutic setting. In his eyes, this is the only method that can fully respect individuality, as the dialectic doesn’t work with preconceived notions and fixed rules, and seeks to unravel the internal logic within the phenomena, also considering the peculiarities of the individual context. Finally, the dialectic is a method that strives to unite opposing tendencies in the psyche and produce a new synthesis, which Jung calls the symbol formation process, the core of Jungian Psychology. But don’t worry about this now, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to it.

Resuming our exploration, Carl Jung disregards the notion of a passive and “pure observation” of the phenomena postulated by classic empiricism. Being influenced by Kant, Jung believes that the subject is active in the process of knowing and that our pre-dispositions influence our interpretation of reality. Furthermore, Jung differs from the monist and physicalist approach that considers the psyche a mere fruit of brain activity. Being a dualist, he considers an interdependence between psyche and body, giving each one their own dignity. In that sense, Jung’s empiricism was founded on a psychophysical equation and a personal equation.

Classic empiricism postulates that humans are a tabula rasa to be marked by experience and that all knowledge is mediated by the five senses. However, in Psychological Types Jung explains that consciousness has four functions, namely thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. The sensation function is the one linked with sensory experience, however, perception isn’t limited by it, we still have intuition, which is a form of perception via the unconscious. Thus, intuition perceives all the elements that come from the unconscious which consciousness perceives as psychic images. Therefore, Jung considers perception the sum of sensation and intuition, which constitutes the psychophysical equation. It’s important to realize that these images aren’t invented by the conscious mind, rather they spontaneously appear independent of conscious will, which leads Jung to consider the existence of an objective psyche, i.e., which can’t be reduced to mere subjectivity, namely the impersonal or collective unconscious.

The second layer of Carl Jung’s empiricism is the personal equation, as he considers the subject active in the process of knowing and severely doubts the possibility of “pure observation”. Jung indicates that our subjectivity already interferes in the very process of observation, as he puts it, one sees what one can best see oneself. This becomes even more clear when the subject begins translating their experiences and tries to express them in words. This process will become clearer when we cover the concept of conscious attitude and the psychological types.

Learned Nominalism

In the second part of our exploration, we have to cover something that’s absolutely a game changer. In Psychological Types, Carl Jung referred to himself as a learned nominalist, which is neither a realist nor nominalist attitude, but rather something in between. Under this light, Jung’s work consisted in cataloging his findings in certain groups, once he realized there were patterns, he’d put a name on it, like the shadow or the animus and anima, however, it’s imperative to realize that the name itself doesn’t explain “what” the thing is, as this would be a metaphysical statement, these labels are simply a map to help us better navigate the nature of the phenomenon. That’s why you’ll never see Jung stating “what” the shadow is, rather, he’ll describe its appearance and how it generally behaves.

In Jung’s words, “In view of the enormous complexity of psychic phenomena, a purely phenomenological point of view is, and will be for a long time, the only possible one and the only one with any prospect of success. “Whence” things come and “what” they are, these, particularly in the field of psychology, are questions which are apt to call forth untimely attempts at explanation. Such speculations are moreover based far more on unconscious philosophical premises than on the nature of the phenomena themselves. Psychic phenomena occasioned by unconscious processes are so rich and so multifarious that I prefer to describe my findings and observations and, where possible, to classify them—that is, to arrange them under certain definite types. That is the method of natural science, and it is applied wherever we have to do with multifarious and still unorganized material. One may question the utility or the appropriateness of the categories or types used in the arrangement, but not the correctness of the method itself” (C.G. Jung – V9 – §308).

Apart from embracing many of Kant’s views, Jung was also heavily influenced by William James and his pragmatic approach to psychology, from which he adopted the notion of cash-value and conceptual short-cuts. The first one refers to how our beliefs shape our immediate experience in the world. For instance, if I believe I can fly, one of the immediate impacts in my life is that I might actually try to do it by jumping off a cliff. It’s interesting to realize that these beliefs may or may not be rooted in objective reality, raising the importance of our individual interpretations of reality and how this impacts the quality of our experience.

This pragmatic notion also impacted directly Jung’s views on psychology, as he doesn’t consider truth something static and universally valid, instead, he relates to truth in a dynamic and processual way. Truth appears in the process of validating an idea. In Two Essays On Analytical Psychology, Jung analyzes one particular case through two opposing points of view, Freud’s sexual theory and Adler’s will to power. It’s incredibly interesting to see how different the conclusions are when you adopt each one of these lenses, as the treatment will be the exact opposite. As you might have guessed, Carl Jung concludes by saying that both points of view are partially valid and what will determine its applicability is the individual context. May I add, from my personal experience as a therapist, it’s important to work with opposing truths at all times, as there’s variability not only in the individuals but also in their own experiences, which requires different lenses for different situations, and more often than not, a combination of opposing perspectives. In that sense, truth is an instrument and not an end in itself. Once again, we can see why different from Freud and Adler,  Jung didn’t have a theory.

The second notion, conceptual short-cuts, has to do with how we can use Carl Jung’s concepts, which he also referred to as empirical concepts or experimental concepts. Rather than saying “what the thing is”, he wants to give us a map to navigate the psyche. In other words, when you can name a certain pattern, like a complex, it gives you an orientation on how to treat it,  how the phenomenon behaves, what to expect, and what is the best direction to take. That’s why just knowing a fancy name means nothing, it’s just substituting the reality of the phenomena with words. For instance, I see this lazy interpretation all the time, when someone dreams with a woman, people immediately say “Oh wow, you just dreamed with your anima”. Knowing the name of something gives you the illusion that you understood it, but in reality, this means nothing and it’s not an interpretation. Even though it might be an anima figure, you have no idea what it means for the dreamer, why it appeared, or how to proceed. Knowing the concepts is just the first step, as they only point in the right direction so your exploration can begin. These concepts are simply an orientation and are meant to give you more work.

Psychic Reality

Now, we’re ready to explore Carl Jung’s most misunderstood idea, the notion of psychic reality and further our understanding of his attitude toward metaphysics. In Jung’s words, “It is really my purpose to push aside, without mercy, the metaphysical claims of all esoteric teaching […] To understand metaphysically is impossible; it can only be done psychologically I therefore strip things of their metaphysical wrappings in order to make them objects of psychology” (C. G. Jung – The Secret of The Golden Flower – p. 129).

In Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Carl Jung explains that our experience happens in between two realms, the objective and concrete reality mediated by the senses and the subjective and spiritual reality of the soul. However, Jung proposes that regardless of these two opposing realms, every experience we have is mediated by psychic images. To Jung, “The only form of existence of which we have immediate knowledge is psychic. We might well say, on the contrary, that physical existence is a mere inference, since we know of matter only in so far as we perceive psychic images mediated by the senses” (C. G. Jung – V11 – §16).

Furthermore, Jung appeals to Kant saying that we can’t ever know “what a thing is”. Even if we’re discussing objective experiences mediated by the senses, like witnessing a fire, the most we can do is explain its chemical reactions. But that’s it, no one can know “what” fire is in itself, or its “ultimate essence”, as this would also be a metaphysical statement. “The fact that I restrict myself to what can be psychically experienced, and repudiate the metaphysical, does not mean, as anyone with insight can understand, a gesture of scepticism or agnosticism pointed against faith or trust in higher powers, but what I intend to say is approximately the same thing Kant meant when he called “das Ding an sich” (the thing in itself), a “purely negative, borderline concept”. Every statement about the transcendental ought to be avoided because it is invariably a laughable presumption on the part of the human mind, unconscious of its limitations“ (C. G. Jung – The Secret of The Golden Flower – p. 135).

In facing this limitation, through an empirical and pragmatic approach, Jung proposes the psychological standpoint in hopes of ending the discussion between psyche and matter, and finding a way of uniting this paradox. In Carl Jung’s words “I would only like to unite these extreme opposites by an esse in anima, which is the psychological standpoint. We live immediately only in the world of images“ (C. G. Jung – V8 – §624).

To clarify this statement, I’ve separated a very important excerpt from Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, “The conflict between the physical and the spiritual aspects only shows that psychic life is in the last analysis an incomprehensible “something.” Without a doubt it is our only immediate experience. All that I experience is psychic. Even physical pain is a psychic image which I experience; my sense-impressions—for all that they force upon me a world of impenetrable objects occupying space—are psychic images, and these alone constitute my immediate experience, for they alone are the immediate objects of my consciousness. My own psyche even transforms and falsifies reality, and it does this to such a degree that I must resort to artificial means to determine what things are like apart from myself. Then I discover that a sound is a vibration of air of such and such a frequency, or that a colour is a wave of light of such and such a length. We are in truth so wrapped about by psychic images that we cannot penetrate at all to the essence of things external to ourselves. All our knowledge consists of the stuff of the psyche which, because it alone is immediate, is superlatively real. Here, then, is a reality to which the psychologist can appeal—namely, psychic reality” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §680).

“If we try to penetrate more deeply into the meaning of this concept, it seems to us that certain psychic contents or images are derived from a “material” environment to which our bodies belong, while others, which are in no way less real, seem to come from a “spiritual” source which appears to be very different from the physical environment. Whether I picture to myself the car I wish to buy or try to imagine the state in which the soul of my dead father now is—whether it is an external fact or a thought that concerns me—both happenings are psychic reality. The only difference is that one psychic happening refers to the physical world, and the other to the spiritual world. If I shift my concept of reality on to the plane of the psyche—where alone it is valid—this puts an end to the conflict between mind and matter, spirit and nature, as contradictory explanatory principles. Each becomes a mere designation for the particular source of the psychic contents that crowd into my field of consciousness. If a fire burns me I do not question the reality of the fire, whereas if I am beset by the fear that a ghost will appear, I take refuge behind the thought that it is only an illusion. But just as the fire is the psychic image of a physical process whose nature is ultimately unknown, so my fear of the ghost is a psychic image from a spiritual source; it is just as real as the fire, for my fear is as real as the pain caused by the fire. As for the spiritual process that underlies my fear of the ghost, it is as unknown to me as the ultimate nature of matter. And just as it never occurs to me to account for the nature of fire except by the concepts of chemistry and physics, so I would never think of trying to explain my fear of ghosts except in terms of spiritual processes” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §681).

As we can see, no metaphysical question has a definite answer, as we’re structurally incapable of knowing these realities for themselves. In that sense, Carl Jung adopts a rigid Kantian agnosticism, and rejects any pretensions to metaphysics, making statements exclusively in the psychological field. Therefore, when Jung speaks of God, he is not speaking of a really existent metaphysical ens, but of the psychic image of what constitutes the greatest amount of libido, the highest value operative in a human soul, the imago Dei. And even if this being exists, he would only be perceived psychologically, as a psychic image, we would never see him as he really is outside of us, only as an inner manifestation in our psyche. As Jung says, “There are men “whose God is the belly” (Phil. 3 : 19), and others for whom God is money, science, power, sex, etc.” (C. G. Jung – V6 – §67).  Lastly, Jung summarizes this notion with the elegant and pragmatic definition that “Everything that works, that affects is real”. 

Reply To Martin Bubber

Lastly, since many people have a hard time believing me and/or have certain prejudices, I want you to read these excerpts from the man himself. I’ll leave a few extra quotes from one of the most important letters Jung ever wrote. In this one, he was explaining his empirical approach to Martin Buber, as he was being accused of being Gnostic and a mystic. You can find the full letter in Symbolic Life under the title “A Reply to Martin Bubber’.

Carl Jung is simply a psychiatrist:

“Now when opinions about the same subject differ so widely, there is in my view ground for the suspicion that none of them is correct, and that there has been a misunderstanding. Why is so much attention devoted to the question of whether I am a Gnostic or an agnostic? Why is it not simply stated that I am a psychiatrist whose prime concern is to record and interpret his empirical material? I try to investigate facts and make them more generally comprehensible. My critics have no right to slur over this in order to attack individual statements taken out of context” (C.G. Jung V18 – §1500).

Facts first and theories later!

“I would like to point out to my critic that I have in my time been regarded not only as a Gnostic and its opposite, but also as a theist and an atheist, a mystic and a materialist. In this concert of contending opinions I do not wish to lay too much stress on what I consider myself to be, but will quote a judgment from a leading article in the British Medical Journal (9 February 1952), a source that would seem to be above suspicion. “Facts first and theories later is the keynote of Jung’s work. He is an empiricist first and last.” This view meets with my approval” (C.G. Jung V18 – §1502).

Carl Jung on his empirical approach:

“Buber is mistaken in thinking that I start with a “fundamentally Gnostic viewpoint” and then proceed to “elaborate” metaphysical assertions. One should not misconstrue the findings of empiricism as philosophical premises, for they are not obtained by deduction but from clinical and factual material” (C.G. Jung V18 – §1510).

Carl explaining why he doesn’t fit any system:

“It is inevitable that the adherents of traditional religious systems should find my formulations hard to understand. A Gnostic would not be at all pleased with me, but would reproach me for having no cosmogony and for the cluelessness of my gnosis in regard to the happenings in the Pleroma. A Buddhist would complain that I was deluded by Maya, and a Taoist that I was too complicated. As for an orthodox Christian, he can hardly do otherwise than deplore the nonchalance and lack of respect with which I navigate through the empyrean of dogmatic ideas. I must, however, once more beg my unmerciful critics to remember that I start from facts for which I seek an interpretation”(C.G. Jung V18 – §1513).

Lastly, Carl Jung on theosophy:

“But there is still another form of negative thinking, which at first glance might not be recognized as such, and that is theosophical thinking, which today is rapidly spreading in all parts of the world, presumably in reaction to the materialism of the recent past. Theosophical thinking has an air that is not in the least reductive, since it exalts everything to a transcendental and world-embracing idea. A dream, for instance, is no longer just a dream, but an experience “on another plane.” The hitherto inexplicable fact of telepathy is very simply explained as “vibrations” passing from one person to another. An ordinary nervous complaint is explained by the fact that something has collided with the “astral body.” Certain ethnological peculiarities of the dwellers on the Atlantic seaboard are easily accounted for by the submergence of Atlantis, and so on. We have only to open a theosophical book to be overwhelmed by the realization that everything is already explained, and that “spiritual science” has left no enigmas unsolved. But, at bottom, this kind of thinking is just as negative as materialistic thinking. When the latter regards psychology as chemical changes in the ganglia or as the extrusion and retraction of cell-pseudopodia or as an internal secretion, this is just as much a superstition as theosophy. The only difference is that materialism reduces everything to physiology, whereas theosophy reduces everything to Indian metaphysics. When a dream is traced back to an overloaded stomach, this is no explanation of the dream, and when we explain telepathy as vibrations we have said just as little. For what are “vibrations”? Not only are both methods of explanation futile, they are actually destructive, because by diverting interest away from the main issue, in one case to the stomach and in the other to imaginary vibrations, they hamper any serious investigation of the problem by a bogus explanation. Either kind of thinking is sterile and sterilizing. Its negative quality is due to the fact that it is so indescribably cheap, impoverished, and lacking in creative energy. It is a thinking taken in tow by other functions”  (C.G. Jung – V6 – §594).

After this stack of undeniable truth, I hope that the nonsense can finally end. You’re welcome to have your own beliefs about life as I have mine, and I respect that. However, I hope that you understand that we can’t butcher Jung’s work to justify our personal preferences. In conclusion, Jung divides his work into two categories, Complex Psychology which refers to his scientific approach, and Analytical Psychology which refers to his methodology in the therapeutic setting, both having an empirical foundation. This discussion is also amplified in this article. Lastly, If you’re an epistemology nerd and want to know more, I strongly recommend reading the whole of Psychological Types and Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. That said, now that we have the right lenses, we’re finally ready to dive deep into Carl Jung’s work.

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Rafael Krüger – Jungian Therapist

Start your journey with Katabasis – The Shadow Integration Manual

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