Carl Jung in the Twenty-First Century

By Carter, David | Contemporary Review, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Carl Jung in the Twenty-First Century

Carter, David, Contemporary Review

CARL Jung is one of those rare mortals whose names have become concepts. When this happens it is usually because they have provided a unique and illuminating view of the world and the place of humanity in it. They have provided profound, enlightening and often disturbing visions of the human state. While many family names can be made adjectival, only a few have entered common parlance: Shakespearean, Dickensian and Kafkaesque, in the field of literature; Kantian, Hegelian and Marxist, in the realm of ideas; and in psychology the most common are undoubtedly Freudian and Jungian.

Carl Gustav Jung was born in 1875 in the Swiss canton of Thurgau, the child of a poor rural pastor and an emotionally unstable woman, the daughter of a wealthy professor. He studied medicine in Basel and later worked at the psychiatric hospital known as 'Burgholzli'. For some time he was greatly influenced by the theories of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, but they eventually broke off their relationship, and Jung went on to develop his own school of 'analytic psychology'. After his marriage in 1903 to Emma Rauschenbach, Jung continued to have intimate relations with other women, most notably Sabina Spielrein and Toni Wolff, who were both patients and friends. He died in Kusnacht, on June 6, 1961.

In this anniversary year (it is 50 years since Jung's death), it is timely to consider his status. His major works were written in the first half of the twentieth century and in many respects reflect the concerns and preoccupations of that era. How have his conceptions of the human mind and his mode of analysing it weathered the iconoclastic onslaughts of all those critical theories that have proliferated especially since his death? This is not the context however in which to pursue all those obscure pathways into structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and post-modernism, etc. The present author wishes only to discover which of Jung's ideas are still relevant to understanding the world today. Are they still compatible with the current state of scientific theories, and are they applicable to the various social and psychological ills that beset the world today?

While Jung's ideas continued to influence the practice of psychotherapy during the latter part of the twentieth century, scant reference is to be found to them in literary, cultural and social theory. Nevertheless he still has his adherents and many staunch defenders of his ideas. Strong evidence has been marshalled to support his theses, and many argue for his extraordinary prescience.

It is not necessary to delve into the most obscure aspects of his thought to assess some aspects of its value to us today. We should remind ourselves that we still frequently use his terminology without giving it a second thought. It is an accomplishment indeed to have developed a conceptual vocabulary, which many of us still use when discussing the mind and human personality. Jung may not have been the first to use many of the concepts, but he redefined them to explain the nature of the human mind, or what he preferred to call the psyche, as he perceived it. Introvert, extrovert, conscious, unconscious, collective unconscious, persona, archetype: these are all terms we use freely, usually without acknowledging that we are using them in a Jungian sense. There is no scope in the present article to explain these concepts in detail, but light will be thrown on them as the need arises.

Apart from providing us with a useful terminology for discussing the human mind and consciousness, Jung's writings also cover a range of topics, which arc clearly of perennial interest. A quick browse through the contents of his collected works reveals the extent and variety of his preoccupations: the spiritual life of man; the environment; war and aggression; fascist mentality; varieties of religious ideology and experience; modern myths; race and ideology; democracy and the individual, feminism and the feminine; fashion and taste; art and literature; technology and evolutionary development; civilisation and the notion of the primitive; superstition and spiritualism; and, last but not least, the fear of invasion by extra-terrestrials. …

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