Why Carl Jung?

I will be facilitating a three-part online seminar on Carl Jung at Incite Seminars, beginning on November 30. See the link for details. The reading material for the seminar will be provided to the participants.


Why read Carl Jung? A characteristic of complex thinkers is that they enable each reader to form a different relationship with them, finding their own reasons to engage with their work. If there is a benefit–especially for a beginner–in forming a relationship with Jung, that benefit could not be expressed in common, grand praises Jung receives from his advocates. Grand praises might motivate someone to begin reading, but at the same time, they distort the process of reading by jumping too far ahead of what is on the page.

Forming a relationship with the author requires postponing our judgments and evaluations, to enable a more concrete experience of the text and the style. We are unlikely to find, at first, those grand praises echoed in small encounters with the author on the page. We are more likely to find puzzles, difficulties, and a lack of clarity. We find other reasons, our own reasons, new and unexpected reasons, tentative reasons, reasons that could only be expressed with a quiet voice and an unsteady confidence.

The first step in our encounter, therefore, is to let go of our prior reasons, prior judgments, given to us by others. These include what is written on PowerPoint slides of professors who can apparently summarize any thinker’s lifework in a couple of slides. We let go of (others’) reasons to find (our own) reasons, which might eventually coincide with what others say. When we engage with a thinker’s work long enough, we discover features that couldn’t be summarized and are revealed only through a close engagement.


My Reasons for Reading Jung

(1) I think about Jung primarily as a thinker of solitude, as someone who dealt with solitude, carried it, lived it, enacted it, observed it, wrestled with it, enriched it, and transformed it. The psychological resources and techniques he developed are not interpersonal skills. They are intra-personal techniques (active imagination, dream analysis, thinking with psychological types, etc.), designed to equip the individual, working through problems without the help of others. The image of an alchemist is apt, as the alchemist represents being alone not only in one’s activity, but also alone in the way one is obsessed with (or possessed by) a vision. As a thinker of solitude, Jung discovered how broader and more general (historical, cultural, etc.) facts are reflected in the life of an individual. Thus, solitude does not mean detachment from society, or from history, and does not necessarily mean being ego-centric. It means a way of relating to culture, history, other people, and oneself.

(2) Jung is concerned with and is critical of the “normal” adult life, the life that functions properly and meets the collective-cultural standards and yet finds itself lacking something. Rather than saying he is critical of such a life, we could say he takes such a life as a major starting point of analysis. The difference between Jung and Freud should be understood with respect to their different concerns in relation to different stages of life. Jung admitted that patients who carry the impact of unresolved childhood problems could benefit from a Freudian or an Adlerian approach. For his part, he focused on problems that remained even after the person resolves childhood issues.

(3) I enjoy Jung’s unique approach to psychoanalysis. His optimism with regard to the unconscious psyche, the kind of wisdom and omniscience he attributes it, his thoughts about the universal attributes of the human psyche, his ideas of the Self and individuation (to which he adds a theological dimension), are all pleasantly charming. Ultimately, I find myself disagreeing with all of these major theoretical points, but my disagreement doesn’t prevent me from engaging with them. To be clear, I do not read Jung to have a debating partner. I am instead trying to understand his vision, which is so fundamentally different from my own. If Lacan’s later statement about psychoanalysis–that it is not a science, but poetry–is taken as guide, then my reason for reading Jung has to do with my appreciation of a poetic style.

(4) Jung’s ideas are frequently misrepresented and misused in contemporary discourses, typically in a reactionary manner against liberalism, modernity, and postmodernity. He is brought into the discourse on gender, patriarchy, and traditional social roles that are modeled on archetypes. He is presented as a prophetic genius, offering solutions to contemporary cultural and political problems. His concept of the archetype is taken as a defense of old, easy-to-identify patterns of being, rather than as identification of a type of force that might detract from our authentic engagement with reality in the present moment. Getting passed the misrepresentations of Jung is an extremely important reason to read his work, especially if you already find yourself thinking with/about words like archetype, shadow, persona, the collective unconscious, and so forth.

(5) Jung’s intelligence is intensely thought provoking, but our reading of his texts makes his humanity apparent, as well–his limitations, his biases, and his occasional inconsistencies. By reading his work, we can set aside the desire for a super-human guide, for the one Great Master who has all the answers. The Great Master doesn’t exist, but the material that does actually exist can help us learn/decide to live without great masters and once-and-for-all solutions. Related to Reason #4, the close engagement with Jung would make us immune to simplifications and misuses of him.


Why Read Carl Jung?

Your reasons might differ from mine, and I am very interested in hearing about them. If you’re not joining our seminar, and would like to read Jung on your own (or, even better, with a group of friends), I would recommend the Jung Reader, collected and edited by David Tacey (2012). Modern Man in Search of a Soul would also be a good choice. If you find Jung’s writing appealing, then you could try his extensive treatments of the unconscious (e.g., Symbols of Transformation), as well as his treatments of the conscious psyche and human personality (e.g., Psychological Types). The plan for our seminar is to engage closely with a few selected texts by Jung and continue asking the question (Why read Carl Jung?), considering different responses to the question, and not settle on any one response.

On Gratitude

A first observation about gratitude could be that it’s not easy. It goes against our common, habitual tendencies. Our attention goes effortlessly to the things that hurt, irritate, or annoy us, just as much as we forget nearly everything that helps us, enables us, and extends the reach of our experience.

A teacher notices the one student who is not paying attention in class. Although she is aware of many other things (other students, the classroom, her physical position in the classroom, and her train of thought), her awareness of the inattentive student engages her much more intensely.

We can replace the classroom example with the example of a pain in the body, which reveals our usual inattentiveness to the body. We notice the pain, as the teacher notices the absent-minded student, with heightened awareness.

There are exceptions to this general tendency. A person who lives with chronic pain might tell you he is having a pain-free day, which shows how being free of pain–something most of us would ignore–can take centerstage for someone. We have a comparable experience after recovering from an illness, though recovering from an illness doesn’t involve confronting something new. We are brought back to, and are reacquainted with, what we previously had. It is the direction of movement–from illness to health–that affords us a fresh perspective, not the experience of health alone. It is the background of illness that highlights the significance of health for us.

Photo by Michael Burrows

That leads us to a second observation about gratitude, namely its relation to the background of experience. Getting upset about the absent-minded student depends on the background (i.e., preconscious) assumptions about the classroom conduct of students. An expectation, a demand, a feeling that something “must be there!” arises from a background. Just like a musical note can sound false against the background (a musical stream), but fit in a second background, the student’s inattentiveness seems false (an interruption, an interference, something that doesn’t belong), against the teacher’s background assumptions.

Distinguishing the foreground and the background of experience, and their interrelation, is necessary for understanding our own responses to events. We discover what appears in the foreground. We discover our own responses, just as we discover external objects of perception, which is to say we do not spontaneously generate our responses–grateful or otherwise–in the present moment.

It seems to me, therefore, that the practice of gratitude aims to produce a shift in the background of experience. This view runs contrary to the self-help approach to gratitude, which aims to distort what is in the foreground. The self-help approach results in disappointment and disillusionment, because of the resistant nature of the facts of life. You start writing a series of self-congratulatory “affirmations,” as recommended by a positive-thinking guru. Half-way through a sentence, the tip of the pencil breaks, and it is all over.

To be grateful for something doesn’t require denying the facts of life, or affirming falsehoods. It might require, instead, that we pay attention to the facts from the right place (akin to approaching health from illness). It is that (starting) place that is important for our purpose. The practice of gratitude is the practice of beginning–and being able to begin–from that starting place.


Note: This post was partly inspired by a 2019 essay by Richard Keys about practice (posted on the blog, Dharmic D├ętourne) Thanks to Glenn Wallis for bringing that essay to my attention.