Carl Gustav Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist who founded the school of Analytical Psychology, emphasizing individual development toward self-realization. His wide-ranging and original insights into psychological functioning have had a profound impact on psychological thought.

Jung spent most of his childhood in Laufen, Switzerland. He was the son of a Swiss Reform pastor, and for this reason stood somewhat apart from the other children in his town. He enjoyed exploring the countryside, and developed a strong attunement with the natural world. During his childhood, he had memorable dreams and emotional and religious experiences that fueled a deep curiosity about the world and about religion.

As a young man, Jung studied medicine at the University of Basel. He also read extensively and studied Greek and Latin. After medical school, he worked as an assistant physician at the Burghölzli Hospital. He married Emma Rauschenback, and they began their family of five children.

It was during his years working at the Burghölzli that Jung began to formulate a theory of psychological complexes. Jung’s writings on complexes developed from his work with patients with schizophrenia. Jung listened to their stories and took them seriously, wondering about the symbolic meaning in them. Through the Word Association Experiment, he was able to demonstrate concretely how a complex disturbs a person’s thought processes. He found that negative complexes function this way not only in the seriously mentally ill but also in healthy, functioning people. His work in this area contributed to a psychological understanding of dissociation and to our modern diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia.

In 1906, Jung joined with Sigmund Freud to establish an international movement for a psychology of the unconscious, known as psychoanalysis. Jung and Freud were invited to speak at a conference at Clark University in Worcester, MA, in 1909. They traveled together to the United States, analyzing each other’s dreams on the sea voyage. While lecturing on dynamic psychiatry at the University of Zurich, Jung also edited the first psychoanalytic journal and wrote papers on psychological assessment, complex theory, personality, psychotherapy, and cultural psychology.

By 1912, Jung and Freud had begun to diverge in their fundamental understanding of the dynamics of the psyche. In 1914, Jung withdrew from the psychoanalytic movement due to his growing disagreement with Freud’s sexual theory of the psyche. Jung’s decision was also motivated by a desire to develop his unique insights into the archetypal dimension of the psyche. In his work with patients and in his own psychological process, Jung observed a mythopoetic structure in dreams, fantasies, and other psychological material that appeared to exert a healthy, balancing, stabilizing effect on the psyche. This insight rekindled his earlier interests in spiritualism and religious experience, and spurred new interests in mythology, anthropology, and, eventually, alchemy. He studied a discipline like medieval alchemy, not because he believed in it literally, but for what it might show about the phenomenology of the human psyche.

After parting with Freud, Jung entered a period of disorientation. As he wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he felt that he needed to develop a new attitude toward his patients and toward his own psychic material. He resolved not to bring any theoretical premises to bear upon them but to wait and see what they would tell of their own accord. In 1913, Jung had experienced a series of apocalyptic visions that appeared to predict the onset of World War I. This prompted him to take the contents of the unconscious even more seriously and to undertake a process that he referred to as a “confrontation with the unconscious.” He provoked an extended series of waking fantasies and engaged them through active, written dialogue and through painting. He recorded this imaginative process, calling it “active imagination,” in his Red Book, which was published in 2009 and includes exquisite mandala images and archetypal figures that he painted during this period.

Jung’s confrontation pushed him to explore shadow aspects of his psyche, which were deeply uncomfortable for him to address, but this was important because it furthered his knowledge of psychic dynamics. Jung believed the process to be necessary as a way of countering the narrow attitude that came from living in a modern Christian environment. At times, he practiced yoga to make the experience emotionally tolerable. Gradually, he was able to identify different patterns that appeared in his imagination, often taking the form of figures that he named, and he worked to understand how each figure fit into his personal psychology. From this deeply felt research, Jung identified a number of archetypes: the Child, the Shadow, the Anima, the Wise Old Man, the Hero, the Trickster.

Jung’s personal research proved foundational to his theoretical development. While he never assumed that other people’s internal experiences were the same as his, he was confident that the material coming from his unconscious reflected certain objective psychological processes, and this is why the themes could be identified in dreams, myths, and psychological patterns observed universally. In his private practice, Jung was able to build on these insights about the unconscious to develop a very powerful way of working with patients’ dreams, fantasies, and other unconscious material in the temenos of their sessions. By encouraging patients to find their own way to practice some form of active imagination, he helped his patients learn how to witness, understand, and relate to the images that emerged in their personal psyches. He discovered that when his patients were successful in doing this, they gained a new sense of meaning and wholeness through access to aspects of themselves that had been forgotten or lost or never known, and this individuation process unlocked the psyche’s own, vital, natural healing process.

In his scholarly writings, Jung undertook a comparative historical study of the individuation process in various cultures and epochs. Conceived as the natural pattern of human development, it formed the basis of a general scientific psychology. This seminal discovery of the individuation process and how to help it evolve became the Jungian method. It has also inspired the development of psychological techniques, theories, and movements that are widely known and respected outside of formal Jungian circles, like expressive arts therapies, sand play therapy, humanistic and transpersonal psychologies, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment, Alcoholics Anonymous, and, more recently, Internal Family Systems.

When not doing clinical work, Jung benefited from his extensive linguistic knowledge to research how the archetypes he had identified showed up in myths all over the world. His idea that the psyche of non-Western peoples preserved an archetypal way of experiencing the world goes beyond the evolutionary notion of the civilization process characteristic of most theory of his time. He believed that the individuation process takes place in all societies but is most clearly supported by cultural practices in places where thought has not been restricted by the rigid dogma characteristic of Europe at that time. Jung’s analysis of myth shares an affinity with Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural approach to myths, and his notion of the collective unconscious is still highly relevant for anthropological work on mythical consciousness.

Jung was fascinated by how religious experience manifested in the individual. Here Jung found a deep affinity with the work of William James, the father of American psychology, with whom Jung corresponded. He observed how numinous experiences could often provide individuals with a sense of greater meaning in their lives and connect them to some thing or some process greater than themselves.

Jung wrote on Christianity in works like “Answer to Job,” “A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity,” and “Psychology and Religion.” In these works he explored the vitality he believed Christianity had once had. Jung also explored Native American religions, and researched and wrote about Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism. He entered into rich exploratory dialogues with religious scholars, sharing a psychologically based understanding of myths, art, texts, and rituals. Jung also explored medieval European esoteric writing, in particular the texts on alchemy. He regarded alchemy as a symbolic manifestation of psychological processes and explored how medieval writers resolved psychological impasses through their alchemical writings.

After the death of his wife Emma in 1955, Jung spent much of his later life living a simple existence in the stone house he named Bollingen, which he built on a secluded piece of land on Lake Zürich. He derived much pleasure from reading, carving images into stone, and talking with friends, colleagues, and visitors. By this time, he had become an international figure, and a training program had developed, inspired by his insights and his approach. He died on June 6, 1961. The far-reaching quality of his mind, his scholasticism, his solid clinical work, and his deep commitment to self-exploration resulted in a wide range of writings on human psychology that continue to resonate today.


See also:

Jung, Carl Gustav (1989 [1963]). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Aniela Jaffé (editor), Richard Winston (translator), Clara Winston (translator). New York: Vintage.

Jung, Carl Gustav (2009). The Red Book. Liber Novus. Mark Kyburz (translator), John Peck (translator), Sonu Shamdasani (translator). Philemon Series. New York: W.W. Norton.