An Introduction to Carl Jung

Austin Tannenbaum
9 min readJul 31, 2020


Few psychologists are as well known, or spark as much interest, as Carl Jung. He is famous for conceptualizing the unconscious as a collective, intuitive, meaning-making entity whose integration into the self is crucial for healthy personal and social functioning. Jung believed that the post-Enlightenment world’s emphasis on reason had caused humanity to isolate its pragmatic conscious mind from its more mystical unconscious mind and thus lose its sense of wonder, meaning, and connection to the world. Jung viewed this isolation as responsible for the epidemic of fragmented and hence neurotic individuals who futilely attempt to distract themselves from their psychological malaise with gratifications such as food, drugs, and alcohol. Jung’s prescription — a countercurrent to modernity’s twin virtues of reason and progress — is a return to the unconscious.

Carl Gustav Jung was born in Switzerland on July 26, 1875. His father Paul Jung was a Christian pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church. His mother was a typical housewife by day but transformed, according to Jung, into a mysterious and fearsome woman by night. As a child, Jung himself experienced a duality of being, feeling alternatively like a regular schoolboy and a distinguished gentleman from the 18th century. Jung’s encounters with split personality, both direct and vicarious, influenced his concept of the split, in which one’s psyche is fragmented into isolated parts.

Jung underwent numerous experiences as a child that influenced his adult thinking. When Jung was little, he crafted a figurine and endowed it with a painted stone. Later, he discovered that his act paralleled the aboriginal practice of collecting soul stones. This uncanny resemblance helped inspire Jung’s theory that each individual psyche shares in a collective unconscious that produces recurring themes throughout history. As a schoolboy, Jung was knocked out by a classmate and subsequently developed a temporary aversion to school. This event informed his ideas about the role of trauma in psychological complexes. Finally, Jung discovered his subjectivity at 11 years old, describing it as “stepping out of a mist.” This experience provided the germ of what became analytical psychology’s overarching theme of individuation.

As a youth, Jung entertained the prospect of becoming either a minister in the religious tradition of his family or an archeologist, given his interest in ancient lore and culture. He was deterred, however, by secularizing philosophy in the former case and the lack of an affordable program in the latter. Instead, Jung made the “opportunistic choice” to pursue medicine, which allowed him to study the natural sciences and afforded him favorable career prospects. In 1900, nearing the end of his degree, Jung planned to follow one of his professors to Munich to serve as his assistant. However, after being piqued by the introduction to a textbook on psychiatry that discussed “psychosis as a maladjustment of the personality,” Jung decided that he must pursue psychiatry and combine his love of both science and philosophy.

That same year, Jung moved to Zürich to work at the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital under the influential psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler. Around that time, Jung’s acquaintance with Freud began, first in the form of written correspondences and, starting in 1907, in personal meetings. The two became colleagues and enjoyed a close friendship for a number of years. However, Freud’s dogmatic temperament clashed with Jung’s questioning one and Jung eventually broke with Freud to found his own school. Jung attributed their break to differing personalities and was prompted by the experience to write the book Psychological Types, which outlines the different ways that humans experience the world using the categories of perception, judgement, and relation:


  1. Sensing: information is gathered by observing the physical world via the senses.
  2. Intuition: information is gathered by cognizing the invisible processes at work behind the scenes of the physical world.


  1. Thinking: evaluations and decisions are made by gathering evidence and employing reason to arrive at logical conclusions.
  2. Feeling: evaluations and decisions are made by assessing one’s own and others’ emotional needs and responses to arrive at a value judgement.


  1. Introverted: an inward-facing disposition that draws energy from reflection and solitude.
  2. Extroverted: an outward-facing disposition that draws energy from activity and people.

Every person possesses some mix of sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling functions. One’s primary trait combined with their relational modifier — either introverted or extroverted — determines their psychological type. Jung believed that the unconscious is revealed in a person’s weakest function and that a healthy personality requires the integration of one’s non-dominant functions. The ideal analyst-patient relationship, according to Jung, is one between two compatible psychological types.

With regard to his personal affairs, Jung married Emma Rauschenbach in 1903 and had five children with her. Despite Jung’s numerous infidelities, the two remained together until Emma’s passing in 1955. Throughout his adult life, Jung filled his days with clinical work, teaching, reading, and writing. He struggled with heart problems and succumbed to cardiovascular disease on June 6, 1961.

Jungian analysis, also known as analytical psychology, continues Freud’s psychoanalytical theories while refining and expanding them. For example, Jung affirmed the libido as the source of motivating psychic energy but suggested that it applies not only to sexual desires but also spiritual, creative, and intellectual goals. Jung also concurred that childhood sexual experiences influence one’s adult behavior but held that future, non-sexual aspirations shape it as well. Most significantly, Jung agreed about the existence of the unconscious but sought to enlarge its scope. While Freud acknowledged the existence of “archaic remnants” inherited by the psyche that exist independently of experience, Freud’s conception of the unconscious is largely limited to the place where one’s individual urges and traumas reside. Jung acknowledged this as the personal unconscious but added that the unconscious includes a collective component that contains shared conceptions about, responses to, and relations with the world, which all humans hold in common from birth, irrespective of culture or time period. Jung was an avid reader of Kant, and the parallel between Jung’s collective unconscious and Kant’s transcendental categories is undeniable.

To provide intuitive evidence for the existence of the collective unconscious, Jung uses a clever analogy: since our bodies possess physical commonalities such as eyes, a heart, and a liver, why shouldn’t our minds possess psychic commonalities? Jung points to human instincts and archetypes as the two primary examples of such commonalities. Instincts, according to Jung, are animalistic behavioral responses such as hunger, sexuality, activity, reflection, and creativity that occur in an unbidden manner. Archetypes, for their part, are primordial psychic structures that give rise to recurring universal symbols in myths, art, religions, and dreams. These symbols, or archetypal images include shared tropes (e.g. the hero, the villain, the wise man, the trickster), concepts (e.g. order, chaos, the sacred, the profane), and images (e.g. the fountain of youth and the tree of life).

Jung believed that the collective unconscious and its archetypes bridge the individual psyche to the unus mundus, or the “one world” from which everything emerges and to which everything returns. The unus mundus is understood as a unified ultimate reality that underlies all apparent difference and is itself represented by archetypes such as yin and yang, the ouroboros, and mysterium coniunctionis, or the sacred marriage of sun and moon. The unus mundus is the source of Jung’s famous concept of “synchronicity,” which describes meaningful coincidences that cannot be accounted for causally. According to Jung, a unified reality to which everyone is tied may explain how individuals are able to think, say, and do things in a coordinated way without prior knowledge.

Jung was fascinated by primitive societies, which he viewed as being in touch with the unconscious mind in a way that modern society was not. To Jung, primitive rituals and traditions embody an admirable openness to mystery and self-expression. Examples Jung recorded while traveling the world include spitting in one’s hands and raising them up at each sunrise to the god Mungu and embodying a plant or animal spirit as one’s “bush soul.” Jung contrasted this to modern society, whose obsession with being civilized closed off individuals to the unconscious. Jung warned that this closed off–ness creates serious individual and collective problems.

At an individual level, Jung argued that modernity’s runaway rationalism and civility risks neglect — or even denial — of an integral part of our being. For Jung, individuation, or the process of healthily asserting one’s identity in the world, requires the integration of one’s conscious and unconscious elements into a cohesive personality, or the Jungian self. In the Enlightenment age, which shuns the unconscious’s irrational intuitions and uncivilized urges, our psyche becomes fragmented into two components:

  1. The persona: the socially acceptable mask that we put on to make ourselves appear a certain way to others and hide what we don’t want others to see.
  2. The shadow: the repository of repressed thoughts, feelings, and desires, which we are afraid to consciously identify in ourselves.

The shadow is where the psyche stores its complexes, or mental concepts that, owing to some trauma, receive an outsized amount of psychic energy. Jung admonished that complexes, left unaddressed, will dominate the mind and cause issues such as poor memory and compromised performance. One common response to a complex is to compensate by exhibiting the opposite behavior—something Freud called “undoing.” For example, the inferiority complex causes a person who suffers from feelings of inadequacy to incessantly brag about themselves. This phenomenon is also illustrated in Jung’s dual concept of the anima and animus, which describes the feminine part of a man’s personality and the masculine part of a woman’s personality, respectively. Jung held that all humans possess masculine and feminine traits and that men and women should embrace their opposite-gender traits. Due to social pressures, however, men and women repress them and try to offset them by becoming hyper-masculine or artificially feminine. Whatever their genesis may be, complexes will continue interfering with an individual’s will and prevent them from individuating until they reconcile their fragmentation.

At a societal level, Jung blamed geopolitical conflict on a scaling up of fragmentation from the individual psyche to the nation state. In Jung’s words, “Our world is, so to speak, dissociated like a neurotic.” Jung saw that countries are quick to point out the wrongdoings of other countries but refuse to acknowledge their own faults. This tendency, according to Jung, stems from the rejection of the unconscious, which is comfortable in ambiguity, in favor of a doctrinaire posture that maintains moral absolutes and falsely assumes that utopia is possible. Such an attitude is dangerous in its denial of the nuance and complexity of life. According to Jung, “Man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites — day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil.”

To confront this issue, Jung advocates a spiritual rather than material or political solution, arguing that “change must indeed begin with the individual.” The purpose of analytical psychology is to help individuals facilitate personal change by reintegrating the unconscious into the self. Jung developed the technique of active imagination to access the unconscious mind through creative media such as meditation, word-association, inkblot testing, free-writing, art, music, dance, and especially dream interpretation. With respect to the latter, Jung specified that one must carefully analyze the dream in light of the individual’s unique history rather than defer to generic explanations. By revealing one’s unconscious material to oneself through active imagination, one is able to confront their shadow elements and healthily integrate them into the self. This in turn allows the individual to foster better relationships with themself and others.

Jung was a man at home in ambiguity. It is thus no surprise that he maintained a belief in the existence of a collective unconscious while simultaneously advocating for a highly individualized psychological treatment. His ambiguity extended to his cultural views as well: Jung was thoroughly Western in many respects, particularly in his emphasis on individual freedom and his reduction of non-European peoples to “primitives” with generic cultural practices. Yet Jung also criticized the Western world in Heideggerian fashion by arguing that its disconnect from the mystery of the natural world had caused humans to falsely believe that they had “conquered nature.” Similarly, Jung suggested that emphasizing thought over experience had given rise to “monstrous machines” that threaten environmental and nuclear destruction.

In this crisis, Jung was convinced that none of the world’s religions, philosophies, economic systems, or military powers could save us. Instead, he advocated looking to the unconscious for answers. There, we may allegedly find a more intuitive, relational part of the psyche which, when integrated in the self, will help us rediscover the “sense of the wider meaning to one’s existence.” Jung believed that a balanced and fulfilling spiritual life was just as important to human happiness as material acquisition. As he put it: “The meaning of life is not exhaustively explained by one’s business life, nor is the deep desire of the human heart answered by a bank account.”