Prelude to a Book Review: Philosophical Issues in the Psychology of C. G. Jung

I have been working on a review of Marilyn Nagy’s Philosophical Issues in the Psychology of C. G. Jung. (1991. State University of New York Press, Albany.)

I had a strong, largely negative, reaction to this book. However, I am grateful to Marilyn Nagy. Her clear, concise overview of Jung and philosophy reignited my philosophical interests, which, for me, have always been about reaching “dry land.” That is, of getting myself out of a tempest-tossed “soup” of psychological energies, and living out of a more conscious (as opposed to an unconscious) position. 

Philosophy, for me, has always been about asking the questions “What do I think?” What is in my head and how did it get there?” And “Do I really want those things in my head?”

Reflecting on my own reaction to Nagy’s conclusions has been a jumping off point for finding my own path through Jung’s writings, with an eye towards answering the question, “What did Jung really think and write about philosophy?” “What is the relationship between psychology and philosophy?” Which is primary?

These are huge questions.  As I continue to study them, I thought I would document some of my feeling-reactions as sort of a preface to writing a full “book review” (I put this in quotations because my “review” has taken on a life of it’s own and is expanding into something larger). 

My reaction  to Nagy’s book, in condensed form, is the following: it is disconcerting to see Jung stuffed into the same philosophical containers which, during my college days as a philosophy student, so many other pregnant thoughts were deconstructed and left to rot on the back shelf. 

Nagy’s placement of Jung’s work  in a philosophic context (in what Nagy calls a “historical series” — and I mean here primarily chapters 3 and 5 ) — a procedure which should refine and enhance reality of the psyche — for me, loses or omits a great deal of Jung. Instead of a refinement and enhanced understanding of either Jung or my own experience, I feel more “alexithymic,” more without words to express the reality of  my experiences, or of what Jung said.

This weak-kneed view of the reality of the psyche doesn’t help me towards what has always been my philosophic goal: reaching a psychic “dry-land,” a conscious position which I can defend. Descartes had this goal: a starting he “could not doubt.” Jordan Peterson also speaks of this goal, a position which he has subjected to as many objections as he can.

But by the end of her efforts to place Jung in an historical philosophical context, Nagy herself writes:

History is in one sense a cruel teacher. I will not conceal the fact that during the years while I have been working on this project I suffered greatly, seeing the concepts which once were able to contain all that I knew of the depth and mystery of the human experience reduced to their place in a historical series.
– Nagy, “A Personal Note,” p. 269.

In other words, her confidence in the reality of the psyche has not been enhanced. It’s in further doubt.

Both the historical context Nagy presents and the subsequent loss of meaning is, for  me, all too familiar. The historical sequence of modern philosophy, from Descartes, to Hume, to Kant, to post-modernist thought, often has this unfortunate effect on students of philosophy as well as the man in the street; not a certainty or confidence results, but a skepticism ensues, in every topic to which this “historical series” of philosophic concepts is applied.  This instilling of life-crippling doubt, rather than confidence, is a major reason for the extremely low attendance in philosophy classrooms. 

Placing Jung in this series results in an “understanding” unsupportive of  experiences which Jung worked all his life to document as real, the process of documenting the reality of  living psyche. The loss of reality here is more than unfortunate, because reconciling with the living reality which Jung wrote about is, for some people, life-saving. 

Many people, like Jung, have had an experience of diving — or being driven into — depths similar to what Jung documented in his Red Book (as well as in many other works, such as his seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra ): the reality of the confrontation with the objective psyche. Here I am not referring only to the pleasant,  “grace of God is with me” experiences, but also the “Moby Dick” experiences of being swallowed, possessed by a energies so strong they bring you, to take an example, to emotions and realities as strong as Ahab’s quest for vengeance:

He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
– Melville 

Another example of being “possessed” by a psychological, archetypal energy is the falling in love experience, which can start out as pleasant, but end in a War of the Roses, equally sweeping the people “off their feet”. For me, those are some of the most startlingly real experiences, and Jung’s approach the best at describing and learning to handle them. Yet Nagy’s treatment would leave us not with a heightened sense of the reality and understanding of them (as for instance, does Edinger’s Melville’s Moby-Dick: A Jungian commentary : an American Nekyia ), but instead with doubts about their reality.

The term Nagy’s uses in her above final assessment, “reduced to,” is an odd term to bring up in the context of Jung’s works, considering

  • a) how frequently Jung admonished his students to avoid reductionism, to avoid thinking of the psyche as “nothing but,” and
  • b) how energetically Analytical Psychology strives, not to reduce, but  to expand or augment consciousness to include experiences beyond normal ego experience.

In a book often cited by Jung, Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, Otto describes overwhelming experiences (encounters with God or with archetypal energies) as “numinous,” and points out that they have the characteristics of:

  1. awfulness, often expressed as dread or “shuddering.”
  2. overpoweringness or majesty, such as Job experienced when confronted with the magnitude, the power and inscrutability of God’s creation.
  3. energy or urgency, expressed in the Old Testament as the wrath of Yahweh and frequently symbolized by fire.

John W. Harvey, in the introduction to Otto’s book, adds that:

The primary fact is a confrontation of the human mind with a Something, whose character is only gradually learned, but which is felt from the first as a transcendent presence, “the beyond,” even where it is also felt as “the within” man. 
– Harvey (emphasis added)

Reducing the depth and mystery of the human experience is contrary to what Jung worked for his entire life.

Nagy’s placement of Jung squarely in the historical series surrounding Kant and German Idealism, although brilliantly and concisely executed, left me, as it did Nagy, with the feeling of reading a kind of “Glomar response” concerning the reality of the psyche. If you recall, the Glomar response is a now infamous and still used legal precedent set in 1975 by the CIA and goes like this:

in the interest of national security, involvement by the U.S. Government in the activities which are the subject matter of your request can neither be confirmed nor denied . . .  the fact of the existence or non-existence of any material or documents that may exist which would reveal any CIA connection or interest in the activities . . .  is duly classified Secret. . . . 

This feeling quality of not being able to “confirm or deny” the reality of something,” which is not Nagy’s invention, but a frequent occurrence after the encounter with modern philosophy, gives the people who need the life boat of Analysis very dim hope. 

I thus felt compelled after reading Marilyn Nagy’s book to speak up for the reality of symbolic or imaginal life which Jung writes so much about. Nagy speaks of this very little.

In her “Personal Note” Nagy continues to state a very real truth about Analytical Psychology:

What is real in the work I do seems to be, first, the symbolic process – the mystery of the dream and the sense of “meaningfulness” by which it is apprehended by the dream.
– Nagy, p. 269.

Well, OK! Great! But the short treatment of the symbolic process on pages 136-139  hardly does justice to this realm Jung worked so hard to bring to life through the use of active imagination, explorations into Alchemy, his own dreamwork in the Red Book and elsewhere, and a lifetime of writing. 

When contemplating the reality of the psyche  the position of contemporary analysts similar to Jung’s also comes to mind. I am thinking here of the essays where Robert Romanyshyn’s writes: “The imaginal is the grounding of the world; it has, therefore, ontological priority over the empirical and the rational.” – Romanyshyn, Ways of the Heart, p. 118.

Surely authentic students of Jung should be able to agree on this much:  More than anything Jung wanted to bring a reality to the psyche, especially the symbolic or imaginal  aspects, and there is a lacuna here in Nagy’s treatment. 

The Argument from Clinical Practice
However, my major objection to the philosophic context in which Nagy places Jung is driven by experiences in my own personal psychotherapy and analysis, and from observing the experience of others undergoing clinical treatment and/or personal growth groups.

When I look at the serious needs of people needing to grow and individuate, and the maladjustments to their own life energies, I become angry with Nagy’s conclusions about the ontological status of Jung’s ideas.

After her note about having suffered for placing Jung in a historical series, Nagy writes:

“Strangely enough, my work as a Jungian analyst has not been affected . . . .”

Reducing Jung to this particular historical series would affect my progress in any personal therapeutic problem I was trying to solve. If I were a therapist, I know the skepticism here would affect my work and how I would proceed with treatment.

Whether the therapy is Jungian, Maslowian, Gestalt or whatever, the goal in therapy to discover the patient’s (the sufferer’s) objective needs, which are not apparent to him or even to the the analyst at first. If you’ve been abused, the goal is discover the fact that you are a real person who doesn’t deserve to be abused, scapegoated, or neglected. In Jungian Analysis, the goal is often to discover that you have a soul and it doesn’t need to be neglected and is frequently angry about being neglected.  The goal might be to is to retrieve a part of one’s soul that got lost in a chaotic family or trauma, or to discover a part of one’s future self calling to be realized.

If you are an abuser, the goal is similar, because abused and abuser are two sides of the same psychological coin. Two responses to the same psychological situation. 

These lost/unknown parts of ourselves are already difficult enough to get at. At the start of a therapeutic engagement, the lost parts barely visible, (although  “from the outside,” the mal-adapted behaviors, addictions, moodiness, depression, might be quite visible, the sufferer does not see the cause.) His “Umwelt,” as Esther Harding might say, his “worldview” of his own personhood (his “narrative” about himself)  is small and narrow.  Under the influence of modern scientific theories, he may not even believe he has a soul or anything at all inside (such as was explicitly taught by Behaviorism.)  (If God is Dead, then isn’t the soul dead along with it?)

Esther Harding writes about expanding an heightening awareness of the “Not-I” – seeing beyond the narrow limits of one’s “bubble,” beyond the known to the reality  which fills in the dark areas on the map of one’s own interior. 

In therapy and analysis, through active imagination, dream work, discussions, interpretation, reading, self-reflection and looking at one’s slips and mal-adaptations, energetic complexes which existed in the shadow regions of the gradually mind take shape. The therapeutic work brings a hidden reality to life, or, to use and acoustic metaphor, “turns up the equalizer” on a reality which was there, but was so far in the background it only showed up as symptoms. 

Isn’t it the reality of these background energies the goal of all clinical practice? 

Jung writes that this process is an “opus contra naturum.” Against nature. No one really wants to do it, they get forced into it by their symptoms. Nobody really wants their bubble burst.

Therapy and individuation hard enough already (for both the patient and the therapist) , yet here we place Jung in a philosophic context that makes us doubt the reality of the ultimate goal, the “Not-I” as Harding put it.

A proper philosophic understanding of what’s happening in clinical practice strengthen our resolve to do it. But this skeptical treatment of Jung did not strengthen the vision of the reality of the psyche for Nagy, and it doesn’t do it for me, either.

How are we to expand our consciousness of dim parts of ourselves if we don’t believe that this reality on the shadowlands is more real than the “everyday” reality a suffer is familiar with? This “unreal reality” is  causing symptoms!.

Nagy takes the only possible way out: compartmentalize and say, “Well, this conceptualization of Jung is a little depressing, but it doesn’t affect my work!”

I could not do that.

The complacent skepticism  present in the historical series of  Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant has always disturbed me. This historical series of thought is frequently deadening ,  and to me, has always seemed to be best at killing enthusiasm and introducing self-doubt.   We end up with a feeble belief in the reality of the psyche as well as lack of feeling and conviction about other phenomena. It is a little bit of what is wrong with Western culture, we are unable to feel the reality of much of anything. 

When I think, for instance, of sexual abused women, and the work that has to go into convincing many people that they didn’t deserve the abuse, or the feelings of de-realization that accompany disorders like schizophrenia — the therapeutic work here is all about helping the sufferer remember and recover a reality: that they are a human being with a soul and deserve to be treated better. 

For the sufferers who need therapy,  the reality of their problems is already dancing too far in the twilight of consciousness. Neither I nor they need a weak-kneed belief in the reality of the psyche, the soul, or of inner life.

Conclusion – Jung as a Scientist
Yes, we do need to consider Jung’s many statements about how “Kant is his philosopher.” But this does not mean that Jung either subscribed to the entirety of Kant’s philosophy, or that the historical series Nagy outlines encompass Jung in his entirety. This historical series may not exhaust Jung.

The historical series Nagy outlines is this history primarily of  “continental” philosophy. Placing Jung in this series does not do justice to Jung’s many assertions of being an empirical scientist, nor to his actual procedure of investigation of the psyche, from his association experiments on up to his  later search through history for empirical manifestations of the psyche. Jung’s approach  place him in some sense in the traditions of empiricism and scientific method. Thus, I am in agreement with Edinger’s assessment of Jung’s work:

I consider Jung’s work — as I think he did — to be primarily a scientific accomplishment. What he did was discover — through his own personal experience both individually and with patients — the objective psyche, the psyche as an objective entity in contrast to a subjective entity. And that led him into a region of such immense dimensions that he spent the rest of his life trying to describe and present some of the major aspects of the nature of the objective psyche. So, Jung is primarily, fundamentally, a scientific genius who has made a totally new discovery. Fundamentally, that’s how I think of him.
– Edward Edinger, interview “Edward F. Edinger in Conversation with Lawrence W. Jaffe,” in An American Jungian. pp. 68-69.

Nagy’s short chapter entitled “Jung’s Empiricism and the Common Consent Argument” hardly does justice to the empirical side of Jung, nor to Jung’s enormous compilation of eruptions of psychic energy throughout history and in various religions, which is something that Kant never undertook.

In my upcoming “book review” I hope to show that placing Jung in an exclusively Kantian context leads to a loss of many of things Jung worked for all his life. Jung’s work certainly developed in the context of Kantian philosophy, and even set the agenda for Jung’s psychological investigations. But Jung’s actual work and thought, reaching back through many ancient historical traditions,  is too big to be exclusively contained by the historical series in which Nagy places it.

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