Carl Jung and the Archetypes

Finn McBride
5 min readDec 30, 2022

Four years ago, I read an essay by Carl Jung, entitled Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. At the time, I expected the essay to be like the various other psychoanalytic texts I had read: a strange combination of both overzealous and mind-numbingly dull. However, it quickly became clear that Jung was not merely discussing the subtle forces behind daydreams and slips of the tongue, as the other psychoanalyists had been. He was discussing factors that might more rightfully be called forces of history: the fundamental psychological motivators for all of human behavior.

I became rapidly hooked, and sought out the rest of Jung’s writings with a ferocity. I tore through tomes the way I had torn through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series as a kid, and soon came to know his thought in a way I hadn’t with any other thinker.

In this post, I want to examine one of Jung’s most famous ideas: the idea of the archetypes.

Freud viewed the mind as being composed of three major parts: the ego, the id, and the superego. The ego is the conscious mind, the seat of the self; it composes our world of deliberate, sentient cognition. The id is the instinctual unconscious, the place of primal drives and urges. The superego is the internalized voice of society, working to prevent the id from surfacing in socially unsavory ways.

Jung acknowledged the existence of these three factors. However, he believed that there was more to the story. Accordingly, he hypothesized the existence of an entirely new realm of the unconscious: the collective unconscious.

Jung was deeply interested in why people of different cultures, time periods, and geography developed similar myths, completely independently. He believed that the similarities in these stories came from similarities in the minds creating them, and spent decades theorizing about what these similarities might be. He called these similarities — these common, collective structures existing within the human psyche — archetypes. He called the place in which they exist the collective unconscious.

Jung believed that, like culture, the collective unconscious was something that existed not just within people but also between them. Just as a human mind is not just a blob of neurons but also the myriad of intricate ways in which these neurons interconnect, so too is the collective unconscious not just the sum total of all unconscious minds and their contents, but the way in which these minds and contents combine and coalesce to create the human world we live in, a world that is as much mental as material. (Think about how many things in our day-to-day existence — money, companies, even countries — are sustained as much by the mind as by their material substrates. What is a dollar bill without it’s symbolic promise? What is a company without the idea that the people within it are somehow all part of some higher unit? What is a country without the same idea?)

A common misunderstand of Jung’s theory of archetypes is that these archetypes are mythological characters, like “the hero,” or “the wise old man.” Jung views these characters as symbols, which represent but are not identical to the psychological structures they spawn from. Though he sometimes refers to characters such as “the mother” as archetypes, as a form of shorthand, he takes pains in his more technical writings to stress the nonidentity between characters and archetypes. It is not that every mythology around the world tends to contain the same characters, as some Jungians like to claim. Rather, it is that every mind around the world is composed of the same basic structures, and that these structures tend to find their outward expression in similar symbolic characters. In short: common characters aren’t archetypes; common characters represent archetypes.

You might be wondering how this symbolic representation happens in the first place. Were the creators of the world’s mythologies consciously engaged in the metaphorical representation of their own minds? Or was this process unconscious, like the object of its representation?

I believe the answer is the latter. Naturally, another question then emerges: Why would the unconscious express itself in symbols, rather than directly?

In order to answer this question, it is important to understand something very basic about symbolism: symbolism is categorization. Why does this matter? Because categorization is the basic process by which we make sense of the world around us, and is deeply engrained into our mind as its basic mode of operation. Therefore, it would only be natural for the deepest recesses of our minds to make themselves heard through categorization — i.e. symbolism.

Symbolism is the act of representing something with something superficially different, yet similar in some important way. Thus Yuval Noah Harari can compare the action of terrorists in the Middle East to a fly buzzing in the ear of a bull in a china shop, coaxing the bull to destroy the shop. The symbol works because, though outwardly different, the two situations have a core of similarity.

Categorization is the same act of identifying a core of similarity between two things. To place two things within the same category is to treat them as the same, despite their differences. Thus a beanbag and a tree stump can both be categorized as a tree stump, despite looking nothing alike.

Symbolism is categorization because, by representing one member of a category with another, we draw attention to the core of similarity between the two members — i.e. the category itself — rather than the members.

The human mind first puts things into wide categories, than gradually narrows these categories down. This means that the way the mind processes a leaping lion is something like this: movement → threat → predator → lion → leaping lion with golden fur and a large mane. Notice that the perception of the lion comes after various broader categorizations. This is why people are capable of leaping away from a snake before they even see it: the “jump!” message reaches the spinal cord before the brain can process the data and turn it into a full-fledged visual perception.

Wider categories are the most crucial to our survival. Narrowers ones generally matter only later, when we are safe. So what are the widest, most fundamental categories? Put another way, what are the most basic elements of our existence as human beings? Jung’s answer was simple: these are the archetypes. As the most fundamental categories, they are also the most fundamental engines of symbolism, and therefore of myth and story.

Once you’ve understood this, the rest of Jung’s thought becomes much easier to wrap your head around. He believed that religious stories were true (or at least “psychologically true,” as he liked to say), for example, not because they literally happened, but because they express the fundamental elements of human existence in a rich manner. He believed that certain psychological forces could control us on a collective level, for example, not because some spooky telepathy connects us all (although he did dip his toes in such waters), but because it is a fact of life that categories that exist within the minds of all can affect the actions of all. He believed that dreams could contain premonitions of the future, for example, not because messages from tomorrow are being beamed into our brains while we sleep, but because a dream can tell us about the nature of the mind that produced it, and the nature of a mind can tell us about how this mind may fare in the future.



Finn McBride

The Skrillex of blogging. My Wattpad is @ireallylovemangos