Jung and Naturalism

One of the most common critiques I hear of Carl Jung’s theory – or theories, if you would like – about the unconscious are their seeming inability to co-exist with a naturalist worldview. For example, in Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct,” an argument is given against Jung’s theory of meaning, which is essentially synonymous with his theory of the unconscious. Jung believes some meaning resides inside the unconscious, and that such meaning has existed for many years, passed down through generations of humans. Pinker, however, believes genes do not carry abstract information like meaning, and any intergenerational information that is passed down directly from person-to-person, without culture, must come from genes. Instead genes are the instructions for how our arms, our brain, and our organs are to grow. And so, no unconscious meaning for hero myths or great mothers could be passed down through humans, since genes cannot carry such information. According to Pinker’s naturalist worldview, only building instructions are passed down through human biology. 

And as someone who abides by the naturalist worldview, I agreed with Pinker’s argument. He maintains that information between humans is passed down by either culture or biology; and that the information passed down through biology is incredibly rudimentary: i.e. building instructions. A very naturalist account, which persuaded me since I agree with naturalist axioms.

However, having now read some Jung and von Franz, a student of Jung, I can see how Pinker’s argument is not nearly as persuasive as I once thought, and how Jung’s theory of the unconscious could indeed be a naturalist theory. But for us to understand how that is so, we need to understand what I would call Jungian Metaphysics.

Jung establishes in “Man and His Symbols” an extremely clear worldview of human psychology, a worldview that entails some metaphysical reasoning. Jung argues that empirical sciences stop looking at what is beyond measurable, and so relegate themselves to silence. In areas where human sense perception reaches a limit, science goes silent. But Jung, adopting a sort of representationalist worldview as a background framework, argues that the world does exist beyond how we see it. Beyond our ordinary senses are things not knowable to science, since science cannot measure beyond the limits of our senses. And for Jung, the unconscious exists in that realm, the realm beyond what is perceived by us. 

In other words, for Jung, the mind is not simply whatever the brain is, at least not necessarily so. The unconscious exists, we can say, for practical purposes, in the noumena. 

We must also make clear, however, that Jung believes these two worlds are indeed one, but appear as two since our senses are limited. We cannot perceive the totality of reality, and so we only get fragments which we treat as being separated. 

Now nothing about that, so far, is actually against naturalism. Our inability to measure something does not make it supernatural or spiritual; it is instead a natural occurrence or property that we simply cannot measure, at least not yet. Just as I never observed Darwin’s existence, I can nonetheless hold a naturalist worldview of his previous existence. The lack of observation does not entail supernatural. And thus, this core idea of the unconscious is not necessarily anti-naturalism; in fact, it can be spun as a naturalist theory very easily; albeit, without much empirical grounding. 

But what about Jung’s theory of meaning? How does that become a naturalist theory? Marie-Louise von Franz, in an introduction to alchemy, said we can understand how the unconscious can have meaning by simply adopting a materialist worldview. In doing so, we can see that, if in our conscious minds we have meaning, then for a materialist it must also mean matter is interacting with matter to produce meaning. And so, by the same token, the unconscious can likewise be matter interacting with matter to produce meaning. And so, the unconscious can pass down knowledge through humans via the unconscious, and it can pass said meaning down by precisely the same mechanisms that the conscious mind adopts meaning: matter interacting with matter. 

Now whether we agree with materialism or not is somewhat beside the point. Materialism can fit the definition of naturalism, and so Jung’s theory of the unconscious can be naturalist. I would agree that the theory is not all that empirical, but that is not due to some incompatibility with empiricism; it is instead due to the limits of our measurements. And naturalism does not necessarily exclude things which we cannot yet measure, as naturalist’s are in favor of discovery. A naturalist view of Jung is possible, though not entirely empirical. 

Which brings me to why I think arguments against Jungian psychology, such as Steven Pinker’s argument, are not entirely persuasive: primarily because they come off as refutations rather than appeals to pragmatism. Pinker is trying to, for example, refute Jungian notions of meaning, which cannot be done by appeals to genes. Why? Because Jung never claimed genes were the conveyors of meaning, as far as I know. Jung believed the unconscious was more than genes; in fact, I believe he asserts that the unconscious is in some sense a separate identity, or a separate thing, from yourself. And individuation is when we balance the conscious and unconscious. So, arguing that genes cannot carry abstract information is not arguing against Jung, it is something entirely different. And those who reject Jung’s notion of the unconscious on grounds of not being a kind of naturalism are mistaken. His theory of the unconscious is naturalist, just not empirical at this point in time. 

With that being said, I can see some people rejecting Jung on grounds of pragmatics. If we cannot measure the thing which Jung is talking about, at least not yet, then we should instead focus on what we can measure. That line of pragmatic reasoning seems to be a perfectly good reason to not pay much attention to Jungian thought. But Jungian thought is also fun to read, so to each their own. 

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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