Man and His Symbols was the last book Jung had not only written, but also edited. He approved a final draft just ten days before his own death. And on top of that, the book is great.
But what is Man and His Symbols about? The primary purpose behind the book is to explain Jungian thought to a general public. Jung, with his students, wanted to explain Jung’s worldview for an average reader. After the general public had already become familiar with Freud, Jung agreed that it was due time that the general public likewise became acquainted with his own psychology.
Besides being a general explanation of Jungian psychology, there is also the purpose of exploring one’s own unconscious. As Jung said: “symbols derive their meaning by means of the unconscious,” and so a study of man and his symbols is also a study of man and his relation to the unconscious. So the two purposes behind the book are:
- To gain a general understanding of Jungian psychology
- To gain a deeper understanding of our own unconscious
I would say the book achieves both of these goals. If someone had to choose one Jung book to read, or needed to know where to start reading Jung, I would say “Man and His Symbols”. The book explains core concepts in Jungian psychology while using simple language.
The book will explain the nature of symbols, the unconscious, myths, individuation, and more.
When I first came across Jung, I never thought much about the word “symbol”. I figured it was being used in an ordinary sense; however, it is not. For Jung, symbols can be people, words, or images. In fact, there is not much limitation on what a symbol can be besides the fact that it must have a hidden meaning. In other words, “UN” is not a symbol because we all know the meaning for “UN” means United Nations; whereas, comparatively, your name written in red is a symbol because red has a hidden meaning for Jung. Jung believes red refers to life force, because we associate red with blood. Thus, your name written in red can be combined with the hidden meaning of life force, which makes your name a symbol, in this case.
Jung not only explains what his nuanced understanding of a symbol is, but he likewise explains his notion of an unconscious; which is quite different from Freud’s idea of the unconscious. Freud, being a neurologist before a psychologist, agreed that the unconscious was simply elements of the brain that modern neurology could not yet understand. He was a naturalist, despite his theories being a bit odd and non-empirical.
And while Jung, arguably, is still a naturalist, his notion of the unconscious is far beyond the empirical. Jung explains that the unconscious exists beyond the limits of sense perception, in a world not measurable by humans. He also explains that the unconscious is its own organism, it is an identity separate from our ego and self. Perhaps the most shocking thing in the book is Jung’s conception of the unconscious. I found it to be a nice blend of Schopenhauer, Edmund Burke, and Kant.
Another important concept explained in the book, a concept which is essential to understanding Jungian thought, is the notion of individuation. A confusing name but a simple concept. Individuation is the process of balancing out the conscious and unconscious aspects of our psyche. The goal of therapy for Jung is in part to reach individuation, to balance our unconscious and conscious sides. What is strange, however, about the concept as Jung uses it is that he thinks we can only do individuation by interpreting dreams. Why? Because the unconscious can only communicate to us through our dreams. That is the only time when the unconscious can enter the realm of the conscious, according to Jung. And so individuation can only be reached via dream interpretation.
The book has many strengths, such as teaching core Jungian thought, using simple language, and providing examples of the concepts being discussed; however, Jungian psychology is deeply subjective. To be fair, Jung believes we tend to throw away the baby with the bath water when we only favor measurement; because there are surely things we should talk about that reside beyond the realm of measurement. But the subjectivity Jung engages in, to be blunt, is at times quite wild. For instance, in one dream analysis, Jung believed the unconscious of one of his patients predicted her suicide. What had happened was a cold figure came and pinched her in her belly while she was sleeping, and the cold character was well known cultural image; Jung took this to mean suicide at a young age. We never get anything more than a “it is true because I said so,” explanation, which feels kinda weak given how entirely uncommon and counter-intuitive the subjective explanation of his patient’s dream was.
Overall, the book is a book that I would recommend reading to someone who wants to understand the core of Jungian thought, or wants to explore Jungian psychology but cannot pick one of his 30+ books to start with. If, however, you are someone who simply wants to learn about the unconscious, or find some self-help advice, do not read this book. There are better books for those purposes.
Jung, C. G., Henderson, J. L., Franz, M.-L. von, Jaffé Aniela, & Jacobi, J. (2013). Man and his symbols. Stellar Classics.