The Undiscovered Self – A Book Review

 

A Brief Warning

If you find yourself content with your understanding of yourself, others, and your nation, I firstly envy your clarity and secondly advise you to not read on. The theories posited in Jung’s essay are quite dangerous, dealing with the illusory nature of knowing ourselves, others, or our society. This is the case with much of philosophy–and that is precisely what this is: philosophy. Regardless of Jung’s credentials as a merited psychologist, by no means does this essay explore theories empirically or statistically.  ITs really up to the rader to decide its worth. Jung argues it ought to be that way, claiming statistics and averages only mislead (see below).

“The statistical method shows facts in the light of the ideal average but does not give us a picture of their empirical reality…it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way. This is particularly true of theories which are based on statistics. The distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality. Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity [emphasis added].”

Humans know themselves as they do their anatomy–though we have little understanding of every function and process of the body, it sustains us if we recognize it or not. I will note that some ideas in Jung’s essay proved too hypothetical to convince me. Regardless, he is a figure or intimidating merit, so I do my best in portraying his ideas as they appeared in the book. I am going to do this review a bit differently–instead of simply presenting my feelings on the essay, I would rather summarize it and let the reader decide how to feel. With that, let’s get started (you will find a few ideas quite timely).

An Overview

The Undiscovered Self is a seventy-paged essay by psychologist C.G. Jung. It is organized into seven sections, which I will cover chronologically below. In brief, the essay concerns “self-knowledge” and the nature of mass-mindedness in relation to “the State” and religion. It is pretty dense reading, and I find that Jung intermittently employs “obfuscation,” a purposive “blurring” of an idea to, perhaps, account for his own uncertainty–or perhaps I lacked the ability to comprehend a few of his ideas (more likely it is a mixture of both). This obfuscation was at times frustrating but the big ideas come appeared clearly by the last page. I found some points quite convincing, and others strangely spiritual and elusive. I wondered at times, “How on Earth could you know that for sure?” but recalled that he never claimed he did. This essay is meticulously written and I dare not question the credibility of the author nor the accuracy of the essay–because it simply cannot be known for sure. Regardless, the message is urgent and its call to action unique. I found its calling to arms a mass conscientiousness of psychology and our instinctual nature reminiscent of Edward O. Wilson’s request in his brilliant The Meaning of Human Existence. There are so many brilliant ideas in this essay I wish to include here, but for the sake of organization, they will be listed below beneath their respective sections.

I.
The Plight of the Individual in Modern Society

Jung claims in this section that we have made ourselves meaningless. Our system of governance and our institutions are tailored to fulfill the masses. As briefly stated above, these statistical means are misleading. Jung exemplifies the shortcoming of statistical means using a bed of pebbles: if he told you the mean weight of each pebble was 45g, you may feel you know a lot about the bed of pebbles; however, if you weigh each one, you may find some are 700g and others 0.05g–they merely “average out” to 45g. To treat the bed of pebbles as if they are all 45g is to be deeply misled, because “the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule.”

Jung claims that we are the pebbles–some of us are 700g others 0.05g–but our nation governs us by our statistical average (45g). Not a single pebble (person) may be 45g–some might even be drastically different. To reach averages, you must “throw out” the individual. This makes us, as individuals, negligible–mere functions of societies borne along the tide of mass movements, never mooring ourselves in place with reason–even rulers on the world stage are but “specialized mouthpieces of the State.”

Jung claims there exists only a thin stratum of fairly intelligent individuals amidst a sea of mass-minded people prone to rash, unintelligent action. This thin stratum is not moved by mass movements, only reason. The mass-minded people are easily moved by their emotions and often mislead themselves and others. Because these mass-minded people make up so much of our nation, they crush out the valuable insight of the thin stratum and, because of their rash action, make it necessary to have strict governance so the mass-minded to not harm the nation.

How do we educate the mass-minded people harming us? Well, you probably are one. I probably am one. It is not as dichotomous as Jung makes it seem (enter: my unwarranted opinion); in one way or another, we may be mass-minded, in other ways, more rational. Everyone wants to think they are in the thin stratum, but it takes a lot of insight and unbiased judgment. (Back to Jung) To thicken this stratum, we need to improve our self-knowledge. Jung is very vague on this topic, but claims self-knowledge includes knowing to the best of our abilities the nature of the unconscious and conscious and how they affect our proclivities.

How can we learn self-knowledge? You really cannot from anyone. Any theory of self-knowledge is an “average” of all individual’s self-knowledge–thus unrepresentative of the individual (just like the pebbles). Self-knowledge is a defense against “psychic infection” which facilitates mass-mindedness. So if this sounds vague, it is supposed to! You must discover yourself.

The plight of the individual, then, is his self-inflicted negligibility. To resist becoming a mass-minded individual, you must understand your own individuality.

II.
Religion as the Counterbalance to Mass-Mindedness

Even in the absence of gods, we make deities of “money, work, and the state.” In this respect, the religion of “mass man” (those in the nation who are mass-minded) could be upholding his nation’s principles–this is far more evident in dictatorships where the nation can replace God.

Religion is a good example of mass-mindedness. The secret doubts one may experience put him so at risk that he quells them with fanaticism (overcompensation of religious belief to make up for his doubts). This fanaticism makes him wholly mass-minded–and further tears him away from himself.

Religion can be seen as instinctual–we are curious by nature, so religion is an expression of that through making tangible unseen forces. Regardless of the different natures of traditional religion and religion of the nation, both of their goals are “worldly”; that is, the aims are not spiritual but overt: even distribution of goods, universal prosperity, freedom, etcetera.

Jung states that participation in these en masse systems (like religion or nation-worship) cannot be ended with rational debate because mass-mindedness by definition defies logic and favors emotionality; furthermore, the sheer power of religious conviction trumps that of intellectualism. He is not against religion and states that if read as not literal but symbolic it is acceptable.

III.
The Position of the West on the Question of Religion

 

“The West has unfortunately not yet woken up to the fact that our appeal to idealism and reason and other desirable virtues, delievered with so much enthusiasm, is mere bombination in the void. It is a puff of wind swept away in the storm of religious faith, however twisted this faith may appear to us.”

In this very short section, Jung states that nation-worship look an awful lot like Marxism, and that, in modernity, current knowledge is at odds with religious convictions. Traditionally (think Middle Ages), faith was justified–churches are based in tradition, thus their modern adherents are based in tradition. Mass-mindedness deceives adherents to believe these traditions are, despite modern knowledge, true (see fanaticism above). The secret doubts appear as unjustified traditional belief “disappears as soon as [they are analyzed].” Finally, he claims that our belief that man has conquered the space around him with his wit and machines is but an illusion–he is both the slave and victim of these machines.

IV.
The Individual’s Understanding of Himself

Jung begins this section in with an interesting insight: how strange, he states, that man, instigator and inventor of his nation and machines, made himself negligible. He states that we understand our anatomy by comparing it to that of animals–this comparison grants us bounds of information. However, we have no complexly self-aware being to compare ourselves to, thus remain in the dark about the nature of our consciousness. Consciousness, he further claims, will remain an “insoluble puzzle” unless psychology is freed and includes parapsychology and accounts for the unconscious. Jung believes the psyche is not merely the byproduct of physiological brain function nor a “purely personal matter” (I cannot find any explanation of the latter).

Jung makes a bold statement: because consciousness is empirically important to the human race (allowing us to achieve all we have ever achieved), and because consciousness greatly differs between individuals, equally important is the only manifestation of it–you, me, and every individual. Our nation and ways of self-governance rob our psyche of its uniqueness, impressing upon it statistical means.

But freeing the psyche is greatly feared, Jung continues–there is a “shadow” of the self that is rooted in instincts and the inherent “imagination of evil” of man (more on this later). Regardless, fear of the psyche only further stays us from self-knowledge.

To resist mass-mindedness, we need to understand ourselves and bring into balance two aspects of our psyche: (1) our reflecting consciousness, and (2) our instincts and heredity which we are bound to. You cannot alter one without detracting from the other. This constant aim to balance them creates inner conflict.

Jung blew me away with his ideas in this paragraph–he laid the groundworks of evolutionary psychology in 1957 (to my knowledge, albeit limited). Jung states that the instincts we are bound to formed in our primordial environment (evolutionary psychologists call this the “EEA”–environment of evolutionary adaptedness). The environment of modernity is greatly different from our oldest hominin roots, so there is discontent. He claims we must “remold” these instincts and archetypes (“blueprints” in the unconscious) to be more “adequate to the present.”

V.
The Philosophical and the Psychological Approach to Life

Jung states philosophy is no longer a way of life but an intellectual and academic exercise. Religion, too, has changed. He states (as written above) in the Middle Ages it was “true” (aligned with current thought) but that today it is dangerously at odds with modern discoveries. Its purpose today is, he states, “obvious”–to avoid nihilistic despair (we do not want to be meaning-seeking in a world void of meaning). Because of this, a “gulf” has opened between faith and knowledge.

Jung also claims that there is an inner conflict between (1) self-preservation and (2) species preservation, two fundamental instincts. Jung states we make moral judgments to reduce to the best of our ability collision between these instincts. Apes and humans, however, complicate this by being able to learn–an ability, Jung claims, comes from an imitation instinct. The imitation instinct modifies other instincts, granting us a learning capacity which gave us the ability to speak, write, erect civilization and read blog posts on WordPress.

Man is concerned with his conscious at the expense of his unconscious. Because of this “modern man knows himself only so far as he can be conscious of himself” which is, of course, not much. Jung says we must accept the unconscious as real. You can say your stomach is unimportant, but that doesn’t mean overeating will not have consequences.

VI.
Self-Knowledge

Jung states that religion experience flows from the unconscious–and that the theological conception of religious experience is worthy of doubt.

In a brilliant few paragraphs, Jung speaks of man’s innate “imagination for evil,” claiming only fools state evil is external (such as creating devil-like figures of believing there is a cosmic flow of evil). Being “harmless” or “naive” is as helpful as an infected man not aware that his disease is contagious. Modern man is no more evil than “primitive man,” Jung says he just has more effective means at his disposal.

The individual has an “ineradicable tendency to rid” himself of what he does not want to know about himself. He does so by foisting it off on other people or other things (thus explaining the conception of theological evil).

Human relationships are based on imperfection–the weak and dependent need others and come together in a rich symbiosis. Perfect people have no need for others.

VII.
The Meaning of Self-Knowledge

The “shadow” of the psyche is seen unjustly as wholly negative, Jung states–it can be both catastrophic or constructive. The psychologist’s job is to know how “precarious” the individual is in being prepared to deal with the “shadow.” He treats single people not thousands so nourishment of self-knowledge and awareness of psychology will take centuries. Jung believes it ought to take centuries–if it occurs quickly we have done something wrong.

Jung states our social goals to overlook key components of psychology for our own comfort only steep us in delusion. He claims he is not overly optimistic or idealistic, just concerned about the state of the individual in society.

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