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What Is The Collective Unconscious?: An Amateur Discussion

Updated on December 13, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


I use the term "collective unconscious" from time to time in my hubs, so I thought I'd write a short essay explaining what I mean by the term. I may or may not be using the term in a way that is faithful to its originator Carl Jung [Swiss psychologist and founder of analytical psychoanalysis; 1875-1961]. Its hard to tell sometimes, frankly, the writing in academic philosophy/psychology books and journals can be so dense and convoluted and hard to understand.

Let me just tell you how I use the word. Let me start with an example, a simile. The collective unconscious is like your local public library. Your local free public lending library is a public institution supported by taxpayers like YOU and everyone else who works for a living. As a public institution supported by public money, we can say that, in a sense, all of the books in that library, all of the video tapes and CDs (music and movie), and all the newspapers and magazines, and all the non-take-out-able (I just invented the word 'non-take-out-able') reference materials, all belong to all of you of a certain city in which the library is located.

But everyone is an individual, and as such has their own particular areas and topics of interest. No one person, I shouldn't think, is interested in all of the topics covered by all of the books and other materials in the library. An individual's interests, however wide-ranging, are nevertheless limited.

So, x person is a citizen of y city and uses the public library where she lives. She has her own interests and borrows the books and other materials on those subjects. But she has friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and family who also use the library. They have other interests and their borrowing pattern matches these interests accordingly. In her interactions and conversations with these people, she (x) is INDIRECTLY influenced by the other topics and areas of concentration (that she does not engage in directly herself) via the people in her life who engage in them -- by way of the simple process of day-to-day socialization. Do we all agree with that?

For example, suppose our subject, x, is interested in baking (not cooking so much), basketball, stamp collecting, Buddhism, and conservative Republican politics. Suppose her (x's) cousin, Amy, is interested in bowling, knitting, archeology, and studying spiders. Now, in a reasonably close, affable relationship between these two, we would expect some kind of cross-fertilization, I should think.

I don't expect that Amy would become Buddhist, right-wing politics, or take up basketball and/or stamp collecting. Similarly, I would not expect x (let's call her Jill) to take up bowling, knitting, archeology, or the study of spiders. Nevertheless, I would expect some cross-fertilization, that is, the interests of the other would somehow be factored into the thinking, at least, of the other person. Does that make sense?

In this way, then, the citizens of y city are all full "owners" of all the materials in the public library -- and yet can only pursue a limited range of topics of individual interests; and yet at the same time can be influenced and influence others whose interests are outside of a given scope. Follow?

To my way of thinking, then, it is the same way with the collective unconscious.

A culture, a local ethnic group (in addition to an ethnic group's diaspora), a local community, a nationality, or a religious group (distinguishable by ethnic, regional, national understanding of that religion), and so forth, shares distinct and universal "psychic" archetypes: dreams, nightmares, fantasies, "hopes," "dreams," fears, and so forth. These features may be good, bad, or indifferent. In other words, these features may be generally positive, relatively negative, or harmless and benign.

Each individual has specific access to certain of these features (dreams, nightmares, hopes, dreams, and the like), not all of them -- which would be impossible. But each individual, as a member of said community has "full" ownership of all of the psychic stuff in what is the collective unconscious of the group. Those features which certain people do not have specific, direct access to, nevertheless exercise a subtle influence on those individuals, to greater or lesser degrees depending on the individual and the circumstances under which he/she comes under such indirect influence.

For instance, you (whoever 'You' may be) may be interested in knitting. You may have a co-worker who is interested in Civil War reenacting (and is such, likely to be something of a Civil War "buff"). Due to the geography of where each of you live and the social "circles" you each move in, you two may not have much interaction with each other outside of work, and this being the case we might expect the cross-fertilization, between you two, as to your interests to be relatively weak -- but nevertheless, working togetther for years is bound to produce SOME cross-fertilization.

YOU are to a certain extent, determined by those specific items of the collective unconscious that you directly and most strongly identify with (due to such factors as race, class, family upbringing, environment, genetic predisposition, personality type, etc).

For instance -- and I'll just end with this -- in one hub I wrote about the government's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy in the military (recently repealed): What was the real reason for its existence in the first place? To me, the idea that allowing gay soldiers to serve "openly" would, somehow, compromise the "readiness" of U.S. military forces, and so forth, was not credible. Its not that people pushing this line are lying, I don't think they are. But they don't seem to be aware how nonsensical this view is; to my way of thinking, the sheer silliness of this alleged "reason" requires us to look elsewhere for the REAL REASON for such a policy.

The problem I worked on in that hub was this: What was the reason for the very implementation of the policy in the first place? I was specifically concerned with the American male military establishment.

Now, in that hub I noted the continuing epidemic of the rape of American female soldiers by American male soldiers (I provided a link to one of the dozens of articles setting this forth).

Then I recalled the fact that it often happens that perpetrators of violence become afraid that the same will be visited upon them, that someone will mete out retribution -- that the violent will become victims of their own violence.

Now then, what I am about to say here may sound crazy. But the craziness of an idea, in no way, prevents this idea (whatever it may be) from being psychologically operative.

But I put those two facts together (epidemic of rape of American female soldiers by American male soldiers; and the fact that victimizers become afraid of being made victims) to make the inference that in the collective unconscious of American male soldiers (perhaps the whole of American malehood) is the fear that if gay people (specifically for our purposes gay men) to serve "openly" in the military (as well as have full rights in our society) then we (heterosexual or the more tasteless term, "straight") Americans will be subject to mass rape by vampiric hordes of unstoppably lusty gay male libidinous marauders -- AND WE FEAR THAT WE SHALL BE POWERLESS TO STOP THEM! INDEED, PERHAPS AN UNCOMFORTABLE NUMBER OF US MAY NOT WANT TO STOP THEM!!!

Was that last part tasteless? Sorry. But my argument stands. This is a ridiculous fear, irrational, utterly without a basis in reality, and so forth but nevertheless so, I think. We American men, all own this but depending on how strongly each individual identifies with this (again based on family background, education, and other factors) you will either be seen as "tolerant" of "diversity" or a "homophobe" or "somewhere in between" (you know, the way Obama is for gay "civil union" but not for "gay marriage" though his views are constantly "evolving," as he puts it).

Alright, I'll leave it there. Thank you so much for reading. Ta-Ta!


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