What is The Collective Unconscious
That part of the psyche which retains and transmits the common psychological inheritance of mankind. The collective unconscious is not individual but common to all mankind, and even perhaps to all animals. It is the instinctive aspect of the psyche, just as in the turtle knowing exactly where the water is at birth and knowing to go straight for it.
The collective unconscious consists of mythological motifs or primordial (pre-dating mankind) images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its exponents. The whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious -Joseph Campbell, 'The Portable Jung.
Jung saw the human psyche as made up of layers or strata.
First is the conscious mind. The ego is the term given to the organisation of the conscious mind, being composed of conscious perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings.
Those mental contents that the ego does not recognise fall into the Personal Unconscious. The Personal Unconscious is made up of suppressed and forgotten memories, traumas, etc. All psychic contents which are either too weak to reach consciousness, or which are actively supressed by the ego, because the latter is threatened by them.
Thus far Jung is in agreement with his old teacher Freud, in supposing the existence of the Unconscious mind, which includes all that is not immediately accessible to everyday waking consciousness (i.e. the Conscious mind or Ego). Conscious and Unconscious are thus the two opposed parts of the psyche.
Jung's great contribution however was to divide the Unconscious itself into two very unequal levels: the more superficial Personal, and the deeper Collective, Unconscious.
Everyone has their own Personal Unconscious. The Collective Unconscious in contrast is universal. It cannot be built up like one's personal unconscious is; rather, it predates the individual. It is the repositary of all the religious, spiritual, and mythological symbols and experiences. Its primary structures - the deep structures of the psyche, in other words - Jung called "Archetypes"; a later-Hellenistic Platonic and Augustinian Christian term that referred to the spiritual forms which are the pre-existent prototypes of the things of the material world. Interpreting this idea psychologically, Jung stated that these archetypes were the conceptual matrixes or patterns behind all our religious and mythological concepts, and indeed, our thinking processes in general.
Actually, Jung's choice of the term "archetype" is in some senses misleading. For in the late Platonic tradition, the archetypes con-stitute a totally spiritual reality; the original perfect spiritual reality or realities which generates the imperfect physical realities; the "thoughts in the mind of God" of Stoicism and Platonic Christianity.
But Jung interprets his archetypes in a biological sense. He says (no doubt due to the Darwinian influence of his age) that they are "inherited", and that they "have existed since remotest times". Yet even "remotest times" can still be located temporally. Such times may have occured an enormously long time ago, but they are still temporal. Plato and his successors would never speak of the Ideas or Archetypes or Spiritual Prototypes coming into being in some primordial past; for they saw these as spiritual realities, and therefore eternal; beyond time altogether.
For Jung then, the Collective Unconscious is not, as many of his popularisers claim, a kind of "Universal Mind" or metaphysical reality, like the Platonic World of Forms, but rather an ultimately biological reality. The Spiritual concepts of Platonism are not seen as metaphysical, but biological, or rather, psycho-biological.
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