The Psyche is Real
4/12/23 By George R. Elder
I have not posted to this site for some time . . . while finishing a long book on the psychology of ancient Indian Buddhism. My Index is nearly complete, however, and The Self and the Lotus (in two volumes) should appear in a matter of months. So back to “JungElder.com.”
Let me remind the reader that I am not trying to say more or say better what has already been said about the world in which we live—and, instead, demonstrating how that world looks from a Jungian point of view. Nevertheless, I often consider it the “missing piece” in the general discussion. The Jungian perception is actually a new “world view,” i.e., a new subjective way of “seeing,” taking into account what we know about physical and mental reality so far.
As I look back, much has happened since the last post! The overall impression, however, is that it confirms that the psyche is real. Jung says, “The reality of the psyche is my working hypothesis and my principal activity consists in collecting factual material to describe and explain it.” (Collected Works 18, par. 1507) Elsewhere, he states, “I am of the opinion that the psyche is the most tremendous fact of human life. Indeed, it is the mother of all human facts of civilization and of its destroyer, war.” (CW 9i, par. 208). Jung even goes so far as to claim that “our only reality is psyche, there is no other reality.” (Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra,’ p. 986). If this seems an overstatement, it is because Jungian psychology is pushing back against the current materialistic “world view”—that claims only physical reality is real, and that the psyche or mental life is a bit like vapor and not quite real, certainly not as real as the physical brain.
Indeed, if there’s something wrong with a person mentally, it must have to do with the chemistry of the brain—for which a drug is prescribed. Almost daily, I hear people casually mix the words, “mind” and “brain.” The National Institutes of Health announces: “Lying in its bony shell and washed by protective fluid, the brain is the source of all the qualities that define our humanity.”
Yet we have been witnessing very publicly in recent years that the would-be “vaporous” reality of mere mental opinion can trump the facts (“Covid isn’t serious.” “Masks don’t work.”). Lying has become a very effective weapon in politics (“I did not say that.”—and people believe it!). The psychological “defense” called denial (“The climate isn’t changing so there’s nothing to be done.”) is rife.
True, I am speaking of a negative version of Jung’s “working hypothesis”—fortunately, there are healthier ones—but this exaggerated public display makes the “reality of the psyche” more obvious. I consider that a plus pedagogically, albeit a disturbing one to witness.
The principle underlying Jung’s saying that the mind is the “mother” of all human facts is the subjectivity of all human knowledge. That means we are always interpreting the facts (whatever they happen to be) and never experiencing them exactly as they are. It is why everyone remembers Berkeley’s question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there, does it make a sound?” Of course, it does. But the good bishop’s query throws us back on the personal, subjective character of all experience. And if there were two people in that forest, they would hear the noise of the falling tree slightly differently—and understand what happened in different ways.
The really important difference between one person’s interpretation and that of another, however, is the degree of consciousness that each person brings to an experience of the facts. One person may not even know what that means, functioning for the most part biologically, just above the level of their pet at home, seeking pleasure as the meaning of life. Another may have suffered some rude “awakenings” and been forced to rise up beyond the level of consciousness of most others, forced to admit that the satisfactions of being human do not end at the experience of pleasure. People are quite different in this regard. Some know that there is an unconscious that influences their consciousness.
A psychologically more developed person knows that truth is only ever approached, more or less accurately, but never exactly. So this person is wary of personal bias, of the unholy mixture of truth and the claim to power, of an inordinate influence from the unconscious that colors an interpretation with “absoluteness”—when absolute truth is an impossibility. Jungian psychology (as well as the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley) fosters a certain modesty, which does not preclude standing by one’s personal conviction.
It is important that we understand these things. Jung has warned:
it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes. The supreme danger which threatens individuals as well as whole nations is a psychic danger. (Jacobi and Hull, C. G. Jung: Psychological Reflections, 14).
Those are Jung’s italics—because a “psychic danger” is real.