Carl Jung’s The Undiscovered Self

I was drawn to my first C.G. Jung book by the cover, silver material that served as a mirror. When I first picked up the 1979 edition of The Undiscovered Self at The Word bookstore on Milton Street, I found myself reflected in it. Although tacky somehow, it was nevertheless a clever play on the theme of self-discovery. Time magazine used the same trick on their cover when they recently announced that the person of the year is you.

The inside blurb calls this short book Jung’s “most prophetic – and most influential”. It has certainly proved to be somewhat prophetic of today’s ongoing debate about religion and science. The Undiscovered Self speaks of a growing rift between faith and knowledge, a contrast that “has become so enormous that one is obliged to speak of the incommensurability of these two categories and their way of looking at the world.”

Jung avoids the common pitfall of today which seems to reduce the debate to caricatures completely ignorant of the opposing point of view. He distinguishes between religion which expresses a subjective relationship to certain metaphysical factors and a creed which merely gives expression to a collective belief. Religion is understood in the broad sense, including the relationship of the individual to the metaphysical and the world of dreams, feelings and intuitions. Science, on the other hand, is the rationalistic, statistical and theoretical part of understanding. Self-knowledge, according to Jung, cannot be achieved by abandoning either of these facets.

Rationalized scientific theories are by definition generalized truths that attempt to go beyond the individual case, yet self-knowledge requires special attention to those things that are unique, individual and defy generalization


Since self-knowledge is a matter of getting to know the individual facts, theories help very little in this respect. For the more a theory lays claim to universal validity, the less capable it is of doing justice to the individual facts. Any theory based on experience is necessarily statistical; that is to say, it formulates an ideal average which abolishes all exceptions at either end of the scale and replaces them by an abstract mean. This mean is quite valid, though it need not necessarily occur in reality. ( p.8 )


Statistical methods show us an ideal average, not empirical reality; distinctive facts are individual. The real picture could consist of nothing but exceptions,

There is and can only be self-knowledge based on theoretical assumptions, for the object of self-knowledge is an individual – a relative exception and an irregular phenomenon. ( p.9 ) 

The individual cannot be understood as a “recurrent unit” but as something unique and singular. Jung admits that man is also a “member of a species” to be described as a statistical, comparative unit from which “all individual features have been removed.” This gives us knowledge about the human species, but it does not give us understanding of the individual since it is these ‘removed’ features that are necessary for understanding.

It is possible to store and accumulate knowledge in the form of memories. Understanding cannot be stored in the same way because understanding refers to events and experiences, of which only the memories can be partially preserved. Perhaps it is these memories that are the basis of our knowledge, but the relationship to the experience of understanding is ultimately unknown.

When I attended Marvin Minsky’s presentation on artificial intelligence at Concordia University last year, he was unequivocal about the fact that “experience” is much too ambiguous a term to be used in any definition of understanding. He went on to claim that hearing the term ‘experience’ is a signal for him that the person uttering it is worthy only of dismissal. This was not the most controversial of his statements that afternoon: he seemed to go out of his way to insist that religion is to blame for most of the world’s failures, including stagnating progress in science and technology and the failure to deliver real artificial intelligence. For Minsky, understanding is reducible to neural and semantic nets, representations of structure and function. According to his view, insight, illumination and creativity are all “common sense terms”, like consciousness itself, along with empathy, moral reflection and sense of identity; all are in reality too ambiguous and when correctly defined, reducible to structure and function. He seemed to blame religion itself for the fact that his structure-functional definitions of these terms have yet to take over the normative meaning.

Jung writes of the incompleteness of the scientific view of an individual

Judged scientifically, the individual is nothing but a unit which repeats itself ad infinitum and could just as well be designated with a letter of the alphabet. ( p.11 ) 

Czeslaw Milosz’ Captive Mind does precisely that, designating the characters not by the names of the individuals on which the stories are based, but by the letters of the Greek alphabet Alpha, Beta, Gama and Delta. Jacques Ellul argues that propagandists address their influence to individuals understood solely as interchangeable units, he writes in the first chapter of Propaganda: On the Formation of Man’s Attitudes,

Modern propaganda reaches individuals enclosed in the mass, yet it also aims at a crowd, but only as a body composed of individuals. What does this mean? First of all, that the individual is never considered as an individual, but always in terms of what he has in common with others, such as his motivations, his feelings, or his myths. He is reduced to an average; and except for a small percentage, action based on averages will be effectual. (p. 6) 


With books by Dawkins and Hitchens on the best seller lists, ‘scientific’ attacks against religion have become a common part of popular culture. Jung points out that at the time of his writing The Undiscovered Self, the basic conviction of the day is becoming “increasingly rationalistic”. Moreover, the growing conflict between faith and knowledge “is a symptom of the split consciousness which is so characteristic of the mental disorder of our day.” Jung actually describes this split as a neurotic disturbance at the social level,

In view of this, it does not help matters at all if one party pulls obstinately to the right and the other to the left. This is what happens in every neurotic psyche, to its own deep distress, and it is just this distress that brings the patient to the doctor. ( p.74 )


[Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from  Feb 18, 2008 ]