Last month I wrote my introduction to C.G. Jung and
his world of dreams. Many people since then have expressed a strong curiosity in
other areas of Jungian psychology. To be more exact, the theoretical side.
However, with Jung, one can never stray to far away from the dream without
loosing his meaning. One of my favorite ideas of Jung's is the transcendent
function. Below I will outline the origins and evolution of the idea over the
years. Then, I will add my own speculation to some of the problems contained in
the original 1916 essay, "The Transcendent Function."
Carl Gustav Jung had already developed the philosophical driving force behind
analytical psychology by the time, in 1916, he had written, "The
Transcendent Function." The sub-title should read: "Herein lies the
philosophy of Jung." Though difficult to understand, the question Jung
(1961) proposes is just as salient today as it was then: "How does one come
to terms in practice with the unconscious?" (p.67)
The year was 1916 and World War I was raging. Jung was serving the Swiss
military at Gotthard Pass. It was during this time that Jung wrote his essay,
"The Transcendent Function" (Hannah, 1976, p.126). Jung(1961) later
called this period of his life his "confrontation with the
unconscious" (1961, p.170). One gets the feeling of Jung's (1966)
"confrontation" in his Two Essays on Analytical Psychology:
The process of coming to terms with the unconscious is a true labor, a work
which involves both action and suffering. It has been named the
"transcendent function" because it represents a function based on real
and "imaginary," or irrational and rational, data, thus bridging the
yawning gulf between conscious and unconscious. It is a natural process, a
manifestation of the energy that springs from the tension of opposites, and it
consists in a series of fantasy-occurrences which appear spontaneously in dreams
and visions (Jung p.100).
Jung here defines the transcendent function as not only an analytical method
but also a natural function of the psyche (Dehing, 1993, p.222). Thus, the
transcendent function is not only the thinking that a subject applies to matter,
but also an inborn structure of the psyche, the mind (Inwood, 1992, p.79).
One way to understand what Jung means by "a natural process," it to
look beyond the scope of psychology. Here Jung possibly borrows indirectly on
the German Romantic philosopher, Frederick Hegel (Solomon, 1994, p.78). Hegel's
dialectic, as well as Jung's transcendent function, is not to be thought of as
only a method of reason, but also a natural function of nature (Inwood, 1992,
p.79). Hegel's dialectic involves one or more concepts taken as fixed, sharply
defined and distinct from each other. This is the stage of Understanding. When
we reflect on such categories, one or more contradictions emerge in them. This
is the stage of Dialectic or negative reason. The result of this dialectic is a
new, higher category, which embraces the earlier categories and resolves the
contradiction in them. This is the stage of Speculation or of positive reason (Inwood,
Although unacknowledged by Jung as a direct influence, it is nevertheless
evident that Hegelian philosophy had a profound impact on Jung's epistemology.
Just as Jung once called Hegel "that great psychologist in philosopher's
garb," (Jung, 1935, p.546) here I believe Jung is the philosopher in
psychologist's "garb." The transcendent function is conceived by Jung
as a regulatory principle of the psyche and further, this regulatory principle
can be thought of as a dialectic process.
This process brings to mind the quote, "Man is forever locked "in
the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh... and [the]
soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met" (Kanzantzakis,
The Last Temptation of Christ). Synthesis is the product of this violent war
"between the spirit and the flesh." The transcendent function, through
a dialectical synthesis, brings together opposites in a reconciling attempt to
regulate the psyche, or the self. When opposites are brought together it is
called the coniunctio, or conjunction. This is Jung's term for Hegel's third
step of the dialectic motion. Borrowed from the ancient alchemists, it refers
"to a chemical combination; in psychology it points to the union of
opposites and the birth of new possibilities" (Sharp, 1991, p.38). An
example of this in non-alchemist language is "an acid and a base chemical.
They are both individually separate and distinct, yet when brought together they
form a neutral that is completely different than the two separated" (Inwood,
1992, p.79). Therefore, teeter-tottering on the playground of the psyche it not
an easy task. It is peaceful when the weight is equally distributed throughout
the teeter-totter. As soon as someone heavier than you (unconscious) sits down
and starts throwing their unacknowledged weight around, before you know it you
will be up in the air and quite out of control. The transcendent function
balances the two sides of the teeter- totter to keep the weight equally
distributed: to keep things peaceful. Further, this balancing of conscious and
unconscious weight will necessarily release energy.
The dialectic is a difficult concept in philosophy. When it crosses into
psychology, its difficulty becomes even greater. An allegorical reference to the
dialectic may be in order. Botticelli's Primavera provides such an allegorical
allusion. The painting produces a striking example of what both Hegel and Jung
are attempting: the reconciliation of opposites; good and evil, love and hate,
life and death. In Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, Edgar Wind (1958)
describes the correlation between this beautiful painting and the dialectic:
In so far as dialectic can be danced, it has been accomplished in this group.
'Opposition', 'concord', and 'concord in opposition', all three are expressed in
the posture and steps and in the articulate style of joining the hands. Placed
palm against palm to suggest an encounter, but quietly interlocked in the
absence of conflict, they rise high to form a significant knot when they
illustrate the Beauty of Passion. That this gesture is made to hover over the
head of Castitas [the synthesis], defines the themes of the dance as her
Therefore, "just as procreation depends on the duality of the
sexes" (Nietzsche, 1927, p.1) so the dialectic depends on the union of
opposites. This is the dialectical motion.
Now, how does this dialectical motion apply to the outer and inner world of
the psyche? In the book Survival Papers: Anatomy of a Mid-life Crisis, Daryl
Sharp(1988) gives a more pragmatic twist on the transcendent function than Jung
allows for in his essay. Sharp says:
Jung's particular contribution to the psychology of conflict was to point out
that if a person can hold the tension between the conflicting opposites, then
eventually something will happen in the psyche to resolve the conflict. The
outer circumstances may in fact remain the same, but a change takes place in the
individual. This change, essentially irrational and unforeseeable, appears as a
new attitude to both oneself and others; energy previously locked up in a state
of indecision is released and movement becomes possible. Jung calls this the
transcendent function, because what happens transcends the conflicting opposites
Beware: this method is not for the lighthearted. Jung warns against treating
this method carelessly. Nevertheless, how can something that occurs naturally as
the regulatory function of the psyche be difficult, or not for the lighthearted?
An example that Jung (1960) uses is the problem of creativity (p.70). In
creativity the regulatory process is always in motion by finding concrete
expression for the abstract ideas that bubble up from the active unconscious:
art. However, Jung describes those who acknowledge this creativity as being
"of little value" when applied to the industrialized social
environment where "definiteness and directedness" define the
profession (Jung 1960, p.70). Professions such as in the medical field or
engineering, or even construction working have become important. Thus, the
industrialized world has awarded this psychic stability, and as a result the
creative unconscious contents go unnoticed, or at the very least unacknowledged.
Here is where the regulatory function of the psyche gets in the way. Here is
where the industrialized psyche pays the price of an awkward, unbroken march -
in the pressure cooker of the soul. With this denial of the creative unconscious
the industrialized man sacrifices creativity. With this denial there can be no
creative breakthrough of unconscious libido, no coniunctio, no transcendent
function, no individuation. Again, this process of individuation via the
transcendent function not only gets in the way of everyday life, it is so scary
most people spend their entire lives running from it. Jung (1960) says:
Everyone of us gladly turns away from his problems; if possible, they must
not be mentioned, or, better still, their existence is denied. We wish to make
our lives simple, certain, and smooth, and for that reason problems are taboo.
We want to have certainty and no doubts - results and no experiments - without
even seeing that certainties can arise only through doubt and results only
through experiment. The artful denial of a problem will not produce conviction:
on the contrary, a wider and higher consciousness is required to give us the
certainty and clarity we need (Jung, p.754).
However, no one said individuation was going to be easy; no one said it was
for the lighthearted; "there are only single individuals who risk fight for
survival. The pilgrims way is spiked with thorns everywhere... or just
therefore" (Jung 1975, p.569).
If the psyche is a self-regulating system, then how has civilized,
industrialized man done so well at denying a natural function of the psyche?
Jung (1960) says that civilized man has turned the psyche into a "machine
whose speed- regulation is so insensitive that it can continue to function to
the point of self- injury" (Jung, p.79). Therefore, in the modern circus of
the psyche, we have learned how to numb the pain signals coming from the
unconscious. Unfortunately, individuation dissolves the moment we look up, numb
all over, to see that we are at the watering hole with the rest of the herd. It
is then too late; we are surrounded and hooked on the reliable anesthesia from
our own lives that we get from denying the creative process.
Clearly, Jung is saying that we have a tendency toward mediocrity and
banality in modern society. Individuation, as it is experienced through the
liberation of unconscious content, is now obvious as to why this could be
dangerous to those being kept warm by the herd. If the transcendent function is
the fusion of conscious and unconscious, the longer judgment has held the
unconscious contents in check, the more explosive the contents and thus the
resulting coniuntio will be. If this seems like a dramatic play on words that
belongs more to literature than to science, think then of the compensatory
function of many life-long postal workers, or a serial killer or just any
explosive example of the power of the human psyche. Jung (1960) calls the
conscious aspect of the psyche fragile and a relatively new function (p.90).
Yet, we in industrialized society think we are masters of the self. But the joke
is on us because "those people who are least aware of their unconscious
side are the most influenced by it" (Jung, 1960, p.79).
This is an example of how and why the transcendent function, as a method, is
not a "plaything for children" (Jung, 1958, p.68). For, if judgment
holds its direction for too long, the unconscious builds up a charge in
proportion to the time or intensity the tension has been held. Further, the
high-energy content is usually released in moments when it is "most
important to maintain the conscious direction" (Jung, 1958, p.79). Thus,
just at the moment a person wants to maintain judgment and direction, this
becomes the most fertile ground for the rush of the unconscious up to the
surface. And with this rush comes all that has been ignored, repressed, and
There, at the door to the unconscious, lies the symbol. A symbol with a life
of its own that very much knows the secret that we have done so well to hide
from ourselves and the world. Most people "can hardly conceive how much his
inclination, moods, and decisions are influenced by the dark forces of his
psyche" (Jung, 1969, p.254). The longer they are ignored the darker they
become. "At that point, it is as if you were to stand on a mountain top
watching a raging storm below - the storm may go on, but you are outside of it;
you are to some extent objective, no longer emotionally involved. There is a
sense of peace"(Sharp, 1988, p.38).
Be sure to stop by the C.G. Jung Index at: http://www.geocities.com/athens/1581/jung.html
+Campbell, J. (1945/1954). Spirit and nature: Papers from the Eranos
Yearbook. trans. R. F. C. Hull. Bollingen Series XXX-I. New York: Pantheon
+Dehing, J. (1993). The transcendent function: A critical re-evaluation. Journal
of Analytical Psychology, 38, pp.221-235.
+Eckman, B. (1986). Jung, Hegel, and the subjective universe. Spring: An Annual
of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought. pp.88-99.
+Gay, V.P. (1984). Reading Jung: Science, psychology, and religion.
+Gunter, P.A.Y. (1982). Bergson and Jung. Journal of the History of Ideas,43,
+Hannah, B. (1976). Jung, his life and work: A biographical memoir. New York:
G.P. Putnam's Sons.
+Inwwod, M. (1992). A Hegel Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
+Jung, C.G. The Collected Works (Bollingen Series XX). (1953-1979). 20 vols.
Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Ed. H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, Wm. McGuire. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
________. (1959). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. 2nd ed. trans.
R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________. (1973). Letters (Bollingen Series XCV). 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton
________ . (1966). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. 2nd ed. trans R.F.C.
Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________. (1961). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Pantheon Books.
________. (1969). The Symbolic Life. 2nd ed. trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
+Mansfield, V. (1996). The search for the universe as the search for our own
unconscious. [on-line] available: http://www.lightlink/vic/cosmo.htm.
+Nietzsche, F. (1927). The Birth of Tragedy. trans. Clifton P. Fadiman. New
York: Dover Publication, Inc.
+Sharp, D. (1991). Jung lexicon: A primer of terms and concepts. Toronto: Inner
+Sharp, D. (1988). The survival papers: Anatomy of a mid-life crisis. Toronto:
Inner City Books.
+Solomon, H. (1994). The transcendent function and Hegel's dialectic vision.
Journal of Analytical Psychology, 39, pp. 77-100.
+Wind, E. (1958). Pagan mysteries in the renaissance. New Haven: Yale University