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Philosophy In Jung's Transcendent Function

Matthew Clapp 

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Clapp, Matthew W. (1997 February). Philosophy In Jung's Transcendent Function. Column. Electric Dreams 4(2). Retrieved July 26, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

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).

The Dialectic

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, 1992, p.80).

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.

Botticelli's Primavera
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 initiation (p.58).

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 (p.38).

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 feared.

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


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