Thursday, March 29, 2007

Jung and Easily Freudened

In my previous essay Sublimation, I took a backhanded slap at Carl Jung, specifically at his theory of the collective unconscious, which I (and I’m not alone here) hold to be a depersonalization of the unconscious. In fact, Jung specifically splits his theory of the unconscious into the “personal” unconscious and the “collective” unconscious, and made no secret of his belief that the latter was by far the larger, deeper component.

I think this is bad psychology, in the sense of bad psychological theory, though I will concede that it may be “good psychology” in the sense of making it easier for some therapeutic clients to confront the idea of the unconscious mind. Jung was, it should be acknowledged, an almost universally acclaimed therapist, and maybe the depersonalized unconscious gave him some additional traction. However, it’s also widely understood that good therapists do pretty well no matter what theory they operate under, even including astrology, numerology, and chiromancy (palmistry). So I remain dubious about this collective unconscious thing, especially insofar as it leads to the “let’s blame it on somebody else,” idea, when the real effort on psychological growth depends on understanding that the only one who can hope to control you is you.

I’ll also note, while I’m feeling like letting Jung off the hook, that during his most fertile theoretical period, the woo-woo-ESP-psychic powers-etc. hypothesis wasn’t as thoroughly discredited as it is now. We’ve had another half century or more of people trying to find the damn things, and we’re no closer than when Harry Houdini was exposing spiritualists, except that the field has contributed substantially to the theory of double blind experiment protocols, operator bias, and protection against fraud in experimental settings.

Which brings us to the second place where Jung just fell asleep at the switch, “synchronicity.” His 1952 paper "Synchronicity — An Acausal Connecting Principle" would seem to have gotten it right in the title; this is about things that are not causally connected, but which seem to be meaningful to the observer. That’s a perfectly valid thing to look at and theorize about. Some days, all the traffic lights turn green just before you get there, the weather is great, and you get to the restaurant just before the lunch crowd arrives and get seated just across a beautiful creature of whatever sex most interests you and she/he smiles at you once or twice. You feel you are in tune with the universe. Other days, well, everything goes wrong and that evening you wind up wanting to buy a cat just so you could kick it.

Coincidences affect mood, in other words, and vice versa. If you start the day feeling happy, you’re going to notice the green lights and whistle through the red ones. And some coincidences feel very important, so there’s yet another doorway into the psyche. Excellent starting point.
Then Jung ties it all into his view of the collective unconscious and other action-at-a-distance hoo-ha. In short he tries to find the cause of a phenomenon that he starts by labeling acausal.

I mean, really, that’s just asking for it. It just screws the pooch, as Tom Wolfe’s astronauts said.

Nevertheless, there is much that is either admirable or interesting (or both) in Jung. For one thing, he invented the word association test, one of the most powerful methods in psychoanalysis.

Then there’s that business of archetypes. Forget for a moment that Jung went woo-woo for the “collective unconscious” thing, and recognize that, by categorizing symbols that seem to easily pass from person to person and culture to culture, he pointed to a way in which the basic structure of human psychology could be examined. Think of it this way: if alien scientists had access to nothing but human athletic equipment from various cultures, it’s quite likely that they would be able to describe the human body, at least in general terms, because various forms must conform to various functions. In some cases, like athletic gloves, the human body is precisely mirrored, but even without those, an alien could still probably theorize hands and their functions.

Then too, by providing lists of archetypes, Jung provided a wealth of raw material for artists and writers, once they’d run out of memory repression stories, rewriting Oedipus and other things they could steal from Freudian psychology.

Then there is the Jungian theory of personality types, the introversion/extroversion scale and the opposing rational (thinking vs feeling) and arational (intuition vs sensation) functions.

Most people encounter Jungian personality types though the Myers-Briggs tests, which is unfortunate, because Myers-Briggs gets it wrong. Jung’s notion of introversion/extroversion was not oppositional. The oppositional functions are like the Yogi Berra quote: “Good pitching stops good hitting and vice versa.” But introversion doesn’t interfere with extroversion in the same way that thinking interferes with feeling. The question is one of focus, other-directed vs inner-directed in Maslow’s terminology, though that differs from Jung in some aspects. The critical question is whether the individual is drained or energized by interacting with others.
Also, Meyers-Briggs tests tend to be pretty superficial, taking the testee at his or her word. So someone pounding the table and exclaiming, “I am not influenced by strong emotion!” will test as a thinking type, while a reflective, “Yes, emotions do often affect my decisions, how could they not?” will test as a feeling type.

Finally, Myers-Briggs adds a last dipole: Judging vs Perceiving. But here is one of those nomenclature problems I’ve railed about in the past. Someone high in “Judging” isn’t “judgmental” nor is someone high in Perceiving necessarily “perceptive.” There’s a prescription for confusion. The actual tested functions seem to be “structured” vs “unstructured” or “improvisational.” The difficulty with this last one, as any jazz musician or improv actor will tell you, is that you need a lot of structure before you can properly improvise.

So the last M-B category seems contaminated with a cluster of possibly unconnected functions. Someone high on the authoritarian scale would probably score high on J, but so might a scientist or lawyer, and either might, in fact, be pretty spontaneous personalities. On the other hand, someone might have contempt for rules and authority but still have OCD. Self-assessment can be tough.

Yet I’ve found that generally, just reading the descriptions given by Jung in Psychological Types, often produces a single “Aha! That’s me!” from individuals. That makes it very different from the usual sort of vague “cold reading” descriptions often found in things like astrology or even Myers-Briggs results. But you do have to read the original descriptions from Jung. I’ve been looking at the type descriptions that you can find online and they generally get them wrong. Jung’s descriptions are more complex, and the online capsule summaries seem more like caricatures. Or maybe I just think that because I’m an introverted thinking type.


Disciple said...

Interesting article. I haven't read Jung in a long while but there was a time when I couldn't get enough. A small point about the following thought:

"In short he tries to find the cause of a phenomenon that he starts by labeling acausal."

Here I think Jung was addressing two events that are alleged to have some connection to each other but not to have caused each other. It's not that the events have no cause, but that they do not have a a causal connection. A does not cause B, B does not cause B. This says nothing about what does cause either A or B.

Disciple said...

Oops, there's a typo in my comment. I meant, "they do not have a causal connection", only one "a". Sorry. Should have previewed before I hit submit. :)