The unconscious has filled many roles through history, from the divine to the cognitive, from the personal to the transpersonal. It has been the realm of gods, the playground of mesmerists and hypnotists, a ‘trash bin’ of unwanted emotions and memories, a means of subliminal control, and of personal liberation. It has been cited as the source of mythology, religion, and the artist’s muse.
By definition though, the unconscious cannot be known, so how can it be known that it even exists? It cannot be measured; it cannot be examined under a microscope. It can be experienced. It can be inferred through symbols, or through phenomena, often in the case of unexpected and unexplainable events of the mind: sudden intuitions, sudden forgetfulness, sudden appearances of mental musicians, usually annoying ones, that won’t stop repeating the same five notes. Those are ‘harmless’ examples. What of dreams, religion and gods, creativity, or the truly odd, such as hypnosis or faith healing? The evidence of the unconscious is clear in the myriad of ways humans experience and attempt to explain the unexplainable, and live within a world of paradox and mystery presented by mental activity (Claxton 2).
Consider for a moment the following scenario: a family on vacation is driving down a mountain road after a picnic in the park near the peak. They approach a hair-pin curve. At that moment, is it important for the driver to know precisely the mechanisms that make the brakes work, or is it more important that he or she knows how to apply the brakes in order to successfully navigate the curve? The answer is clear. Even if the driver is a master mechanic, or an engineer who designs brakes, the crucial ability, assuming they are functioning properly, is not the design or understanding of the mechanisms, but the ability to use them. In regards to the human mind, this analogy encapsulates the difference between the scientific worldview and the mythopoetic. The car represents the mind, with a number of different structures of technologies that allow it to function, the driver of course is the individual who thinks and lives with that mind, and the ability to utilize the technology of the car (in this case the brakes) shows the ability to effectively engage the mind and navigate the events that comprise life.
The main purpose of the scientific view can be summarized as providing an explanation of the structuring of the universe. In contrast, the overarching theme of the mythopoetic view is more in the nature of understanding the deeper aspects of human behavior and enabling the quest for meaning in psychological and spiritual development. Considering the divergent scopes of intent in these views, it is questionable if mutual exclusivity is the proper way to approach them, which regrettably seems to have been the case throughout recent history. Comparisons of these two views typically are just arguments constructed in order to assert the predominance of one over the other, and thus inevitably are skewed, and therefore should be abandoned. Instead, with a goal of learning how one might compliment the other, they should both be engaged in the attempt to gain a fuller understanding of human existence, and thus better enable the individual to navigate the challenging course of life.
To this end, a general theory could be formulated that integrates the two worldviews within a complimentary relationship, or even a new worldview altogether, which can adequately explain both the ‘what,’ and ‘how’ of the universe and of ongoing human development. The scientific worldview provides the value of rendering intelligible the structures in which human life unfolds. This value of the prevalent scientific view will be accepted without comment, but adopting for the purposes of this theory a notion of purely instrumental value, it remains to be said that the value of the scientific view can be accepted only insofar as it contributes to the successful engagement of the full nature of being human. This is precisely the sole purpose and thus also the value of the mythopoetic view – the understanding of how to live and engage the human quest within any understanding of the structure of the human psyche.
This value becomes readily apparent when considering the main characteristic of the mythopoetic: symbolic form as a way of knowing the unconscious of the human psyche. Through the integration into conscious awareness of symbolic forms arising out of the unconscious, the individual’s search for meaning is empowered with psychic energy in a way that the purely empirical knowledge of science cannot provide. The value of this way of knowing, especially to the individual’s ongoing development, is significant because the meanings of symbols are contextual and different for each person and stage of development (Jung, 289). This defies any attempt of final classification by scientific endeavor.
When tracing the history of the unconscious, it becomes apparent that a shift from a mythopoetic to a purely scientific method of understanding and engaging the human mental life has occurred. Unfortunately, there is a perception that, at best, the one view must explicitly deny the other. The result is a one-sided affair that does not explain and enable the engagement of the individual with the full nature of being human, and instead gives rise to confusion and ignorance which leads only to massive problems, both on the personal and societal, even global, levels. Evidence of this pathology abounds and it requires no further elucidation. The question must be asked though – is it true that the scientific worldview necessarily must exclude the mythopoetic, and vice-versa? Considering the value that science has brought humanity in many forms, it cannot be rejected, but the further question must be asked if the mythopoetic may also be of value, and if so, how can it be integrated with the continuing imperatives of science? A brief exploration of the history of the unconscious might be helpful in answering these questions.
The early psychologists of the twentieth century, Freud and Jung, are often credited with the ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, but that recognition should be limited to acknowledging their donation of modern vocabulary to describe the nature and ways of dealing with the unconscious. What they explained in scientific language was a phenomenon that has puzzled humanity throughout history, and has given rise to many theories, religions, art, and literature in attempts to engage that part of being human that cannot be known but only experienced. Credit must be given where credit is due, but the fact that a scientific perspective was needed is indicative of the repression of the inherently human mythopoetic nature.
Tracing the vast history of mankind, the negotiations of humanity with the unconscious can be organized into three main historical periods: the mythic-religious period, the literary and philosophical period, and the psychological period. In broad brushstrokes, this series of posts will examine human negotiations with the unconscious through these three periods, exploring topics ranging from shamanism to Egyptian mythology to modern literature and philosophy to depth psychology and neuroscience….
Claxton, Guy. The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious. London: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.
Jung, C. G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton UP, 1980. Print.