One of the earliest criticisms of Jung's work is that it is anti-scientific in its intentions as well as its content. This accusation surfaced as early as Jung's break with Freud in 1913. Jung's view of the functions of symbolism in dreams led to his isolation from the mainstream psychiatric community. As he put it, "... all my friends and acquaintances dropped away. My book was declared to be rubbish; I was a mystic, and that settled the matter." The insecure position of the social sciences in the academic pecking order of the early twentieth century might be one reason why other psychiatrists would have felt threatened by some of Jung's ideas. Psychology and sociology have been accepted as legitimate fields of scholarly inquiry only recently; back then, Jung's view of symbolism appeared to undermine the "scientific" status of psychology.
To be more specific, Jung's psychology has been characterized as "unscientific" on the following grounds:
• that some Jungian concepts, such as archetypes and synchronicity, cannot be proven by the scientific method
• that Jung subscribed to a nineteenth-century notion of evolution that has since been discredited
• that Jung's valuation of the mental functions of feeling and intuition on the same level as thinking weakens the attitude of rational objectivity that is essential in scientific research
• that Jung's interest in occult traditions, including the pre-scientific European past (third-century Gnosticism and medieval alchemy) and contemporary Asian cultures (Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism) amounts to a glorification of mysticism and irrationality
• that Jung's clinical specialization in the treatment of schizophrenia and his own brush with psychosis made him an untrustworthy guide to "ordinary" reality
The charge that Jung's psychology is based on an outdated understanding of evolution concerns his concept of the archetypes and the collective unconscious. Jung thought of the archetypes as primordial images within the basic structure of the human psyche that have appeared repeatedly in myths, symbols, and personified forms throughout human history. The similarity of the motifs and themes in the myths and symbols of many different cultures suggests the existence of a collective unconscious shared by all human beings. Some critics have regarded Jung's various attempts to define the archetypes and their manifestations as proof that he accepted an obsolete notion of evolution known as Lamarckianism. This notion takes its name from Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), a French biologist who thought that individuals could transmit acquired characteristics to their offspring—for example, that the children of a gifted pianist would inherit the flexibility and strength of the highly trained muscles in their parent's hands. But Jung did not maintain that human beings "inherit" archetypal images from their ancestors in the same way that they inherit such physical characteristics as eye color or height. It is true that Jung was influenced by the evolutionary theories of a German scientist named Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who taught zoology at the University of Jena. Haeckel is best known for his theory that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"—that is, that the development of an individual organism follows or repeats the pattern of the development of the species to which it belongs. For example, the fact that the human embryo has gills at one point in its development was thought to echo the evolution of mammals from certain groups of prehistoric fishes. Similarly, Jung thought that the pattern of psychological development over the course of a person's lifetime repeated the development of human culture from primitive societies to the sophisticated cultures of the contemporary West. While Haeckel and Jung were wrong about this specific "law" of evolution, modern evolutionary psychology supports the notion that human psychology as well as physical anatomy has a basis in evolutionary biology.
Jung's interest in pre-scientific, Asian, and occult systems of thought has been a target of much criticism;
these beliefs have frequently been dismissed by rational-minded scholars as historical curiosities or primitive superstitions. Those who believe that the scientific and technological achievements of the West prove the superiority of Western culture to all others are understandably offended by Jung's notion that the West's one-sided emphasis on progress needed balance or compensation from Eastern modes of thought. It is not necessary, however, to pass judgment on Gnostic or Asian mythology as such in order to observe that Jung failed to ask how these systems functioned in their specific historical and social contexts. In other words, Jung remains open to criticism as "unscientific" because he tended to assign all of them equal value and relevance. One French scholar has described Jung's work as "a soup, a fish-rearing pond in which all fishes are given a chance."
The argument that Jung's personal emotional problems call his theories into question has no simple answer. Some of Jung's writings certainly convey the impression that he was not always in contact with ordinary reality. For example, at one point in his autobiography, Jung maintains that his mother's house was haunted after his father's death by some force or spirit that was able to split a solid wooden table top and shatter the blade of a bread knife kept inside a cupboard. To give another example, toward the end of his life, Jung became interested in flying saucers. In 1958 he had a dream in which he saw two UFOs flying over his house. He interpreted the widespread interest in UFOs during the Cold War era in terms of his psychological theories, as proof of a movement toward psychic wholeness stirring within the collective unconscious. The round shape of the flying saucers represented a mandala, so that the UFOs were circular symbols of unity which represent a synthesis of the opposites within the psyche. . . . Since this process takes place in the collective unconscious, it manifests itself everywhere. The worldwide stories of the UFOs ... are the symptom of a universally present psychic disposition.
Some of Jung's biographers, such as Paul Stern, have in fact described his work as an example of "the creative uses of incipient madness." On the other hand, many of Jung's patients felt that he had been genuinely helpful to them. Moreover, Jung's ability to maintain a private psychiatric practice alongside a steady stream of writings and publications after 1920 indicates a level of productivity that is not usually found in people with serious mental disturbances.
Was this article helpful?