Collective unconscious: what it is and how Carl Jung defined it

The concept of the collective unconscious was proposed by Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, in the mid-19th century. Generally speaking, it refers to a dimension which is beyond consciousness and which is common to the experience of all human beings.

Although the term collective unconscious has been the subject of much criticism, it has also been positioned as a theory that offers important elements for understanding many phenomena of what is human. In this article we will see what the collective unconscious is and how it has impacted psychodynamic psychology.

    Brief history of the unconscious

    The history of psychology has been marked by different theories that address the relationship between the dimension of consciousness and its opposite or complementary dimension. Many proposals have emerged to solve this problem.

    Among these is the concept of the unconscious from a psychodynamic point of view, emerged at the end of the 19th century in Freudian psychoanalysisBut taken up and reformulated some time later, both by his supporters and by his deserters.

    One of the most popular is Carl Jung, who after working closely with Sigmund Freud, decided to form his own tradition outside of psychoanalysis. that we call “analytical psychology”. Among the main concepts that are part of this tradition, there is that of the collective unconscious.

      What is the collective unconscious?

      In traditional psychology, it is understood that the complement of “the individual” is “the social”. However, for analytical psychology, the complement of the individual is not precisely the social, but the collective, which not only refers to the set of people who make up a society, but underlines the that these people have in common.

      According to Jung, just as the individual has a psychic dimension which is beyond consciousness (the unconscious); the collective, insofar as it belongs to a suprapersonal dimension, also has its own unconscious. Unlike the individual unconscious, which is acquired through lived experiences, the collective unconscious is a common platform, made up of archetypes that shape our individuality.

      In other words, according to Jung, there are a number of psychic experiences, imaginaries and symbols, existence is not given by acquired learnings, but are experiences that all human beings share, whatever our individual life stories.

      These are experiences which obey another order, which is why Jung defines the collective unconscious as a second nature of the psychic system is universal and impersonal.

      Just as the physical characteristics of an individual are more or less common to those of all individuals belonging to the human species, the psyche has common characteristics which exist independently of the culture and history of societies. It is an example that transcends age, life and even death; it is an experience that has accompanied humanity since its existence.

      First definitions of Carl Jung

      In his first works, Jung described the collective unconscious as this substrate which allows us to understand why people belonging to apparently different cultures share certain psychic characteristics.

      The latter can be seen, for example, in repetitive dreams, in art, in myths and religions, in children’s stories, in psychic symptomatology, among other fields. For this reason, the collective unconscious served Jung to offer explanations on the common meanings of symbols and myths which are apparently different between cultures.

      Formally, the concept of the collective unconscious was born in 1936, after a conference that Jung dictated in London, in fact with the title of the concept of the collective unconscious.


        The collective unconscious is composed mainly of archetypes, which are pre-existing and universal forms (ideas, images, symbols) that shape much of the psychic content.

        According to Jung, just as humans have instinctive behavioral patterns mediated by biological activity, we have patterns of instinctive behavior mediated by psychic activity, Who drinks from the mythical aspect through which experiences are mapped and told.

        In this sense, the archetypes and the collective unconscious are transmitted by the very condition of being human, and their effects are visible in the shaping of the individual psyche. And it is because, for Jung, the unconscious also has goals, intuitions, thoughts, feelings, And so on, as with the conscious mind.

        To develop the concept of archetype, Jung took as a reference various anthropological and philosophical works, notably by authors such as Mauss, Lévy Bruhl and A. Bastian. Some of the archetypes that he developed in an important way and which have been taken up by different authors are the anima, the shadow or the great mother.

        Impact on psychology and related fields

        Among other things, the concept of the collective unconscious has served to formulate explanations of different human experiences that more traditional and rational science can hardly explore. For example, in specific questions on mystical experiences, artistic experiences or certain therapeutic experiences.

        In addition, the concept of the collective unconscious has impacted much of the language specialized in areas that are not specific to psychology, because it is used to talk about what we know how to share, regardless of culture, even if we do not know well it is. For the same reason, it is a concept that is often problematic, ambiguous and subject to various criticisms, without having ceased to be present even in the most common language.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Quiroga, MP (2010). Art and analytical psychology. An archetypal interpretation of art. Art, Individual and Society, 22 (2): 49-62.

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