1994, Books, Non-Fiction

Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994) by Anthony Stevens

When I was a teenager, some adult told me about Jung’s collective unconscious. I didn’t read a thing about it, but took whatever they told me and created my own elaborate theory about our thoughts influencing others (which has nothing to do with Jung). Ultimately, that theory was a responsible for a lot of mental stress on my part. Years later, it feels like a lot of wasted energy.

Since that time, I’ve wanted to know what he really thought, as I knew, deep down, that I had no idea what the actual theory was, and my weird theory was just teenage frustration rationalized.

From this introduction, it seems like Jung’s ideas were a clear improvement on Freud’s. Jung’s theories have way more nuance and way more humanity than Freud’s. I recognize a number of key psychological concepts had their genesis in Jung’s ideas.

But Jung seems to me to be best approached as a philosopher. The scientific means by which we could understand the mind when Jung was starting out were quite limited and Jung seems to have abandoned clinical testing pretty quickly anyway. And therein lies the problem with this book.

Stevens seems determined to present Jung’s philosophy and what we might call “proto psychology” and “proto psychiatry” as legitimate science (at least until the conclusion, where he backs off). At one point he claims the collective unconscious idea is a legitimate scientific hypothesis. Is it really? It is falsifiable? I don’t think it is. Stevens also argues that the archetypes are legitimate science, and are seen as such in other disciplines, which seems sketchy to me. I don’t know what Jung’s archetypes add to biological and anthropological explanations myself. One theory cannot be falsified. The other doesn’t fill in any gaps in explanations. This is not science but philosophy. Stevens points out that Jung wanted to study the irrational in humans. What I don’t understand is why we have to be irrational about studying the irrational. There is tons of good science that has come about due to the cognitive revolution that studies the irrational in human beings and doesn’t need to reject the scientific method to do so.

Even though Stevens eventually grants that psychoanalysis is really a hermeneutic, I don’t know how many Jungian psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists also believe this. Maybe the best ones do. I don’t deny that there isn’t some value this kind of approach to people’s mental health. There probably is, but if there is it should be established through science, not through the guesswork of someone who was projecting his personal subjective experiences onto the world. I worry that some people probably come to Jungian practitioners believing they are seeing a doctor when they are seeing more of a believer. This is concerning.

So I can’t say I love this book, even though it did answer my questions about Jung. I guess I’ve just spent too much time in the interim reading legit psychology to be particularly interested in something that is now very much philosophy and not science.


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