Jung and Heidegger

Part 2 of Heidegger’s Being and Time devotes considerable effort to building up and establishing the notion of authentic resoluteness. Heidegger’s Dasein may strive to be authentically resolute. I cannot claim to fully understand this concept, but it involves notions such as being-towards-death, maintaining openness to anxiety, and choosing to have a conscience. Somehow, through anxiety and confrontation with death or the Nothing (instead of fleeing in the face of these confrontations, as most people usually do), Dasein becomes able to exist authentically.

C G Jung’s psychology is largely about the process of individuation, which is the mind’s natural growth and progress towards becoming an integrated whole. For Jung, psychological health is largely about resolving obstacles to the individuation process. A big part of this process is the integration of the mind’s unconscious contents (such as the Self) which the conscious contents. This integration seems to not mean that they become a homogenous unity, but rather that they become interwoven and are allowed to influence each other in a natural way.

My hunch, which I cannot argue very convincingly, is that this kind of existential, phenomenological philosophy (Heidegger) and this kind of psychology (Jung) sometimes aim at the same affects, phenomena or states of mind – whichever we choose to call it. Jung makes a big point of differentiating between symbols and concepts. The Self is not a concept but a symbol: it is too large to fully grasp with the conscious mind. Heidegger’s Nothing (or even Being) sometimes looks like this kind of symbol too: something that cannot be grasped by concepts but which is essential for all concepts to be intelligible as such in the first place, a source of intelligibility, the fount from which other notions flow. Turning this around and twisting it a bit,  the unconscious can be said to be a kind of nothing, a shadow, and we only have a conscious and definite personality in so far as we also have a shadow to go with it. Our (Jungian) shadow seems to enable our definite character almost in the same way that the Nothing enables beings to stand out “as radically other with respect to the nothing” (What is Metaphysics).

This is mere speculation, but if I am right, then we are led to ask: how is it that Heidegger, who builds his castles (I think) on a kind of language craft and on labyrinthine but highly effective prose, can achieve the same thing that Jung achieves with methods such as dream analysis and active imagination? Could these methods, which seem so different at first, really be aiming at the same goal?



Naming as metaphor

A metaphor lets us view something as something else. Thus it has creative potential: “a forest of legislation” lets us take the behaviours, meaning and ideas we normally associate with forests and apply them in a completely different context.

But if no two situations in “reality” are the same – if Heraclitus is right that everything flows, nothing stays - then merely calling a forest a forest would be something metaphorical. It would be setting up an equivalence or similarity between two things that are actually different: forests as you have seen them before, and the new forest that has just flowed to you as part of the stream of lived experience.

If this is correct, then merely naming something, calling it what we perceive it to be, is somehow in part a metaphorical or creative action. And there would also be something metaphorical about applying equipment and tools to solve apparently identical problems – in identifying situation X as a context where tool Y should be applied.


Exploring particularity


We have not yet succeeded in isolating an entity from other entities in such a way that what is isolated is utterly separate. Possibilities of mutual affect always remain. (I know of no way of shielding against the effects of gravity, for example.) Thus, it seems fair to think about every given entity as a particular perspective on the universe, a lens through which to view anything.

For some time I’ve been thinking about what it means for something to be particular. What does it mean to have a specific shape, specific qualities, and specific boundaries in space and time? Why are objects in front of me as they are, now and here, instead of being boundless and universal? What is the ultimate origin of a specific characteristic?

The concrete forms of biological life are the result of random mutations and selection, according to current theory. The shapes and concepts of geometry and mathematics more or less follow from physics. (Some take this to mean that they are given to us by the universe – I hold that they are highly anthropomorphic). Let it remain open-ended for now from where precisely particular forms originate.

Can we even experience the particular character of any given entity in full? Can we drink the well of particularity dry? It seems that most entities — human or non-human, biological or material — are not objects that can be fully described but rather loci, points of concentration of particularity, which we could always find new ways to approach. Moreover, we generally see what we expect to see. A truly novel perspective is extremely hard to construct. What we generally do is instead to slowly morph our existing perspectives into something new. Thus, an orange is initially understood as a strange kind of apple (or the other way around) and a sledge understood as a large hammer. Perspectives seem to evolve along the lines of a genealogical tree, much like species in nature.

Finally, what we see in an entity is not purely the entity itself, nor is it purely the perspective we have chosen to apply to it. Rather it would be a co-production between the perspective and the entity. Clearly this depends both on me as an observer and on the entity in the world; something that does not depend on me can be taken away, and then the experience of the orange disappears. But the particular qualities of the experience of the orange depend mostly on me.  And perhaps the most salient, most interesting qualities depend on those conflict zones where the external world clashes with the understanding I have chosen to impose on the orange. Here the understanding flickers, the veil that I have thrown over the incomprehensible noise beneath flutters seductively. Here the possibilities of novelty dwell.

The struggle over consciousness

One of the major themes of Western philosophy since Plato is the elevation and near-deification of consciousness. Conscious thought and reflection have been prized above all else. Suspicion has been directed towards everything that is dark, murky, instinctive, unclear, unreasonable. Spirit has been emphasised above body. Christianity and its penal mechanisms was in no small part the engine used for this process for many centuries.

But what can consciousness really do? Every sequence of words I produce, every line of code I write, every sketch I draw or tune I play on the piano is for the most part not a product of conscious reflection. (Some earlier, unfinished thoughts on the limitations of reason here.) These productions are given to me, just as associations, feelings or moods are given to me – by the Other in me, the unconscious, the body. Through reflection I can remix and arrange these parts, critique them, say yes and no, but I cannot generate these things through purely conscious thought and logic. So what, in fact, was Western society really doing for 2000 years?

Nietzsche heralded the beginning of a reversal of this trend. In him, consciousness turns around, questions itself and finds that in the end, it isn’t all that powerful. A new philosophical school begins: a counter-movement that aimed, and aims to, reaffirm what is unthought, unseen, unreasonable. After him, thinkers like Freud, Jung (with his elaboration of the unconscious and his idea of “individuation”, psychological development understood as a harmonious union with the unconscious), Foucault (whose “History of madness”, if not almost his entire oeuvre, is almost entirely about this theme and the technicalities of how the unreasonable was suppressed) and Heidegger (in part) progressed on this path. But this reversal has only just begun. What are, in the grand scheme of things, the 130 years since Nietzsche’s productive years in the 1880s? The battle over the value of consciousness is in full swing and might be for centuries or millennia yet. And so we find ourselves, for now, living in a schizophrenic society, perhaps on the threshold of crossing over from a value system that praises consciousness to one that gives it a much more modest role.


The bounded infinity of language

Works of art, including film, painting, sculpture, literature and poetry, have a seemingly inexhaustible quality. As we keep confronting them, renewing our relationship with them over time, we continually extract more meaning from them. Some works truly appear to be bottomless. Reaching the bottom easily is, of course, a sure sign that a work will not have much lasting value.

Out of the forms listed above, (written) poetry and literature have the particular property that they are crafted out of a demonstrably finite medium: text. A finite alphabet, finite vocabulary, and a finite number of pages. As long as one disregards the effect of details such as paper quality, typography and binding, perfect copies can be made; the text can indeed be transcribed in its entirety without information loss. Somehow, reading Goethe on a Kindle is an experience that still holds power, although he presumably never intended his books to be read on Kindles (and some might argue that reading him in this way is ignoble).

How is it then that the evocative power of something finite can seem to be boundless? This curious property is something we might call the poetic or metaphorical qualities of a text. (Works of film, painting, sculpture and so on most likely also have this power, but it is trickier to demonstrate that they are grounded in a finite medium.) Through this mysterious evocative power, the elements that make up a work of art allow us to enter into an infinity that has been enclosed in a finite space. It will be argued that what is evoked comes as much from the reader as from the text, but this duality applies to all sensation.

With this in mind we turn, once again, to programming and formal “languages”. Terms in programming languages receive their meaning through a formal semantics that describes, mathematically, how the language is to be translated into an underlying, simpler language. This process takes place on a number of levels, and eventually the lowest underlying language is machinery. This grounds the power of a program to command electrons. But this is something different from the meaning of words in a natural language. The evocative power described above is clearly absent, and computer programs today do not transcend their essential finitude. With brute force, we could train ourselves to read source code metaphorically or poetically, but in most languages I know, this would result in strained, awkward and limited metaphors. (Perhaps mostly because programming languages to a large extent reference a world different from the human world.)

Consider how this inability to transcend finitude impacts our ability to model a domain in a given programming language. With an already formal domain, such as finance or classical mechanics, it is simple since what needs to happen is a mere translation. On the other hand, other domains, such as biology, resist formalisation  – and perhaps this is one of their essential properties. Here we would like to draw on the evocative, poetic, and metaphorical capacities of natural language – for the sake of program comprehension and perhaps also to support effective user interfaces – while also writing practical programs. But we have yet to invent a formal language that is both practical and evocative to the point that works of art could be created in it.

an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water

(Bashou, 1686)