Cognitive Science and the Archetypal Unconscious

Abstract: The article investigates whether cognitive science and its notion of congenital unconscious metaphor can inform Jungian psychology. The backside of ingrained transcendental thinking in Western culture, and how we are still caught up in the conceptual patterns of Cartesius and Kant, is discussed.

Keywords: metaphor, archetype-as-such, ontology, animism, transcendental philosophy, folk theories, Kant, Plato, Carl Jung.


In Journal of Analytical Psychology 49 (2004), Sören Ekström accounts for developments in cognitive science that have a bearing on the Jungian archetypal unconscious (‘The mind beyond our immediate awareness: Freudian, Jungian, and cognitive models of the unconscious’). But I don’t think he makes much of it, nor do I know of any other Jungian publication that attempts to capitalize on these interesting developments. It could be worthwhile to incorporate the findings of cognitive science in Jungian psychology. Jean Knox includes some notions of cognitive science in her book “Archetype, Attachment, Analysis” (2003), but her perspective is more ecumenical, thinking that we can draw on several conceptions of the unconscious.

Ekström thinks that cognitive science presents “a new understanding of the unconscious”, but I don’t think it deviates that much from a Jungian perspective, if we analyze their terms. According to George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (“Philosophy in the Flesh – The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western thought”, 1999) our thought processes are mostly unconscious, governed by “conceptual metaphors”. Our concepts, which we wrongly think are abstract, are really moulded by unconscious metaphors, at least mostly so (there is no “disembodied reason”). Crucially, the authors point out that these are not repressed in the Freudian sense, but operate beneath the level of cognitive awareness, inaccessible to consciousness (p.10). It rhymes with the Jungian notion of the autonomous archetype, i.e., that it represents a mental activity, rather than a mere form. It has a faint consciousness of its own, as it were.

Unconscious Metaphors and Folk Theories

Due to the fact that we are unconsciously governed by unconscious metaphors, there is a “cognitive science of philosophical ideas” (ibid., p.133). It means that our philosophical edifices (and many of our scientific, too) have been erected on foundational metaphors, which really say nothing about reality as such. They are ingrained in our psychology from times immemorial, having to do with our bodily functions, our typical doings in the world, family relations, and “folk theories” of time, space, causality, etc. Especially, they rest inaccessibly and firmly in our psychology on account of our brain’s neurological structure. We simply cannot think in another way, since our mind is embodied. It is not soaring free among abstract forms, which has been a popular folk theory. Our brain and body shape reason. What exemplifies this is the universality of body language. It functions remarkably well, a function without which the meeting of different ethnicities in history could not have been accomplished.

Conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and of the environments we live in. It has to do with the fact that we have evolved to categorize, which is for the most part not a conscious function (p.18). Without it we wouldn’t have survived. Categorization is when a generalization occurs and brain information passes from a dense ensemble of neurons to another via a relatively sparse set of connections:

Whenever this happens, the pattern of activation distributed over the first set of neurons is too great to be represented in a one-to-one manner in the sparse set of connections. Therefore, the sparse set of connections necessarily groups together certain input patterns in mapping the across to the output ensemble. Whenever a neural ensemble provides the same output with different inputs, there is neural categorization […] A small percentage of our categories have been formed by conscious acts of categorization, but most are formed automatically and unconsciously as a result of functioning in the world […] We do not, and cannot, have full conscious control over how we categorize. (p.18)

But this doesn’t mean that we cannot form new concepts of the world. There is still a degree of flexibility, especially since multiple metaphors can be combined to form a single concept, a phenomenon called “metaphorical pluralism” (p.70).

Thus, everything is metaphorized and our concepts are “embodied”. Although the metaphors cannot be an objective feature of the world, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the theories they give rise to are false (p.224). They can still be very functional. However, Western philosophy rests on assumptions from folk theories, causing thinkers to go astray into transcendental speculation, building on the notion of “disembodied reason” (esp. Descartes and Kant).

We simply cannot help to think that we have a disembodied mind, that is, we subscribe to the folk theory of the soul, regardless of our conscious views. At least, people often dream about the soul-image at night (anima/animus). The soul is perhaps the most central archetype of all, from a Jungian perspective. Obviously, it has served a helpful purpose in evolution. It is how we automatically experience ourselves, as a soul having recourse to a body, almost as if it were clothes. No wonder, then, that this notion has given rise to so much religious and philosophical speculation. But it is a living metaphor in our unconscious and not a metaphysical substance. Our mind is wholly embodied.

Mind likes to perceive itself as a soul independent of the body. Conscious awareness also positions itself between the eyes, although this is merely for convenience. It can place itself on the ceiling, something which people close to dying have reported. A woman under influence of medicinal drugs was driving home. Suddenly her conscious awareness moved to the bumper at the front of the car, and she found herself looking at the side of the road while it rushed by at high speed. It was a tremendous chock to her and it impacted her view of life.

Our psyche likes to nurture the soul metaphor, although the mind is really embodied. The mythic metaphor somehow gives us meaning in life. The unconscious peddles the soul myth in dreams. It gives rise to the belief that the soul will survive death. That’s why we are all very keen on the notion of a metaphysical soul-substance. The metaphysical dichotomy seems to be an innate way of ideation, a vestige of the animistic epoch. Needless to say, even if soul is mere metaphor, there could be some deeper truth behind it, after all.

Jean Piaget (1928) sheds light on how children think in animistic terms. –Do clouds know they are called clouds? Yes, because they’ve got a name and they know their name” (Piaget, 1928, p.79). Thus, objects are endowed with “mind”, because mind and its capacity to know names is world-creating. Piaget terms this the animism of the child.

The Folk Theory of Essence plays an important part. It builds on the archaic notion that every particular thing is a kind of thing. Every entity has an “essence” or “nature” which makes it what it is. Thus, kinds exist and are defined by essences. However, there is also a category of all things that exist (cf. Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, pp.348-49). In Plato, the Essence of Being is the Ideas. But, of course, Platonism is the foundation of the rest of Western thought. It gives rise to the notion of Grades of Being, which means that Goodness has Being, whereas evil is a deprivation of its essence. It means that evil has less or no Being. Of course, this is Augustinus’s view of evil, the ‘privatio boni’, which Jung so strongly objected against. Yet, this is how we unconsciously tend to think, on lines of the unconscious metaphor of Essence of Being.

Illness has less reality than Health, because Health is the very Essence of Being, whereas sickness is a privation of this Essence. That’s why people, doctors too, tend to underestimate sickness, because it doesn’t partake in the same substantial Reality as Health. A woman retold on Swedish radio how she had been dismissed by 29 doctors in a row. Only the thirtieth doctor, whom she had heard was good, took pains to check her symptoms with the diagnostic manuals. It turned out that it was a known disease, albeit rare. She got a prescription which restored her to full health. One could hear the despair in her voice. Why do they treat people that way when they can easily help a person whose life has been destroyed? It’s because they don’t take illness seriously. It doesn’t really exist. Of course, in the U.S., doctors are economically motivated to help people, but traditionally it’s not so in Sweden, because they get their wage anyway.

Interestingly, Alfred Adler built his version of psychoanalysis on the notion that psychological disease is not real, but an unconscious means of simulation in order to acquire power in the micro-social context. Jungians are well aware that the Shadow is regarded as non-existent, especially with some people. There is no such thing. My ego is Brave whereas cowardice is a privation of its essential Being. Thus, cowardice ends up in the shadow, together with all the other aspects of our personality that don’t really exist because they are lacking in the substance of Being. Lakoff & Johnson say:

Cognitive science has something of enormous importance to contribute to human freedom: the ability to learn what our unconscious conceptual systems are like and how our cognitive unconscious functions. If we do not realize that most of our thought is unconscious and that we think metaphorically, we will indeed be slaves to the cognitive unconscious. Paradoxically, the assumption that we have a radically autonomous rationality as traditionally conceived actually limits our rational autonomy. It condemns us to cognitive slavery — to an unaware and uncritical dependence on our unconscious metaphors. To maximize what conceptual freedom we can have, we must be able to see through and move beyond philosophies that deny the existence of an embodied cognitive unconscious that governs most of our mental lives. (ibid., pp.537-38)

The above statement coincides perfectly with Jung’s thought. It’s perhaps the most central tenet of all. Cognitive science gives rise to an epistemology of “embodied scientific realism” (p.90). It means that there is no strict subject-object dichotomy, in the epistemological sense (p.93). In my view, it can inform Jungian psychology and strengthen its central tenets. It is surprising that no such development is forthcoming. Have Jungians invested so much in the fanciful metaphysical edifice of Jung, which is indebted to both Neoplatonism and Kant, that they cannot allow themselves to befriend cognitive science? It would mean that we have to throw out certain Kantian and Neoplatonic misconceptions, together with the popular but superstitious notion of synchronicity. This is because they all build on folk theories and unconscious metaphors that lack foundation in reality. Have Jungians painted themselves into a corner?

Can Jungian psychology harmonize with cognitive science? It could be achieved by highlighting the way in which we still employ ideation and emotion, at least unconsciously, following animistic premises. The discussion about ‘archetypes’ boils down to the animistic conception, which is a mythological worldview that is still present and alive in our own unconscious. The archetypal notion allows us to apply our innate animism in a conscious and controlled way. Regardless of the metaphysical foundation of the ‘archetype’, it is rooted in the unconscious as an archaic way of perceiving reality. This reasoning is similar to the views presented above, e.g., that every entity has an “essence” that defines it, which is an idea deriving from animism. What Plato did was to formalize animistic thought and to draw out the conclusions, especially the moral consequences. I have outlined such an animistic and cognitive view of the archetype, although it is not really a revision (cf. Winther, 2011, here). It merely implies that we think of the archetype without recourse to abstruse metaphysics and Kantian epistemological misconceptions.

The archetype-as-such

In Jungian psychology, the archetype-as-such is defined as an empty form that can take shape as diverse mythological motifs in art, myth, dreams, etc. The archetype-as-such also represents a bridge between psyche and matter, since it underlies the structure of matter as well. It “transcends” consciousness in the same sense as Kant’s thing-in-itself. Thus, the archetype-as-such cannot be confirmed empirically. In terms of cognitive science, although we lack conscious insight into the unconscious metaphors it does not mean that they reside beyond time or space, as opposed to the archetype-as-such. Jean Knox says:

However, Jung did retain the view that the archetype-as-such was content-less and the ‘noumenon’ is another concept from which that of the archetype as a content-less organizing mental structure is drawn. In the most thorough study to date of Jung’s Kantianism, De Voogd acknowledges this, saying ‘something very Kantian is going on when the irrepresentable archetype-as-such is carefully distinguished from its visualizations in the form of images and ideas or from instinctual self-perception’ (De Voogd 1984:226).
  However, the temptation to combine model 1, of the archetype as a biological predisposition, with model 2, in which it is thought of as an abstract organizing structure, unknowable in itself, leads us back into confusion. There is then an implied link between Kant’s philosophical distinction between noumenon and phenomenon and the biological distinction between genotype (inherited, genetic instructions) and phenotype (the psychological and physical features which express the genetic instructions). The genotype is not the same thing as Kant’s noumenon, nor is the phenotype identical with his phenomenon. A thorough exploration of the differences between these philosophical and the biological concepts would take me away from my main task of identifying the various frames of reference which contribute to the confusion over the characteristics of archetypes; however, one point which illustrates the difference is that a noumenon is immaterial, irrepresentable and unknowable, while a genotype is a material structure, consisting of particular sequences of DNA in our chromosomes. The genotype cannot be experienced in itself, only in the phenotype, but the genotype is a material reality, not a ‘concept of pure reason’.
  The relationship between Plato’s ‘ideas’ or ‘pure forms’ and Jung’s concept of the archetype is even more problematic than the extent to which archetype-as-such and archetypal image can be mapped onto Kant’s concepts of noumenon and phenomenon. Plato’s ‘pure form’ provides one of the sources for the next concept of the archetype, although it is significantly different from Kant’s noumenon. Bishop suggests that Jung failed to appreciate the distinction between the Idea in the Platonic and the Kantian sense, or chose to ignore the important differences between them (Bishop 2000:160). (Knox, 2003, p.32)

Jung’s incentive was to heal the split soul of modern man by promoting a theory according to which psyche is neither secondary to matter nor separate from matter in its foundation. The metaphysical substances of psyche and matter coincide in the transcendental layer of nature, the unus mundus, homestead of the archetype-as-such. Since Jung, like us all, has a Western and Platonic bias, he starts out with our traditional preconceptions of an inherently divided ontology, in terms of Kant and Descartes, et al., and attempts to heal it by adding to the edifice a metaphysical construct that unites the world by way of a workaround. It results in many a contradictory and convoluted conception (cf. Winther, 2012, here).


Western transcendentalism has harmful consequences in the way it promotes a dichotomic way of thought, namely the way in which we perceive subject and object as wholly independent (Descartes) and also how we view ‘idea’ or ‘spirit’ as disembodied, i.e., wholly disassociated from material existence (Kant). Robin May Schott (1993) accounts for the way in which female nature and the sensuous aspect of reality have been diabolized in historical culture and in the history of religion. Immanuel Kant wants to achieve a knowledge that is “pure”, untainted by the sensual and the bodily, something which Schott argues leads to a “fetishism of objectivity”. Kant’s fixation on the term “Pure” is evident from his writings. This goes back to Plato and further beyond. Plato said that pure thought is only achieved by cutting oneself off from all of the sensations of the body, which serve only to impede the soul’s quest for truth among the otherworldly Forms. In this conception, the purity of truth stands in opposition to partaking in physical reality. The phenomenal world is systematically devalued in relation to the realm of pure thought.

Correspondingly, in Kant, the objects of knowledge are constituted by the pure forms of thought in conjunction with the pure forms of intuition, whereas the representation of the world is merely subjective, which implies a devaluation of physical reality and the bodily. Kant’s systematic purification divests both the subject and the object of all immediate, sensuous, and qualitative features. The forms of human intuition and understanding become the incarnation of purity. It follows that the world becomes devoid of personal meaning and value. Schott says:

[The] Kantian objectification of both subjects and objects is also a manifestation of the ascetic denial of sensuality. But Kant’s exclusion of feeling and sensuality from cognition, morality, and aesthetic enjoyment does not indicate that these facets of existence are in fact irrelevant to the Kantian project. Rather, the intensity with which pure rationality is pursued suggests an interest in denying the erotic component in knowledge, morality, and art. (Schott, 1993, p.171)

But if ascetic consciousness seeks to reject the body, how can it exist in a body? Schott continues:

[The] desire to attain an immortal truth that is not possible in temporal existence leads the Platonic philosopher to a love of death. The problem of the incarnation of pure consciousness is also evident in Kantian philosophy, in which pure forms of thought are constitutive of the phenomenal only at the price of excluding noumenal reality from knowledge. Both solutions indicate that the ascetic ideal can only be realized by denying the ‘reality’ of phenomenal existence. (ibid., p.172)

Schott’s book leads me to the conclusion that the Platonic and Kantian paradigm is really a form of ascetical mysticism, a quest for God, rather than a search for an objective knowledge about reality. Thus, we have muddled the issue by regarding them as philosophical systems serving to attain objectivity. In the historical record, such ideas have served the purpose of liberating our conscious faculty from bodily identity. Thus, we have managed to divest ourselves of concrete thinking, a notorious phenomenon in the history of mankind. But since we have now liberated thought and attained abstract thinking, it is time to see through the underlying agenda of these oldfangled thinkers and go beyond them, unless we are on a quest for worldly transcendence to attain the ‘unio mystica’.

Schott understands the transcendentalist trend in only negative terms, as a means of repression of the feminine and sensuous aspect, especially in the authors themselves. It is possible to defend a more benevolent view of transcendentalism, as a means of achieving emancipation of personality and consciousness (which has however acquired such exaggerated dimensions in Western thought that it has turned negative).

Schott puts her finger on an important aspect of Western thought, an illness that continues to this day. I am thinking, for example, of an author like Edward F. Edinger (1922-1998) who elevates “consciousness and ego formation” as the highest enterprise in human life: “Thus, the individual’s striving for consciousness becomes the modern formulation of the venerable idea of labouring in the vineyard of the Lord, and the new answer to the age-old question of the meaning of life” (Edinger, 1984, p.58). The ego must strive to achieve immortality among the otherworldly Forms, untainted by physical reality. It carries very strong overtones of transcendental philosophy and religion. It isn’t really psychology, which must remain rooted in Mother Earth. It is remarkable, how firmly rooted this standpoint remains in Western thinking, of elevating “pure consciousness” to the detriment of sensuous reality. In my experience, the average intellectual is still rather Kantian in his/her outlook, despite the fact that the scientific trend is toward a realist perspective and a more bodily-oriented outlook, to the detriment of the idealist perspective of a mind alienated from reality.


Can Jungian psychology and cognitive science converge around the notion of unconscious and autonomous cognition of “animistic” metaphors? The upshot is that the ontological nature of the archetype is no longer an urgent issue. It means that we can throw out Jungian speculations about the metaphysical foundation of the archetype, because cognitive science has already solved the problem. Why not jump on the train? It seems evident that it does not mean any significant deviation from classical Jungian psychology, short of the pseudo-scientific notions that have so damaged the scientific respectability of Jungian psychology. Best of all, it means that classical Jungian psychology comes out on top, and a phenomenological interpretation in terms of Archetypal Psychology is relegated to the shadows, because cognitive science has thoroughly refuted phenomenological and post-structuralist philosophy.


© Mats Winther, 2014.


Edinger, E.F. (1984). The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man. Inner City Books.

Ekstrom, S. (2004). ‘The mind beyond our immediate awareness: Freudian, Jungian, and cognitive models of the unconscious’. Journal of Analytical Psychology 49. (here)

Knox, J. (2003). Archetype, Attachment, Analysis – Jungian Psychology and the Emergent Mind. Routledge.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh – The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western thought. Basic Books.

Piaget, J. (1928). The Child’s Conception of the World. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Schott, R.M. (1993). Cognition and Eros: A Critique of the Kantian Paradigm. Penn State Press.

Winther, M. (2011). ‘The animistic archetypal nature of the unconscious’. (here)

   -----------   (2012). ‘Critique of Synchronicity’. (here).