Jung’s metaphysic and epistemology: Platonism or Phenomenology?

Carl Jung divides reality according to Kantian terms. The phenomenal world is the experiential world whereas the noumenal world is forever in the beyond. The latter is the causal factor behind the former. However, on the subjective side there is another reality, which is the objective psyche, inhabited by archetypes. The archetypal world, too, is partitioned into phenomenal and noumenal — the archetypal image and the archetype-as-such, of which the latter transcends experience. (It is required, as one and the same archetypal seed can give rise to many different expressions in culture, myth and dream.) Hence we are surrounded on both sides by a transcendental reality that is, as such, forever beyond experience. We only have recourse to a phenomenal reality, a virtual reality similar to the simulated environment created in computer technology, allowing users to interact with 3D worlds (VR). That’s why Jung’s metaphysical credo is esse in anima. Accordingly, he says:

Far, therefore, from being a material world, this is a psychic world, which allows us to make only indirect and hypothetical inferences about the real nature of matter. The psychic alone has immediate reality, and this includes all forms of the psychic, even “unreal” ideas and thoughts which refer to nothing “external.” We may call them “imagination” or “delusion,” but that does not detract in any way from their effectiveness. (CW 8, para. 747)

The psyche creates reality every day. The only expression I can use for this activity is fantasy […] Sometimes it appears in primordial form, sometimes it is the ultimate and boldest product of all our faculties combined. Fantasy, therefore, seems to me the clearest expression of the specific activity of the psyche. (CW 6, para. 78)

For all practical matters, then, it seems that Jung belongs to an existentialist branch of phenomenological philosophy, because it is easy to forget about a noumenal reality which is forever beyond our grasp (vid. Brooke, 2015). It was for the same reason that Kant’s transcendental idealism turned into abstruse German idealism. Jungian psychology predictably underwent a regression in Hillman’s ‘archetypal psychology’, which may rightly be called a form of controlled madness.

This won’t do because phenomenology runs counter to science. For one thing, Kant’s postulate of a noumenal reality has been refuted. In the Prolegomena he explains that the warmth of a stone is a mere judgment of perception, subjectively constructed, and that we will never come to know the internal constitution of the stone (the thing-in-itself) which gives rise to the appearance. Today, quantum physicists can explain everything about the warmth of the stone. Quantum physics has laid bare the thing-in-itself, the inner workings of which we cannot directly perceive. Through experiment and mathematical theory we have better knowledge about this realm than anything else (cf. Winther, 2000). It appears that the world as noumenal reality is a figment of mind.

It means that we do not live in a mere phenomenal reality. Our perception of outer reality is more or less authentic, because it’s not a disparate realm. Rather, the world is wholly reachable, but depends on the mind to make sense of it. It requires some kind of realist epistemology; and thus phenomenology, and all other forms of idealism, are out of the question. Phenomenology is no way out for Jungian psychology.

Despite the advances of science during his lifetime, Jung maintained his radical noumenalism. It consorts with phenomenalism, the doctrine that human knowledge is confined to or founded on the realities or appearances presented to the senses. Thus, we cannot know anything certain about the true nature of matter, psyche, or the divine. The contributions of all brands of theorists are “anthropomorphisms”, fabricated in the intellectual ivory tower of their institutions, where they have no insight about the “epistemological barrier”. We only have recourse to the phenomenon; only experience counts. Commenting on Buber’s critique, Jung says:

But it is the theologians of every variety who buttonhole God and prescribe to him what he has to be like in their estimation. This leads to no understanding between men, of which we stand in such dire need today. My apparent scepticism is only a recognition of the epistemological barrier, of which Buber doesn’t seem to possess the ghost of an idea. When I say that God is first and foremost our conception, this is twisted into God is “nothing but our conception.” In reality there is a background of existence which we can intuit at most but cannot transpose into the sphere of our knowledge. In any case a serious science should not succumb to this arrogance. The relation with transcendence is certainly a necessity for us, but gives us no power over it. (1975, p. 368)

Jung thinks that his critics make a dogmatic claim to sole validity of their views, when they would better realize that their assertions are mere human statements. On his view, Augustine’s theory of God’s nature is no better than any other view, and the scientific theorists are groping in the dark, their models being merely provisional. In truth, their theories underlie our enormous technological development, and these developments today belong to the phenomenal world. Many things that (probably) never before existed in the universe now exist as “instantiations of theory”. Theory, including theology, can be permanently true.

So it was Jung himself whose dogmatic adherence to noumenalism made communications with other disciplines (especially theology) impossible. Among Jungians today many hold with epistemic phenomenalism, and the consequences are deleterious, contributing to the isolation of Jungian psychology. They write books neglecting scholarly knowledge in the field, safe in the conviction that experts only rely on “anthropomorphisms”. Especially the views of theologians, biblical exegetes and historians, can be safely neglected. After all, Jung made an example to follow, in writing Answer to Job.

It has been argued that Jung misused the Kantian terms. I’m not so sure of that; he simply expanded their usage. According to Kant, the thing-in-itself is ordered by the categories into a phenomenon. If an archetypal image is a Kantian phenomenon, it requires that the archetype-as-such is spatiotemporally present (cf. de Voogd 1984). In Jung’s theory it is not; so this seems to contradict Kantian theory. Nevertheless, consider that the archetypes order the mental experience, both from themselves and of themselves. In such a way they correspond to the Kantian categories, the difference being that the archetypes are more numerous and beyond the grasp of the intellect. (Jung opines that “Kant reduced the archetypes to a limited number of categories of understanding” (CW 8, para. 276).) Roger Brooke says:

The archetypes become both ‘categories’ and noumenata (unknowable things-in-themselves); and if archetypal images are phenomenal, they are no longer grounded in the given world but in the psyche. Instead of the structural relation between person and world, or ‘category’ and phenomenon, there are the intra-psychic relations between consciousness (archetypally structured, perhaps) and archetypal images. Even the postulated noumenon is no longer ‘out there’ but is equally the unknowable intra-psychic source of archetypal images. Otherness evaporates and relationships collapse into identities. Just as the religious person ‘relates’ to God by ‘projecting’ the ‘corresponding’ psychic God-image, so the child relates to his mother by projecting an internal image of mother on to her, the father relates to his children by projecting an internal image of the child on to them, the woman relates to her lover by projecting her animus on to him, and the parishioner relates to her priest through the projected image of the priest. This theoretical mishmash has the practical effect of collapsing personal boundaries, rendering relationships narcissistic, and dulling our empathic sensibilities. At its conceptual core is Jung’s misuse of Kant. (Brooke, 2015, pp. 80-81)

In this understanding, an archetype is its own noumenon and phenomenon. Despite the fact that the archetypes are intellectually irrepresentable, they themselves order the mind’s experience of themselves. Those entities which are not graspable are employed by the mind to make experiential the very same noumenal entities. It defies logic. If it’s going to work, it is necessary to postulate intelligible Kantian categories of understanding apart from noumenal archetypes. Then it seems that Brooke’s argument loses its power. Jung’s point is that the noumenal archetype is equally much “outside” mind as the noumenal object. It does indeed belong to the “given world”.

The view that Jung’s model “renders relationships narcissistic” is implausible. If a person “only relates to her projections”, she will soon experience a collision with harsh reality. The consequence is that projections are withdrawn and the unconscious factor is integrated. This is perhaps the most central doctrine of Jungian psychology. The argument is valid only if we can only “have a reality” through archetypal projections. I don’t think this is what Jung means. In Kantian epistemology, we can only “have a reality” through the ordering capacity of the categories. In Kant’s system the wholly rational and deducible categories shape something else, which is imperceptible as such. So if the noumenal archetypes are defined as something else than the mind’s categories, then it works. It’s just that Jung expands the Kantian horizon to incorporate the objective psyche. The categories order inner reality as well as outer reality. It is questionable if Jung really mishandles the Kantian terms.

As we are “surrounded on both sides” by noumenal reality, Jung takes the step to unite this reality and characterizes it as psychoid. It means that matter and psyche have the same archetypal foundation; inner and outer have the same ground. The foundational archetypes of the unus mundus are the qualities of number (vid. von Franz, 1974). However, this seems self-contradictory. Per definition, what’s qualitative belongs to the phenomenal realm. We experience qualities of number (‘oneness’, ‘twoness’…); so it could not belong to the noumenal. However, it could be interpreted as the Platonic Beyond, which is attainable by the human mind.

Also Sigmund Freud (‘The Unconscious’) endorses an expanded version of Kantian philosophy. Not only are we surrounded by material things, but also by ‘psychic things’. It would mean that the unconscious is equal to the realm of invisible spirits, like in the good old days of animism. Says Freud:

In psycho-analysis there is no choice for us but to assert that mental processes are in themselves unconscious, and to liken the perception of them by means of consciousness to the perception of the external world by means of the sense-organs. We can even hope to gain fresh knowledge from the comparison. The psycho-analytic assumption of unconscious mental activity appears to us, on the one hand, as a further expansion of the primitive animism which caused us to see copies of our own consciousness all around us, and, on the other hand, as an extension of the corrections undertaken by Kant of our views on external perception. Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perceptions are subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with what is perceived though unknowable, so psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object. Like the physical, the psychical is not necessarily in reality what it appears to us to be. We shall be glad to learn, however, that the correction of internal perception will turn out not to offer such great difficulties as the correction of external perception — that internal objects are less unknowable than the external world. (Freud, 1989, pp. 576-77)

The animistic revival follows from the fact that Freud and Jung held fast to Kant’s concept of the noumenon. But it’s evident that the concept of the noumenal (absolute transcendence) is an encumberment. It has been refuted by science; nor can Jung make heads or tails of it. Yet it’s practical, because it allows Jung to evade questions relating to the nature of the archetype, the structure of matter, and the theology of God. It let him focus entirely on the empirical psyche. Plato didn’t make it so easy for himself. Platonism is an old venerable school of philosophy that harmonizes with science and Christianity and lacks that strange Kantian concept of absolute transcendence. Notably, Plato’s mind-body philosophy has very little in common with modern Cartesianism.

The Platonic Form is reminiscent of the Jungian archetype, the difference being that Forms are divine and intelligible. A popular view is that they are perfect particulars (transcendent, pure Forms). However, this is not the only version that Plato gives. Forms are epistemologically and ontologically independent of spatiotemporality. As objects of thought they are non-identical with the common qualities of things. Ostenfeld says that “we are entitled to distinguish three kinds of ontological entities: Forms, Form-instances or common qualities, and particulars” (1982, p. 25).

Platonic epistemology classifies sense-perception under universals, and thus latent knowledge of the Forms serves to categorize experience. However, the thing observed also has its essential nature from the Forms. (The exemplar is always a more or less deficient instantiation of a Form.) So both inner and outer reality are structured by the same Forms, just as in Jung’s system. (Unus mundus corresponds to the Platonic Beyond.) The mind, through recollection, has access to the pure Forms, and may thus recognize the imprecise embodiments in the outer world.

Notably, Plato’s philosophy is called Platonic realism because universals exist objectively and independent of human minds. Because it is a realist epistemology, this is why it works. Has philosophy made any progress after Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine and Aquinas? Richard H. Schlagel (2003) evaluates the modern philosophical project as a deplorable failure. Be that as it may, mathematical Platonism is alive and well (vid. Brown, 2012).

Thus, it might be a good idea for Jungian psychology to strike down roots in good old respectable philosophy, especially since Jung argued that the natural numbers constitute the foundational layer of the unus mundus. The philosopher John M. Dillon (2007) is partial to Paul Natorp’s (1854-1924) version of Platonism. Natorp disposes of the Kantian thing-in-itself and says that the Platonic Forms need not after all be regarded as ‘things’:

[They] may be seen rather as something more like ‘laws,’ structuring principles of knowledge, still immutable and eternal, and possessing objective reality, but nonetheless only acquiring their full realization through the activity of the human mind. (Dillon, 2007)

Plato’s Timaeus, in demythologized language, speaks of a cosmic Intellect that entertains patterns, or ‘laws’, continually projected upon the material world. The human mind has its own resources to cognize such patterns. It can give shape and order to the flood of sense-data. The human mind can impose determination on a world which is “infinitely determinable”. Such a Platonic model agrees with the worldview of Augustine and Aquinas. According to Aquinas, the nous poietikos (active intellect) is a tool belonging to human psychology, actually a vague simulacrum of the mind of God, which allows for a structured mental act that makes sense of the world. Thus, the Forms are systems for ordering knowledge, but also stable features of the nature of things. These are brought to realization by the individual intellect. Intellection in general is part and parcel of the world, of which individual minds are manifestations. Says Dillon:

Natorp maintains the real existence of an objective realm, but he sees consciousness as part of that realm, which imposes a structure upon it. It is this structure, articulated as a set of rules of procedure, as it were, that constitutes the realm of Forms. (ibid)

There is no thing-in-itself, only the bewildering indeterminacy of the sensible, on which the mind imposes determination. It accords with the findings of vision research. Sense-perception is not simply the reception of primitive sense-data. In fact, it requires massive processing in the brain.


I have argued that the Jungian regression into phenomenology and the concomitant ideal of “living in fantasy” depend on the predication of a noumenal reality. If this out-of-date postulate is discarded, what’s left is similar to the Platonic metaphysic and epistemology. It also means that Jungian psychology can no longer regard findings of theology and materialist science as conjectural and inconclusive, simply by arguing that it is merely ‘theory’ whereas psychic experience is the only reality that matters. Theoretical understanding of world and God has a profound psychological effect, and correct theory that remains truthful is possible. Theory is real. In fact, in quantum physics, mathematical statistical functions take on a reality of their own. A wave function is a potential reality that collapses at the moment of measurement. As long as no measurement occurs, there is only a potential reality, as described by a mathematical function. This is the Platonic form of the phenomenon.


© Mats Winther, 2020 (revised 28 March).


Brooke, R. (2015). Jung and Phenomenology. Routledge.

Brown, J. R. (2012). Platonism, Naturalism, and Mathematical Knowledge. Routledge.

Dillon, J. (2007). ‘The Platonic Forms as Gesetze: Could Paul Natorp have been right?’ in Corrigan, K. & Turner, J. D. (eds.) Platonisms: Ancient, Modern, and Postmodern. Brill.

Franz, M-L von (1974). Number and Time. Rider & Company.

Freud, S. (1989) (Gay, P. ed.) The Freud Reader. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. (‘The Unconscious’, SE XIV, 161)

Jung, C. G. (1975). Adler, G. (ed.). Letters, Vol. 2: 1951-1961. Princeton University Press.

  ---------    (1977). Psychological Types. Bollingen Series. Princeton/Bollingen. (CW 6)

  ---------    (1978). The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Princeton/Bollingen. (CW 8)

Kant, I. (1912). Carus, P. (ed.). Kant’s Prolegomena To Any Future Metaphysics. Project Gutenberg. (here)

Ostenfeld, E. N. (1982). Forms, Matter and Mind: Three Strands in Plato’s Metaphysics. Martinus Nuhoff Publishers.

Schlagel, R. H. (2003). ‘The Waning of the Light: The Eclipse of Philosophy’. The Review of Metaphysics 57, Sept 2003, 105-133.

Silverman, A. (2014). ‘Plato’s Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (here)

Voogd, S. de (1984). ‘Fantasy versus Fiction: Jung’s Kantianism Appraised’ in Papadopoulos, R. K. and Saayman, G. S. (eds.) Jung in Modern Perspective. Wildwood House, 1984, ch. 13.

Winther, M. (2000). ‘Critique of Neo-Hegelianism’. (here)

See also:

Winther, M. (2019). ‘The psychologization of God’. (here) (This is a review of The divine mind: exploring the psychological history of God’s inner journey, 2018, by Jungian author Michael Gellert. It exemplifies the Jungian phenomenological method.)