Is Jungian psychology neurotic?

Abstract : The article looks at Jungian psychology and its inner conflict. A sober school of thought is being undermined by a pseudo-religious aesthetizing tendency. Jung’s dependency on Swedenborg is evaluated.

Keywords : Carl Jung, Emanuel Swedenborg, Black Books, Red Book, phenomenalism, aestheticism, spiritualism.

In Jungian psychology, “the reality of the psyche” is a catchphrase. The psychic is veridical and not illusory, because it is the only reality we can know. This is called ‘phenomenalism’, advocated by Jung throughout his collected works. Jung maintains a phenomenological outlook, thinking that the only true knowledge is the experiential. He calls this ‘empiricism’ and identifies it with the scientific method. Actually, scientist have renounced the obsolescent form of empiricism and today endorse ‘scientific realism’. We can also acquire certain knowledge about things beyond our immediate acquaintance (cf. Winther, 2020a; 2020b).

Why must subjective experience be viewed as “real”? Because there is really nothing else than the phenomenal. It’s what makes up reality (circulus in probando; circular reasoning). On the other hand, central to the theory is that certain psychic experiences are not veridical. For instance, one may see another person as evil. This could be due to projection, and the subject must then realize that it’s an illusion. This leads to the assimilation of the personal content — the underlying cause for the illusion — and thus the experience itself evaporates into thin air. Although it created great animosity, it was not authentic!

Thus, it seems that theory is at cross-purposes with itself. The philosopher of science Nicholas Maxwell argues that “[a]ny conception of rationality which systematically leads us astray must be defective (2004, p. 80). He coins the term ‘rationalistic neurosis’ and represents it as “a characteristic, influential and damaging kind of irrationality masquerading as rationality” (p. xi). Theory may be at cross-purposes with itself. When misrepresentations of aims occur, then we have a neurotic problem in the theoretical framework. It is bound to have demoralizing consequences. Any person who digests and practices a worldview that is rationally neurotic will acquire secondary and induced symptoms. Much of the problems that people have today really derive from the errant ways of thought that they have absorbed. (This would explain the relative success of cognitive therapy. It is like deprogramming; encouraging the patient to challenge his/her distorted and unhelpful thinking.)

When a person is at odds with himself, we say that he is neurotic. The same can be said about theories. We should remain slightly skeptical about our perceptions. For example, a person may perceive a certain man as nice and friendly, unaware of the fact that he regularly beats up his family members. As he is perceived as a good person, shall he not be convicted, then? After all, it is a truthful experience, even though the subject didn’t know the whole truth. Anyway, do we at any occasion know the whole truth? It is morally highly problematic to postulate that the content of mind has a reality of its own. It is termed the “mind projection fallacy” — assuming that a statement about an object describes an inherent property of the object, rather than a personal perception.

Jung’s theory encloses the subject in a virtual reality, surrounded on both sides by a transcendent reality that remains forever beyond our grasp. As we can only have knowledge through inward experience, we can never reach certainty about the outside world as such; nor the divine world. The “epistemological barrier” prevents us from acquiring any certain knowledge. This extract from a letter to Pastor Damour is characteristic for his thinking:

Barth’s objection to the psychologizing of religious experiences, which I see you also have defended, is a totally unjustified prejudice. Does Barth or anyone else know what the unconscious is, or does Barth want to prove to us perhaps that religious experience, as we know it, comes from some other source than the psyche? The theological authorities I appeal to in this connection are Tertullian and Meister Eckhart, not to mention my own experience, which has given me more insight into the nature of the human psyche than the editorial pulpit of Herr Barth. This is precisely why the theologians, on their own admission, don’t know how to cope with the psyche of the sick. The human psyche and the psychic background are boundlessly underestimated, as though God spoke to man exclusively through the radio, the newspapers, or through sermons. God has never spoken to man except in and through the psyche, and the psyche understands it and we experience it as something psychic. Anyone who calls that psychologism is denying the eye that beholds the sun. (Jung, 1973, p. 98)

What Karl Barth protested against was Jung’s psychologization of the divine. Jung says that, to him, “the unconscious is God”. It means that every manifestation of the unconscious, even an impetus to murder, could be seen as a manifestation of God, so much as “murderousness” is part of God’s dark side (cf. Jung, Answer to Job, CW 11). It is an heretical delusion, predicated on his phenomenalism. Neither theology nor science reckons with an epistemological barrier. Scientists continue to investigate the material world, and they learn new truths all the time. Through theory and experiment they encroach upon reality. Scientists never encounter a barrier! Jung, however, saw theory as conjectural and inconclusive. He was wrong, because theory can be proven correct. Of course, Barth was well aware that God can manifest in the psyche. In the bible, God’s voice is heard in dreams. What he reacts against is the reduction of the divine to psychic phenomena. It is indeed psychologization, as the phenomenon overwhelmingly takes precedence.

Jung’s theory amounts to a definitive alienation of God. A substitute psychic god takes his place as “my psychic experience”. For all practical purposes, God can never be anything else than a content of “my” mind. Comparatively, physicists do not think of material phenomena as “my experience”; nor do theologians reduce God to “my experience”. The “enclosement” of the subject is arguably a sign of a neurotic theory, as there is really no such thing as ‘objectivity’ anymore. Among Jungians there is a certain subjective religious feeling for the “truths” that Jung has uncovered (ignoring that he viewed it as his “personal myth”). For an example of this attitude, listen to the recent podcast on This Jungian Life, where three Jungians discuss with Sonu Shamdasani around the Black Books (2020). The unsound veneration of the Black Books and the Red Book was easy to foresee, in that there is not much else for a Jungian to hold to. God will remain forever totally unknown. Theory, including theology, is merely provisional conjecture. Jung’s experiences, however, are the real thing! It foments an aesthetizing tendency among Jungians. David Tacey says:

In the wave of interest generated by The Red Book, advocates have forgotten that Jung denounced this work as belonging to his ‘aestheticising’ phase: ‘I gave up this aestheticising tendency in good time, in favour of a rigorous process of understanding’ (Jung, MDR, p. 213). This aspect of Jung’s experience is not featured in the cult of The Red Book, because its promoters are more interested in aesthetics than understanding. (Tacey, 2014)

In Jungian psychology, sound theory coexists with unsound pseudo-religious aesthetic phenomenalism, and the latter is getting the upper hand. How did it come to this? Evidence suggests that Jung’s revelations of the unconscious weren’t quite authentic. They really sprang from his reading of Swedenborg. This brought theoretical complications. The renowned spirit-seer insists that the mind is always in the world of spirits, where its abstract content takes concrete appearance. To the unearthly eyes of the spirits God appears as a sun against a blue heaven. All mental content, and every thought, is a reality in itself. It is psychic realism taken to the extremes. Jung’s psychic realism was further aggravated by his infatuation with subjectivistic philosophy; Kantianism and German Idealism.

Jung read seven volumes of Swedenborg during his student years. During his so-called crisis, after his break with Freud, he resumed his study of Swedenborg. This was also when he made the preparatory work for the Red Book. If we compare the two thinkers, it becomes evident that Emanuel Swedenborg must be designated as Jung’s spiritual father. It is therefore surprising that Sonu Shamdasani (2003) never mentions him. Shamdasani’s work is about Jung’s intellectual influences, and Jung affirms that he studied Swedenborg intently during two periods in his life. So why doesn’t Shamdasani think him worthy of mention? Presumably, he wanted to associate Jung only with “respectable” thinkers, because Jung has this reputation of being a spiritualist, not a scientist proper. Jung, in the Red Book, recounts how his system was revealed to him. In fact, he already knew this system, mostly through Swedenborg. The viable structure in his theory derives from him. To the Swedenborgian framework he added a hotchpotch of conscious sources, such as Kantianism, Neoplatonism, German Idealism, mythology, alchemy, etc. It is not true that Jung’s psychology came to him from the unconscious in revelatory manner. It is not primarily an empirical system.

Jung’s archetypes approximate Swedenborg’s notion of ‘spirits’ and ‘angels’. They inhabit the ‘inward heaven’ (the ‘world of spirits’) and the ‘innermost heaven’, respectively. Swedenborg says that “the world of spirits occupies the inward bodily regions” (SE n. 1610). This is the earliest definition of the unconscious. Jung appropriates Swedenborg’s concept of the ‘anima’. It is through anima that we communicate with heaven. The ‘shadow’ mirrors Swedenborg’s ‘animus’ (the lower and instinctual man). Swedenborg asserts that male and female psychology are mirror images, that is, the female is like the male on the inside and vice versa. This is equal to Jung’s unconscious anima-animus relation.

In Swedenborg, the spiritual pilgrim ascends through degrees, corresponding to Jung’s stages of individuation. This is achieved through “illumination from within”, corresponding to conscious realization in Jung. The movement toward wholeness means an ascent through the degrees by way of ‘conjunction’, which is the union of the more elevated and spiritual degree with the outer or lower degree. Thus, conjunction is integration. The progress leads to an approximation with the Grand Man (Homo Maximus). It is mirrored in Jung’s concept of the Self. Swedenborg says that “[t]he Grand Man consists in heaven in its entirety, which in general is a likeness and image of the Lord” (AC n. 3883). Heaven is the innermost man, and Jung has appropriated this concept as “Christ as a symbol of the Self”.

Swedenborg rejects asceticism and advocates a full-fledged life. He argues for a wholeness both in the heavenly and worldly sense. This is exactly the Jungian sense of wholeness. Swedenborg’s concept of ‘correspondences’ implies that all phenomena have transparent spiritual meaning. It is reminiscent of Jung’s notion of synchronicity. According to Swedenborg, the ‘human proprium’ is constantly undergoing modification by the ‘heavenly proprium’, which is also present in our soul. The human proprium tends toward self-gratification and self-righteousness, but is being repaired by the heavenly proprium. This picture corresponds more or less to the relation between ego and Self in Jungian psychology.

Swedenborg conceptualizes ‘spirit-seeing’ as a technique of conjuring “symbolic mental images of the angels of the inward heaven” (SE n. 2186). In order to do this in a waking state, he drank copious amounts of coffee. I think it’s essentially a “left hemisphere exercise” that amounts to an allegorical representation of conscious thoughts. Jung transliterates the technique as ‘active imagination’.

Jung wrote the Black Books while studying Swedenborg. Thus, it is hard to believe that he managed to convince himself that his system was “empirical”, inspired by the collective unconscious. In fact, it is an adaptation of Swedenborg’s system. It is quite original, as it deviates from Neoplatonism and Christian theology in important respects. Nevertheless, it must be categorized as a form of Christian Neoplatonism. Did Jung “forget” that he had appropriated these ideas, and instead let them come back to himself through self-fabricated images? Maybe he managed to fool himself. Anyway, it is not a bad system; but it has a conscious source. In the Red Book, Jung seems to translate his conscious thoughts into mystical language:

Then turn to the dead / listen to their lament and accept them with love. Be not their blind spokesman /[Image 105]/ there are prophets who in the end have stoned themselves. But we seek salvation and hence we need to revere what has become and to accept the dead, who have fluttered through the air and lived like bats under our roofs since time immemorial. The new will be built on the old and the meaning of what has become will become manifold. Your poverty in what has become you will thus deliver into the wealth of the future. (The Red Book, cap. xv.)

The spirits of the dead are the archetypes of the unconscious. Conscious personality mustn’t lose control: “Be not their blind spokesman”. It adheres to Swedenborg’s view; he saw it as his mission to educate the spirits of the dead. I contend that the text is not inspired by the unconscious. It is an aesthetical version of Jungian psychology; mostly an allegorical version of his conscious thought. It’s like Jung tries to emulate Swedenborg’s spirit-seeing. Swedenborg’s visions seem also to have been, to a large degree, allegorical translations of his own consciousness. Before he abandoned himself to spirit-seeing, he was a scientist of repute. It’s good that Jung didn’t follow in his footsteps, but decided to leave behind his aesthetizing phase, as it is merely cheating. It’s as if the brain’s left hemisphere attempts to create its own universe, as formulated by abstract reason. To allegorize one’s own thoughts, as if it were a religious message, is like biting one’s own tail. So why didn’t Jung prevent the publication of the Red Book? Perhaps he wanted to preserve the myth that his work was inspired by the unconscious, and the Red Book provided evidence.

People with schizophrenia typically hear voices. Unfortunately, the voices seldom have anything valuable to say. It’s due to a left hemisphere short circuit. They only hear their own shattered thoughts. Swedenborg wasn’t a schizophrenic; but he managed to short-circuit himself so that he experienced his previously formulated worldview. It came not in shattered form, but was sound and coherent. Sometimes he lectures spirits (among others, Aristotle!) about his own conscious system. Of course, this is not how psychology conceives of the encounter with the unconscious. It’s the reverse — we encounter something we didn’t know. (This does not preclude, however, that the unconscious sometimes penetrates into his visions.) Martin Lamm says:

Thus, Swedenborg’s teaching is not some kind of conglomerate of his hallucinations, as the psychiatrists that have studied him love to think. Rather should we say that his visions and revelations, from the crisis period of the dream diary, and all the way to his final years, are only objectified manifestations of his own world of ideas, an unconscious continuation in dream and hallucination of his own conscious speculation. […] Hence Swedenborg’s spirit teaching is not a disorderly reverie that would exempt the researcher from a serious treatment of his theology. It is a fully systematic formulation of his psychological theories in Oeconomia. (Lamm, 1987, pp. 190-197, my transl.)

Spiritualists have this capacity, without being schizophrenic, of observing their own thoughts and wishes as from a vantage point. Swedenborg was a highly moral and highly intelligent person, and therefore his spiritual experiences are valuable, as such. But he didn’t encounter authentic spirits. Nor did Jung encounter authentic archetypes. A major difference between them is that, unlike Jung, Swedenborg had the capacity of entering a spiritualistic trance state. This was witnessed on occasion by some of his contemporaries. The dangers with such persons are that they can throw out the wisdom collected throughout the millennia by claiming divine inspiration. In Swedenborg’s case, his revelations led to the establishment of The New Church. He never actively pursued this himself; but since he had rejected certain essential doctrines of Christianity, it was a foregone conclusion.

Similarly, Jung paints himself as a prophet who has had revelations from the “unconscious God”. It’s not the modest kind of revelation which saints have, such as seeing the Virgin Mary. Rather, he thinks of it as a new world picture, a new view of man. It shall supersede the Christian worldview. For instance, he rejects the doctrine of privatio boni. It implies that we will go back to viewing evil as a tangible spiritual force. Fr. Victor White characterized Jung’s position as “quasi-Manichaean dualism”. It is not merely silly, it is heresy.

In a Christian understanding, God ruins a person’s worldly life, and cuts off his worldly attachments, in order to bring him nearer to God. The Swiss national saint, Nicholas of Flüe, is a case in point. Jung, however, views subversion of worldly life, centered as it is around our ego, as an expression of God’s evil side. He defines the process of individuation as the movement toward wholeness in life, not as a life diminished. Still, there are many examples where peoples’ lives are ruined, and the wholeness which they had built is shattered. Arguably, his Answer to Job represents the culmination of rationalistic neurosis, arising from inherent contradictions in theory. Job had done everything right, and he had manifested a wholeness in his life, precisely according to the Jungian ideal. So why did God destroy it? Jung finds no other explanation than that God did this out of malice, because he is both good and evil. He is ambivalent, on account of general unconsciousness and moral deficiency. It was his evil side which destroyed Job’s life, and this immoral action represents a step toward higher consciousness on part of the Godhead.

This is a very controversial interpretation — a modern form of Manichaeism. One could understand things differently. Job had been building a Tower of Babel of a kind. It served to reach up to God (the Self) and to manifest God’s wholeness on earth. But God tore down his tower. A similar thing happened with Nicholas of Flüe. He had come some way toward the ideal of wholeness, but was reduced to simple circumstances. This is the opposite of the completeness of life. According to a commonplace Jungian reading, refusal to listen to the Self and the call to achieve wholeness brings consequences. The Self, in an act of revenge, punishes the subject by destroying his wholeness altogether. But if he was already working toward wholeness, i.e., to make his life complete, in what sense did he refuse to follow the Self’s call to wholeness?

We all want to build a little Tower of Babel in our lives, as a substitute for God. But whatever we achieve in the earthly realm, it is really only “straw”. As Ecclesiastes says: “Everything is meaningless and a chasing after the wind”. That’s why God overthrows our tower. He wants us to find God; the only true meaning there is. God ruins a person’s life for the purpose of removing all his attachments in life, so that he can find God. Thus, from the empirical evidence we can see that the Self wants personality to become simple, but not complete and multifaceted. The latter only entails that the ego continues on its worldly building project. From a divine perspective, the person wastes his/her life on trifles. The Self does not always (at least with some persons and in some phases of life) incite a movement toward completeness. It does just the opposite! Theory cannot really explain it, and that’s why Jung views the ruination of life as the evil will of God. The building project must continue after we have rooted ourselves in life, but now through the incessant integration of archetypes and yet more conscious insights. Arguably, this is just a game; a kind of pseudo-religious ritual. Jung writes:

But the way is my own self, my own life founded upon myself. The God wants my life. He wants to go with me, sit at the table with me, work with me. Above all he wants to be ever-present. But I’m ashamed of my God. I don’t want to be divine but reasonable. The divine appears to me as irrational craziness. I hate it as an absurd disturbance of my meaningful human activity. It seems an unbecoming sickness which has stolen into the regular course of my life. Yes, I even find the divine superfluous. (The Red Book, cap. xiii)

He found it hard to accept that what he was doing was straw. Instead he makes an obverse interpretation. He thinks that his activity is meaningful; but the will of God is meaningless and destructive. He refused to follow the Christian God’s call to “abandonment to divine providence”. And then he wrote Answer to Job, his horrible disavowal of the Christian God.

No one comes to the Father except through the Son. The reason why certain people with spiritualistic talent are so preposterous, believing they can sidestep the Son and have grand revelations of a new world order, is because they really think they are talking with God. In fact, they are only talking with themselves. Such people can have a destructive impact, if wisdom acquired through history is thrown out. Swedenborg objects to theologia verbalis and embraces theologia realis (cf. Lamm, 1987, p. 7). We see exactly the same attitude in Jung.

Beginning in 1744, Swedenborg was beset by a religious crisis. Judging from his Dream Diary, many experiences were authentic manifestations of the unconscious. This is evident from the fact that they controverted his conscious standpoint. Beset by agony and doubt he appears as a true Christian mystic. As our personal will is an obstruction to salvation, the only path forward is self-effacement — in a way to abandon the ego and rely on God’s grace. It contrast starkly with his later theological period. He argues then, like he did before the religious reversal, that we must with our own powers contribute to the salvational work, especially through resolved reformation of our character. From then on his spiritual experiences would seldom, if ever, contradict his conscious standpoint (cf. Lamm, 1987, pp. 140-41).

Jung never went through a crisis as radical as Swedenborg’s. There was never an “invasion of the unconscious”, for his conscious values were never contradicted. It has often been portrayed as an episode of madness, even though the evidence points to the contrary. During this time, he made important theoretical work that required conscious focus and directed thought. He continued to receive patients, five to seven consultations per day, and he did military service as a commandant. This does not bespeak a man who has fallen out of order (cf. Schaller, 2019). His use of active imagination has been mythologized as a “descent into the unconscious”. It merely consisted in him composing the Black Books during evenings. Active imagination could be seen as a ritual means of relating to the unconscious, corresponding to Swedenborg’s spirit-seeing. It does not bring forth the unconscious to any significant extent. Jung’s dreams are vastly more interesting, since in dreams the unconscious truly comes to expression. A prime example is the one where his father, the parson, lectures him on biblical matters, and he felt like an “idiot” (Jung, 1989, pp. 217-20). In many respects this dream was a slap in the face.

Active imagination is preferably seen as a wholesome sacrifice of restless ego energy. It is helpful to hold back for a while and pen down one’s vague intuitions. It appeases an ego that is always “chasing after the wind”. It serves to temper ambition and tone down our worldly attachments. But the gateway to the unconscious is not unbarred; the archetypal unconscious is not conjured. Insofar as active imagination can bring quietude and peace, it’s an appropriate technique. Swedenborg warns, however, that spirit-seeing may lead to madness, by the “deception of hell” (cf. Lamm, 1987, p. 142). Jung takes the same view about active imagination. In truth, active imagination is safe. The activity does not open the gateways to heaven and hell. Nor should hypnagogic imagery be understood as revelations of the unconscious. If the subject thinks about elephants all day long, he is likely to see a hypnagogic image of an elephant. When consciousness is relaxed, the content of mind translates into an image. It shall not be perceived as a vision of the Indian god Ganesha. In like manner, if the subject is expecting an invasion of the unconscious, he may see a hypnagogic image of a flood.

Historians of psychology have clearly underestimated Swedenborg’s influence. It’s like Jung tries to bury this fact in the production of the Black Books and the Red Book. He claims that everything which he produced after this period of nekyia (necromancy) was merely an elaboration of what had been revealed to him. In fact, it consists mostly of a reworking in modern terms of Swedenborg’s theology and psychology. Perhaps Jung was gifted with this Swedenborgian talent for “automatic allegorization” of conscious concepts. I gather that the spiritualistic talent ran in his family.

The connection between Swedenborg and Jung should really be investigated by an expert. But no Jungian analyst would want to discredit Jung’s own myth and lose his/her own credibility by revealing that Jungian psychology is really an outgrowth of Swedenborgianism. So I wrote something about it, in these two articles: ‘Jung and Swedenborg: Modern Neoplatonists’ (2013) and ‘Critique of Individuation’ (2014). There is also an article of mine in German, published in Offene Tore, 1/19, Swedenborg Verlag, Zürich.


© Mats Winther, 2020.


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   ---------   (1989). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Vintage.

   ---------   (2012) (Shamdasani, ed.). The Red Book (Liber Novus). A Reader’s Edition. W. W. Norton & Company.

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Marchiano, L. et al. (2020). ‘Visionary Imagination: Jung’s Private Journals’. (Episode 139, Nov 26 2020). This Jungian Life. (here)

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Schaller, Q. (2019). ‘Jung’s Alleged Madness: From Mythopoeia to Mythologization’. Phanês (Vol. 2, 2019, pp. 1-27). (here)

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   ---------   (1747-65). Spiritual Experiences (Spiritual Diary).

Tacey, D. (2014). ‘James Hillman: The unmaking of a psychologist. Part one: his legacy’. Journal of Analytical Psychology. Volume 59, Issue 4, pp. 467-85.

Winther, M. (2014). ‘Critique of Individuation’. (here)

   ---------   (2013). ‘Jung and Swedenborg: Modern Neoplatonists’. (here)

   ---------   (2020a). ‘Jung’s metaphysic and epistemology: Platonism or Phenomenology?’. (here)

   ---------   (2020b). ‘Carl Jung, privatio boni, and the return of Manichaeism’. (here)