Book Review: Jung. On the Nature of the Psyche

The book reviewed here is ‘Jung. On the Nature of the Psyche’. The book consists of two essays ‘On Psychic Energy’ and ‘On The Nature of Psyche’ which as their titles suggest both focus on elucidating the concept of the psyche.

On Psychic Energy

Jung makes some interesting remarks about psycho-physiology:-

A psychology that treats the psyche as an epiphenomenon would better call itself brain-psychology, and remain satisfied with the meagre results that such a psycho-physiology can yield‘.

before going on to explain the estimation of psychic energy thus

Values are quantitative estimates of energy

He argues that subjective values can be estimated by comparison with each other. Indeed there are validated scales for this purpose. Jung also suggests that the unconsious values cannot be accessed or where it is accessed then it is transformed. I would argue that the unconscious is a rather broad term which covers some things which are accessible and others which are not. For instance, for a good deal of the time, we might not be so concerned about a certain food that we are averse to. However if we are served this food at a restaurant without realising, our unconscious thoughts and feelings associated with it will soon be reactivated and will govern our behaviour to a certain extent. Even before we are presented with the food, if we were to be asked our thoughts about this type of food, it would be sufficient to activate the associated feelings and thoughts. I realise that Jung meant something quiet specific when he referred to the unconscious but I find it difficult to justify the exclusion of an association such as that above  (aversive food) being excluded from the concept of the unconscious given that it is usually outside of conscious awareness but quickly comes to bear on the situation when appropriate and sometimes in the form of reflexes before conscious inhibition can be exerted. There are an abundance of such counterexamples that can be given.

Jung goes on to discuss the objective estimate of the ‘quantity’ of these values adding that he has demonstrated this in ‘psychology of dementia praecox’. The use of such terms suggested to me that Jung was perhaps in some way considering the above as axiomatic truths. He then explains the ‘psychological valency’ of such values in terms of their relation to complexes. He also states that the value can be inferred from the intensity of affect and that further this can be deduced from the  time spent on discussing or thinking about something as being correlated (my term) with the ‘energic value’.

What I found particularly interesting was that despite the earlier mention of psycho-physiology, Jung actually suggests that the values can be verified indirectly by means of psychophysiological measures including the ‘pulse curve’, ‘the respiration curve’ and ‘psycho-galvanic phenomenon’. He also mentions the sophisticated ability of people and animals to perceive ’emotional  fluctuations’ in members of their own species. He comments on the interaction between mind and brain by saying that he has intentionally left this out of the discussion and that the nature of this is outside the realms of ‘our experience’.

Jung discusses a theory of constancy while distinguishing the conservation of psychic energy from Freud’s description of the libido.  Curiously he acknowledges that the psyche is not a completely closed system while also maintaining that a useful analogy can be drawn with the thermodynamic principle of conservation of energy – in this case being the conservation of psychic energy. Jung refers to entropy and here I would have to argue that Jung is wrong. I believe that the mind is a function of the brain and further that the brain in energy terms is not a closed system but openly communicates with other parts of the body and through these interactions with the environment. Therefore there is no justification for there being a constancy of psychic energy. The second point however is that the cellular apparatus of the brain while being subject to the laws of entropy actually functions to concentrate energy in a productive way. Thus if the mind is a function of brain, it is ultimately governed by a system which works to oppose entropy.

but the more the psychological system is closed off, the more clearly is the phenomenon of entropy manifested

Jung then discusses his fundamentals of libidinal theory as ‘progression and regression’, ‘extraversion and introversion’ and the ‘canalization of libido’.  During his discussion of these ‘fundamentals’ I was discouraged by his use of the term ‘primitive man’ when referring to tribal peoples and particularly his assertion that such people ‘had no knowledge of what we call will’. He expressed later a somewhat Eurocentric world view and I discounted the relevant arguments. He then goes onto discuss spiritual issues as well as expanding on Freud’s concept of the libido and looks at the occurrence of the symbolism of energy in different cultures.

On the Nature of the Psyche

In this essay, Jung again discusses the psyche and a philosophical approach together with consideration of philosophers and their works permeates this discussion.

for today we are of the opinion that, over and above all subjective certainty, objective experience is needed to substantiate an opinion that lays claim to be scientific….the empirical freedom of the will grows in proportion to the extension of consciousness

He refers to the origins of experimental psychology with Christian von Wolf in the 17th century before writing about the Wundt school in this essay (and also the essay above) and contests the assertion that everything psychic is conscious. He also notes Wundt’s dismissal of  there being a ‘system of ideas’ behind symbolism. Jung then goes onto write about the significance of the unconscious in psychology and here he refers to William James and the ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ in the footnotes. Along the way he comes up with lines such as this:-

The psyche is the greatest of all cosmic wonders and the sine qua non of the world as an object

Jung discusses the dissociability of the psyche and the role of the will. In his discussion of ‘Unconsciousness and Consciousness’ he invokes Occam’s razor which can be argued to be a dubious concept as it would exclude complex explanations of complex phenomenon and thus seems a pragmatic approach out of keeping with the structured approach that Jung has demonstrated. He then turns to alchemy and suggests that the imagery used here represents introspection into the workings of the unconscious. He then discusses archetypes and mentions a ‘spiritual’ aspect thus

Often it drives with unexampled passion and remorseless logic towards its goal and draws the subject under its speell from which despite the most desperate resistance he is uanble and finally no longer even willing, to break free, because the experience brings with it a depth and fullness of meaning that was unthinkable before…..the archetype is pure unvitiated nature, and it is nature that causes man to utter words and perform actions whose meaning is unconcious to him, so unconscious that he no longer gives it a thought

He adds that these utterances are later ascribed significance to a ‘golden age’.

But we can in all modesty point out that mathematical thinking is also a psychic function, thanks to which matter can be organized in such a way as to burst asunder the mighty forces that bind the atoms together

This complements his statement in the previous essay that

even science caanot escape psychological conditions of knowledge and psychology must be peculiarly alive to these conditions

He goes onto discuss the collective unconscious and again in a similar vein to the above gives what I consider to be a profound insight – that the deeper understanding we seek for ourselves must ultimately form part of our own inner (psychic) experience.

for no explanation of the psychic can be anything other than the living process of the psyche itself

He finishes by emphasising that he is drawing analogies and nothing more than that. Jung’s knowledge and intelligence are evident from much of his discussion. I was surprised that he had suggested the use of psychophysiological measures for quantification of values implying that he did not consider a psychological explanation as all encompassing. The analogies with the principles of thermodynamics weren’t convincing although he does state at one point they are nothing more than analogies. His discussion of philosophy particularly European philosophy and of complexes are involved and would repay further study as well as extending in the latter case into other works.


Carl Gustav Jung. On the Nature of the Psyche. Routledge. Extracted from the Collected Works of Jung. Republished 2006.


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