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Jungian Archetypes


The origin of the word “archetype”

It comes from the Greek αρχέτυπος (Traditional Latin transliteration: “archetypos”) through its Latin version archetypum to its current English form archetype.

It is a concatenation of two words:

  • ἀρχή (“arche”): first, origin
  • τύπος (“typos”): sort, type, press

The Greek word τύπος (typos) has an interesting meaning, originally it meant things like “a mark of wound inflected”, or “a stamp struck by a die”, or “imprint”. It is essentially the process of making an imprint of form. With the spreading of printing this “form” became the typeface, which again became the “font” used in various software.

The important metaphor to keep in mind is the “making an imprint of a form”.

Making an imprint of a form

As I’ve gathered from the interwebs, there is a confusion as to how to interpret the word archetype when we are talking about Jungian stuff.

One main source of confusion is the similarity between the archetype and its, for the lack of a better term, copies. Now what do I mean by that? Just think about rubber stamps for example. In this case the image or the pattern on the rubber stamp is the archetype, and its copies are the stamps on the paper. So the archetype and the image look the same.

Another example is the prototype, which is essentially the modern term for archetype. Think about for example the first prototype of a new car, in this case again, the prototype (archetype) and the copies (images), which are the mass produced cars look the same.

So, the current, modern meaning of archetype is very concrete, in the sense of “primary example”, or “the first product to be mass produced”, and in the sense of the similarity between it and its copies. But that is NOT how Jung uses this term!

Maxing out the abstraction level

In his essay “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”, Jung gives an important hint:

[5] Archetype is an explanatory paraphrase of the Platonic εἶδος (eidos).

Collected Works Volume 9 Part 1

If you look up “eidos”, you’ll find that it buries you in several millennia of western philosophy, so here I try to highlight the most important things about this term.

  • It is the central concept of a worldview made up by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.
  • According to this worldview there exists a “world of perfect forms” transcending space and time where each form [εἶδος (eidos)] is timeless, absolute and unchangeable:
    • Transcending space in the sense, that an eidos does not have any spatial dimensions.
    • Transcending time in the sense, that an eidos is not eternal, nor finite. It itself is provides the form of beginning, persistence and ending.
    • I’ve got the above interpretation from WikiPedia, but I’m curious, why “transcending space” is interpreted as “it doesn’t have any spatial dimensions” and not as its opposite “it has all spatial dimensions, or it has n spatial dimensions where n = infinity. I’ve got the same issue with “transcending time”, but at the moment I cannot imagine, how to invert it, perhaps “all times”, and what would that even mean?
  • Everything in space and time is an imperfect imitation of these perfect forms [εἴδη (eidee), plural of εἶδος (eidos)].
  • A particular “eidos” is the essence of its imitations in space and time.
  • This “world of perfect forms” is more real, then everything in space and time, although what “more real” means, is an interesting question

For example all circles are imitations of the perfect circle in the realm of perfect forms, all hamsters are imitations of the perfect hamster in the realm of the perfect forms. This also means, that the similarity between the archetype, which is the “eidos” and its copies (images) is far more distant, in another words, they do not look the same.

It is very hard to imagine this concept, the nearest we can do, and actually a lot of scientific disciplines do, is to gather all the common properties, and sometimes also common behaviors of certain things or phenomena, group these common properties together, and give this group a name. Remaining by the previous examples of circles and hamsters, we gather the common properties of all circles and name it “circle”, and we do the same with all hamsters. (Even though the result of this procedure is also an imperfect imitation of the “eidos”, but hey, details, details.)

We are getting closer to the Jungian archetypes, or what I think what Jung meant by the term.

The Jungian archetypes, this time seriously

I think Jung used the term “archetype” as a synonym of “eidos”. And that is important, because he noticed, that people took his descriptions of certain archetypes as if those were the archetypes themselves, even though these descriptions only point to the real thing, which can never be fully described. For example the archetype of the trickster is not the archetype (eidos) in itself, but a schematic description of it (imperfect imitation of the eidos itself). At current, I am not aware, if Jung had ever introduced another term to distinguish between the archetype and its description. I’ve seen people using the word “archetype” for the archetype itself and the term “archetypal image” to its generic, schematic description.

So far I’ve encountered two main kinds of archetypes in Jung’s writings, one is what I would call a partial personalities and the other the common artistical expressions. I’ve totally made up these two names, and I do hope to find something better, but for the time being let’s got with these.

Partial personalities

The easiest way to imagine this kind of archetype would be to think of it as a partial personality, who has its own volition to act and is kind-of monomaniacal, or a one-trick pony. It has its own way of apprehension, that is quite typical of it. If that is not creepy enough for you than how about the fact, that it is capable taking possession of you, compelling you to act out its will and you don’t even recognize it. Even if your consciousness is on a higher level, you recognize this kind of possession only after the fact.

In Collected Works Volume 8 Jung dwells quite a considerable length on the comparison of archetypes to instincts. On the surface level they are so similar that it is very hard to distinguish them, for example, both can interrupt the conscious functioning, taking complete control of a person, both are absolutistic in the intensity of their reactions, meaning they either react at full intensity, or not at all, and there is no gradation between these two extremes. Both can be quite elaborate, and both are things with which we are born with. I’m avoiding the use of the word hereditary because Jung’s conception of the archetypes is quite transcendental, since he is using this term in the same sense as Plato used the term eidos.

So, what is the key difference between archetypes and instincts? In one word: numinosity. Only archetypes have a distinctive numinous character that instincts have not. Archetypes always evoke an overpowering spiritual and religious emotion. Instincts on the other hand have only biological functions. If I got Jung right, than he imagines instincts and archetypes as the two poles of the same thing, both of them being the opposites of one another.

He uses the analogy of the light spectrum, which I will rephrase here as an analogy of colours. Imagine a line segment: at its one end the colour red standing for the purest instinct, and at the other end the colour blue standing for the purest archetype, and between them all the purples, which are the mixture of red and blue, standing for the psychic functions. (This is also known as the Line of purples on the CIE Chromaticity Diagram). Our ego-consciousness is mostly hovering somewhere in the middle, although during possession, or in pathological cases it hovers more close to either ends.

Archetypes and instincts determine each other.

It is unknown, how many archetypes are there, although according to Jung some alchemical writings suggest that just as many, as stars on the night sky.

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