Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Jung's "Supreme Meaning:" Sense and Nonsense

Jung’s reference to the “supreme meaning” in the Red Book, suggests that he is positing a primary philosophical or theological principle, perhaps akin to the principle of Brahman-Atman in Indian philosophy or the “Absolute” in Hegelian thought. Jung himself confirms such a view when he says “the supreme meaning is the path, the way and the bridge to what is to come. That is the God yet to come” (229). For Jung, the supreme meaning involves “the melting together of sense and nonsense” (229). Jung explains “The highest truth is one and the same with the absurd” (242) and “The image of God throws a shadow just as great as itself” (230). Further, just as “day requires night and night requires day, so meaning requires absurdity and absurdity requires meaning” (242) Finally, “meaning is a moment and a transition from absurdity to absurdity, and absurdity only a moment and a transition from meaning to meaning” (242).

What are we to make of these ideas? Perhaps we can gain a hint from Jung’s pronouncement that “reality is meaning and absurdity” (242). Jung expresses a similar idea in Psychological Types when he writes,

“The fact that there are two distinct and mutually contradictory views eagerly advocated on either side concerning the meaning and meaninglessness of things shows that processes obviously exist which express no particular meaning, being in fact mere consequences or symptoms; and that there are other processes which bear within them a hidden meaning, processes which are not merely derived from something but which seek to become something, and are therefore symbols” (Psychological Types, par. 822).

Jung’s comments here are set in the context of a discussion of the neurotic's view of his symptoms and thus alludes not only to Aristotle’s distinction between efficient and final causation, but also to Freud’s distinction between “actual neurosis” and “psychoneurosis,” the former being the causal consequence of (for example) damned up libido, the latter involving a binding of that libido in a symptom that symbolizes the individual’s conflict. Here, however, Jung uses the term “symptom” to refer to a purely causal process, and reserves the term “symbol” for any psychic event with meaning.

Interestingly Freud’s notion of a compromise formation that produces a symbolic but debilitating neurotic symptom, becomes in Jung a reconciling principle that enables one to transcend conflict (see the prior posts on the Coincidence of Opposites).

Here, however, the conflict, both on the psychological and philosophical level is the conflict between meaning and absurdity, and Jung proposes the “God yet to come” as a symbol that can "melt together" or reconcile this opposition. Certainly we can experiencve the world as both infinitely meaningful and infinitely contingent and absurd, and any conception of God or Self that does not encompass both of these poles would be woefully incomplete. On purely rational. e.g. Hegelian grounds, an “Absolute” must be infinite, and for such an Absolute to exclude something from itself (i.e. absurdity and meaningless) would be tantamount to surrendering its infinitude. Jung himself suggests that the supreme meaning is infinite when he writes: “The supreme meaning is great and small., it is as wide as the space of the starry Heaven, and narrow as the cell of the human body" (230). Just as one must include meaninglessness and meaning in the supreme meaning, one must also include evil with the good: “You will recognize the supreme meaning by the fact that he is laughter and worship, a bloody laughter and a bloody worship.”

We might suppose that one too obsessed with finding meaning in all things will be haunted by existential meaninglessness as a kind of “return of the repressed” in the same way that one obseessed with the good will be haunted by his own evil.

Jung tells us that absurdity is the background contrast against which meaning can be perceived, and that meaning is best observed in those transitions from nonsense, where a meaningful light is suddenly revealed against a curtain of meaningless darkness (242). The question arises as to whether meaning that emerges against a meaningless background is inherent in things, or as per the existentialists and postmodernists, something brought to a meaningless or neutral ground via human construction. I believe that this question is ultimately left ambiguous in Jungian psychology. In the Red Book Jung is quite adamant that meaning is something contributed to things by the human subject

“Event signify nothing. They signify only in us. We create the meaning of events. The meaning is and always was artificial. We make it” (239)

“The meanings that follow one another do not lie in things, but lie in you, who are subject to many changes, insofar as you take part in life. Things also change, but you do not notice this if you do not change. But if you change the countenance of the world alters.” (273)

In the “Seven Sermons,” we read, “you must not forget that the Pleroma has no qualities. We create these through thinking” (349).

These rather clear postmodernist/constructivist pronouncements do not, however, comport very well with Jungian psychology as a whole. This is because the “archetypes” are presumably trans-individual and even transcultural meanings that are brought to the world by a collective, objective psyche, as opposed to an individual or existential one. Further, for Jung, the meanings embodied in the archetypes, insofar as they are part of the objective psyche, are as real as anything in the so-called objective outer world. We might say that like the Kantian categories of space and time, Jungian meanings are iridescent concepts, that lie on the cusp between the subjective and the objective, or better, moments in the transition from both absurdity to meaning as well as from objective to subjective and vice versa.

The question of the world’s ultimate meaning like the question of whether there is meaning in dreams might best be answered with Buddhist or dialetheistic logic: the answer is both and neither. Perhaps embracing this ambiguity is a path to wisdom and to the discovery of one’s soul.

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