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The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Personality and its Transformations lecture series. In this part, he speaks on Carl Jung’s interests in the human imagination and groundings in biology, Nietzsche’s analysis of a value hierarchy collapse, and Freud’s formal study of the unconscious and the primordial motivations most difficult to integrate into the social world.
Start time: 00:01:10
Carl Jung was a strange guy in many ways. Extraordinarily imaginative. He could get lost in daydreams and was a tremendously powerful visualizer and a lot of what he discovered was a consequence of engaging in long-term elaborated fantasies, and in these fantasies, he could have conversations with figures of his imagination and communicate with them. I had a client at one point who was a very prolific dreamer, and she could talk to her characters in her dreams and ask them what they meant symbolically — and they would tell her. That was really something. I have only seen one person who was capable of doing that. I do not know if it helped her that much, in the final analysis, but she could do it.
Jung was very interested in the depths of the human imagination. His body of work can be viewed as an amalgam of many things, but he had deep knowledge of Latin and Greek, and he had studied alchemical manuscripts for many, many years as an older man so he was very interested in the emergence of the idea of science from what he considered the collective imagination. But in many ways, his primary modern intellectual influences, I would say, were [Friedrich] Nietzsche and [Sigmund] Freud. Jung really set out, somewhat like [Jean] Piaget, to address the gap between religion and science, but he did it for different reasons than Piaget.
Jung took Nietzsche’s comments about the death of God very seriously, and one of the things Nietzsche predicted at the end of the 19th century was that there were going to be two major consequences of the collapse of formal religious belief. He believed that would lead people to a morally relativistic condition that would prove psychologically intolerable — because if you adopt a morally relativist position and you take it to its final conclusion, then everything is of equal value, and there is no gradient between things. There is no better, and there is no worse. And, in the final analysis, there is no good and there is no evil, and the problem with that is, you cannot actually orient yourself in a world that has those properties. Because in order to act, you have to be aiming at something that is better than what you have now or there is no reason to expend the energy. So you need the gradient, you need a value differentiation in order to act, and Nietzsche’s analysis was predicated on the idea that if the value hierarchy collapsed, not only would people not be motivated to do anything anymore, but they would also be extraordinarily confused and depressed because the value would go out of their lives. And the consequence of that would be that they would become somewhat nihilistic — or maybe absolutely nihilistic — or that they would turn to rigid ideological systems as a replacement.
What Nietzsche offered as an alternative was that human beings could create their own values. His idea was that the Superman — the Overman, depending on how you look at it — would be the person who is capable of transcending the valueless universe (that the decline of religion had left with us) and of creating their own values as a conscious act. The problem with that is that it is not obvious that you can create your own values as a conscious act because it is not obvious that values are consciously created. I think this is why the psychoanalysts had so much to add to the philosophical debate — at least, the philosophical debate that developed to the point of Nietzsche’s observations. When Freud entered the scene, the idea of the unconscious was in the air, but Freud formalized it to a much greater degree than anyone else had, and Freud’s theory really is deeply biological. It is biological; it is social as well, but his proposition that there is an Id is fundamentally the proposition that you are not necessarily your consciousness — “not the master in its own house.”
There are a variety of reasons people like to go after Freud, but one of them is that modern people basically accept radical Freudian presuppositions more or less as givens now. So if you are a brilliant thinker and your thought permeates the society to the point where your most radical propositions are accepted by everyone, all that is really left are your errors. So it is easy to concentrate on Freud’s errors because we have already digested everything he had to say that was particularly profound. Perhaps I am wrong but I do not imagine that there is anyone to whom the news that many of your motivations are not conscious comes as a surprise. Even psychologists have admitted that in the last 20 years. They talk about the cognitive unconscious, which I think is a real sleight-of-hand maneuver to stop them from having to credit Freud with his discoveries, and I also think that Freud’s notion of the unconscious is far more sophisticated than the cognitive scientists’ notion.
Freud viewed the unconscious as a place that was basically populated by fragmented personalities, not cognitive schemes of one form or another, and not processes, but things that were like living beings. You think, “Well, are there living beings in your unconscious?” And the answer to that is, “Well, are you alive or not?” And you are alive, so you are composed of living subcomponents, and they are not machines, or, at least, not in any way that we understand machines. They are fragmentary sub-personalities and each of them has their own worldview, rationalizations, emotional structure, and goals. And so that is why when you are hungry you see the world through the eyes of a hungry person and you think thoughts about food. Your emotional reactions depend on whether the food you want is available or whether it is not; that is nature imposing its necessities on you as a living being. For Freud, that was the Id. Freud thought of the Id really as something that was primordial and primitive and that was one of the things that really separated him from Jung.
I think Jung is much more accurate from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. In fact, I think he is radically underestimated as a thinker whose thought was unbelievably deeply grounded in biology. Jung was a remarkable person because his notion of history and the relationship between history and the human psyche covered spans of time that were really [much shorter]. Modern historians and evolutionary psychologists started to talk about “deep time” and the fact that the entire 4-billion-year history of the world is in some sense relevant to us as beings — or at least the 3.5-billion-year history that there has been life on the planet. Ancient history for European philosophers was like 500 to 2,000 years ago, and Jung thought way past that — way back farther than that — and started to take into serious account the fact that the origins of our psyche, the ground of our psyche, is deeply biological.
Freud’s idea of the unconscious is somewhat difficult to understand because there are two elements to it. There is the Id, which is the source of primordial motivation and Freud concentrated mostly on aggression and sexuality. Although he concentrated on what he called the death instinct later in his life, the reason he concentrated on those two primarily was not because he regarded them necessarily as the most compelling of motivations but he regarded those motivations as the ones that were most difficult for most people to integrate successfully into the social world. He thought they were most likely to be repressed and, therefore, underdeveloped and immature. I think that is a reasonable proposition. I think that modern people would have to add eating to that because since the time of Freud we have gone, I would say, from a high proportion of sexually related pathologies to a very high proportion of eating related pathologies (but that is in some sense beside the point). That is one part of the Freudian unconscious, sort of an implicit unconscious, and then the other part of the Freudian unconscious is those things that have happened to you that you have repressed because you do not like what they imply. Those are very different kinds of unconscious because one of them is dependent on your experience and the other is not.
You can think of Jung as a deep archaeologist of the Id, and Freud thought about the Id in primordial terms so his “angry” Id would be like a beast that is out of control, but Jung recognized that the unconscious is far more sophisticated in many ways than the conscious parts of your being, that it guides your adaptation in ways you do not understand, and that the ways in which it guides your adaptations and structures your understanding are universal, hence biological, and far more sophisticated than a somewhat primordial notion of biological drive might indicate.
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Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.