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Carl Jung’s response to a question about the relation between symbolic and rational-conceptual thinking

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[Carl Jung’s response to a question about the relation between symbolic and rational-conceptual thinking and to what extent the loss of the former during the Middle Ages was responsible for the alienation of scientific thought from a more general humanistic approach.]

To B. Milt

Dear Colleague, 8 June 1942

Your questions are not easy to answer as they touch on territory which for all the work of historical specialists still remains very much in the dark, probably because, as you quite rightly remark, the Western mind has deviated in a particular direction from its original basis.

Paracelsus, it seems to me, is one of the most outstanding exponents of a spiritual movement which sought to reverse this turning away from our psychic origins as a result of Scholasticism and Aristotelianism.

One can with a good conscience be in some doubt whether Paracelsus still remained in the origins or whether he got stuck in them again.

The object-orientedness of the Western mind, as I am accustomed to call it, makes us forget that all knowledge is subjectively-that is, psychically-conditioned.

This trend, manifesting itself first in the Church in the form of Platonism and Augustinism, succumbed to Aristotelianism.

The Arabs were in a sense responsible for this development because, through their transmission of Aristotle, they threatened the Platonism of the Church.

As we know, it was Thomas Aquinas who effectively parried this growing danger from the Arab side.

In my view, however, it would be wrong to overestimate the philosophical importance of the Arabs.

They were in the main faithful transmitters and handed down to the Middle Ages not only Aristotle but also a lot of Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean influences which became the roots of Western science.

By this I mean alchemy in the first place.

The quintessence of Hermetic philosophy is a classical feeling for nature and is pagan par excellence.

This lumen naturae was bound to appear obnoxious to the Church, for which reason the philosophical tendency in alchemy did not visibly break through until about the fourteenth century.

The parallel development in China is instructive in that alchemy was there allied with Taoism and in the first centuries after Christ was pressed back by Confucianism along with Taoism and its ancient sources.

But in keeping with the greater tolerance in China, alchemy resumed its philosophical flights perhaps in the eighth century, and put forth blossoms such as The Secret of the Golden Flower, which Richard Wilhelm brought out with my collaboration.

Confucianism could in a sense be compared with the Aristotelianism of the Church.

The symbol-laden obscurantism of our medieval alchemy, which strikes us as almost pathological, was due not least to the necessity of disguising the paganism of the alchemists’ views because of the mortal danger of falling foul of the Holy Inquisition.

Since the essential source of knowledge in Hermetic philosophy was the lumen naturae, or individual revelation, it is altogether understandable that the revelation administered by the Church could not tolerate a second one.

Consequently, those deep springs bubbling up from nature, i.e., from the depths of the psyche, were largely blocked and the psychic component of our cognitive processes was excluded from the purview of consciousness.

As I have had the good fortune to go more closely into the psychology of Orientals, it has become clear to me that anything like a question of the unconscious-a quite notorious question for us simply doesn’t exist for these people.

In the case of the Indians and Chinese, for instance, it is overwhelmingly clear that their whole spiritual attitude is based on what with us is profoundly unconscious.

It was therefore left to psychopathology rather than, say, theology to discover that a quite substantial portion of our psyche has disappeared-to wit, the so-called unconscious.

So it is not in the least surprising, but actually certain on a priori grounds, that we should ‘find the nearest analogy to our “unconscious” in alchemy and Hermetic philosophy, and all we have really done today is unwittingly to take up again that spiritual quest whose exponent among many others was Paracelsus.

Our Western intellectualistic and rationalistic attitude has gradually become a sickness causing disturbances of the psychic equilibrium to an extent that can hardly be estimated at present.

If you like to call the attitude of Paracelsus experimental, then the result of the experiment was that he got the practical outcome of the Church’s Aristotelianism, namely the objectification of nature, really going.

As to the other side of him, one can safely say it was not a success.

The adversities of his time saw to it that he remained stuck in occultism, thanks to the fact that that age had as little a conception of psychology as Catholic philosophy has today.

The psyche as an object of scientific study had still to be discovered.

I don’t know whether I have answered your questions adequately, but you know as well as I do how complicated and far-reaching are the factors that have to be considered.

With collegial regards,

Yours sincerely,

C.G. Jung; ~Carl Jung, Letters Vol.1, Pages 316-318.