Attitudes, Experience, and the Role of the Unconscious

In the current phase of human civilization and development, rationalism and science appear to reign as the supreme authorities in matters of what is deemed real or true.

As Carl Jung writes in Psychology and Religion: West and East, “a scientific theory that simplifies matters is a very good means of defense because of the tremendous faith modern man has in anything which bears the label ‘scientific’: Such a label sets your mind at rest immediately…” (para. 81). With technological advances continuing to move forward at an alarming rate, science as a mere method has begun to transcend into what Jung described as “dogma” (Jung 1958/2014, CW 11). Furthermore, the attitude of rationalism has become ingrained as the default way of operating and understanding the world.

However, associated with the supremacy of science and reason are the implications of devaluation for those aspects of life and experience deemed to be “irrational” or “nonsense.” Both terms Jung used throughout his writings at various points, but I introduce them here because they are also commonly used to describe unconscious phenomena, particularly our attitude toward dreams provides insight into the collective’s general neglect and/or contempt toward such types of experience.

Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz was a Swiss psychologist who worked closely with C.G. Jung and is considered to be one of his most influential students. In 1977, she was interviewed as part of a documentary exploring the psychology of dreams. Throughout the film, ordinary people are asked about their thoughts, experiences, and beliefs about dreams. Although some expressed interest in dreams and believed in their value, many were dismissive or even condescending toward the notion that dreams were of even value. There was one interaction with a person who stopped riding their bike to answer questions about dreams. The person acknowledged having dreams and shared about some of the ones they could recall before stating, “You guys got to be crazy. Why would anyone be doing a documentary on dreams?” (von Franz, 2022, 26:10)

This interaction intrigued me most, as it appeared to clearly and succinctly summarize the “modern man’s” attitude toward not only dreams specifically but also unconscious content in general; that is, neither is to be taken seriously. Moreover, the implication of this belief is a splitting of the continuity of experience.

How is it that one is supposed to hold the conscious belief that our experience is a continued “stream-of-consciousness,” as Williams James describes it, when those experiential aspects of life that are unable to be recalled, willed into consciousness, or of which we cannot verbally speak are truncated from the overall gestalt of what is deemed to be our “real” lived experience?

For Jung, and depth psychology in general, the unconscious processes of the psyche operate both autonomously and compensatorily to that of the conscious mind (i.e., the ego). For example, Jung writes, “[as] a practical rule always to ask, before trying to interpret a dream: What conscious attitude does it compensate?” While this specifically refers to dreams, Jung did not view a distinct separation between that of dream experiences and those of waking life, adding, “The dream is not an isolated psychic event completely cut off from daily life. If it seems so to us, that is only an illusion that arises from our lack of understanding (Jung, 1933/2011, p. 18).

To extend this principle of unconscious compensation another order of magnitude to the level of society as a whole, it would appear that the more hardened one’s beliefs in science and rationalism become, the more one-sided the person is to interpret only consciousness and conscious endeavors, as that which has any value or meaning to offer our lived experiences.

However, Jung described this schism between unconscious and conscious as being merely an “illusion” borne from a “lack of understanding.” I believe this point is the most relevant to the modern person: Whether one believes dreams to be crazy or nonsensical matters not in regards to one’s control over them; likewise, the state of sleep has been characterized, biologically speaking, as the opposite of wakefulness. It need not matter if one believes this to be true; if one continues to push against the reality of this physical fact through prolonged bouts of wakefulness, the need for sleep will compensate for this misguided belief. Similarly, the modern person’s conscious attitude toward dreams and matters of the unconscious demonstrates the compensatory need for intellectual humility, which equally cannot be ignored without serious consequences.

One such example of the risks associated with one-sidedness is outlined in Jung’s description of the phenomenon of enantiodromia, “characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time an equally powerful counterposition is built up, which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control” (CW 6, para. 489, 1976).

The title of this essay was used via NightCafe Creator, an AI art generator to create the top image. You can view more of my collection here.


Marie-Louise von Franz. (2022, June 21). Dr. von Franz on the psychology of dreams (10h) [remastered] [Video]. YouTube.

Jung, C. G., & Hull, R. F. (1976). Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 6: Psychological Types. Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. (2014). Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1958)

Jung, C. G. (2011). Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. (Original work published 1933)

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