Archetypal Dialectics

I have heard many people complain about the division between spirit and matter. Often they blame Descartes. For example in Marigold’s book titled A Guiding Hand, she says:

“If we hadn’t given so much credit to… Descartes division between spirit and matter, we would have saved ourselves a lot of time and a lot of pains.” (p. 181)

Marigold’s view represents a way of thinking that is quite common: turning a creative tension into a problem, as if it were invented by Descartes.

The opposition between spirit and matter is quite a bit older than Descartes. One might call it an archetypal dialectic. Spirit and matter represent basic categories of thought. These categories help us to conceptualize the world around us.

One of the ways in which humans conceptualize the world is through opposition. Oppositions are often represented as binary pairs, such as spirit and matter. These binary pairs provide reference points, one idea is known in relations to the other. Oppositions drive us to resolve tensions through acts of creative synthesis.

One of the primary forms of self development is the ability to hold a dialectical tension without collapsing to one side or the other. This is a hallmark of a developed and integrated self.

The height of this psychological development is symbolically represented by the coincidentia oppositorum, or coincidence of opposites. This is not a collapsed unity, but a dynamic co-incidence created through dialectical tension.

One of the most basic binary pairs for the developing infant psyche is the mother and the father. Some others pairs are: life and death, light and shadow, good and bad, love and hate. These can be integrated in the self. For example, we may realize we love and hate the same person. Love can hold or contain hate, thus transforming it. This is the creative synthesis that only the Self can produce.

Another basic binary pair is animate and inanimate. Spirit may be seen as representing the animate aspect of life. Carl Jung says:

“In keeping with its original wind-nature, spirit is always an active, winged, swift-moving being as well as that which vivifies, stimulates, incites, fires, and inspires.”  (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 390)

Spirit stimulates, incites, fires, and inspires. Spirit represents the active inspiring aspect of life. The dynamic is understood in tension with its opposite– stasis and inertia.  When we take this division to the extreme we get the binary opposites of life and death. Life being dynamic and death imagined as static. Jung says:

“To put it in modern lan­guage, spirit is the dynamic principle, forming for that very reason the classical antithesis of matter-the antithesis, that is, of its stasis and inertia. Basically it is the contrast between life and death. The subsequent differentiation of this contrast leads to the actually very remarkable opposition of spirit and nature.”(ibid)

Now, most of us, most of the time, prefer life over death. We want to live, or at least, as Jung puts it “the anima (soul) wants life.” So, the problem with our thinking is not so much the tension between spirit and matter, but instead the association of matter with death and the unspiritual.  Jung continues his thought:

“Even though spirit is regarded as essentially alive and enlivening, one cannot really feel nature as unspiritual and dead. We must therefore be dealing here with the (Christian) postulate of a spirit whose life is so vastly superior to the life of nature that in comparison with it the latter is no better than death.” (ibid)

Anyone who gets out in nature knows that nature is not dead. It is teeming with life, humming, vibrating. Being in nature is often one of the places we feel most connected with the animating source of life. Just the experience of nature can be integrating, creating a synthesis between spirit and matter. This is the living synthesis of the self.

To live life is to live with these psychological tensions. To integrate them is essential in the process of Self-realization. To collapse onto either side is to limit our perception. By opening to these tensions we gain the possibility for experiencing a synthesis of opposition. That is, through working with the tensions our mind may gain the capacity to synthesize a dialectical pair into new thought, symbol, or direct experience.

In the Christian tradition the synthesis between spirit and matter is symbolized in the form of the Dove as the Holy Ghost as seen in the image above.


20 thoughts on “Archetypal Dialectics

  1. Dr. Lilla,

    My problem with Descartes is that he did not grasp the coincidentia oppositorum. In totally dichotomizing reality into mind and matter, he separated Western humanity from the ground of Nature in which we were previously immersed. He relegated the soul to the tiny pineal gland, instead of viewing the entire body as soul. And, Instead of holding to the tension of the opposites, instead of seeking soul in the metaxy, he sent us careening down the path to materialism, positivism, and scientism.


    1. Mark,

      I am so delighted to see your thoughtful response.

      Norman O’ Brown said that in the life of the mind thoughts must be followed to their conclusion. The problem is not with philosophical thought, but with the human temptation to use such thoughts as attempts to resolve tension or to ward off dialectic. At the most primitive levels we have the phenomena described as “acting out.” Freud, Klein, and even Jung have explored the oral drive in human beings. We seek to devour, to consume, ‘to eat up life.’ These drives started us down the path of materialism, not Descartes. As for the history of positivism and scientism, they may have grown out of the vicissitudes of our existential anxiety.

  2. This is a fascinating subject of research for me and I thank you, in advance, for allowing and giving me the opportunity to comment on it in your blog.
    You wrote: ‘one of the primary forms of psychic development is the ability to hold a dialectical tension without collapsing to one side or the other.’

    The union of opposites or coincidence of opposites, is, I believe, first and foremost an experience that each and everyone experiences at one time or another or even regularly; so it is subjective, in content, at least. So, whatever I write about it engages only myself.
    The problem with ‘dichotomizing’, if problem there is (maybe a natural process?), seems for me, less in stopping the creative tension with some negative consequences (‘collapse on either side’)[ like, for example, the Cartesian worldview–which has been, though disputable, an important phase in human development for the Western world, one possible path actually actualized] than rather, not being conscious of the experience and, as a result make a choice that will later show to be costly or, at least, less than optimal.

    I believe, from experience and also from my readings, that the experience of union/co-incidence of opposites has a beginning middle and an end, though somewhat lengthy in infants and even reaching the point of no return in psychotics. Francois Roustang, a hypnotherapist among others, calls this experience perceptude between two states of ordinary perception, or rather, two states of ordinary perception cut out from perceptude. Perceptude is an already there. I like the word ‘perceptude’ because it establishes that ‘coincidence of opposites’ is phenomenological. However, the ordinary perception states, before the experience and after, are not identical in the process. Perceptude, this experience of a different order, changes how the subject perceives the world (through whatever has ‘thrown’ the subject into this state (activation), like the co-incidence of opposites heuristic, but not only) and the return to ordinary perception, if return there is (see psychotics, therefore need safeguards), integrates the old perceptive bias (old worldview) with a new one (insight, new configuration, new worldview, new paradigm), depending on the personal evolution (or process of individuation) of the subject going through such an experience: enlightenment, yes ‘and’ insight by insight. So again ‘holding a dialectic tension’ ‘should not’ be done for too long. Moreover, I don’t, either, perceive the return to ordinary perception (stopping the creative tension) as ‘collapse’. I believe with our becoming more and more conscious of perceptude/union of opposites/ecstatic states/peak experience, you name it; thanks to transpersonal studies and experimentation mainly, people will become more aware of their perceptions by being able to discriminate between the different states of being and becoming; how these influence their thoughts, theories, narratives even ideologies and will, therefore, be able to make better choices for the greater good.

    ‘By opening to these tensions we gain the possibility for experiencing a synthesis of opposition. That is, through working with the tensions our mind may gain the capacity to synthesize a dialectical pair into a new thought or symbol.’

    As you wrote above, by opening to these experiences of coincidence of opposites, we can tap into tremendous riches within for ‘our psychic development’, but still, we cannot as yet, given our physical boundaries and limitations and if we want to function in the world, remain for too long within these experiences: the return with the treasure, the gift, (‘new thought or symbol’, paradigm etc…) is called for and we probably need some type of ‘initiation’ for safety and the development of a conscience along consciousness for both ourselves and the greater good.

    Thank you, Jenna, for this thought provoking post. I have, of course, a lot more to write about it, but I shall temper my enthusiasm now for both my sake and everybody’s 😉

    Happy Heuristics!

    1. Michal at Happy Heuristics,

      Thank you so much for your insights. It simulates my imagination to hear the perspectives that you and Mark have offered. It is interesting that you are looking at the coincidence of opposites in terms of perceptual experience via ecstatic states, peak experience, and such.

      One of the things I like best about Carl Jung’s work is that he keeps a dialectical tension in his writing that includes many perspectives or points of view. Like a mandala with a patterned array, the mind is capable of perceiving life through various perspectives. The mandala, being a symbol of psychological integration, points to this possibility. And so for us to begin to think about archetypal dialectics, we need to hold these various perspectives simultaneously. What you have offered does just that: you are speaking of the perceptual level of consciousness. Now I want to try to integrate this back into what I was saying. I am trying to stay close to Jung’s work, but bear with me as I try to think this through without quoting his writing.

      One way to think of it is that the psyche is split from within. This is the archetypal fall from Eden; it is the division of the conscious and the unconscious mind. The psyche is structured so that we split off unwanted thoughts (repression). This creates what Freud called the ‘pleasure ego.’ The ‘pleasure ego’ represses what is unpleasurable. We divide the world, into pleasurable and unpleasurable. If we look to language, our words reflect such division. Our basic categorizes of thought also reflect such a division. Lacan spoke of the symbolic order. For Jung this symbolic level of thought is part of the ego adaptive function of consciousness.

      When we have ‘perceptual experiences of unity’ we are moving beyond thought and language, and thus entering into the archetypal realms of experience. Jung notes that mystical experiences come when we enter in to the ‘real of the mothers.’ (the cave, the chasm, the vessel, the abyss) For Jung these can offer an opportunity for integration. But for those not prepared to take hold of the tension of paradox, we may find delusion. So here we may imply that Descarte was in some sense deranged: he collapsed to one side of the dialectic. In a similar way modern society is in some sense deranged.

      From a Jungian perspective we are all mired in a projective relationship with life. Direct perception is difficult. Even when we move beyond language and thoughts, we are still destined to meet with the archetypal imaginal realms of the collective mind. To make contact with the life ‘as it is’ would be considered self-realization. But these experiences are often fleeting. As you said they have “a beginning middle and an end.”

      Jung’s path toward self-realization attempts to integrate the duality inherent in psychic life. There is not so much a ‘bam, you are enlightened,’ but more of a gradual path of reclaiming split off parts of ourselves while simultaneously increasing our capacity to tolerate paradox. This path takes us more and more toward the integration of the conscious and unconscious mind, and thus self-realization, for the Self is the unity of opposites.

      I believe that this path is the cornerstone of Carl Jung’s work.

  3. Happy,

    You say Cartesianism was “an important phase in human development for the Western world.” I believe it had a negative effect on the development of the Western world, mainly due to way in which it caused us to scientifically question nature. i.e. as a separate object that we could dominate. Our scientific methodology could have been framed by Goethe’s science, for one example, instead of the scientific worldview that developed because of Descartes’ view.

    Great conversation, btw! Thanks, Dr. Lilla. 🙂

    1. Mark,

      First of all, thank you for your comment. It permits me to, maybe, if possible 🙂 clarify my thought: I’m French, among others.
      My stand in my comment, is less about the development of the Cartesian idea than the process by which a subject, through dialectic of opposites, gets hooked on an insight/ idea/ideology, which may or may not, after, mark his/her development or even a whole segment of humanity.
      -I use Roustang’s theory of “perceptude”, by which the subject goes, first, through an experience of union of opposites “feeling all at once”. I believe that perceptude is an experience that everyone experiences, even Descartes, who is supposed to have initiated the separation between mind and body, the great split, which, btw, Dr Lilla, justly wrote, was not entirely his idea in the first place.

      -then, if the subject did not go too far in her experimentation, s/he may come back from the experience with an insight, a paradigm shift, a theory etc… but still “the return” from the experience, retains some bias; some prejudice; some preoccupation of her time; even though ‘the insight’ may appear as revolutionary, a paradigm shift, on a personal or for an entire segment of humanity, for her time and those inclined to follow her.
      Descartes’ view in the 17th century is one of them, Goethe’s view, in the 18th century, is another. Goethe less successful with his worldview? There is no judgment of value on my part on either view, only observation. Again,that’s just what took to people with what was around at the time.
      It is quite easy for us, today, to see “Descartes’s error” because we are some 400 years after it, but in Descartes’s time, that seemed to be how things evolved, since it became the adopted paradigm. As I wrote before, Descartes’s view is only one possible path that the West chose to follow, for whatever reason then. I shall precise though, that it is ironical that “Descartes meditations” (note the numinous in this word), which became so influential, for ill or good, supposed to prove the existence of God; lead to the (concept of the) death of God. Descartes is less Cartesian than one may believe. It’s all heuristics anyway!

      Michal at Happy Heuristics.

  4. Dr. Lilla,

    >…for those not prepared to take hold of the tension of paradox, we may find >delusion. So here we may imply that Descarte was in some sense deranged: he >collapsed to one side of the dialectic. If so, we might also say that modern society >is in some sense deranged.

    I thoroughly agree with this. The entire post was very well put. 🙂


  5. ” Descartes was in some sense deranged’ by “collapsing to one side of the dialectic” which may have something in “our modern society being in some sense deranged”, but we could only realize ‘this error’ with the passing of some 300- 400 years, with people like Jung and many others after him. Otherwise, the paradigm shift that is now happening would have already happened.
    Hopefully, with today’s research and advanced awareness tools, like “archetypal dialectic” and embracing paradoxes and other modalities (mandalas…) becoming mainstream , we can ‘avert the collapse’ or rather make better choices for change, by keeping the creative tension alive and reflecting on our, although brilliant, ideas and even forgo them if they endanger us or humanity. I am optimistic that we are now evolving for the greater good. It’s not too late.

  6. Jenna, I just discovered your blog several days ago and am very pleased to have done so. I have been attemting to understand Jung’s thought for a couple of years and am excited to have found such an articulate and beautiful voice. Your style in mediating the comments of Mark and Happy is very Jungian. 🙂

  7. Hi Good day Jenna Lilla
    I would like to ask something about Carl Jung’s idea, but in certain way, I could not find the relevant information, so I am asking if you have thought about this?

    the unconscious collective have been shown its mutual universal symbol, for example in religion of western, the god of love display by cupid who has a bow and arrow on its hand, while in Hinduism, the god of love which is Kama deva also has bow and arrow, while in Buddhism, the god of love, which display as raga raja and kurukulle also has bow and arrow. Thus in certain way bow and arrow seem like universal symbol of love and attraction across barrier of language and culture. in common sense, we would think bow and arrow seem like a weapon in war, maybe make us thinking about killing, conquer, fighting, but surprisingly in this context, its means love and attraction.

    I found interesting to research, But I could to find any further information about this topic regarding religion universal symbol, for example, perhaps a knife, oil, or an axe could perform certain mutual meaning as universal symbol.

    Did you have any information regarding this? Hope that you can share with me if you have known this, thank you. Do feel free to contact with me by the email provided.

    1. John,
      Thank you for offering your insight into this pattern, and for asking the question about meaning. You have stumbled upon a good example of an archetypal dialectic. In these images we find a dialectic of Eros and Thanatos. In Jungian terms these dynamics are related to the concept of ‘libido.’

  8. thank you for these insightful post, can i ask where we can further research the idea of archetypal dialectic and embracing paradoxes?

    1. Alvena,

      I would say Carl Jung is the best theorist on this subject: ‘Two Essays on Psychoanalysis.’

  9. Hi Jenna. When did you change your tag line. Thanks for introducing me to the word “limn” btw. I have been reading some of James Hillman and Wolfgang Giegerich and their interpretations of soul. Are you familiar with their work?

    1. Orestes,

      Thank you for writing. I am so happy to discover Wolfgang Giegerich. I will buy his books. I see he focuses on the soul; how wonderful. Hillman I do know. In his book, Myth of Analysis, he sets himself apart from Jung. He took a particular path in reading Jung. I am taking another. But I deeply honor his dedication and work. In particular, I’m influenced by his work titled ‘Paranoia.’

      At this point, I am about to embark on a dedicated reading of Jung’s work, starting with ‘Symbols of Transformation.” I have been editing and organizing my blog in preparation (including changing the tag line). With my new focus, I am finding little time to read too many other writers. But I did have time to see you have a new blog. I am looking forward to reading it.

      1. ” Dr. David Miller’s presentations here in Utah for Archetypes for Everyday Living on Guggenbuhl-Craig and James Hillman were excellent, the group participation was fine and informative. Now we look forward to Dr. Miller’s presentation on the work of Wolfgang Giegerich, including his newly published Neurosis: The Logic of a Metaphysical Illness.” I hope that the direction you take will keep the depth of soul in psychology. Your blog indicates such. Hillman’s anger daemon came from within due to what he saw as a betrayal of Jung toward ego psychology. That was a lesson I got out of the previous seminar. My blog is that of a novice but just starting is better than not. Gary aka Orestes

        1. Indeed Gary, I hope to keep the ‘depth of soul’ in all things I do. Even so, I too struggle with the relationship between ego and soul. And, it is only through working with the tensions inherent in such a struggle that I have come to appreciate the dialectical nature of the psyche.

          1. I agree. Perhaps the mental ego is the mediator between our consciousness and unconsciousness – the soul being all three. Perhaps human beings are microcosoms of the Greatest Dialectic – that of the Ground of Being, collective personal Unconsciousness and Unity Consciousness. I think that the only way to conceive of soul in our mental processes is in terms of dialectics. Between Eros and Chaos/Thanatos, between Apollo and Dionysus, between truth and untruth, between anarchy and accountability, ying and jang, among others.The tension of great opposing powerful forces, Atonement has been described to me by a friend also liking Jung as the tension between darkness of soul and the numinous resulting in a new creation – Grace.

  10. Gary,
    Beautiful! You speak from the heart of a divine-human dialectic. So happy to know you are blogging. I hope you keep us informed of your writing.

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