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A Very Brief History of Archetypes in Western Thought, written by Richard Tarnas

Tuesday, September 20, 2022 9:30 AM | Anonymous

The earliest form of the archetypal perspective, and in certain respects its deepest ground, is the primordial experience of the great gods and goddesses of the ancient mythic imagination.  In this once universal mode of consciousness, memorably embodied at the dawn of Western culture in the Homeric epics and later in classical Greek drama, reality is understood to be pervaded and structured by powerful numinous forces and presences that are rendered to the human imagination as the divinized figures and narratives of ancient myth, often closely associated with the celestial bodies.

Yet our modern word god, or deity or divinity, does not accurately convey the lived meaning of these primordial powers for the archaic sensibility, a meaning that was sustained and developed in the Platonic understanding of the divine. This point was clearly articulated by W. K. C. Guthrie, drawing on a valuable distinction originally made by the German scholar Wilamowitz-Moellendorff:

Theos, the Greek word which we have in mind when we speak of Plato’s god, has primarily a predicative force.  That is to say, the Greeks did not, as Christians or Jews do, first assert the existence of God and then proceed to enumerate his attributes, saying “God is good,” “God is love” and so forth.  Rather they were so impressed or awed by the things in life or nature remarkable either for joy or fear that they said “this is a god” or “that is a god.”  The Christian says “God is love,” the Greek “Love is theos,” or “a god.”  As another writer [G. M. A. Grube] has explained it: “By saying that love, or victory, is god, or, to be more accurate, a god, was meant first and foremost that it is more than human, not subject to death, everlasting.  . . . Any power, any force we see at work in the world, which is not born with us and will continue after we are gone could thus be called a god, and most of them were.”

In this state of mind, and with this sensitiveness to the superhuman character of many things which happen to us, and which give us, it may be, sudden stabs of joy or pain which we do not understand, a Greek poet could write lines like: “Recognition between friends is theos.”  It is a state of mind which obviously has no small bearing on the much-discussed question of monotheism or polytheism in Plato, if indeed it does not rob the question of meaning altogether.

As the Greek mind evolved, by a process sometimes too simply described as a transition from myth to reason, the divine absolutes ordering the world of the mythic imagination were gradually deconstructed and conceived anew in philosophical form in the dialogues of Plato.  Building on both the Presocratics’ early philosophical discussions of the archai and the Pythagorean understanding of transcendent mathe­matical forms, and then more directly on the critical inquiries of his teacher Socrates, Plato gave to the archetypal perspective its classic metaphysical formulation.  In the Platonic view, archetypes—the Ideas or Forms—are absolute essences that transcend the empirical world yet give the world its form and meaning.  They are timeless universals that serve as the fundamental reality informing every concrete particular.  Something is beautiful precisely to the extent that the archetype of Beauty is present in it.  Or, described from a different viewpoint, something is beautiful precisely to the extent that it participates in the archetype of Beauty.  For Plato, direct knowledge of these Forms or Ideas is regarded as the spiritual goal of the philosopher and the intellectual passion of the scientist.

In turn, Plato’s student and successor Aristotle brought to the concept of universal forms a more empiricist approach, one supported by a rationalism whose spirit of logical analysis was secular rather than spiritual and epiphanic.  In the Aristotelian perspective, the forms lost their numinosity but gained a new recognition of their dynamic and teleolog­ical character as concretely embodied in the empirical world and processes of life.  For Aristotle, the universal forms primarily exist in things, not above or beyond them.  Moreover, they not only give form and essential qualities to concrete particulars but also dynamically transmute them from within, from potentiality to actuality and maturity, as the acorn gradually metamor­phoses into the oak tree, the embryo into the mature organism, a young girl into a woman. The organism is drawn forward by the form to a realization of its inherent potential, just as a work of art is actualized by the artist guided by the form in the artist’s mind.  Matter is an intrinsic susceptibility to form, an unqualified openness to being configured and dynamically realized through form.  In a developing organism, after its essential character has been fully actualized, decay occurs as the form gradually “loses its hold.”  The Aristotelian form thus serves both as an indwelling impulse that orders and moves development and as the intelligible structure of a thing, its inner nature, that which makes it what it is, its essence.  For Aristotle as for Plato, form is the principle by which something can be known, its essence recognized, its universal character distinguished within its particular embodiment.

The idea of archetypal or universal forms then underwent a number of important developments in the later classical, medieval, and Renaissance periods.6   It became the focus of one of the central and most sustained debates of Scholastic philosophy, “the problem of universals,” a controversy that both reflected and mediated the evolution of Western thought as the locus of intelligible reality gradually shifted from the transcendent to the immanent, from the universal to the particular, and ultimately from the divinely given archetypal Form (eidos) to the humanly constructed general name (nomina).  After a final efflorescence in the philosophy and art of the High Renaissance, the concept of archetypes gradually retreated and then virtually disappeared with the modern rise of nominalist philosophy and empiricist science.  The archetypal perspective remained vital principally in the arts, in classical and mythological studies, and in Romanticism, as a kind of archaic afterglow.  Confined to the subjective realm of interior meaning by the dominant Enlightenment world view, it continued in this form latent in the modern sensibility.  The radiant ascent and dominance of modern reason coincided precisely with the eclipse of the archetypal vision.  

Between the triumph of nominalism in the seventeenth century and the rise of depth psychology in the twentieth, philosophy brought forth a weighty development, Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy, that subsequently had major consequences for the form in which the archetypal perspective eventually reemerged.  With Kant’s critical turn focused on discovering those subjective interpretive structures of the mind that order and condition all human knowledge and experience, the a priori categories and forms, the Enlightenment project underwent a crucial shift in philosophical concern, from the object of knowledge to the knowing subject, that influenced virtually every field of modern thought.  

It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the concept of archetypes, foreshadowed by Nietzsche’s vision of the Dionysian and Apollonian principles shaping human culture, underwent an unexpected renascence.  The immediate matrix of its rebirth was the empirical discov­eries of depth psychology, first with Freud’s formulations of the Oedipus complex, Eros and Thanatos, ego, id, and superego (a “powerful mythology,” as Wittgenstein called psychoan­alysis), then in an expanded, fully articulated form with the work of Jung and archetypal psychology.  Jung, drawing on Kant’s critical epistemology and Freud’s instinct theory yet going beyond both, described archetypes as autono­mous primordial forms in the psyche that structure and impel all human experience and behavior.  In his last formulations influenced by his research on synchronicities, Jung came to regard archetypes as expressions not only of a collective unconscious shared by all human beings but also of a larger matrix of being and meaning that informs and encompasses both the physical world and the human psyche.

Finally, further develop­ments of the archetypal perspective emerged in the postmodern period, not only in post-Jungian psychology but in other fields such as anthropology, mythology, religious studies, philosophy of science, linguistic analysis, phenomenology, process philosophy, and feminist scholarship.  Advances in understanding the role of paradigms, symbols, and metaphors in shaping human experience and cognition brought new dimensions to the archetypal understanding.   In the crucible of postmodern thought, the concept of archetypes was elaborated and critiqued, refined through the deconstruc­tion of rigidly essentialist “false universals” and cultural stereotypes, and enriched through an increased awareness of archetypes’ fluid, evolving, multivalent, and participatory nature.  Reflecting many of the above influences, James Hillman sums up the archetypal perspective in depth psychology:

Let us then imagine archetypes as the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, the roots of the soul governing the perspectives we have of ourselves and the world.  They are the axiomatic, self-evident images to which psychic life and our theories about it ever 

return. . . .There are many other metaphors for describing them: immaterial potentials of structure, like invisible crystals in solution or forms in plants that suddenly show forth under certain conditions; patterns of instinctual behavior like those in animals that direct actions along unswerving paths; the genres and topoi in literature; the recurring typicalities in history; the basic syndromes in psychiatry; the paradigmatic thought models in science; the world-wide figures, rituals, and relationships in anthropology.

But one thing is absolutely essential to the notion of archetypes: their emotional possessive effect, their bedazzlement of consciousness so that it becomes blind to its own stance.  By setting up a universe which tends to hold everything we do, see, and say in the sway of its cosmos, an archetype is best comparable with a God.  And Gods, religions sometimes say, are less accessible to the senses and to the intellect than they are to the imaginative vision and emotion of the soul.

They are cosmic perspectives in which the soul participates.  They are the lords of its realms of being, the patterns for its mimesis.  The soul cannot be, except in one of their patterns.  All psychic reality is governed by one or another archetypal fantasy, given sanction by a God.  I cannot but be in them.

There is no place without Gods and no activity that does not enact them.  Every fantasy, every experience has its archetypal reason.  There is nothing that does not belong to one God or another.

Archetypes thus can be understood and described in many ways, and much of the history of Western thought has evolved and revolved around this very issue.  For our present purposes, we can define an archetype as a universal principle or force that affects—impels, structures, permeates—the human psyche and the world of human experience on many levels.  One can think of them in mythic terms as gods and goddesses (or what Blake called “the Immortals”), in Platonic terms as transcendent first principles and numinous Ideas, or in Aristotelian terms as immanent universals and dynamic indwelling forms.  One can approach them in a Kantian mode as a priori categories of perception and cognition, in Schopenhauerian terms as the universal essences of life embodied in great works of art, or in the Nietzschean manner as primordial principles symbolizing basic cultural tendencies and modes of being.  In the twentieth-century context, one can conceive of them in Husserlian terms as essential structures of human experience, in Wittgensteinian terms as linguistic family resemblances linking disparate but overlapping particulars, in Whiteheadian terms as eternal objects and pure potentialities whose ingression informs the unfolding process of reality, or in Kuhnian terms as underlying paradigmatic structures that shape scientific understanding and research.  Finally, with depth psychology, one can approach them in the Freudian mode as primordial instincts impelling and structuring biological and psychological processes, or in the Jungian manner as fundamental formal principles of the human psyche, universal expressions of a collective unconscious and, ultimately, of the unus mundus

In a sense, the idea of archetypes is itself an archetype, an arche, a continually shape-shifting principle of principles, with multiple creative inflections and variations through the ages as diffracted through different individual and cultural sensibilities.  In the course of that long evolution, the archetypal idea seems to have come full circle, arriving now in its post-synchronicity development at a place very closely resembling its ancient origins as cosmic archai but with its many inflections and potentialities, as well as new dimensions altogether, having been unfolded and explored.

We can thus conceive of archetypes as possessing a transcendent and numinous quality, yet simultaneously manifesting in specific down-to-earth physical, emotional, and cognitive embodiments.  They are enduring a priori struc­tures and essences yet are also dynamically indeterminate, open to inflection by many contingent factors, cultural and biographical, circumstantial and participatory.  They are in one sense timeless and above the changing flux of phenomena, as in the Platonic understanding, yet in another sense deeply malleable, evolving, and open to the widest diversity of creative human enaction.  They seem to move from both within and without, manifesting as impulses, emotions, images, ideas, and interpretive structures in the interior psyche yet also as concrete forms, events, and contexts in the external world, including synchronistic phenomena.  Finally, they can be discussed and thought of in a scientific or philosophical manner as first principles and formal causes, yet also be understood at another level in terms of mythic personae dramatis that are most adequately approached or apprehended through the powers of the poetic imagination or spiritual intuition.  As Jung noted about his own mode of discourse when discussing the archetypal content of psychological phenomena:

It is possible to describe this content in rational, scientific language, but in this way one entirely fails to express its living character.  Therefore, in describing the living processes of the psyche, I deliberately and consciously give preference to a dramatic, mythological way of thinking and speaking, because this is not only more expressive but also more exact than an abstract scientific terminology, which is wont to toy with the notion that its theoretic formulations may one fine day be resolved into algebraic equations.

Richard Tarnas is a professor of psychology and cultural history at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where he founded the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness. Formerly the director of programs and education at Esalen Institute, he is the author of The Passion of the Western Mind, a history of the Western world view from the ancient Greek to the postmodern that is widely used in universities, and of Cosmos and Psyche, which received the Book of the Year Prize from the Scientific and Medical Network and is the basis for the documentary series Changing of the Gods. He is also the co-editor of Psyche Unbound: Essays in Honor of Stanislav Grof. Richard Tarnas is a past president of the International Transpersonal Association and has served on the Board of Governors for the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. 


If you wish to buy Richard Tarnas’ books, here are links on Amazon:

Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View


The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View




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