Although I speak only through my own thoughts and experiences on the matter, and am not an authority in regards to Jung, nor a psychologist, it seems that there is very little explication by modern advocates of Jungian ideas on the Self itself, which, like the notion of the collective unconscious, has too often been grossly misrepresented since entering into the vernacular of popular culture and pop psychology.

Jung's psychological concept of the Self is a great deal less related to what we generally consider as the ego and has far more correlation with the metaphysical doctrines of the East. Immediate disciples of Jung such as depth psychologist Erich Neuman understood the Self as Jung conceived of it to have far more implications.

The Idea of the Self

"God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."
- St. Bonaventure

While the more easily-understood aspects of the admittedly broad scope of Jung's thought, including the common anthropic archetypes, the idea of the shadow, and the notion of a collective unconscious have become almost part of the domain of popular culture, there is a great deal of Jung's thought which is either ignored or which does not lend well to a simplistic interpretation or basis of a psycho-analytic or therapeutic school of thought.

Generally our first mistake in purusing Jung or reading his popularizers is in assuming that what we in common language call the "ego" and his notion of the Self are one and the same. This is a total mistake on our part. The Self, to Jung, represents the summation of the unconscious as well as the conscious processes going on within the psyche. Whereas the Ego is the center of our consciousness (in other words, our self-awareness, the thinking function and rationality, as well as the focus of our conscious, "public" personality), the Self is the center as well as the circumference which represents the totality of the conscious and the unconscious. He defines the Self as the psychic totality of the individual.

The Self is a transpersonal totality, a transcendental Unity which manifests itself in the duality of conscious and unconscious. The entirety of the universe - past, present, and future - exists as content within that unconscious, which is not limited by the existential identification with our particular body or the peculiarities of the mode of consciousness as experienced by that Self. This "collective unconsious", then, is a monumental paradox resident within the totality of our psyche (and thus something we can potentially become conscious of) as well as being 'outside' us in the sense that it is all-inclusive and extends as an experiential continuum across the entire sphere of existence (human, organic, and cosmic life).

The Transcendent Function and the Self

To reconcile the discrepancy between the transpersonal totality of which only a portion is knowable as an object of consciousness, Jung presents us with the idea of the transcendent function, upon which he writes extensively. The transcendent function can best be thought of as a peculiar transpersonal force which links our individualized consciousness with the totality of the Self. Its action is to manifest the peculiar conditions which facilitate the gradual integration of Self and Ego. The effects of this process are what Jung referred to as Individuation.

The Self, as he conceived it, was autonomous, and communicated symbolically through the manifestation of the so-called Archetypes, in such a way to bypass the censor which upholds and maintains the world-view of the Ego and interprets reality in terms of its preconceived notions. In effect, the Individuation process as he envisioned it sought through the transcendent function to strengthen and shape the Ego into a usable vehicle able to experience the transcendental Self without either destroying or inflating itself in the process.

This, of course, would render these hypothetical communication processes as subconscious components of the being. Jung's notions are in perfect accord with this idea of the Self as a subconscious totality as it manifests within the personal psyche of an individual, but not as a transcendental whole in-itself. This conception was fully explored by Jung in his ventures into understanding the purpose of the alchemical tradition. He developed the technique of "active imagination" as a method of gradually bringing these subconscious contents to the surface. His Magnum Opus on the psychological meaning of Alchemy, Mysterium Coniunctus, masterfully connects alchemical metaphors and descriptions with his own conceptions of the psychodynamics and elements of the unconscious, generally with reference to original alchemical manuscripts. Jung possessed a rather large personal library of such texts, including many very rare works, and was fluent in Latin and Greek and thus quite capable of reading the often obtuse and symbolic linguistic metaphors which the authors were often fond of using to confound the "profane" in regards to the technical details of their Workings.

The Self and Psychopathology

Although his doctrine of the Self as the totality of existence might superficially seem grandoisely egotistical, Jung is very direct in pointing out that the Self can never become a proper object of the Ego, and that many of the psychotic and schizoid states which become pathological result from the confusion of personal Ego and transpersonal Self.

The exposure of the Ego to unconscious contents of the Self, he states, result in one of two phenomena - Inflation, which artificially expands the ego to grandiose proportions, and Deflation, where the autonomous contents so overpower the ego that it is dissipated and the archetypal contents literally take over, "possessing" the unfortunate victim of "soul loss", the primitive shamanic idea to which he refers to as an early and intuitive recognition of the autonomous nature and numinous mana-power of the unconscious psyche.

The Evolution of Jung's Concept of the Self

It's important to realize that Jung was not simply a theorist, nor did his ideas develop in isolation - he was originally a disciple of Freud, but broke with his former master, particularly because he had a much larger idea of the nature of the libido as a more universal energy of psychodynamics than simply an animal drive focused solely on sex and reproduction. The majority of Jung's ideas were applied by him professionally in his clinical practice. This also means that he was able to test and revise his ideas as time went on, and by the end of his writings, he was drawing from his experiences with literally decades worth of material from thousands of psychoanalytic case histories.

Because of his essentially experimental methodology and gradual refining of concepts through his experiences, some difficulties arise in precisely defining what is meant by several of the words he uses, reformulates, and uses again in a different context or expanded meaning. Chief among these is his notion of the self. In The Structure of the Unconscious, Jung first differentiates between the self and the Self. His ideas in regard to the self/Self are somewhat confused in his early work. They gradually develop as you progress through his works, and the intuition behind the concept becomes increasingly clear.

The Self in its various formulations represents:

  • The ego ideal, the highest potentiality of individual development.
  • The entirety of the personality and ego, in both its conscious and unconscious aspects.
  • The transpersonal totality of the personal and universal psyche.

In general, the dichotomy of Self and ego comes to be understood as I initially described it, the Self being inclusive of the ego as well as what we would normally consider to be unconscious material. Jung became well-acquainted with Eastern metaphysics as well as the motifs of Western alchemy. His ideas in relation to the Self bear great similarity to the Eastern ideas of the atman and the purusha.


  • personal research and reading of Jung's Collected Works, especially:
    • The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious
    • Psychology and Alchemy

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