Carl G. Jung: The Trouble With Self-Knowledge


jung“Most people confuse “self-knowledge” with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities. Anyone who has any egoconsciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them. In this respect the psyche behaves like the body with its physiological and anatomical structure, of which the average person knows very little too. Although he lives in it and with it, most of it is totally unknown to the layman, and special scientific knowledge is needed to acquaint consciousness with what is known of the body…

In this broad belt of unconsciousness, which is immune to conscious criticism and control, we stand defenseless, open to all kinds of influences and psychic infections. As with all dangers, we can guard against the risk of psychic infection only when we know what is attacking us, and how, where and when the attack will come. Since self-knowledge is a matter of getting to know the individual facts, theories help very little in this respect. For the more a theory lays claim to universal validity, the less capable it is of doing justice to the individual facts. Any theory based on experience is necessarily statistical; that is to say, it formulates an ideal average which abolishes all exceptions at either end of the scale and replaces them by an abstract mean.

The statistical method shows the facts in the light of the ideal average but does not give us a picture of their empirical reality. While reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way. This is particularly true of theories which are based on statistics. The distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality. Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity.

These considerations must be borne in mind whenever there is talk of a theory serving as a guide to self-knowledge. There is and can be no self-knowledge based on theoretical assumptions, for the object of self-knowledge is an individual – a relative exception and an irregular phenomenon. Hence it is not the universal and the regular that characterize the individual, but rather the unique. He is not to be understood as a recurrent unit but as something unique and singular which in the last analysis can neither be known nor compared with anything else.

carl-jung2If I want to understand an individual human being, I must lay aside all scientific knowledge of the average man and discard all theories in order to adopt a completely new and unprejudiced attitude. I can only approach the task of understanding with a free and open mind, whereas knowledge of man, or insight into human character, presupposes all sorts of knowledge about mankind in general.

Now whether it is a question of understanding a fellow human being or of self-knowledge, I must in both cases leave all theoretical assumptions behind me. Since scientific knowledge not only enjoys universal esteem but, in the eyes of modern man, counts as the only intellectual and spiritual authority, understanding the individual obliges me to commit lèse majesté, so to speak, to turn a blind eye to scientific knowledge. This is a sacrifice not lightly made, for the scientific attitude cannot rid itself so easily of its sense of responsibility. And if the psychologist happens to be a doctor who wants not only to classify his patient scientifically but also to understand him as a human being, he is threatened with a conflict of duties between the two diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive attitudes of knowledge, on the one hand, and understanding, on the other. This conflict cannot be solved by an either-or but only by a kind of two-way thinking: doing one thing while not losing sight of the other.”

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)

The Undiscovered Self

[download e-book in PDF]


Quite an unique quote, by Margaret Mead (1901-1988)

* * * * *

I’m currently working on an original article about Jung’s seminar, from 1934 to 1939, about Nietzsche’s ZarathustraStay tuned… i’ll publish it here soon. He’s a taste of what’s to come: 

jung nietzsche

“Nietzsche was in a sort of fighting position against the whole contemporary world and it gave him a peculiar feeling of inefficiency that his words reached nowhere – no echo anywhere. That really was the case; nobody cared, his was the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, and so naturally he would increase his voice instead of lowering it. (…) He needed strong language in order to overthrow that small fellow who was so overwhelmed by tradition.” (JUNG, Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, 9 May 1934)

NIETZSCHE AND THE SHADOWS OF GOD – By Y. Yovel in “Dark Riddle: Hegel, Nietzsche and the Jews” (1998)


“Metaphysical fictions are involved in the central concepts and values of Western culture, which dominate and distort every individual’s life. (…) The whole network of epistemological and moral concepts in which we live expresses, in this respect, a psychology of escape and repression. In Nietzsche’s terms it is a fear of facing the truth, the cowardice of the person retreating before the abyss. Further, the system of rational fictions we project on the world enables us, the weak, to dominate the world in an imaginary way and thus express our will to power in a rather devious manner. In subjecting, as it were, the world to a network of rules and laws of our own invention, we establish our alleged superiority over it and subject the universe itself to our metaphysical illusions.

The Christian religion, even more than rationalistic science and morality, produces and offers a veil of mystification which serves human weakness, meekness, and the negation of life. Images of a transcendent god and a next world make real earthly life appear null and worthless; and by means of moral images of punishment and reward, divine Providence, a moral world order, conscience, repentance, and guilt feelings, men and women interiorize their hatred of life and become self-oppressed.

Though Nietzsche was called a nihilist, he himself regarded nihilism as his number one enemy. Genuine nihilism, he claims, resides in Christianity, whose essence is to deny life’s value, to opress life, and to fight against it. The ascetic ideal – the summit of spirituality in Christian eyes (and also in the eyes of the atheist Schopenhauer) – is to Nietzsche the greatest distortion of the spirit which Christianity propagates.” (pg. 108)

* * * * *

the_gay_science_by_nietzsche_book_cover_v2_by_ruckenfigur-d5kx81y“This attempt at a radical critique, both in its roots and in its scope, is dramatically expressed in Nietzsche’s dictum about the death of God, and even more in his less well-known but more accurate exclamation in The Gay Science: ‘When will all these shadows of God cease to darken our minds? When will we complete our de-deification (*) of nature?’ (GS, 125)

(*) entogöttilicht, literally “freed of God”

Even after God’s death, his shadows still dominate the world. Hence the true role of philosophical criticism is to purge the world of the shadows of the dead God (GS, 108). These shadows are the vestiges of belief in a rational world, a cosmos ruled by a logos, the validity of the natural sciences, of the ‘pure’ laws of logic, the dominion of causality, and the cogency of the concepts of substance and identity. Modern natural science pretended to have banned God from the picture of nature, but has reinstated God’s shadows through the back door.

Philosophical rationalism and the belief in science are disguised versions of the old religious notion of a moral world order, and are likewise based on anthropomorphism – the projection of man’s wishes, needs, customs, and aspirations on the structure of the universe. (…) In contrast to Spinoza, for whom the world was saturated (because identical) with God, for Nietzsche the demand to grasp nature as ‘clear of God’ is the precondition for man to ‘become nature again’: that is, to be cured of decadence.” (pg. 112)

* * * * *

“Life’s meaning is not something ready-made, by its mere existence, but is shaped through a process of self-overcoming. A precondition for this is the recognition that there are no objective meanings and values out there in the world, that the world is disrobed of God and his shadows. Therefore the test of the noble person – the “overman” which Nietzsche pretends to announce – lies in the question: ‘How much truth can be bear?’

Child Dionysus riding a tigress (Museum El Djem)

Child Dionysus riding a tigress (Museum El Djem)

Tearing away as many of his protective masks as he or she can, the Dionysian person is supposed to face a universe stripped of rational meaning and of all support by permanent values, and to be capable of converting this terrifying recognition into a new source of life’s power and even a new kind of joy. (‘Joyous knowing’ is, I think, a better rendering of Nietzsche’s famous ‘La Gaya Scienza’).

But what kind of knowing is this? It is certainly not merely a cognitive disposition; it is equally a self-commitment, a passion, a form of willing. It is a mode of recognition and realization, two words which imply taking a stand, performing an act, placing oneself in some firm position. The Dionysian person’s knowing is not the affirmation of a statement, nor even a simple disillusionment, but an act of the whole person which affirms a whole existentical ‘fate’ and accepts a certain way of living, which others would consider miserable, as a basis for joy and creativity.

The psychology of ordinary people is different. When facing hard truths, such people are liable to react by negating life, plunging into despair and nihilism, or running back to the consoling lap of illusion. Weak persons opt for optimism because they cannot overcome pessimism, whereas for the kind of person Nietzsche foresees, a “pessimist” view of existence is merely the starting point to be overcome, an introduction to the affirmation of life and the acceptance of difficulty and suffering, by which to gain new sources of power and joy.

This dialectical overcoming of the temptation of nihilism (and also of superficial optimism) is Nietzsche’s main message; it is the crux of his Dionysian stance, the essence of tragedy and the tragic way of life. The Dionysian person neither shuns suffering (mental and physical) and the recognition of chaos, nor lets them drag him into the abyss of despair. Rather, by saying ‘YES’ to life with all its contingent, absurd, and horrible aspects, he converts this recognition into a source of existential power.”

Dark Riddle: Hegel, Nietzsche and the Jews
(1998, Pennsylvania State University, Pgs. 107 -114)

Yovel is Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
and Hans Jonas Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York.
He also wrote Spinoza and Other Heretics and Kant and the Philosophy of History,

* * * * *

You might also enjoy:

BBC’s doc Human All Too Human

Nietzsche: In Praise of Wanderers (From “Human, All Too Human”, paragraph #638)


“The wanderer above the sea of fog” – by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. (1844-1900),
Human, All Too HumanAphorism 638.


Nietzsche’s Zarathustra by George Brandes (1842-1927): “A book that is bright in its joy of life, dark in its riddles, a book for spiritual mountain-climbers and dare-devils…”


“Among Nietzsche’s works there is a strange book which bears the title Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It consists of 4 parts, written during the years 1883-85, each part in about 10 days, and conceived chapter by chapter on long walks – “with a feeling of inspiration, as though each sentence had been shouted in my ear”, as Nietzsche wrote in a private letter. (…) Zarathustra is a book of edification for free spirits. Nietzsche himself gave this book the highest place among his writings. The book contains all his fundamental ideas in the form of poetic recital. Its merit is a style that from the first word to the last is full-toned, sonorous and powerful… always expressive of self-joy, nay, self-intoxication, but rich in subtleties as in audacities.

Behind his style lies a mood as of calm mountain air, so light, so ethereally pure, that no infection, no bacteria can live in it – no noise, no stench, no dust assails it, nor does any path lead up. Clear sky above, open sea at the mountain’s foot, and over all a heaven of light, an abyss of light, an azure bell, a vaulted silence above roaring waters and mighty mountain-chains. On the heights Zarathustra is alone with himself, drawing in the pure air in full, deep breaths, alone with the rising sun, alone with the heat of noon, which does not impair the freshness, alone with the voices of the gleaming stars at night. A good, deep book it is. A book that is bright in its joy of life, dark in its riddles, a book for spiritual mountain-climbers and dare-devils…

“Upon the mountains one should live”, says Zarathustra. And with blessed nostrils he breathes again the freedom of the mountains. His nose is now released from the smell of all that is human. There sits Zarathustra with old broken tables of law around him and new half-written tables, awaiting his hour; Zarathustra teaches that exiles shall you be from your fatherlands and forefatherlands. Not the land of your fathers shall you love, but your children’s land. This love is the new nobility – love of that new land, the undiscovered, far-off country in the remotest sea. To your children shall you make amends for the misfortune of being your fathers’ children. Thus shall you redeem all the past.

No doctrine revolts Zarathustra more than that of the vanity and senselessness of life. This is in his eyes ancient babbling, old wives’ babbling. And the pessimists who sum up life with a balance of aversion, and assert the badness of existence, are the objects of his positive loathing. He prefers pain to annihilation. The same extravagant love of life is expressed in the Hymn to Life, written by his friend, Lou von Salomé, which Nietzsche set for chorus and orchestra:


“Hymn To Life” by Lou Andreas-Salomé

Surely, a friend loves a friend the way
That I love you, enigmatic life —
Whether I rejoiced or wept with you,
Whether you gave me joy or pain.

I love you with all your harms;
And if you must destroy me,
I wrest myself from your arms,
As a friend tears himself away from a friend’s breast.

I embrace you with all my strength!
Let all your flames ignite me,
Let me in the ardor of the struggle
Probe your enigma ever deeper.

To live and think millennia!
Enclose me now in both your arms:
If you have no more joy to give me —
Well then—there still remains your pain.

Lou Salomé


In the video above, hear Nietzsche’s “Hymn To Life” for chorus and orchestra. Lyrics by Lou Salomé.


BRANDES, Georges (1842-1927). Nietzsche. Haskell House Publishers, New York, 1972.