Collective unconscious is a term of analytical psychology, coined by Carl Jung. It is proposed to be a part of the unconscious mind, expressed in humanity and all life forms with nervous systems, and describes how the structure of the psyche autonomously organizes experience. Jung distinguished the collective unconscious from the personal unconscious, in that the personal unconscious is a personal reservoir of experience unique to each individual, while the collective unconscious collects and organizes those personal experiences in a similar way with each member of a particular species.
My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.
Jung linked the collective unconscious to ‘what Freud called “archaic remnants” - mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind’.
Archetypes and collective representations
Jung considered that ‘the shadow‘ and the anima/animus differ from the other archetypes in the fact that their content is more directly related to the individual’s personal situation’, and less to the collective unconscious: by contrast, ‘the collective unconscious is personified as a Wise Old Man’.
Jung also made reference to contents of this category of the unconscious psyche as being similar to Levy-Bruhl’s use of collective representations or “représentations collectives,” Mythological “motifs,” Hubert and Mauss’s “categories of the imagination,” and Adolf Bastian’s “primordial thoughts.”
In a minimalist interpretation (or materialistic interpretation) of what would then appear as ‘Jung’s much misunderstood idea of the collective unconscious’, his idea was ‘simply that certain structures and predispositions of the unconscious are common to all of us…[on] an inherited, species-specific, genetic basis’. Thus ‘one could as easily speak of the “collective arm” - meaning the basic pattern of bones and muscles which all human arms share in common’.
Others point out however that ‘there does seem to be a basic ambiguity in Jung’s various descriptions of the Collective Unconscious. Sometimes he seems to regard the predisposition to experience certain images as understandable in terms of some genetic model’ - as with the collective arm. However, Jung was ‘also at pains to stress the numinous quality of these experiences, and there can be no doubt that he was attracted to the idea that the archetypes afford evidence of some communion with some divine or world mind‘ (idealistic interpretation), and perhaps ‘his popularity as a thinker derives precisely from this’ - the maximal interpretation.
Marie-Louise von Franz accepted that ‘it is naturally very tempting to identify the hypothesis of the collective unconscious historically and regressively with the ancient idea of an all-extensive world-soul’.