What is an Archetype? — The Connection of Archetypes with Ideas and Universals

The word archetype was introduced into psychology by the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. Though the word has entered popular jargon and is used by many in the profession, it has negative connotations for many. A clear definition might help lead to constructive discussion of the concept.

Preparing for our definition

The easiest way I can think of to explain what an archetype is is to start by talking about a topic familiar to anyone who has studied philosophy. If you look at one tree and then another and then another, you see individual trees, but you also, over time, have developed a concept of trees, in general. Each tree is a unique, individual thing, but there seems to be something they have in common, their treeness, or some such thing, and it seems that our knowledge of what they have in common allows us to recognize and label each individual tree.

I use trees and "treeness" as one of many possible examples. Whenever there are two things that seem similar to us, we have the ability to abstract some quality or property or universal they have in common and to begin to think about and talk about these qualities as well as the individuals that have or exhibit them.

The question that has absorbed many philosophers is whether or not these qualities or properties really exist. If they do, they seem to be a different type of thing than ordinary physical objects. You can't see qualities or classes. They are, it seems, if they exist, abstract.

Those who think there are such things call them by different names. Plato spoke of ideas or ideals which he spoke of as in existing in an ideal world (some say this was the origin, in philosophy, of the Christian idea of heaven as introduced by Christian Platonists such as St. Augustine). Some think they are ideas or concepts in the human mind.

Other, more practically minded philosophers, believe that there are no such things at all. All there are individual objects. Aristotle spoke of classes: If you take all the trees, there is something called a class of trees, but I do not believe he thought that classes where objects, independent of the things that make them up. Modern logicians speak of sets, but many think of the a set as a construct or tool and not as something that actually exits.

As psychologists, especially in our clinical practices, we are not interested, per se, in whether there are qualities or properties or ideals or classes as independently existing entities. In fact, taking a more pragmatic approach (and following Jung), we find it useful to notice that there seem to be, roughly speaking, two types of people, those who believe there are abstract objects (Jung called them introverts) and those that don't (extroverts). They can argue all day long about whether abstract objects exist or not, but no argument, no amount of rational reasoning, will or can ever convince the other. It is a matter of temperament, of how a person sees and understands thing. It is part of a person's personality, not something they arrived at through thought.

Another way to look at it, using an approach that is currently popular, from the point of view of the Theory of Evolution, it is quite possible that both the introverted and the extroverted approaches to life have survival value, each in their own way.

It is important, in this context, to emphasize that, if Jung is right, no one is a pure introvert or a pure extrovert, that we each have both tendencies in us. What this means is that the external conflict between introverts and extroverts is mirrored in, and probably originates inside each of us. That is, each of us feel the conflict between universals and particulars, ideals and realities, qualities and things, and so on. We each feel forces within that pull us from the physical world, and these conflict with the forces that suck us into it.

So what is an archetype?

We are now in a position to explain what an archetype is: An archetype is to objects of the imagination, what classes or properties are to physical objects. If you take all the individual trees, there is, in some sense, in addition, a class of trees; if you take all the terrifying, witch-like older women in all the dreams and myths and fairytales of all the people in the world throughout all of time, they have something in common, and that thing they have in common is what Jung called an archetype, in this case, the witch archetype.

Do archetypes really exist in addition to the individual dreams of witches? That is a philosophical question, and, for our practical purposes, we can say that how you answer that question will depend on and stem from what kind of person you are: Some will, by nature, think of archetypes as real entities, like Platonic ideals, and others will find this concept intellectually revolting.

A parallel Jung used and that I find useful is to think of archetypes as a kind of anatomical structure of the psyche or imagination. The exact way we imagine things will differ from person to person depending on their individual natures and their individual and unique experiences, but there is an overall structure. Similarly, each person has a nose, even though everyone's nose is unique. It is unique and universal. Your dream of a witch or of a wise old man or of a precious jewel will be unique, but everyone has, by nature, and built in, these images, potential or actual.

Ambiguities in the concept of archetype

One ambiguity for those who speak of archetypes can be found for those who gravitate towards Plato's concept of Ideals. If you think of an actual world, another world, a world of Ideals, this seems to be an uplifting idea that can give a person comfort and direction. However, strictly speaking, wouldn't the Ideal world contain all categories of things? Plato spoke of the Ideal of Goodness, that which all good things have in common, a perfect Goodness of which all worldly examples are just pale copies. But wouldn't there also be a perfect Evilness of which all worldly examples are just pale copies? So is the Ideal world, if you are prone to think in these terms, one that contains only Goodness and Beauty and such wonderful things, or does it also have a dark side?

A second ambiguity is simply the problem we have already discussed: Are there archetypes independent of individual worldly examples, and, if there are, is there a kind of archetypal world? Or, are archetypes simply constructs, useful tools for thinking and organizing and not existing things let alone parts of another, archetypal world? Are archetypes the structure of our psyches, our imaginations, or are they just a useful concept we have in trying to organize what we find?

Finally, if archetypes are classes of imaginary objects, then there should be archetypes of the most common imaginary objects, not just of the most grand. People dream writing paper and pens. Does this mean there is an archetype of writing paper and and archetype of pens? Sometimes Jung seems to think of archetypes as grand things, even if unpleasant: There are archetypes of angels and demons and of precious metals, and so on. In this way, for a patient to fall into the world of archetypes is for him or her to enter another world, a world that so-called primitives live in, a world that can be thought of as a religious world. Even seemingly insignificant dream images can be archetype. For example, worthless stones in dreams can be thought of as archetypal, as expressions of the same archetype as the stone rejected by everyone that is mentioned in the New Testament. This is an example of how seemingly insignificant dream images can have deep and profound archetypal meaning. But what about the archetype of pens? Are all dream images archetypal, every one of them and, therefore, charged with significance? Or are some images mundane either because they are not archetypal at all or because there are mundane, boring, insignificant archetypes?

Pros of using the concept of archetype

Within psychology, within our attempts to understand ourselves and others, there are, it seems to me, important practical uses of the concept of archetype. For one thing, it seems to help us label and understand certain types of experiences that we tend to overlook in our modern culture. There really are "big" experiences that we have and that are indistinguishable from experiences people have had in all cultures and at all times. To say they are "imagination" or "mere imagination" is as incorrect as denying the existence of trees. There are trees, and there is a class of trees or a property of treeness however you analyze it; similarly, there are imaginary creatures, and there are classes of them, that is archetypes, however you analyze it.

Second, if we don't recognize this, we are more likely to confuse imagination and reality. If we don't realize that we have the potential for witch-like images to capture our imaginations, we are more likely to see our neighbors or family members as witches instead of as real people. If we realize we live in a world of archetypes, we are less likely to confuse the archetypal world with the regular, everyday world. If we are aware something exists and of a little of its nature, we are in a better position to deal with it than if we don't know anything about it. What we don't know can hurt us.

Are there witches and other archetypes in the down to earth, everyday world? This is a difficult question I will not try to answer, at least here. — It should be added here that knowing you are caught in or captured by a negative archetype can help you resist the temptation of doing bad things. Archetypes feel real, they are real, and recognizing them when they are present gives us a little more power.

Third, if we don't recognize that there are archetypes, at least in some sense, then we are not in reality. There really are dream images, and there really are properties or universals or classes or archetypes comprising them or containing them. Not to recognize this is to be lost in the individual images and to suffer them and to take them as real and as all-absorbing and compelling. Recognizing the universal help us stand back from the individual and frees us, to some extent, as mentioned, from their compulsive power over us.

Fourth, psychologists are in a position to see the full effect and sway of the imagination on people. The irrational side of people, often unconscious, including the imagination (and the feelings and instincts that often underlies it), is a dominant in our practices. The concept of archetype helps us understand the full significance of the world of the imagination and gives it an ontological status equivalent to the physical world. Archetypes are to the imagination what Plato's Ideas or Aristotle's classes are to the physical world. This is true even for people who, by nature object to the abstract. You don't have to believe that there are archetypes literally to believe they exist in some sense anymore than you have to believe there is a world of classes to accept that there are objects and that they can be grouped by what they have in common. Of course, if you don't think there are witches in dreams or angels or demons or peace on earth, then you will have no sympathy with the idea of archetypes.

Fifth and finally, the concept helps ground Plato's concept of Ideal in a psychological reality. But so what if there are Ideas in Plato's sense? It seems to me that the very thought that there are Ideas of Goodness and of Beauty, tends to lift us out of our ordinary lives and pushes us to make something better. It gives us hope when we are down and gives us something besides ourselves and our own needs to shoot for. Not all of us need this. There are many perfectly good people who appreciate beauty who do not believe in such things. Yet, without ideals, people can become absorbed in what is right in front of them. This can be good in that it is possible to deal with reality only by focusing on it, but, if things get too bad, and there a person becomes overwhelmed and stuck, the natural process, at least for some people, is for the intellect and imagination to kick in and for the person to pull back and drift into higher thoughts and possibilities. Even if genuine solutions don't arise, the very process gives hope — is hope — and hope is a primitive form of motivation. If the mind kicks and starts analyzing and convinces itself that none of this is real and that it is all childish fantasy, cynicism and despair and bitterness and hopelessness is all that's left.

Cons of using the concept

As to the cons, a certain type of person can be so carried away by the concept of archetype that they use to it run from everyday reality — not to strive towards an ideal reality but to escape from this real one. They can even forget the reality of individual dream images and their down to earth meaning in favor of some abstract, universal, insipid experience. The dreamy person who reads about archetypes can become even more dreamy, and, though this can be a wonderful and useful thing in the right time and place, it can be an out and out life-threatening danger and can lead to disaster for self and others.