By Dr. A.J. Drenth
What Carl Jung dubbed the “type problem”refers to the psychological difficulties that stem from being too one-sided or bipolar in dealing with the opposing functions that comprise our personality type. In this post, we will explore Jung’s proposed solution to the type problem, including his notion of the “transcendent function.” While Jung’s solution to the type problem is highly abstract and complex, I will do my best to provide an understandable introduction.
First, Jung believed that psychological opposites could only be effectively reconciled by way of symbols or fantasy activity. For Jung, symbols are effective mediators because they are relatively undifferentiated, incorporating elements of all the functions—Thinking, Feeling, Sensation, and Intuition. The symbolic nature of stories, ritual, and religion exemplify the central role of symbols in human life. Jung’s interest in archetypes also relates to what he saw as the undeniable value and influence of symbols in the human psyche.
Next, Jung believed that symbols and fantasies are most effective when birthed by the unconscious. He writes: “The rational functions are, by their very nature, incapable of creating symbols…A conscious decision…could never supply the…symbolic content that alone can produce an irrational solution of a logical antithesis.”
This brings us to our next concern, which is to understand how unconscious symbols or fantasies can be made more conscious, where they can then be used to mediate between opposites. One way this occurs is through dreams, but Jung was interested in discerning a method by which this could be done more willfully. Toward this end, he suggests the first step to involve a detachment and differentiation of the self from the functional opposites. Here we can see a parallel between Jung and various Eastern practices, such as Buddhism. Such practices seek to disentangle the “true self” (i.e., sheer awareness) from the contents of consciousness, learning to passively observe rather than identify with the thoughts, emotions, or desires entering the mind. This sort of detachment is really not all that different from our typical approach to the objects we observe in the outside world (e.g., “I see a tree and that the tree is not me. It is merely an object of my awareness.”). Jung is suggesting that we can do the same thing inwardly. Namely, we can learn to see and treat our thoughts as objects, recognizing them as separate and distinct from the awareness that is apprehending them. We can learn to see our thoughts as inner trees, cars, or rivers if you will. Jung believed this a necessary first step to resolving the typological problem of opposites: “If the separation [i.e., of awareness from the contents of consciousness] is unsuccessful…a dissolution of [the self] into pairs of opposites inevitably follows, since it becomes identical with them.”
Jung also saw it necessary to separate our awareness from the contents of our awareness because doing so serves to remove some of the energy (i.e., libido) or tension from the opposing functions. He believed that the withdrawn energy can then sink into the unconscious, where it is used to propel symbols, images, or fantasies toward consciousness. Once the symbolic material becomes more conscious, forming a sort of bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind, it serves to reconcile the goals and desires of the conscious and less conscious functions.
Once an effective mediating symbol has been formed Jung states that the energy of the opposites can then flow through a common channel toward a new goal. This process shares a certain similarity with Hegel’s dialectic in which opposites (antithesis) are united through synthesis. It also resembles the evolutionary process of life itself, in which conflicts and challenges are overcome through creative adaptation. We might even detect an air of vitalism in Jung’s philosophy.
Jung refers to the above process as “the transcendent function.” In my view, this nomenclature can be somewhat confusing, since the transcendent function seems to describe something quite different than what we see in Jung’s eight basic functions. Perhaps Jung felt that using the term “transcendent” was enough to convey this critical distinction.