In this article I will be discussing Jung’s conceptualization of the transcendent function and how it relates to the creative process. In this article I use the following sources: Jung’s essay The Transcendent Function (1916), the psychologist, Jeffrey Miller’s text The Transcendent Function: Jung’s Model of Psychological Growth (2004), and the Jungian Analyst, Robert Mathews journal article An Analytical Psychology View of Wholeness in Art (2015).
An interesting text that highlights this concept is The Transcendent Function: Jung’s Model of Psychological Growth (2004) written by the psychologist Jeffrey Miller. In his book Miller provides the reader with important material concerning Jung’s ideas about the unconscious. The author also makes a compelling case for the centrality of the transcendent function within analytical psychology.
Miller states that “the transcendent function is the core of Carl Jung’s theory of psychological growth and the heart of what he called ‘individuation’” (Miller, 2004, p. xi). He describes how Jung felt that every idea, attitude, or image in consciousness had an opposing existence within the unconscious. These two opposites struggle in a kind of “polarized dance”. However, if these opposing features were held in a swaying tension, he speculated that a new third thing would emerge, that was not a mixture of the two but was essentially different. It was key to his thinking because only through a process of engaging in the transcendent function could a person foster the psychological growth that leads to individuation.
Jung introduces this concept, in an essay of the same name, The Transcendent Function (1916). This function is a psychological transformative process that occurs when conflicts within the psyche spontaneously produce powerful symbolic imagery. It is the term used to describe the creation of a third entity, which is produced through the assimilation of unconscious material into consciousness. Daryl Sharpe defines it as “a psychic function that arises from the tension between consciousness and the unconscious and supports their union,” he continues, “it is essentially an aspect of self-regulation of the psyche. It typically manifests symbolically and is experiences as a new attitude towards oneself and life” (Sharp, 1991, p. 135).
Miller describes how “the transcendent function… can act as a mediator to bring unconscious imagery into dialogue with consciousness” (Miller, 2004, p. 24). Likewise, the analyst Robert Mathews suggests that the transcendent function is another way of describing the creative process within analytical psychology. He states, “the tension of opposites is first held until an experience arises of the symbolic image, of the not yet known or lived, that grips the conscious gaze, and finally the symbolic experience is brought into expression” (Matthews, 2015, p. 126). Mathews is suggesting that creativity arises from an unconscious and conscious interplay which produces, at an essential moment symbolic imagery. In this sense, the visionary artist be understood as one who effectively engages with the transcendent function through their creative process producing archetypal and symbolic imagery.
The symbol, in Jung’s view, is “an expression of an intuitive idea that cannot yet be formulate in any other or better way” (Jung, 1954, para. 105). Jung claims that to produce the transcendent function, we need to access unconscious material through dreams, unconscious interferences, and/or spontaneous fantasies. Jung considered dreams to be a “pure product of the unconscious” (Jung, 1960, p. 152) but they are not an effective tool in developing the transcendent function as the expression is too difficult to understand in a constructive point of view. Likewise, unconscious interferences; ‘ideas out of the blue’, slips, symptomatic actions and lapses in memory are also ineffective as they are too fragmentary, which effects the potential of achieving a meaningful synthesis between the conscious and unconscious. Jung instead, claims that the best way to access unconscious material is by engaging in ‘spontaneous fantasies’ (Jung, 1960, para 153). These fantasies are usually more composed and coherent and often contain an abundance of psychological material. Some people can produce fantasies at any time, allowing them to manifest freely simply by reducing their critical attention but this talent is not common but can be developed with practice using active imagination.
Miller describes how the last three millennia has witnessed the development of the logical, thinking human being. He states, “in psychological terms, the march represents the development… of the individual ego… with the ego development came the ideas of self-determination, personal freedom, individual uniqueness” (Miller, 2004, p. 1). The demands in modern life require the individual to possess a stable and directed psyche, however, this emphasis on directed thinking has both an advantage and disadvantage as it can cause a substantial separation from the unconscious. Jung believed that the further we move ourselves from the unconscious through directed thinking, the more we risk a powerful reaction that can build up in the unconscious leading to undesirable consequences.
Psychological projections are an undesirable consequence of an irregulated psyche; in analytical psychology this refers to an individual who attempts to rid themselves of painful and incompatible contents by expelling their subjectivity unto an object or another individual. Jung claims that a ‘projection’ is “always an activated unconscious that seeks expression” (Jung, 1950, para 352). This psychological defense mechanism is quite common and can be seen when individuals attach characteristics that they find unacceptable in themselves to another person. Projections can manifest in many ways such as victim blaming and bullying, in an individual setting and on a national and international scale.
Jung suggests that in order to prevent projections, we need to eliminate the separation between consciousness and the unconscious; this cannot be done by condemning the unconscious in a one-sided way, but rather by acknowledging its importance in compensating for the prejudice of the conscious mind. The tendencies of the conscious and unconscious mind are the two factors that together make up the transcendent function: “it is transcendent because it makes the transition from one attitude to another organically possible” (Jung, 1960, para. 145)
Jung, C. (1950). The Symbolic Life (CW 18). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. (1954). Spirit in Man, Art & Literature. U.K: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jung, C. (1960). Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche. New York: Bollingen Foundation.
Matthews, R. (2015). An Analytical Psychology View on Wholeness. International Journal of Jungian Studies Vol.7, 124-138.
Miller, J. C. (2004). The Transcendent Function: Jung’s model of Psychological Growth Through Dialogue with the Unconscious. New York: State University of New York Press .
Sharp, D. (1991). Jung Lexicon: A Primer of Terms & Concepts . UK: Inner City Books.