Is the mind of a newborn a blank slate, waiting to be formed by the stimuli of their experiences as they live? This question has long interested philosophers and psychologists alike, and has even shaped some of the most essential political philosophies of Western society.
The philosopher John Locke, whose political theory helped shape the birth of modernity, argued that the human mind was a tabula rasa, a blank slate whose rules for processing data and acquiring knowledge were waiting to be shaped purely by ones sensory experiences and exposure to the world. Locke thought individuals were free to shape their own soul, to freely define themselves as they wished. The only things humans were not free to do was to change their status as a member of the human species. From the conception of a freely authored soul, coupled with an immutable human nature, Locke deduced that their existed natural human rights. The notion of natural rights directly influenced the founding of the United States government, and signified a leap forward for the human condition. Challenging the intuitive idea of tabula rasa was Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist of the 20th century.
Jung was, on top of being a psychiatrist, one of the foremost experts in the studies of religious and mythological symbology. It was work in both these fields that led to the discovery of the archetypes, the name he gave to the prefigured structures of the mind common to all humans.
In studying the myths and religions of cultures through place and time, he discovered ubiquitous throughout different cultures were certain themes, patterns, and symbols. What piqued Jung’s curiosity, however, was that many of the same symbols and themes also appeared in the dreams of patients that were schizophrenic. What could account for such similarities?
Jung proposed that the mind, or the psyche, contains elements which are innate, not formed from any experience. They are pre-personal, common to all, and shaped the ways humans think and behave. These elements, or archetypes, would account for the similarities found in different cultures.
The psyche and mind as described by Jung contains three areas: the consciousness, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. The conscious realm contains all experience that is made explicitly aware to us, everything that we are actively aware of. The realm of unconsciousness is all psychic contents that exists but we are not aware of. Both Freud and Jung believed that the unconscious dwarfed the conscious realm of the mind in size and influence. Jung divided it into the personal and collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is particular to and different in each individual, while the collective is where the structures which are common to all reside. Just as our organs are formed before we are born, the archetypes in the unconscious are formed before we are able to experience anything.
From the unconscious, Jung thought, there were determining influences which, independently from tradition, guarantees a similarity and even sameness in experience in each individual, and a similarity in how it is represented imaginatively. This similarity in imaginative representation of reality is where the archetypes are manifested. It is important to note that the symbols themselves- repetitive patterns in mythology or symbology- are not themselves the archetypes, only manifestations of them. The collective unconscious ensures an essential similarity in the human experience, a certain shared similarity in perception and thought.
A prominent example of an archetype is the Ouroboros, an ancient symbol which shows a snake eating its own tail. Jung thought the symbol represented the concept of infinity or wholeness with regards to what he called the individuation process of an individual. The symbol appears in classical antiquity, ancient Egypt, and ancient Norse mythology.
The symbol also appeared in the dream of a German alchemist August Kekulé, where he realized the shape of the structure of benzene:
“I was sitting, writing at my text-book; but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.”