Jung and Buridan’s Ass:
A Jungian Approach to Choosing
October 2010 will be an especially important month, when key choices are made that lay down energy patterns the consequences of which we will reap in the next 2 years.
Given my 26+ year track record with such dreams, I always take them seriously. So very shortly I found myself researching what Jung might have said about choice and choosing. Did he leave us any advice about how to make good choices? And what might constitute a “good” choice, to Jung?
My research revealed that Jung never wrote an essay directly on this topic. There are only references scattered throughout his voluminous writing on the subject. But these references allow us to answer the questions above. Before doing so, let’s address the title: What was “Buridan’s ass” and how does it relate to choosing?
Jung was very learned and well-read and, as such, was familiar with the paradox in philosophy that goes back well into antiquity, to the time of Aristotle, which was discussed centuries later by the 14th century French philosopher, Jean Buridan. Buridan satirized this paradox, in which a man (in Aristotle) or an ass (in later versions) is positioned exactly between two necessities, food and drink (in Aristotle), two bales of hay (in later versions). Buridan felt that if one got stuck pondering the possible outcomes, one could starve. That is, one’s will could so delay making a choice that, in the extreme, one could die before the choice was made. Jung mentions Buridan’s ass three times in his writings, in contexts that give us insights into his views on choosing.
Jung on Choosing
As Jung saw the paradox of Buridan’s ass, the problem was due either to the ass not being hungry so he didn’t take the problem seriously, or to the creature’s externalizing the task. When we externalize a decision we look to the object to make the choice. Jung recognized that good choices—choices that are aligned with our true being—require us to look within, to the depths of our nature and then, to ask ourselves what we feel drawn toward. We must ask ourselves “What is the natural urge of life, at this moment, for me?”
While for most of us the situation of Buridan’s ass may seem extreme, Jung’s identification of the core issue is right on the mark: When people (especially those who are strong Perceivers) have trouble coming to closure, they do just what Jung described. They look to others or turn over the decision-making to others. Or they leave the decision up to life, Fate, Destiny. Jung regarded this tactic as abdicating responsibility for one’s own life and forfeit the opportunity to learn, grow and live more authentically. So one key component of good choices, for Jung, is looking within and being aware of what we are naturally drawn toward.
Jung also recognized that our sense of “free will”—being able to choose freely—is, to a degree, an illusion. The possible range of choices we face when making a decision is dependent upon (and limited by) the amount of libido (psychic energy) disposable by the ego. The Self is really in charge of our lives, a fact most of us usually forget or prefer to ignore. The ego does not like to face its inferiority. It wants to think it is running the show.
The reality of the ego’s dependence on the Self is usually brought home to us only after years of inner work in which the ego experiences the “defeat” that comes with its experience of the Self. This repeated fixatio experience is never pleasant, but eventually it fosters the ego relinquishing its desire for control.
Free choice Jung defined as a “subjective feeling of freedom,” which is not totally free. Our will comes up constantly against the limits of the outside world and also comes into “conflict with the facts of the self.” As the Self acts on the ego it circumscribes our will.
Then there are the inevitable times in life when we experience what Jung calls “conflicts of duty.” These are those situations where we face a choice between two evils or two unpalatable options. In such times Jung saw 3 possible courses of action:
We might look to some outside authority, thus externalizing our locus of authority, something Jung never encouraged.
We might look to an “act of God,” in the form of a fait accompli, which Jung felt most people regard as the will of God. An example here is that of a woman unable to decide whether to have a child, so she stops using birth control, thinking that if she gets pregnant it will be the will of God.
Neither of these did Jung see as desirable. Rather he suggested that we view such situations as opportunities to discover the power inherent in “holding the tension of opposites” and wait for the resolution of the conflict in the form of the emergence of the “transcendent function.” This is not something the ego figures out; it is done by the Self. So this waiting and holding at various (difficult) times of life provide us with opportunities to experience the Self.
Such times also provide the opportunity for us to recognize our “two-ness,” i.e. how we contain both good and evil, different, often opposite impulses or inclinations, as Saint Paul lamented in his letter to the church in Rome. If we can hold the tension of the “two-ness” Jung felt we would achieve a new attitude.
Jung reminds us that the major problems in life—those times when we face major decisions—are never things we solve. Solutions are the purview of the ego. The ego is way out of its depths here. Such problems are only outgrown. When we wait, holding the tension of opposites, the Self provides a resolution, with the appearance of the reconciling third thing, and this results in a whole new attitude, new perspective, new outlook—in short, in our growth.
Jung also provides us with insights on the subject of choosing in his concept of psychological types. In an earlier essay we discussed the types. For our purposes here two components of type theory are relevant: Intuition and Perception. The MBTI and SLIP, the two major “tests” of type, seek to identify a person’s innate preferences. Those with a strong preference for Intuition (N) are oriented more to the future than to the past, see future possibilities and potentials, and take in information irrationally, without the involvement of the linear, left-brain rational mind. Those with a strong preference for P tend to resist closure, to be disorganized and to prefer to continue to glean perceptions and information.
The person strong in both Intuition and Perceiving tends to have the hardest time with choosing because neither intuition or perceiving provides a base for making a choice. Intuition is irrational; perception does not determine either values (Feeling) or logical facts (Thinking)—the two bases on which we make choices. Type specialists will assure us that no one is an “NP” as a type, that there is always either T or F related here. But in my experience, even when the T/F preference is present, the person with strong inclinations toward N and P can be very indecisive.
Finally Jung offers us insights about choosing in his discussion of archetypes, in particular the archetype of the puer. The word is Latin for “child,” and so is an archetype we all have experienced in our youth. But some people never develop the opposite archetype, the senex, sufficiently to balance the qualities of the puer. Such people live what Jung called “the provisional life”—a life without commitment, a life always containing the opportunity to make an escape, a fantasy life, the life of the child.
Pueri seek to keep their options open. They live spontaneously, relishing fun and excitement. As such they make stimulating friends, but very poor marriage material (although this doesn’t stop some women—especially Kores and Mother types—from finding them irresistibly alluring). Unless the puer grows up, i.e. integrates the senex that lies in the unconscious, he will never become either fond of, or good at choosing.
Why does this matter?
Making good choices is a serious issue now. We as a society are living in a time when we face critical choices. I think my dream of last September was meant to get us to realize this fact. We have to choose on so many fronts, e.g.
how to be responsible with our resources (on both the individual and collective levels)
how to handle the problems in our economy
how best to protect the environment
how best to respond to the reality of terrorism and other challenges we face
how much, or if, to participate in the public discussion of contemporary issues
how best to teach our children sound values
how to choose among the candidates in the coming mid-term elections
We need to be good choosers, so as to make choices that are wise, born from our individual truth, consonant with the guidance of the Self. Jung offers us a wealth of advice on how to do this. He reminds us that
We need to be awake, and aware of who we are, what we value, what the Self is asking of us, and Jung’s perspective is an invaluable aid in good choosing.
Bolen, Jean Shinoda (1984), Goddesses in Everywoman. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Edinger, Edward (1996), The Aion Lectures: Exploring the Self in C.G. Jung’s Aion. Toronto: Inner City Press.
Giannini, John (2004), Compass of the Soul: Archetypal Guides to a Fuller Life. Gainesville FL: Center for the Application of Psychological Type.
Carl Jung (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Wikipedia, “Buridan’s Ass;” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buridan’s_ass
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 My most extreme personal experience of this involved two women I knew when I lived in California. They were both very strong Perceivers who never went out to eat or to the movies. When I inquired why, they said it was because they could never decide where to go: the act of choosing was so paralyzing to them that they avoided it entirely! They were quite delighted to leave the choosing of restaurants and movies to me, i.e. they externalized the process.
 The fixatio is the crucifixion experience that is commonly found in the nigredo and albedo phases of the alchemical transformation process, when we are pulled in multiple, opposite directions at once—something akin to being “drawn and quartered.”
 MBTI is the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory; SLIP is the Singer-Loomis Inventory of Personality, two of the most commonly used instruments to assess type preferences. For further information on these instruments, see Keirsey & Bates (1984), Kroeger & Thuesen (1988), Myers & Myers (1980), and Giannini (2004).
 As in my experience with the two Perceptive women in California, noted above. I also see indecisiveness in some potential teachers at The Jungian Center, “potential” because their extreme Intuition and Perception make it impossible for them to come to closure, meet the advertising deadlines of the local newspapers, and work within organized schedules.