All the Labels: Jung’s Frustration at Being Misunderstood

… I am often classed among the Gnostics….

Jung (1952)[1]

Some while ago… I was characterized as ‘unspiritual.’… another utterance from an authoritative theological source [accuses] me of agnosticism—the exact opposite of Gnosticism.

Jung (1952)[2]

As a philosopher and speculating heretic I am, of course, easy prey….

Jung (1952)[3]

… I have in my time been regarded not only as a Gnostic and its opposite, but also as a theist and an atheist, a mystic and a materialist….

Jung (1952)[4]

Gnostic, agnostic, heretic, theist, atheist, mystic, materialist—Jung got hung with many labels in his lifetime, nearly of them reflecting lack of understanding of his psychology and method of inquiry. Why was this? And what labels did Jung appreciate? We consider these questions in this essay.

Why was Jung So Misunderstood?

There are many reasons why Jung was misunderstood. These reasons are of two sorts: those that relate to Jung, and those that relate to the collective society.

Reasons related to Jung. One reason is Jung’s type. Jung was, by his own statement, an INT—Introvert, Intuitive, Thinking—type.[5] As an Introvert Jung was not oriented to the outer world, in either his interests or the focus of his thinking. So his writing, in both content and style, was not oriented to appeal to the masses.[6] Jung’s strong intuition didn’t help: His type preference inclined him to “circumambulation,” leaps in his arguments, and long discursions from his topic.[7] Such non-linearity left many of his readers feeling either confused or irritated. And with his strong preference for Thinking (Feeling being very much his inferior function), Jung did not put in much effort to make emotional connections with his readers.[8] The result is that Jung (especially after his near-death experience in 1944) wrote for himself, on topics of interest to him, if to few others.[9]

Which is a second reason Jung found few who understood: Alchemy,[10] mysticism,[11] Ufos,[12] astrology,[13] cabala[14]—these are not (even now) subjects in the mainstream, and 60 years ago it was even harder to find academics, intellectuals or theologians who ventured into such fields. Jung was an intensely curious person, and had a very open-minded attitude.[15] He would venture into any area if it held out even the slightest promise of giving him explanations or insights into himself, his patients or empirical reality.[16] It is not uncommon today to find Jungians (that is, persons trained at Jung Institutes and certified as Jungian analysts) who roll their eyes and feel embarrassed when reminded of Jung’s interest in astrology or Ufos or other such outré subjects.[17] Given such narrow-mindedness even now among people with putative interest in Jung, it is not surprising that few of Jung’s contemporaries took the trouble to try to understand his work.

A third personal explanation for why Jung was misunderstood may lie in Jung’s intellectual brilliance and his training in the rigorous Germanic gymnasium tradition.[18] I have often told students here at The Jungian Center that Jung is really easy to read if you are fluent in Latin, Greek, French, German, numerology, astrology, symbology, mythology, Gnosticism, cabala and alchemy. Assuming you have mastered all these languages and subjects, you’ll have no problems tackling Aion or Mysterium Coniunctionis or Alchemical Studies. But who (especially in 21st century America) learns so many languages? Who ventures even superficially into all these esoteric fields? Where would one even go to get training in all this, especially with so little likelihood of finding gainful employment at the end of it?? And so it is not surprising that Jung found few people outside his personal circle of students who were able to fathom what he was saying.

Reasons related to the collective society. Then there are explanations that relate to the collective, our Western culture, with its unconscious assumptions, attitudes, and “knowledge base.”[19] Jung was one of the great figures of the 20th century who were able to step outside the reality of their culture to see it from new perspectives. In addition to his rigorous intellectual training and his interests in arcana, Jung was original. Over and over during his long life he came up with startling new perspectives on areas of Western culture that have been mired in stasis for centuries. One of the most controversial of these areas was religion.[20]

Given its “cosmic vanity,” “pride in history,” and “lust for certitude,”[21] Western religion has been resistant to new formulations in both its theology and its practices. “Cosmic vanity,” aka “ontological arrogance”[22] is the (mostly unconscious) attitude that privileges one religion over another. Expressed in the common vernacular it says: “If you don’t believe as I do, then you’re going to go to Hell.” Jung disagreed. He felt all religions had insights into the nature of reality and humans’ relation to the numinous.[23] “Pride in history” shows up in organized religions that are unable to accommodate new values and attitudes, e.g. women’s equality. It will say things like “We can’t have women priests because we never have had women priests” (ignoring the fact that some of Jesus’ most ardent followers, and Paul’s most active supporters, were women). “Lust for certitude” is a third temptation that religions tend to fall into, in their admonition to followers to “Believe, don’t doubt,” as if doubt were something negative. Jung recognized that belief is a thin reed, and the New Testament imperatives urging belief are mistranslations of the Greek.[24] Jesus and the authors of the New Testament are asking followers not to believe but to trust. Having personal experience of the Divine, Jung recognized the significant differences between belief and trust, and he wrote about this at length.[25] Controversy with clerics and theologians followed.

Jung also put clerics’ noses out of joint because of his call for change in organized religions. With his appreciation of Heraclitus,[26] Jung recognized the truth of God’s declaration “Behold, I make all things new.”[27] As Heraclitus understood, change is the only constant, and Jung was very open to change. He recognized that, unless Western religions actively shifted to promoting change in their beliefs and actions, they would become passé.[28] By the last decade of his life (especially after he was delivered of “Answer to Job,”)[29] Jung became convinced that a new form of expression of the “religious instinct”[30] in humans was aborning—a “new dispensation”[31] that was rooted in the desire in the individual to have personal experience of the Divine. Dogmas, rites and rituals were a “defense” against such experience,[32] and in calling ecclesiastics out on this point, Jung posed a threat to both their thinking and their livelihood.

Religion was not the only collective in Western society that Jung called out. As a practitioner of true science Jung posed threats to scientists and their practice of conventional science which, then as now, was/is rooted in “scientism.”[33] For all its talk of objectivity, reason, following the truth, inductive reasoning etc., Western science is actually very dogmatic, materialistic, and biased against the empirical pursuit of knowledge.[34] While this is beginning to change, 70 years ago scientism had a stranglehold on scientific research. Jung’s insistence that “the psyche is real”[35] fell on deaf ears. More than just “deaf,” scientists’ ears were affronted that anything intangible—like the psyche—would be regarded as a subject worthy of study.

Jung practiced empiricism: He observed what went on in himself, his patients and his students. He followed the insights he got via dreams, synchronicities, active imaginations, and his intuitions, and he tested these in real-life situations. He determined truth by what he experienced.[36] If he unearthed an assumption or attitude he had that life experience proved wrong, he changed his mind. He collected facts from his observations and then formulated hypotheses, always holding these hypotheses tentatively, lest some additional experience prove them wrong. This is the empirical method. But his fellow psychologists (by that label, “students of the psyche”) had little use for intangibles, even if their discipline was, in theory, focused on the (intangible) psyche![37]

Eager to dismiss and disparage Jung after his defection from the “Master” in 1913, Freudians went out of their way to criticize Jung and his work.[38] This was a third group in the collective that gave Jung a hard time. It is very gratifying for Jungians these days to watch how Jung’s work is proving true, while the limitations of Freud’s theories, and the poverty of Freudian reductionism are becoming more and more obvious.[39]

How Jung Wanted to Be Described

In various places in both his works and letters Jung noted how he would label himself. He calls himself a “doctor and scientist”[40] in his working with verifiable facts. He describes himself as “a psychiatrist whose prime concern is to record and interpret… empirical material.”[41] He appreciated being termed “an empiricist first and last” in a 1952 edition of the British Medical Journal, and he cited that article in a rebuttal of one of his critics.[42]

Jung distinguished between his studies of various subjects and being a believer in them:

The people who call me a Gnostic cannot understand that I am a psychologist, describing modes of psychic behavior precisely like a biologist studying the instinctual activities of insects. He does not believe in the tenets of the bee’s philosophy. When I show the parallels between dreams and Gnostic fantasies I believe in neither. They are just facts one does not need to believe…[43]

Just because he studied the Gnostics and their writings did not mean Jung was a Gnostic himself.

In the last year of his life Jung revealed his frustration at being misunderstood in a letter to an American academic:

 “The fact that I try to make you see my standpoint could show you that I don’t mind the criticism. I only want to defend myself against wrong premises. If I could not stand criticism I would have been dead long ago, since I have had nothing but criticism for 60 years….”[44]

Jung was one of those long-suffering geniuses born several generations ahead of their time whose fate it is to become widely recognized and appreciated only after their death. Those of us who know how much Jung’s work saved our sanity and enriched our lives owe it to him to help overcome the scientism and prejudice that still hinders full integration of Jung’s insights into the theory and practice of psychology.

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.


Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Black, Stephen (1977), “The Stephen Black Interviews,” Jung Speaking, eds. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cohen, Patricia (2007), “Freud Is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the Psychology Department,” The New York Times (November 25, 2007), 6.

Davis, Charles (1974), Temptations of Religion. New York: Harper & Row.

Gass, William (2006), “The Inside Man,” The New York Times (May 7, 2006), 13.

Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.

Harman, Willis (1988), Global Mind Change. Indianapolis: Knowledge Systems.

Jaffe, Lawrence (1990), Liberating the Heart: Spirituality and Jungian Psychology. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Jung, C.G. (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Keirsey, David & Marilyn Bates (1984), Please Understand Me. Del Mar CA: Prometheus Nemesis Books.

Kofman, Fred (2006), Conscious Business. Boulder CO: Sounds True.

Liddell & Scott (1978), An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Mehrtens, Susan ed. (1996), Revisioning Science. Waterbury VT: Potlatch Press.

Merkin, Daphne (2003), “The Literary Freud,” The New York Times Magazine (July 13, 2003), 40-44.

Siegel, Lee (2005), “Freud and His Discontents,” The New York Times Book Review (May 8, 2005), 29-30.

Spong, John (1998), Why Christianity Must Change or Die. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

________ (2001), A New Christianity for a New World. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

________ (2007), Jesus for the Non-Religious. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Tart, Charles (2009), The End of Materialism. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Wolfe, Tom (2008), “One Giant Leap to Nowhere,” The New York Times (July 19, 2009), 11.

[1] Collected Works 11, ¶460. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 18, ¶1499.

[3] CW 11, ¶461.

[4] CW 18, ¶1502.

[5] Cf. Black (1977), 256; Hannah (1976), 83, 111; Bair (2003), 262, 284, 310-313, 541.

[6] Keirsey & Bates (1984), 15.

[7] E.g. in a discussion of the mother and rebirth, Jung has a 14-page digression on tree symbolism (CW 5, ¶s 321-346). This is just one of many similar instances of his tendency toward lengthy digressions.

[8] Bair (2003), 71.

[9] Ibid., 500.

[10]CW 9ii, 12, 13 and 14 are the volumes that contain Jung’s alchemical studies.

[11] Cf. CW 7, ¶s 231,260,324; CW 9i, ¶s 92,240,258,292,295,419,662; CW 13, ¶s 116,257,390,482.

[12] CW 10, ¶s 589-824.

[13] CW 8, ¶s 872-915.

[14] CW 13, ¶s 152,167-168,401,411,460; and CW 14, ¶s 18-19,266,548,558,566,568,569,640-643.

[15] Bair (2003), 553.

[16] CW 18, ¶1507.

[17] I have encountered many such analysts in the last 30 years, connected with the 3 Institutes with which I have had contact (New York, Boston and San Francisco).

[18] Bari (2003), 35-36.

[19] The phrase “knowledge base” was coined by Willis Harman. For more on the knowledge base of our culture, see Harman (1988) and Mehrtens (1996).

[20] Especially after “Answer to Job” was published Jung was the focus of many articles in religious and theological journals, as well as the recipient of numerous letters from clerics and theologians. Bair (2003), 527,568; and Jung’s Letters, II, 236,434,483,570-573.

[21] These terms are 3 of the 4 “temptations of religion” identified by Charles Davis in his 1974 pièce justificative on why he left the Roman Catholic Church; David (1974).

[22] This is the term coined by Fred Kofman to describe cosmic vanity in the workplace; Kofman (2006), 101.

[23] CW 18, ¶1643.

[24] The Greek πιστισ does not mean “belief;” it means “trust,” from πειθω, “to trust, rely on.” Liddell & Scott (1978), 641. For an in-depth examination of Jung’s ideas on belief and trust, see the essay “Jung on Belief, Doubt and Trust,” archived on this blog site.

[25] CW 10, ¶s 517-548.

[26] CW 6, ¶708.

[27] Rev. 21:5.

[28] John Spong, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, recognizes that Christianity must change; cf. Spong (1998) (2001) and (2007).

[29] In the final phase of writing “Answer to Job” Jung was “like a woman giving birth to a child,” according to Jolande Jacobi; Bair (2003), 528.

[30] CW 10, ¶s 653,659; CW 17, ¶ 157.

[31] Jaffe (1990), 19.

[32] CW 11, ¶81.

[33] Scientism is the degenerate form of science characterized by materialism, objectivism, positivism, reductionism, mechanism and rationalism; see Tart (2009), 24-25.

[34] Ibid.

[35] CW 18, ¶ 1507; cf. the essay “The Psyche is Real,” archived on this blog site, for more on Jung and his challenges to scientism.

[36] Ibid., ¶1502.

[37] This is the ultimate irony: that persons who purport to be students of the psyche maintain a belief system that denies its existence!

[38] CW 13, ¶480; Bair (2003), 234-240.

[39] Cf. Wolfe (2009), 11; Cohen (2007), 6; Gass (2006), 13; Siegel (2005), 30; and Merkin (2003), 43.

[40] CW 11, ¶461.

[41] CW 18, ¶1500.

[42] Ibid., ¶1502.

[43] Ibid., ¶1647.

[44] “Letter to Robert C. Smith” (16 August 1960), Letters, II, 583.