Jung on the Transcendent Function

The cooperation of conscious reasoning with the data of the unconscious is called the ‘transcendent function…. This function progressively unites the opposites. Psychotherapy makes use of it to heal neurotic dissociations, but this function had already served as the basis of Hermetic philosophy for seventeen centuries.

Jung (1954)[1]

The whole process is called the ‘transcendent function.’ It is a process and a method at the same time. The production of unconscious compensations is a spontaneous process; the conscious realization is a method. The function is called ‘transcendent’ because it facilitates the transition from one psychic condition to another by means of the mutual confrontation of opposites.

Jung (1939)[2]

The transcendent function does not proceed without aim and purpose, but leads to the revelation of the essential man. It is in the first place a purely natural process, which may in some cases pursue its course without the knowledge or assistance of the individual, and can sometimes forcibly accomplish itself in the face of opposition. The meaning and purpose of the process is the realization, in all its aspects, of the personality originally hidden away in the embryonic germ-plasm; the production and unfolding of the original, potential wholeness.

Jung (1916)[3]

For years I encountered Jung’s references to the “transcendent function,” always wondering what he meant, or, more precisely, how it showed up in life. Knowing Jung was an empiricist, I was sure he got his idea about this from his experience. But what was this experience, and how did this phenomenon manifest in life? Research for another blog essay recently answered my questions. Herewith what I found. We’ll begin with some definitions and features of the transcendent function and then consider how it works and some of the benefits it holds.


My usual procedure in writing these essays is to begin with definitions from the dictionary, but in this case I found that source more confusing that illuminating, for both the words “function” and “transcendent.” More helpful were the etymologies for both words. “Function” derives from the Latin verb fungere, to perform.[4] A “function” is something that performs. “Transcend” is a compound of two Latin words, the prefix trans, “beyond, across,” and the verb scandere, “to climb.”[5] When something “transcends” it goes above or beyond things below. In our context, Jung drew on Hegel’s famous formulation of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.[6] The third thing—synthesis—transcended the two opposites. The “transcendent function” thus would be an action that goes above or beyond what is below, so as to achieve a higher or wider perspective or level of understanding.

Never much of a math student, Jung discovered the mathematical analog to his use of “transcendent function” when he was well into his years of noting, using, and writing about the transcendent function in psychology. In a later edition of his essay “On the Psychology of the Unconscious,” Jung added a note to ¶121: “I discovered only subsequently that the idea of the transcendent function also occurs in the higher mathematics, and is actually the name of the function of real and imaginary numbers.” As mathematicians use the term, it refers to “nonalgebraic” concepts.[7]

In his psychology Jung defined the transcendent function as “an irrational life-process,”[8] “the process of coming to terms with the unconscious,”[9] “a natural process, a manifestation of the energy that springs from the tension of opposites,”[10] a process that “is not a partial process running a conditioned course; it is a total and integral event in which all aspects are, or should be, included.”[11] So the transcendent function is a process.

But Jung also recognized it is a method: “It is a process and a method at the same time. The production of unconscious compensations is a spontaneous process; the conscious realization is a method.[12] As a method, the transcendent function blends and fuses “the noble with the base components”[13] of the psyche, making “the transition from one attitude to another organically possible, without loss of the unconscious….”[14]

Jung uses a variety of terms in referring to the transcendent function: “the union of opposites,”[15] “a total and integral event,”[16] “the aim of our analysis of the unconscious,”[17] “the collaboration of conscious and unconscious data,”[18] a “transition to a new attitude,”[19] “a quality of conjoined opposites,”[20] “the relation to the symbol,”[21] and “a way of attaining liberation by one’s own efforts.”[22] Jung drew on the work of the 19th/20th century philosopher Leo Frobenius, who used the phrase “night sea journey” to refer to what Jung meant by the “transcendent function.”[23]

Features of the Transcendent Function

As a process, the transcendent function is irrational, spontaneous,[24] natural,[25] coming from inside,[26] gripping,[27] and valuable,[28] with both aim and purpose.[29] By “irrational” Jung did not associate it with insanity. We might better use the term “non-rational” to clarify Jung’s idea that it is not something created by the rational ego mind. By “spontaneous” Jung pointed to the fact that the phenomenon is unplanned, unscripted, operating beyond our intentional timetables: it just appears. By “natural” Jung stressed that it is not an artificial contrivance, something we cook up. Rather it comes from within us and “grips” us with a charge, due to the numinous power of the archetype of wholeness that it represents.

The transcendent function is valuable in Jung’s psychology because it fosters wholeness, since its purpose is to act as a bridge between consciousness and the unconscious. Wholeness—helping us get our act together—is the aim of the function. Jung also felt the transcendent function was valuable in the clinical setting: It assists both analyst and analysand in their work of getting in touch with unconscious contents and mediating between these contents and the conscious mind.[30]

Jung stressed that the transcendent function was the “sovereign power over all the psychic functions,”[31] and “beyond the control of man.”[32] We can’t make it happen or cause it to appear, nor is it something we can control. “Discursive,”[33] “difficult”[34] and “complex”[35] are other adjectives Jung uses when he discusses the function’s “shuttling to and fro of arguments”[36] between the conscious mind and the “series of fantasy-occurrences”[37] that arise from the unconscious.

The process is discursive in that it shifts, wanders, and rambles off in different directions, much as Jung’s own prose does in his Collected Works (sparking confusion, annoyance and grumbling in strong Sensation types who like their prose straightforward and to the point!). It is complex in that it draws on many different inner resources and the wealth of mythologems that lie in the collective unconscious, making handling of the material—dreams, fantasies, intuitions—a challenge (as anyone who tries to analyze a dream will recognize).

To discursive and complex Jung adds “difficult,” and the process is difficult because it “involves both action and suffering.”[38] We have to act, that is, respond to the demands of the unconscious by tending to our dreams, doing active imagination, reflecting on synchronicities we notice in daily life, and working with any fantasies that arise. Because the unconscious generally acts in compensatory ways to our conscious orientation,[39] these products of our inner life often clash with the ego mind. The result is that we experience what Jung called the “tension of opposites,”[40] and to encourage the development of the transcendent function, we need to hold this tension. Holding the tension of opposites is not pleasant or easy, so we suffer.

Jung knew whereof he wrote here because he had lived this in his own life. We can see this now, since 2009, thanks to the publication of Jung’s Liber Novus, or Red Book, which he compiled in the years 1913 to 1930.[41] Over and over in this psychologically tumultuous time Jung wrestled with fantasies, shadow figures, and inner energies that his ego mind found repulsive or unwelcome. Jung had the courage to stick with the process and evolved a method for working with these energies that he then described in his Collected Works. From these years of personal experience Jung concluded that the process of the transcendent function was “nothing mysterious or metaphysical,”[42] but rather was as practical and useful as mathematicians found it in their handling of rational and irrational numbers.[43]

How It Works: The Process and the Method

In his descriptions of the process Jung recognizes how we, as people steeped in the biases of Western culture, come to this work with a handicap:

Under normal conditions, every conflict stimulates the mind to activity for the purpose of creating a satisfactory solution. Usually—i.e., in the West—the conscious standpoint arbitrarily decides against the unconscious, since anything coming from inside suffers the prejudice of being regarded as inferior or somehow wrong. But in the cases with which we are here concerned it is tacitly agreed that the apparently incompatible contents shall not be suppressed again, and that the conflict shall be accepted and suffered.[44]

Our natural tendency, as inhabitants of a culture that privileges rationality over imagination, is to dismiss anything that smacks of fantasy, intuition, or the inner life. If we hope to experience the transcendent function in our own lives, there are requirements. Jung enumerates them:

First and foremost, we need the unconscious material. The most readily accessible expression of unconscious processes is undoubtedly dreams…. In general, dreams are unsuitable or difficult to make use of in developing the transcendent function, because they make too great demands on the subject.

            “We must therefore look to other sources for the unconscious material… unconscious interferences in the wake state, ideas ‘out of the blue,’ slips, deceptions, lapses of memory, symptomatic actions, and spontaneous fantasies…[45]

Given our culture’s prejudices, none of these sources is highly regarded or considered to be valued tools for fostering greater self-awareness. So one challenge shows up at the very beginning: We must get over the Western habit of dismissing as useless the inner life and its products.

More than just getting past this collective attitude, Jung goes on to specify that

we must allow ourselves to “merge” “in the unconscious processes,”[46] so as to “gain possession of them by allowing them to possess” us. Much as Jung did in the years he created his Red Book, we must allow the unconscious to have its way with us. The ego has to cede control, but we don’t like to do this!

So, most of the time, we submit to this process under duress: Life doesn’t work well. We have hit the wall. Or, as Jung puts it “… when the conscious mind finds itself in a critical situation,”[47] and can’t “figure out” what to do, can’t rationally come up with solutions to a major problem, only then will the ego adopt the proper attitude.

Jung goes on: “At first no solution appears possible, and this fact, too, has to be borne with patience. The suspension thus created ‘constellates’ the unconscious—in other words, the conscious suspense produces a new compensatory reaction in the unconscious. This reaction (usually manifested in dreams) is brought to conscious realization in its turn….”[48] The ego now is confronted with “compensatory reactions”—images, activities or situations opposite to the reality in outer life.

The “true labor, a work which involves both action and suffering”[49] begins, as the ego and unconscious “shuttle” back and forth “elaborating the symbolic fantasies,”[50] and treating the unconscious “constructively,”[51] with the ego questioning the meaning and purpose of the dreams and fantasies that arise. When strong feelings arise Jung suggested doing active imagination as “… a kind of enrichment and clarification of the affect, whereby the affect and its contents are brought nearer to consciousness, becoming at the same time more impressive and more understandable.”[52] In this second stage of the process, the key question is “how the ego and the unconscious are to come to terms”[53] so as to bring “together the opposites for the production of a third: the transcendent function.”[54]

In my experience of this process, this interval involves a lot of waiting. Jung is not kidding when he calls for patience. The ego frets; it wants the suffering to stop. It wants clear guidance, a sure path laid out for action. But the third stage does not happen on the ego’s timetable: it operates “in accord with the formula ‘grace’ or the ‘will of God,”[55] occurring  in kairos time, the time of Nature, the time of the soul. We must hold the tension without succumbing to the temptation of easing our pain by going over to one or the other of the opposites. Joining the conscious orientation to the opposites of the unconscious, we wait.

This is the point when I suggest to my dream students that they dig out their kitbag (having taken Jung’s advice prior to this to prepare for those occasions when they will fall in a hole)[56] and do whatever they find comforting to the body and pleasant diversions for the ego mind. Warm baths, walks in the woods, vigorous exercise, cooking up “comfort foods” or “soul food,” meditating, prayer, socializing with like-minded people—all these can be useful activities to help get through this time of waiting while the alchemical process “cooks” within.

Wait long enough and there is relief. Jung describes it in poetic terms: “The result is ascension in the flame, transmutation in the alchemical heat, the genesis of the ‘subtle spirit.’ That is the transcendent function born of the union of opposites.”[57]

Relief, finally! But to the practical Western mind, ascension, transmutation, and “subtle spirit” seem like slim rewards for such a difficult and painful process. Why bother? Answers to this question form the final part of this essay.

Benefits Associated with the Transcendent Function

Jung mentions nearly two dozen benefits that relate to the transcendent function.[58] For those in analysis, working the process is helpful to both the analyst and the analysand. In its “healing of neurotic dissociations”[59] the transcendent function assists the analyst’s work as a healer and witness of the client’s situation. It serves to create new situations, moving both client and analyst to new levels of awareness, with new vistas  for potential growth.[60] The analysand benefits too, as the process helps him/her grow past inner divisions[61] and dependency on the analyst.[62] Work the process long enough, often enough, and you come to understand how to wrestle with the unconscious, how to do active imagination, how to wait, and, most of all, you come to know that the Self (source of dreams, guidance and inner wisdom) can be trusted.

You don’t have to go into analysis to come to appreciate the benefits of the transcendent function. Jung was quite clear that this work is akin to the Eastern spiritual practices (like Buddhism) premised on the belief in the possibility of self-liberation.[63] Jung notes:

            By means of the transcendent function we not only gain access to the ‘One Mind’ but also come to understand why the East believes in the possibility of self-liberation. If, through introspection and the conscious realization of unconscious compensations, it is possible to transform one’s mental condition and thus arrive at a solution of painful conflicts, one would seem entitled to speak of ‘self-liberation’.[64]

By our own efforts working with the transcendent function we find a “way of attaining liberation… and of the courage to be oneself.”[65]

“Access to the ‘One Mind’,” means access to the Self, and this means greater insight,[66] more consciousness, perhaps even a state of enlightenment.[67] Repeatedly Jung witnessed, in his own life and the lives of his patients, that the experience of the transcendent function changed the personality of the individual,[68] opening the person to new levels of being,[69] to rebirth[70] and life renewal.[71] Painful conflicts get resolved; intractable, insoluble problems disappear (they are not solved, but outgrown);[72] old conditions are transformed, opening opportunities for new potentials to emerge.[73] In sum, the transcendent function is a core component of the process of what Jung termed “individuation”—the work of “unfolding of our original, potential wholeness.”[74]


Working with the contents of the unconscious, regarding these contents as valuable components of wholesome living, allowing the unconscious to be heard and its compensatory realities to be held in the tension of opposites, waiting on the timing of the Self until the resolving third thing emerges—these are all elements of Jung’s psychology, a psychology that gave a new, non-mathematical meaning to the term “transcendent function.”

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.


Bothamley, Jennifer (2002), Dictionary of Theories. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Hoerni, Ulrich (2009), “Preface,” The Red Book, Liber Novus: A Reader’s Edition. New York: W.W. Norton.

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 Univ. Press.

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

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

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

Körner, Stephan (1973), ”Necessity,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, III. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons.

Pepper, Stephen (1973), “Metaphor in Philosophy,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, III. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons.

[1] Collected Works 18, ¶1554. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 11, ¶780.

[3] CW 7, ¶186.

[4] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 803.

[5] Ibid., II, 2069.

[6] On Hegel’s dialectic, cf. Bothamley (2002), 146, and Pepper (1973), 199, and Körner (1973), 359.

[7] Encyclopedia Brittanica; http://www.brittanica.com/EBchecked/topic/602426/transcendental-function

[8] CW 9i, ¶524.

[9] CW 7, ¶121.

[10] Ibid.

[11] CW 8¶183.

[12] CW 11, ¶780.

[13] CW 7, ¶360.

[14] CW 18, ¶145.

[15] CW 9i, ¶524.

[16] CW 8, ¶183.

[17] CW 7, ¶360.

[18] CW 9, ¶167.

[19] CW 6, ¶427.

[20] CW 8, ¶189.

[21] CW 6, ¶205.

[22] CW 8, ¶193.

[23] CW 7, ¶160.

[24] CW 18, ¶1554.

[25] Ibid.; cf. CW 7, ¶186.

[26] CW 11, ¶780.

[27] CW 7, ¶361.

[28] CW 8, ¶193.

[29] CW 7, ¶186.

[30] CW 8, ¶193; CW 6, ¶827.

[31] CW 6, ¶828.

[32] CW 11, ¶822.

[33] CW 10, ¶855.

[34] CW 11, ¶805.

[35] CW 6, ¶189, note 86.

[36] CW 8 ¶189.

[37] CW 7, ¶121.

[38] Ibid.

[39] CW 14, ¶257; CW 11, ¶s780-781

[40] CW 7, ¶121.

[41] Hoerni (2009), xi.

[42] CW 6, ¶189; CW 8, ¶131.

[43] CW 7, ¶121, note 1.

[44] CW 11, ¶s780-781.

[45] CW 8, ¶s152-154.

[46]CW 7, ¶368.

[47] CW 8, ¶181.

[48] CW 11, ¶s780-781.

[49] CW 7, ¶121.

[50] CW 6, ¶427.

[51] CW 8, ¶147.

[52] Ibid., ¶167.

[53] Ibid., ¶181.

[54] Ibid.

[55] CW 11, ¶822.

[56] CW 9II, ¶125.

[57] CW 7, ¶368.

[58] Cf. CW 18, ¶1554; CW 6, ¶427; CW 6, ¶s 827-828; CW 11, ¶784; CW 11, ¶802; CW 11, ¶828; CW 7, ¶184; CW 7, ¶186; CW 7, ¶196; CW 7, ¶s358-360; CW 8, ¶167; CW 8, ¶189, and CW 8, ¶193.

[59] CW 18, ¶1554.

[60] CW 6, ¶427.

[61] CW 6, ¶827.

[62] CW 8, 193.

[63] Ibid.; cf. CW 11, ¶784.

[64] CW 11, ¶784.

[65] CW 8, ¶193.

[66] CW 11, ¶828.

[67] Ibid.

[68] CW 7, ¶358.

[69] CW 8, ¶189.

[70] CW 11, ¶828.

[71] CW 6, ¶427.

[72] CW 13, ¶18.

[73] CW 6, ¶427.

[74] CW 7, ¶186.