BOOK REVIEWS (2014): CG Jung’s (1981) Experimental Researches

19 January 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

A very tediously empirical book that finally arrives at the startling discovery that the psyche consists of a plurality of autonomous complexes, some of which may at times temporarily eclipse or even supersede the ego-consciousness and the will. This insight fundamentally changes how we understand our sense of self, ourselves and others, and it represents a change with potentially helpful consequences for the problems besetting our culture.

Framing/Background for Replies

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[0] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

Also, since this volume collects a number of papers (mot from before World War I), I provide notations for which ones as I cite them in the following.

A Reply To:  CG Jung’s (1981)[1] Experimental Researches

Overwhelmingly, this represents the most tedious book I have read by Jung, though this results (also overwhelmingly) from the exacting presentation of details arising from his extensive early investigations (with others) into word associations, sometimes in conjunction with psychophysical measurements (galvanometer, pneumograph) as well.

Still, even in the walls of tables and quantitative findings, he still manages to get into interesting discussions at times about the distinction between clinical categories of diagnosis; one time remarks, “It is not pious precepts nor the repetition of pedagogic truths that have a moulding influence on the character of a developing child: what most influences him are the unconscious personal affective states of his parents and teachers” (¶1007);[2] an early intimation of the Pygmalion effect[3]—at another notes, “Words are really a kind of shorthand version of actions, situations, and things. When I present the subject with a stimulus-word meaning an action, it is as if I presented him with the action itself and asked him, ‘How do you feel about it? What’s your opinion of it? What would you do in such a situation?’” (¶944).[4] This may seem a trivial point, or perhaps even horribly obvious, but it points to his already transactional, already phenomenological view of what happens in a word association experiment; hence, his association experiment “is not merely a method for the reproduction of separate word-pairs but a kind of pastime, a conversation between experimenter and subject” (¶944)—rooted in empiricism, most assuredly, but without any conceit of objective, universal fact..

The major reward of the book, as also its historical significance in Jung’s work generally, involves the development of his concept of the complex.[5] We get peeks of this along the way:

Now there are people, lots of them, who cannot recollect [a] critical event at all; they have forgotten it. They have repressed the unpleasant experience so forcefully that it can no longer be revived. Very often, too, the inability to remember looks like a wish not to remember, i.e., the subject cannot will himself to think about it.

In the more serious cases of hysteria [an] inability to remember is in fact the rule. In these cases the complex is stronger than the conscious will and drives the subject in such a way that he cannot will himself to remember. The complex plays the part of a second and stronger personality, to which ego-consciousness is subjected (¶901).[6]

Jung discovered that prolonged reaction-times when a participant provided a word association often coincided in the vicinity of a complex:

Practically every lengthening of reaction-time, even within quite normal limits (of which the subject is not aware), signifies, as far as we know at present, that the particular stimulus-word has touched upon a feeling-toned complex (¶266).[7]

These varying stimulus-words conjured up a certain scene, a particular picture from the mass of memories. The memory consists of a large number of single images; we therefore refer to it as a complex-image. The complex of these images is held together by a particular emotional tone, …[8] the vibrations of which can continue gently for weeks or months and keep the image … fresh and vivid for that length of time” (¶891).[9]

The stronger the emotional stress of the stimulus-word is for the individual and the more attention is devoted to that stimulus-word, the more the number of internal associations rises. This phenomenon is the exact opposite of the distraction phenomenon. Attention is improved because of the invasion of an emotional complex, which absorbs the whole personality, because the attention is directed more to the significance of the stimulus word (¶236).[10]

Happily, in his short (1911)[11] “On the Doctrine of Complexes,” included in the appendix, Jung provides a précis for the concept overall, and one long paragraph in particular, which I break up and add commentary into for the sake of understanding:

In the association experience we first observe that it is the intention of the subject to react quickly and correctly [as directed by the experimenter]. This intention is disturbed by the interference of the complex, so that the association, contrary to expectation, is either turned from the sense of the complex or replaced by fragmentary allusions, or is in general so disturbed as to render the subject altogether unable to produce a reaction, although he may be unaware that the complex is independent of his intentions. …

The lack of awareness here does not involve a merely Freudian subconsciousness but arises precisely from the fact that the complex occupies the cognitive position of ego-consciousness, as Jung describes further below.[12]

This points also to the complex and its association material having a remarkable independence in the hierarchy of the psyche, so that one may compare the complex to revolting vassals in an empire. Researches have shown this independence is based upon an intense emotional tone, that is, the value of the affective elements of the complex, because the “affect” occupies in the constitution of the psyche a very independent place, and may easily break through the self-control and self-intention of the individual. For this property of the complex I have introduced the term autonomy.

This emphasizes the two most important discoveries accompanying the complex: their independence, and their plurality. This also marks the first time (in this book at least) where Jung refers to complexes as autonomous.

I conceive the complex to be a collection of imaginings, which, in consequence of this autonomy, is relatively independent of the central control of the consciousness, and at any moment liable to bend or cross the intentions of the individual.

The above seems self-explanatory. In what follows, Jung refers to coenesthetic impressions; as distinct from sensations specifically associated with sense organs (like a sense of smell or a sense of sight), coenesthetic impressions refer to “the aggregate of impressions arising from organic sensations that forms the basis of one’s awareness of body or bodily state, as the feeling of health, vigor, or lethargy.” (from here). Also, because he compares the ego, as a complex, to other complexes, he refers to these other complexes in this passage as “the secondary complex”.

In so far as the meaning of the ego is psychologically nothing but a complex of imaginings held together and fixed by the coenesthetic impressions, [and] also since its intentions or innervations are eo ipso [by that very act or quality] stronger than those of the secondary complex (for they are disturbed by them), the complex of the ego may well be set parallel with and compared to the secondary autonomous complex. This comparison shows the existence of a certain psychological similarity, because the emotional tone of the secondary complexes is also based upon coenesthetic impressions, and, further, both the ego and secondary complex may be temporarily split up or repressed …[13]

The remarkable part of this passage involves the recognition of the ego (ego-complex) as simply one amongst many. [14]

Especially in those states where the complex temporarily replaces the ego, we see that a strong complex possesses all the characteristics of  separate personality. We are, therefore, justified in regarding a complex as somewhat like a small secondary mind, which deliberately (though unknown to consciousness) drives at certain intention which are contrary to the conscious intentions of the individual. Hysterical symptom are the products of those counter-endeavour; they originate from the complex, and are all the more intense and obstinate the greater the autonomy of the complex is.

Jung then introduces and defends that sense of “possession” that marks much of his subsequent writing.

I may say here the superstition held by all races that hysterical and insane persons are “possessed” by demons is right in conception. These patients have, in fact, autonomous complexes, which at times completely destroy the self-control. The superstition is therefore justified, inasmuch as it denotes “possession,” because the complexes behave quite independently of the ego, and force upon it a quasi-foreign will (¶1352, paragraph breaks added for clarity).

The only thing left to stress here: Jung arrives at these claims as a way to explain the behaviours and results he empirically measured. They do not arise from armchair theorizing about the matter or offering commentary on case studies published in psychiatric journals. This non-centered vision of the operation of the psyche, for all that Jung will pursue the ‘circle” as an adequate symbol of the total Self in the future, marks a genuinely Keplerian revolution in psychology, and stands as probably the signal most important discovery in the field. Nor did Jung back away from it. For all that people equate wholeness with circular symbolism, in more than one place in Jung’s writings we find him giving ec-centric descriptions of the Self, rather than centric ones. And no wonder: if the solar system provides your most obvious analog of psychic operation, then “circles” and “centers” have less heuristic value for understanding those dynamics than “ellipses” and “foci”.


[0] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[1] Jung, CG (1981). Experimental researches. (Vol. 2, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. L. Stein & D. Riviere). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, i–xii, 1–649.

[2] Jung, CG (1909). The family constellation. In CG Jung (1981). Experimental researches. (Vol. 2, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. L. Stein & D. Riviere), pp. 466–79 . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[3] See for example: Rosenthal, R, and Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

[4] Jung, CG (1909). The association method. In CG Jung (1981). Experimental researches. (Vol. 2, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. L. Stein & D. Riviere), pp. 439–65 . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[5] This notion of complexes does not originate with Jung, but with Theodor Ziehen, one of the most widely published German psychiatrists of the era. Both Jung and Freud took up this concept and developed it in their own ways, Jung particularly through the encouragement of his boss Eugen Bleuler at the Burghözli Clinic to use word association tests to investigate the unconscious. A significant change of orientation that Bleuler proposed, as distinct from Galton who had proposed testing reaction times during word association tests to measure intellectual capacities, involved a recognition of emotion or affect as the most determinative factor in various psychiatric areas under investigation. Thus, Jung in this work emphasizes the affective distortions that complexes bring about, but complexes need not limit themselves to emotional effects only. If they comprise little personalities, then of course they may reflect the full range of personality, writ small; and, in Jung’s later psychological typing (as well as his subsequent work), if for example one’s primary cognitive function tends toward feeling, then the inferior function will reflect thinking, and thus have a very complex-like behavior upon the ego-consciousness and the will when activated. In as much as the term complex refers to “a personal unconscious, core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions, and wishes organized around a common theme” (from here), one sees that much more than “only” emotions gets implicated in the operation of a complex.

[6] Jung, CG (1906). The psychopathological significant of the experiment in the association experiment. In CG Jung (1981). Experimental researches. (Vol. 2, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. L. Stein & D. Riviere), pp. 408–25 . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[7] Jung, CG, and Riklin, F. (1904). The associations of normal subjects. In CG Jung (1981). Experimental researches. (Vol. 2, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. L. Stein & D. Riviere), pp. 3–196 . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[8] Jung asserts that this occurs as an “affect of terror,” which he never subsequently repeats, and so I elide it here not to confuse the issue. Even in his other works on this subject (in this book), he refers to a wide range of feelings that might elongate reaction times, like embarrassment, shame, vanity, anxiety about discovery, a desire not to disclose an erotic attachment, and the like—never, in fact, terror in any other context in any sense specifically according with “terror” (whatever that affect entails). Suspecting that Jung used the German word “Schreck” here, which translates more as “fright” than “terror”, I dug around the Internet for Jung’s (1902)* German original, and found the relevant passage here.  I certainly don’t know enough about German usage, translation, or even the etymology of the word “Schrecken” (which originates neither in Furcht, “fright” or Terror “terror”). And in English anyway, fright and terror seem almost circularly defined, so this doesn’t help either.

*Jung CG (1902). Die psychopathologiche Bedeutung des Assoziationsexperimentes Archiv für Kriminalantnhropologie und Kriminalistik, 22(2–3): 145–62.

[9] See note 5.

[10] See note 3.

[11] Jung, CG (1911). On the doctrine of complexes. In CG Jung (1981). Experimental researches. (Vol. 2, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. L. Stein & D. Riviere), pp. 598–604 . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[12] In the interests of quoting the entire passage, Jung adds here, ““Faulty reproduction” [another aspect of the association experiment] is also to be regarded as a sign of the complex, and this is theoretically interesting because it shows that even the moods associated with a complex are subject to certain exceptional conditions, that is, they are inclined to be quickly forgotten or replaced. The uncertainty of the subject towards the complex-associations is characteristic; they are to the individual either of an obsession-like stability, or they disappear totally from the memory, and may even cause false memories …”

[13] The remainder of the phrase runs here, “, a phenomenon which may be observed with particular clearness in hysterical delirium and other “cleavages’ of personality”.

[14] Peter Hammill, one of our great living troubadours, realizes this from another direction in his “The Unconscious Life” from his (1982) album Enter K:

I’m in command,
I’m in control,
I am the captain of my soul.
Still, I’m uncertain in one major role…
oh, I drift through the unconscious life,
shift through the unconscious life,
lift up my unconscious eyes:
beyond all normal pain and pleasure
we should treasure the unconscious life.

We’ve got our reasons for most things we do,
we could surely rationalise them through.
A false ring of confidence
would characterise us true –
oh, we’re deep in the unconscious life
asleep in the unconscious life,
peeping through unconscious eyes.
Beyond all normal pain and pleasure
we should treasure,
treasure the unconscious,
treasure the unconscious life.

Something makes me nervous,
something makes me twitch,
something makes me scratch that Pavlovian itch,
(Wonder what that is now…?)
Someone that I barely know must unpick the stitch
to unravel the unconscious life,
travel the unconscious life,
gather the unconscious eye…
far from shedding light on any motive
the candle is votive when it burns at both ends.

I’m not in command,
I’m out of control,
I am the Ship’s Boy of my soul….
Oh, we drift through the unconscious life,
shift through the unconscious life,
live through the unconscious life.


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