Towards a Naturalized Ontology: Jung’s Psychological Assessment of the Receeding of Religious Projections

While Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced the death of God and critically examined the replacement ontology that followed from a philosophical perspective, Carl Jung provided a psychological perspective for the philosophical paradigm shift towards a de-spiritualized ontology. In Jung’s analysis of the shift from religion to science as the most prominent force in explaining the workings of the world, and man’s role in them, he brings into account the psychological notion of projections. One of my favorite Jung passages is found on pages 82-3 of his book Psychology and Religion (full PDF here):

The world is as it ever has been, but our consciousness undergoes peculiar changes. First, in remote times (which can still be observed among primitives living today), the main body of psychic life was apparently in human and in nonhuman objects: it was projected, as we should say now. Consciousness can hardly exist in a state of complete projection. At most it would be a heap of emotions. Through the withdrawal of projections, conscious knowledge slowly developed. Science, curiously enough, began with the discovery of astronomical laws, and hence with the withdrawal, so to speak, of the most distant projections. This was the first stage in the despiritualization of the world. One step followed another: already in antiquity the gods were withdrawn from mountains and rivers, from trees and animals. Modern science has subtilized its projections to an almost unrecognizable degree, but our ordinary life still swarms with them. You can find them spread out in the newspapers, in books, rumours, and ordinary social gossip. All gaps in our actual knowledge are still filled out with projections.

Nietzsche’s recognition of a negative consequence of God’s death being an immediate discomfort from the receding of this universally explicatory and thus metaphysically comforting force matches Jung’s idea of the withdrawal of projections. Nietzsche and Jung both identify the lingering “shadow” of God in this process. For much of Western history, God remained the prime projection: a catch-all for the unknown, including elements of the self found too mysterious or unsavory to probe. Jung argues in Modern Man in Search of a Soul that natural science has “torn [the] lovely veil to shreds,” the veil of an anthropocentric viewpoint blessed by the divine grace, or retribution, of God, whose presence explains all (p. 204).

The withdrawal of projections indicates a consciousness of the shadow, and dealing with issues of the self translates into at least helping fix in part the larger social problems, for if someone “only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world” (P&R, p. 83). Such withdrawal indicates a development of consciousness as its dual twin, unconsciousness, retreats.

The unconscious was in the past conceived as a mysterious agent personified by the gods, later it was viewed negatively as an absence of consciousness, suiting our “hypertrophied and hyberistic modern consciousness,” as opposed to its actuality as something autonomous (P&R, p. 85). The spiritual mysticality of yesterday is the madness of today. And therefore, because of this shift in perspective, “our modern attitude looks back arrogantly upon the mists of superstition and of … primitive credulity, entirely forgetting that we carry the whole living past in the lower storeys of the skyscraper of rational consciousness” (P&R, p. 35). Therefore, there is a necessity today to excavate those “lower storeys” and probe into the unconsciousness upon which our rational consciousness has been built. Herein lies the utility of the psychological perspective in the path towards a naturalized ontology.


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