Archetypes as Informational


We have already begun to look at archetypes as patterns and in particular, like DNA, as being instructional patterns of “information for” yet it is worth taking a closer look at the informational nature of archetypes and why that has made it challenging for us to define them over the centuries.

It is becoming clearer that reality is deeply informational. From the 1970s through to the 1990s Princeton Professor of Physics, John Wheeler, who gave us the term, “black hole”, developed his ideas about the universe fundamentally being informational alongside and even behind energy and matter. Wheeler asserted that “all things physical are informational-theoretic in origin” (Wheeler, 1990) and coined his famous phrase “it from a bit” to explain how the physical world sprang from information. It is the information that things carry that makes them the way they are. In this model, the basic building blocks of the universe such as atoms, electrons, down to quarks are not so much bits of matter in empty space but packets of information regarding potential state of energy distribution and exchange. In this paradigm the information appears first and the physical world is a result of the way patterns of fields and energies interact with one another. This model seems to be gaining momentum as discoveries such as the Higgs-boson particle confirm the interactive nature of mass.

On the other hand, ever since the time of the sixteenth century philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes, there has been a tendency in the West to divide the world up into mind and matter. In this (dated) world view things were generally viewed as belonging to one of these two realms, with the world of matter being deemed as more real than the world of the mind. Those of a religious persuasion also added the realm of the spirit to this duality or merged it with mind. Even though this world view has been superseded by General Relativity and quantum mechanics on the academic level it has remained influential on the popular level owing to the poor way science has been taught in schools (which is thankfully changing in places such as South Korea and Norway where General Relativity is replacing a crude Newtonian world view). This has shaped a common understanding of archetypes. A popular view has it that if archetypes clearly do not belong to the world of “things” then they must belong to the world of mind. It is then just a small step to the view that they are mental constructs which humans project onto the world. This in turn led to a tendency to ignore archetypes or relegate them to the realm of unsubstantiated psychological theory.

In contrast, it is important to note that the type of information that Wheeler and subsequent philosophers of information were talking about is mind-independent in the same sense that the laws of physics are assumed to exist whether human minds are there to observe them or not. This information is not just a product of human minds which can disappear from the universe if humans themselves came to an end. When it comes to archetypes this difference is vital. If archetypes are just a product of the human mind projected onto a purely physical world then they become a product of our own thought processes. Yet if they are informational structures that have evolved in the universe before us then it would be truer to say that we ourselves are a product of the archetypes. If the archetype of mother existed before humans it will exist after us, if it is only a products of our minds then the mother archetype will cease to exist if we die out, a rather anthropocentric view. We do not have the archetypes as such, they have us.

This view of archetypes being primarily psychological entities has been reinforced over the last century because the main contemporary discussion of archetypes has flowed from the work of the psychologist, Carl Jung. Prior to Jung’s work, archetypal thought belonged to the realm of philosophy and the archetypes were explored as universal forms by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Hence Plato’s belief that individual mothers here on earth were imitations of an ideal form of mother that existed in a “place above heaven”; while Aristotle taught that the form of mother existed inside the individual mother herself. The early church fathers such as Iraenus and Augustine adapted Plato’s ideas and taught that an archetype such as mother was an idea in the mind of God, a template from which He created. The discussion of archetypes then continued in the West under the general category of “universals”.

In the modern age the work of Carl Jung has been so seminal in understanding archetypes that archetypal theory in modern times has almost become identified with his ideas. Although acknowledging the contribution of Plato and other thinkers to the study of archetypes, Jung’s specific contribution was to the understanding of archetype as a psychological phenomenon, he was not trying to form a systematic philosophy of archetypes nor look at them as a science of information but was interested in their operation on the human psyche. For Jung the archetypes appear in the psyche of an individual as it emerges from their participation in a collective unconscious. There in the individual psyche, according to Jung, they carry physic energy and influence a person’s behaviour, dreams and feelings and find their way into the cultural products  of humanity – its literature, fairy stories, religion and politics. Jung’s work is invaluable in our understanding of how archetypes operate psychologically, however it is the informational nature of archetypes that allows us to understand how archetypes cross over from one medium to another; from art to myth, from culture to instinct and how they are adapted and promulgated.

Jung’s work of studying the psychological nature of archetypes has been continued by Jungian therapists and writers. Because Jung’s view of archetypes was quite complex and nuanced some have explored archetypes as the product of evolutionary psychology (Anthony Stevens), as patterns of behaviour (Walter Shelburne) or as image schemas (Jean Knox). A sustained study of each of these aspects is enormously fruitful and I have gained much from each of these authors’ approaches and that of others.  But all can suffer from the reductionism that comes when we try to define something in the few words we can fit into in a dictionary. Fortunately there have been other schools such as the work of Joseph Campbell who focused on archetypes active in myth, particularly the Hero. His work influenced George Lucas and his enormously popular’ space epic, Stars Wars, which has in turn renewed interest in a parallel study of archetypes within literature and film. Archetypes such as the femme fatale, the wise old man (senex) and the trickster began cropping up in drama texts. Another parallel study has been the application of archetypes to religion undertaken by people such as Edward Edinger (Ego and Archetype) and Edward Whitmont (The Symbolic quest), a quest I will take up myself later.

But returning to the relationship between archetype and mind it soon becomes obvious that it is far from being a simple one. Archetypes as organising patterns flow from the medium of biology through culture and into an individual’s mind in a complex way.  For example, we have already noted that the mother archetype is expressed and carried biologically, culturally and psychologically. How an individual woman experiences the mother archetype is then a product of the interaction of her physical biology, her instincts, the cultural norms she is influenced by and her own history and experience of mothering. Picking out the contribution of each of these inter-lapping forces is interesting but complex, and keeps many a therapist in work.

Adding to this complexity is the evolution of the human brain which made us capable of imagination. Imagination gave us the capacity to picture new patterns on top of those thrown up by evolution. We could not only picture the animals that we encountered day to day in our minds but also mythical creatures such as unicorns, drawing a horn on a horse. But the unicorn can exist in more than one individual human mind. It can exist as a cultural pattern as well, passed on from one generation to the next through stories and art. Further into the future we could envisage, with the growth of genetic engineering, a unicorn might also able to exist as an independent animal through our manipulation of DNA. At that stage the unicorn as an archetype would be expressed not only in the human imagination and culture but biologically as well and would evolve independently of us.

All this is to say that humans are now a major force in creating and expressing archetypal patterns. In the Anthropocene age in which we live, our lives are just as influenced by the products of our culture as by nature. Here it is obvious that we need a new way of talking about what it means to exist – a new ontology. Previously we might have said that unicorns did not exist because they did not have a biological form. In that way of viewing the world, they can spring into existence through genetic engineering if we can form them in the lab only to perhaps cease to exist again if they became extinct. In a new ontology we will be able to talk about the archetype of the unicorn existing in different expressions, from the imagination of humans, to their art, to biological form and beyond. This is the shift that flows from an informational view of the universe.

However, not all archetypes can cross over from the realm of human thought into the biological form. While we can picture genetic engineers of the future manipulating DNA to produce a living unicorn the same does not apply to the tooth fairy or to Santa or to other products of our imagination that defy the laws of physics like a perpetual motion machine. Each of the media that archetypal patterns are expressed in have their own rules. For an archetype to take physical form it has to follow the laws of physics – sorry no light-sabres or time travel machines given our current understanding of these laws. So we live in a world where our lives are shaped by archetypes of physics, of biology and of culture but not all archetypes can cross from one medium to the other.

It can therefore be important to keep in mind where an archetypal pattern originated. Archetypes of the physical world are organising patterns in nature: crystals are shaped by the laws which govern how a liquid forms into a solid. Snow-flakes are crystals of water whose archetypal nature is governed by the laws of physics yet each snow-flake is an individual expression of the archetype. Then there are archetypes of a biological nature which are perhaps the most important for us. We have already mentioned a few such as mother and hunter but many more shape our lives such as lover, son, daughter, healer and warrior. These archetypes evolved out of the survival of organisms and are thrown up by evolution. They are seen as preceding us in the sense that humans are products of this evolutionary process and they will go on long after we disappear from the earth. We can shape them to some degree – for each culture expresses the mother archetype in its own way but their essential nature will always be shaped by the role in our biological survival. Then there are the archetypes of culture which exist not so much as a part of biology but as a product of our human intellect and culture. For instance a hipster is not a biological archetype but a cultural one. Hipsters are not shaped by biology but by the way people express their aesthetics and values at a particular point in history, driven by a reaction to consumer culture.

The capacity for archetypes to cross from one media to another makes them both fascinating and complex. For instance, the realm of astrology is based on the identification of physical planets such as Mars and Venus with the Greek gods who bear their name and their particular archetypal nature as the god of war and love respectively. To this is added the idea that the patterns of the physical planets and their movements can easily flow across into the patterns of our personality and affect our fate. This is a classic example of how we like to take archetypes from the realm of nature and apply them across human arts and culture. So we need not only to understand the nature of archetypes but also how they flow from one area of life to another and ask ourselves questions about what we mean if we posit this type of connection.


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