The Age of The Orphan Part 7: The Metaphysics of Archetypes

In this series we’ve been jumping around all over the place in terms of the theme of each post. So, I figure we might as well keep the trend going by throwing in a post that makes explicit some of the theoretical and metaphysical propositions and assumptions that guide the approach we have been taking. Probably should have done this at the start of the series, but, better late than never. Without further ado, let’s jump in.

Psychology vs “Reality”

In some of his writings, particularly the earlier ones, Jung is at pains to note that he is talking about psychological phenomena and not making metaphysical claims. This was probably a necessary hedge on his part as the ideas he was promulgating go against the materialist dogma of modern society. A big part of the reason, I think, why Freud gained more attention than Jung was because he stuck to that dogma. For example, his focus on the animal drives accords with the “bottom up” philosophy of materialism according to which the “lower” explains the “higher”. Using biology to explain psychology is one manifestation of this. Of course, Freud was also primarily concerned with sex and, as the old saying goes, sex sells.

It was later in his career that Jung became more interested in the idea that archetypes are fundamental not just to the psyche but also to the world in general. This was the basis of his collaboration with the physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, which gave rise most famously to the notion of synchronicity: the strange habit of reality matching up with psychic occurrences in a way that cannot be explained by cause and effect. Jung posited a more general notion of “ascausal orderedness” to account for this phenomena. By that time he was becoming elderly and so he asked his collaborator, Marie-Louise von Franz, to follow up on the idea. She later published the work “Number and Time” which explores the notion that the archetypes of number unite psychic and physical reality.

In this series of posts, we follow Jung and von Franz in assuming that the archetypes are not just psychological but work to bring acausal order to the world.

Objectivity vs Subjectivity

In the field of linguistics, it is accepted that a native speaker’s intuitions about their native language are valid. The reason is because we assume there is a universal grammar that sits at the foundation of language learning and any speaker who has learned to speak must have activated that faculty. The judgements of a native speaker are not “subjective” because the language faculty is common to all.

The same goes for psychic judgements. By virtue of being human, we all have the psychic faculties that enable access to the collective unconscious. Unlike the language faculty, however, the faculties needed to access the subconscious are not equally activated in all people. One could argue that we are born with them “switched on”. But as we get older we are encouraged to ignore or disbelieve them by parents and society in general. This is especially true in the modern materialist West.

One must learn to use those faculties but also to harness them in an appropriate fashion and that is what the individuation process is for. It is that process which integrates the subconscious and conscious minds. It is not enough to have access to intuition, imagination or other relevant faculties, they must be brought into balance and integrated with the ego. If they aren’t, we see phenomena such as projecting the shadow. The final product of the integrated psyche is what Jung called The Self.

What separates the sage from the madman? It’s that the former knows how to integrate the content of the subconscious while the latter is overwhelmed by it. As we have been discussing in previous posts, this process is not easy or straightforward. It carries significant risks, especially in cultures such as ours which have lost the ability to guide people through the journey.

All that would be complicated enough, but there are also hierarchies of individuation so that the Orphan’s metamorphosis is not the final stage but more like the first hurdle on the path. At this point we get caught up in much larger discussions about the nature of truth and hierarchies of being etc. Psychic truths are not capable of measurement, quantification or calculation. From the point of view of materialist science this is a failing but the counter argument would be that such truths are only attainable on the material plane which has traditionally been seen as the lowest level of existence. As you move up the planes, you must bring more of yourself to the task and at the highest level you must bring the whole of your being. This calls into question the whole idea that “objectivity” is of more value than “subjectivity”. As G K Chesterton put it, objectivity may just be a fancy word for indifference.

If we think of individuation itself as a path, people who are at different points along the path will have different interpretations of the same phenomena. That starts to sound like relativism and yet the paradox is that true objectivity only comes “on the other side of” relativism. That’s what the sages say.

The good news is that we can still judge interpretations based on results. It’s because of the assumption that archetypes bring acausal order to the world that we can sense check archetypal accounts against the world to see if they fit.

The “data” of psychic analyses

Dreams, oracles, intuition, imagination, literature, myth, art, in short, anything that taps into the unconscious. There is also the concept of inspiration. People involved in creative endeavours such as music or writing will know the phenomenon of an idea just appearing in the mind. Where does this idea come from? Is it just the random firing of neurons which, like the random mutations of Darwinian theory, then get selected for by environmental pressures? What if these ideas are coming from somewhere and that somewhere is the collective unconscious. If so, then this data has an “objective” property. The ideas don’t belong to us. They were given to us. This has been the assumption of artists, prophets and everyday people for most of history.

It’s noteworthy that such a conception implies a lack of egotism. The ideas you have are not the product of your own special snowflake genius. On the other hand, it’s also true that your ability to interpret them and bring them to fruition is based on individual talent, ability and experience. Traditional societies recognised this by having specialised roles for people engaged in these practices such as oracles, medicine men and the like. But just as your appreciation for art is enhanced by having a working understanding of how art works, so too the appreciation of the talents of a medicine man are enhanced by knowing something about the unconscious.

Of course, our society assumes that such matters are invalid by default. This is part of the reason why the last two years were able to happen. Most of the people in modern society are completely blind to the psychic “data” and psychic explanations in general.

Microcosm vs Macrocosm

Gregory Bateson once said it takes a mind to know a mind. We assume that the structure of the psyche or mind in the individual is the same as the psyche or mind that exists at “higher” levels eg. society, civilisation, world (or “nature” as Bateson called it). Just as we each manifest archetypes, so the archetypes can manifest at the societal level. It’s this assumption that allows us to extrapolate from individual instances to broader socio-cultural trends.

We should also acknowledge with Walt Whitman that we are large and we contain multitudes. Archetypes are not mutually exclusive. Rather, we say that the Devouring Mother or the Orphan are dominant while the others are latent or subdominant. At the individual level, each of us has a dominant archetype that does not necessarily match with the dominant archetype of the society we live in. We might be a Warrior stuck in a society of Orphans or a Mother surrounded by Sages.

There’s also nothing stopping us from manifesting different archetypes. As previously mentioned, Socrates was both a Sage and a Warrior at different times and any functioning society must be constituted of enough of each type of archetype to stay viable eg. Warriors for defence.

Transcendence and Transformation

Of particular relevance to the concept we are exploring in this set of posts is the idea of transcendence and transformation. Individuation is a transformation during which we integrate different archetypes into our psyche. We are qualitatively different on the other side of that transformation in the same way that a butterfly is qualitatively different from a caterpillar.

The notion of individuation was rejected from within the Jungian paradigm by James Hillman who founded a branch of psychology called Archetypal Psychology. Hillman would not have recognised the Orphan and Elder as valid archetypes. Rather, he posited the more abstract concepts of puer and senex, or the new and the old which he believed can manifest at any time and at any age.

Other Jungians have criticised Hillman on this score. It is noteworthy that Hillman described his psychology as being that of the puer aeturnus or eternal child. This is exactly the archetype we have described as The Innocent in earlier posts. Within our framework, Hillman’s psychology is the fully fleshed out and realised psychology of The Innocent. His focus on imagination, therefore, makes sense as this is one of the main traits of The Innocent. Given that The Innocent has not yet matured into The Orphan, it’s also fitting that Hillman rejected the need for individuation.

As mentioned above, the transformation process is not limited to The Orphan’s journey. It can occur throughout one’s lifetime. One of the distinguishing features of post war western culture is that it shares Hillman’s desire for eternal childhood. The absence of initiation and coming of age ceremonies and the lack of elders are manifestations of this pattern.

The Shadow archetype

A further assumption of our analysis is that not only does individuation exist as a tangible metamorphosis of the psyche, but that if that process does not occur properly the subject will not just carry on as normal but will begin to manifest shadow traits. Star Wars still has probably the most memorable description of this. Thinking metaphorically, Luke Skywalker is being called to individuate. Vader and Palpatine encourage him to “join the dark side”. He has a choice to individuate or manifest the shadow. If he chooses the latter, he will end up like Vader as a permanent shadow personality (although not without a chance at redemption).

This assumption allows us to make specific predictions and diagnoses. An Orphan who fails to individuate and falls back to the shadow form of The Innocent will be in denial, dissociative, oblivious, seeking instant gratification and engaging in childish dependence on the mother figure. We can see this in the recent phenomenon of the 30 year old man who still lives with his parents and spends all day in the basement playing computer games. Similarly, the emergence of The Devouring Mother is the emergence of a shadow form. Both of these are indicative of a failed individuation process.

The Hero’s Journey

The notions of transcendence and transformation are fundamental to The Hero’s Journey which is built in to the structure of narrative fiction. Each archetype has its prototypical hero’s journey. For example, the story of Macbeth is one where a Warrior archetype succumbs to his shadow, leading to death and destruction for himself and his society. As we have outlined in detail in post 2 of this series, the story of The Orphan is the story of transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Individuation is “heroic” in the sense that it requires courage, bravery and strength. As those are qualities are The Warrior, we find an excessive number of hero’s journey stories that focus on physical confrontation, violence and war. This is especially true in the age of film where the visual medium lends itself to great battle and fighting scenes. The Matrix is really a story about a man coming to embody The Sage archetype, yet it includes gratuitous amounts of violence and much was made of the cool special effects used. Metaphorically, the violence is there to symbolise the difficulty involved in individuation. Nevertheless, it has the effect of misrepresenting the individuation process. A Wizard of Earthsea is a far better representation of what is really involved and the solitary act of reading a book matches better to the solitary path of confronting the soul.

The Hero’s Journey is a journey away from comfort, security and safety and into the unknown. For that reason, it is always a journey away from the metaphorical “mother” who represents the safety and comfort of the status quo. The journey begins with desires that manifest at a lower level of being and ends with an incorporation into a higher level of being. That’s why the Hero’s Journey is the story of transcendence and transformation. Given that the Hero’s Journey appears to be a universal of human culture, this lends weight to the idea that transformation and individuation are universally recognised aspects of human nature.


So, these are the foundational assumptions of this series of posts. We assume that the Orphan is an archetype with positive and shadow attributes. We assume that this archetype can manifest at the individual and societal level. We assume this is the dominant archetype in the modern West (alongside The Devouring Mother) and that it co-exists with all other archetypes which are subdominant or latent. As outlined in post 5, we assume that the boomers failed the archetypal mission of The Orphan which is to transcend into an “adult” archetype and that this failure has led to the West manifesting the shadow properties of both The Child and Mother archetypes in the last several decades.

In the next post, we’ll have a look at that failure in more detail and also address an implied question about the future. Can the West try again to individuate into an “adult” archetype? If so, what archetype might that be? If not, what does that imply for the future when other societies are now rivaling the power of the West and have no incentive to coddle an archetypal child?

All posts in this series:

The Age of The Orphan Part 1: The Path of Learning

The Age of The Orphan Part 2: Defining the Archetype

The Age of The Orphan Part 3: A Short Theoretical Introduction

The Age of The Orphan Part 4: Initiation, culture and civilisation

The Age of The Orphan Part 5: Ok, boomer

The Age of The Orphan Part 6: The Spirit of the Depths

The Age of The Orphan Part 7: The Metaphysics of Archetypes

The Age of The Orphan Part 8: The Current State of Play

The Age of The Orphan Part 9: How to learn to stop worrying and love The Matrix

The Age of The Orphan Part 10: Work is our religion

The Age of The Orphan Part 11: The Missing Link

The Age of The Orphan Part 12: Conclusion

5 thoughts on “The Age of The Orphan Part 7: The Metaphysics of Archetypes”

  1. Hey mate,
    Interesting post. Had to read it a few times before I felt I could pen a comment.
    If I understand you correctly, then you say society is subject to development along similar lines of an individual?
    Greer had this theory that due to rapid population growth, there is a shortage of mature souls. Certainly a good explanation of many things that happened in the last 150 years.
    What do you make of that theory? Does it fit with your view based on archetypes?
    Another thing that has occurred to me is, that the shortage of souls might lead to the existence of humans without a soul at all. I have certainly met a fair share of people who, if they have a soul, the do an excellent job of hiding it.

  2. Roland – it’s a good question. I’m assuming that there a soul to activate but maybe there isn’t. I wonder if there are any initiations which failed because of that reason? We’d have to ask some experienced elders (if we had any left). There’s also the question of whether society’s “psyche” is constructed from the individual psyches of its members or whether it exists independently. Can you have a society that is individuated while none of its members are or a society where the members are all individuated by the society itself is not?

  3. Simon – don’t know if you can answer this, but I wonder to what extent your background in linguistics informs the way you organise ideas? Though it’s obviously not your stated purpose, you often present analogies for how astrology works. Which sometimes happens, if not always, w/ Jungian thinkers – Hillman is one – & certainly w/ Jung, who explored astrology for decades. And, stripped down to its essence (w/o the animal metaphors etc.), astrology apparently has analogies in linguistics. And narrative structure.

    According to TV producer John Yorke, ‘dramatic structure is not a construct but a product of human psychology, biology & physics’, & all stories share a universal shape, a 5-act hero’s journey that’s implicit in the 3-act model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

    Astrologically, this maps neatly onto all cycles: Earth’s seasonal wobble defined by the solstices/equinoxes; the fourfold division of the horoscope by the horizon & vertical axis; the primary Moon phases, rising at sunrise/sunset & midday/midnight; & the major angles – conjunction, square, opposition & waning square – that the planets form to horoscopic points or to each other. Yorke’s analysis of each act’s function – awakening, test, crisis, consequences & resolution (return to base, transformed) – works well as an interpretation of planetary transits; many astrological authors use hero’s journey analogies.

    Your describing Hillman as an Innocent – though he criticised America’s addiction to innocence – fits astrologically: born in spring under the first zodiac sign on the new Moon.

    I think the life’s work of post-Jungian psychologist Wolfgang Giegerich amounts to a very long in-depth answer to ‘Can you have a society that is individuated while none of its members are or a society where the members are all individuated by the society itself is not?’

    Roland – Greer also says that a lot of souls that would otherwise be incarnated as whales or bison or elephants are incarnating as humans right now & cites difficulty w/ abstract ideas & herd mentality as evidence. Which leaves me to wonder why so many humans toss crap in the ocean, submit so easily to control, & appear to have worse memories than goldfish.

  4. I wonder if the fact there are so many unindividuated souls necessarily led us to become a culture obsessed with youth and which failed to individuate. Perhaps the number of innocents/orphans introduced early-mid last century overwhelmed the number of elders and now we’re in a place where we’ve nearly completely lost our elders. There’s going to be a long lonely road for many souls to travel in the next iteration of our culture.

    Re: no soul at all, perhaps it could just be that there are souls that are not yet ready to inhabit human form, and would have been better off going through a few more lives as a buffalo or tiger or something else first. So there is a soul there but it’s incapable of manifesting truly human qualities.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking series.

  5. Shane – yes, i think of linguistics as a sub-branch of psychology. The nuts and bolts of linguistic analysis is pattern matching and so it is the study of acausal order. I guess language is one of the foundational kinds of acausal order in the world for humans and so would be an archetype in itself. Thanks for the reference to Giegerich. He sounds interesting. I’ll check him out.

    AM – It also raises some interesting questions about the future. If there aren’t enough souls to individuate, does Western culture stay stuck in childhood? But that can only last as long as mummy (aka The USA) is the hegemon. What happens when that’s no longer the case? I think Jung would have said it will result in a long period of barbarism.

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