Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Norah Moore - The Transcendent Function and the Forming Ego

Editors Note: Jung's concept of the transcendent function and the corresponding production of symbols has similarities with Wilfred Bion's concept of the alpha function.   Bion conceptualized the alpha function as working on unmetabolized aspects of experience, referred to as beta elements, which are transformed,  via the alpha function, into aspects of experience which can be reflected on - metabolized experiences which he referred to as alpha elements.

"Jung's first exposition of this concept was in the paper ‘The transcendent function’ written in 1916 (JUNG 10), although he had prepared the way in an earlier description of the symbol as a means of assimilating the unconscious contents and as a bridge to ‘the best of man’ (JUNG 9). He speaks of the conscious and unconscious tendencies together making up the transcendent function: unconscious material is needed for it in conjunction with the ego which searches for meaning and strives to understand the unconscious; alternatively, creative formulation, elaborating the unconscious material, allows it to condense into motifs of creative fantasy; that is to say, into symbols. Understanding and creative formulation often go hand in hand, each regulating the other. In this process, he says, the ego takes the lead, but the counterposition in the unconscious is equal in value to it.

In ‘Definitions’, published in 1921, this description of the process of the transcendent function is elaborated in a way that stresses the experience which accompanies it, and the effect it has of causing a change of direction. The symbol is described there as the best possible expression of a fact which is relatively unknown at the moment of the symbol's birth, every psychic function going into its making. The full conscious confrontation of the opposites produces a violent disunion, and because the ego is forced at this moment to acknowledge both the rational and the irrational as equals, it cannot choose between them and a suspension of the will occurs, and this dams up vital energy. Out of this impasse, he says, a new unity is born, the symbol, which transcends the opposites, and stands in a compensatory relation to both, forming a middle ground where they are united, and which is acceptable to the ego. The symbolic nature of this new thing is recognizable by the accepting attitude of the conscious mind towards it, by the sense of revelation accompanying it and by the initiation of a reconstructive process with the setting up of new goals. Jung writes: ‘I have called this process in its totality the transcendent function’ (JUNG 12, p. 480).

In 1917 in ‘Two essays’, Jung again speaks of the transcendent function as the whole process, labour, action, and suffering of coming to terms with the unconscious (JUNG 11, p. 79). He then goes on to speak of its content and purpose: ‘It represents a function based on real and "imaginary", or rational and irrational, data, thus bridging the yawning gulf between conscious and unconscious.’ He says further (p. 108): ‘The transcendent function does not proceed without aim and purpose, but leads to the revelation of the essential man.… 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.’

In 1940 in ‘The archetypes of the collective unconscious’, he says more about the way the birth of the symbol is reacted to. In the collision of opposites, he says, a third thing, the symbol, is born, which is of an irrational nature, and is neither expected nor understood and is at first rejected by both conscious and unconscious, but which leads to a new situation and promotes new conscious attitudes (JUNG 14).

This completed the description of the transcendent function, and elsewhere (JUNG 16, 13) the themes are repeated of the transcendent function as process and experience, without further elaboration.

Jung's viewpoint is that of the directed and formed minds of the adults he treated, for whom the unconscious material was not readily at hand (JUNG 10) but had to be sought in various ways. In addition to the transference as a source, he mentions dreams, fantasies and slips, and the practice of active imagination. He points out that in primitive people, in whom the mind is not yet directed, this search for unconscious material is unnecessary, since that is all around. He does not, however, describe how the transcendent function grows and is experienced by the forming ego as directedness comes to predominate over undirectedness in the course of civilization, or in the somewhat analogous development of a child.

I wish to explore those areas of the inception of the transcendent function. To Jung's formulation that every psychic function goes to the making of a symbol, I would like to add that only the psychic functions that have evolved enough at the time can participate. The real and imaginary data he mentions must be mediated by the senses, and by means of sense-perceptions of the outside world, while the archetypal images of the inner world must be encountered in bodily experience with the mother. The body bases of the symbol are found in the mode of bodily experience of the time, and in the kind of perception of the outside world of which the infant is capable."
(p. 164-165)


"It has been seen that the transcendent function shows itself at different developmental stages in different ways, but always acts in providing a stable basis for future growth by linking back to what has gone before, thus enabling the ego to make sense of new experience: at first by an emotionally charged symbolic equation which restores the original wholeness, and later by a representation which may also be strongly affective, when the ego is in a position to observe.

The transcendent function has its forerunner in the earliest months of life when the ego is forming, in the projection of archetypal images and in symbolic equivalence; it is formed of all the psychic functions and mechanisms and of the mode of perceiving of the time. It grows side by side with the ego in a mutual interaction, the body ego and observing ego developing together as islands of body experience which gradually become more continuous. The bridge between inner and outer is at first a symbolic equivalence, but representations of the lost primal self may then occur. As the ego develops it defends itself against the unconscious from which it is emerging, but also relates to it by participation in the transcendent function. Later on the formed ego is able to be an observer because defences have developed, and it has now to make some effort to get into touch with the unconscious, as in active imagination. While the ego is developing, or in times of regression, the unconscious is all around without much barrier, and no special effort need to be made to encounter it. The symbol forms a bridge for a two-way action between inner and outer, relating always to the wholeness of the self. The conscious mind reaches out to grasp whatever is unknown to it, whether in the unconscious or without, where the inner images are met as projections.

As at different stages there are different kinds of perception, there are also different mechanisms for communicating with the unconscious, and both these variables influence the way the transcendent function is experienced. At first there is a projective mechanism, which gives way later to creative formulation and imagination; the experience of the opposites is at first discontinuous, but later the opposites confront each other, and a capacity for ambivalence develops. The fixed attitude to the discontinuous inner world which is met in the archetypal transference gives place to the development of an as-if attitude to it which is more continuous.

At first wholeness is of a chaotic totality of experience, where real and imaginary data are not separated or distinguished; as the primal self deintegrates and islands of ego begin to form, the opposite aspects of the archetypes are projected separately in sequence, and encountered by the ego as outside phenomena, strange and unfamiliar, although they are inner images that are being met. The developing transcendent function forms a bridge between the opposites as they come into collision, and the gap between real and imaginary widens as the ego grows: here the symbol is born, which allows the conscious and unconscious to take hold of each other in a conjunctio at once tangible and infinite."
(pp. 179-180)

Norah Moore (1975). The Transcendent Function and the Forming Ego. Journal of Analytical Psychology, Vol. 20, pp.164-182


  1. What a great blog! I accidentally stumbled upon it on a casual google-search. A simply beautiful idea and brilliant execution. I subscribed immediately and will try to cover past-posts too. Thank you Dr Winborn for you effort and generosity. Gideon

  2. Thank you for your comment Gideon. I'm glad the blog is engaging for you. There are so many cliches and misperceptions about psychoanalysis within the popular culture and even within the analytic community. My hope is that the blog will expose people to the richness and diversity of psychoanalytic thought as a contemporary field of inquiry but one that has a rich history as well.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. When will the rest of the trilogy you are writing become available?