The Landscape of Possibility: A Dynamic Systems Perspective on Archetype and Change

Maxson J. McDowell

Maxson McDowell is a Jungian analyst in private practice in New York City. Formerly, as a molecular biologist, he did post-doctoral research at M.I.T and at the M.R.C. Laboratory in Cambridge, England.

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Pre-existing possibility is recognized in complexity theory (for example, by John Holland: 1995, 27-28) and in cognitive science (for example, by Jeffrey Elman et. al.: 1998, 111-113). A self-organized dynamic system makes manifest a pre-existing possibility. The whirlpool is an example. The human personality must also be a dynamic system. In the personality, however, a pre-existing possibility (archetype) may enter consciousness. It then plays a double role. It had always acted as an unconscious organizing principle; when it reaches consciousness it challenges the conscious identity and may stimulate new development. Clinical evidence is given, together with evidence from biology and from cognitive neuroscience.

Current psychoanalytic theory recognizes that the personality can only exist (and can only change) within an intersubjective field of other personalities. But the personality is a dynamic system. Complexity theory shows that such systems change by co-evolving within a field of mutually interacting dynamic systems.

These two concepts (of pre-existing possibility and of change within an intersubjective field of co-evolving dynamic systems) are integrated. Their relevance to mythology and to clinical work is discussed.

For many dynamic systems, the role of pre-existing possibility may be disregarded. In the human personality, however, such possibility sometimes impresses itself dramatically on consciousness. For this reason it has been studied in psychology for the past century. Such studies rest on clinical observations, but they offer a perspective on dynamic systems which may be of interest to scientists in quantitative fields.


Rachel's mother was envious and abusive. She criticized Rachel's appearance incessantly. Thus she looked at Rachel with "destructive eyes". Throughout her childhood Rachel had a recurring nightmare:

My mother was a witch who flew over the neighborhood, setting fire to the lawns.

Marie had a similar dream:

Me and my mother were on a high grassy plain. A space ship hovered above. Its shadow formed a beam that disintegrated everything it touched. I thought: "I have to stay out of that shadow."

There is a related image in Egyptian myth:

The lion-goddess Sakhmet breathed fire to incinerate her enemies. She was also the avenging Eye of Re, the sun god. In this form she flew over the desert and slaughtered the people. She reduced them to a lake of blood and meant to drink the blood. But Re stopped her with a trick.(Hart 1986, pp. 187-189).

Thus the Eye that consumed with fire was also a mouth that drank blood. Indian myth has a similar image: Shiva burns up the world with his third eye and thus begins a new cycle of creation (Jansen 1993, pp. 108-113).

When Rachel had her nightmares, however, she knew nothing of Sakhmet, Re, or Shiva. Thus her image, the envious witch/eye that overlooked new life (green lawn) and consumed it with fire, was archetypal. By this I mean that the archetype-as-such, that is, the idea which lies behind the image, was not transmitted by culture but arose spontaneously within her, as it has in others throughout history.

As is characteristic of an archetypal image, Rachel's image was highly charged. In a dream such an image may be strangely illuminated. As is also characteristic of an archetypal image, Rachel's image represented an issue central to her own development: both as a child and as an adult Rachel was injured by envy.

Jung derived his concept of the archetype empirically, from observations like the above:

There exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals ... It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes (Jung 1936/1968, para. 90).

Jung noted that the manifestations of an archetype could not be quantified:

the one thing consistent with their [archetypes-as-such] nature is their manifold meaning, their almost limitless wealth of reference, which makes any unilateral formulation impossible (ibid., para. 80)

Samuels (1985, p. 53) said he spoke for a "post-Jungian ... general move in analytical psychology" when he suggested that an archetype-as-such was not an objective reality:

The archetypal may be said to be found in the eye of the beholder and not in that which he beholds ... The archetypal is a perspective ... with no pre-existing or prescribed focus ... [The focus] is elected by the individual ...

This seems to be a radical departure. For Jung the point of an archetype-as-such was that it was objective: the archetypes constituted the objective psyche.

Some of us still find that there is ample clinical evidence for the objective reality of an archetype-as-such. In taking this position I do not imply that an archetype is material or that it has spatial location or extension (Stolorow and Atwood 1992, p. 11). I use "real" in the sense that a possibility is either real or not, possible or impossible. To say that a possibility is objectively real is not to reify it (Samuels 1985, pp. 6, 50).

The new field of cognitive neuroscience is growing rapidly. It integrates knowledge from dynamic systems theory, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and the clinical disciplines (Schacter, 1996 pp. 6-7). In this paper I show how cognitive neuroscience may help us to understand both the archetype-as-such and its influence on change in the personality. For an earlier discussion of the biology of archetypes see McDowell (1999).

An archetype-as-such may express itself in a dream but, as Jung pointed out, it may also express itself in a complex. In recent years many psychoanalytic authors have described organizations within the personality which are equivalent to Jung's complex. Thus Stern (1994, p. 36) wrote of a "way-of-being-with-the-other" which is learned in infancy and unconsciously organizes subsequent "being-with". Arlow (1969, p. 8) wrote of "unconscious fantasies", Sander (1985, p 23) of a "grammar of assembly", Slap (1987, p 639) of developmentally preformed unconscious "schemata", Beebe and Lackman (1988, p. 305) of "emergent dyadic phenomena, structures of the interaction," Lichtenberg (1989, pp. 253, 256, 262) of "model scenes", "schemas" or "scripts", Emde (1988a, p. 28) of the internalization of "infant-caregiver relationship patterns", Ulman and Brothers (1988 pp. 5-25) of "central organizing fantasies", and Stolorow and Atwood (1992, p. 24) of the "pre-reflective unconscious." In a commentary on some of this literature, Stolorow and Atwood (ibid.) concluded:

Each of these authors, in different language, is describing how recurring patterns of intersubjective transaction ... establish invariant principles ... that unconsciously organize the child's subsequent experiences. These unconscious ordering principles ... form the essential building blocks of personality development.

It is clear that Stolorow and Atwood are describing what Jung called a complex.

Fonagy (1999) argued that Stern's "way-of-being-with-the-other" is stored in implicit memory. An implicit memory is a memory of a procedure which is not accessible to consciousness but shows itself indirectly. My ability to ride a bicycle, for example, is an implicit memory which is not itself accessible to consciousness. It only shows itself when I ride. By contrast, an explicit memory (my first bicycle was red) is accessible to consciousness. The two memory systems are anatomically distinct.

Knox (1999, p. 524) suggested that a (Jungian) complex is likewise an implicit memory. Knox did not discuss dreaming but her argument has implications for dreaming. Since Rachel's dream of a witch was accessible to consciousness, it must have been stored in explicit memory. But Rachel's "witch complex", it seems, was stored in implicit memory. When Rachel had her dream, a representation of the witch was perhaps being transmitted from implicit memory to explicit memory. Karmiloff-Smith (1992, pp. 15-17) described many experiments which proved that such a transmittal, which she called representational re-description, is recurrent in cognition. Perhaps a dream's "purpose" is to representationally redescribe an image from implicit memory and thus to bring it closer to consciousness (McDowell 1999, pp. 19-21: "Why are Archetypal Images Numinous"; 27-29: "Purpose and Dreams").

Knox (1999, p. 522) explained the archetypes reductively. She suggested that an inherited "simple orienting structure", like the one which orients an infant towards its mother's face, represents an archetypal predisposition or expectation. But an infant can inherit only a few such simple orienting structures (Stern 1985, pp. 38-52). Knox's explanation seems not to allow for the complexity of archetypes.

The personality must be at least an assembly of instinctual impulses, affects, sensory perceptions, images, thoughts, feelings, hopes and the like, together with the memories (both implicit and explicit) of all of these. But a personality is also intersubjective. Stern (1985 pp. 124-161) has shown that a personality includes a subjective sense of self and other. A person has a subjective sense that his or her self is real and that his or her experience is real. At the same time a person senses that the other also has a subjective sense of self. Stolorow and Atwood (1992, p. 1) have argued that a personality only exists in a field of "reciprocally interacting subjectivities".

The components of a personality listed above are not simply jumbled together; they are organized into a dynamic system which functions adaptively in a field. But from whence comes the order? Jung's answer was that order comes from the archetypes. From clinical evidence we know something of what an archetype contributes: the mother archetype, for example, contributes containing, which leads to security and trust, or devouring, which leads to anxiety and mistrust. But what is an archetype and how does it act?

These are not merely questions of theory. Like other creative processes, analysis requires a return to first principles. An archetype lies beneath my patient's problem. As he or she becomes conscious of that archetype, the problem tends to transform. The better I understand the archetype, therefore, the more effective I may be as a clinician.

In this paper I offer an explanation for the archetype-as-such. In a forthcoming paper (in progress) I show how the archetypal image of the mother's eye is specified by the environment. I use a clinical case to show that the image of the eye may represent the maternal vessel. I then show that it may also function as a true symbol, "the best possible description ... of a relatively unknown fact" (Jung 1921/71, para. 814).

An Inherited Image?

Where did Rachel's image come from? Was it inherited? Stevens (1983, pp. 18, 52-4 ) argued that an archetype-as-such is a biological structure, a pattern or image inherited in our genes and then hard-wired into our nervous system. According to Stevens, we respond to the outer world under the guidance of this image. Stevens argued that the image we inherit is generalized; it is subsequently made more specific with details obtained through the senses from the environment (Stevens 1998). Because it is inherited, the generalized image is shaped by Darwinian evolution. In support of this theory, Stevens and Price (1996, pp. 9, 26-29) cited evolutionary psychologists who claimed to observe "genetically transmitted ... patterns of behavior" which, they argued, evolved while humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Some object-relations theorists, for example Bion (1962/83), Bowlby (1960), Sutherland (1994, p. 343), and Seinfeld (1996, pp. 4-5), proposed a related concept, that we inherit a preconception, that is, an image, of a good object (mother) and of a bad object (predator).

Pietikainen (1998a, p. 335) disagreed with Stevens. He argued that there is no evidence for the inheritance of archetypes. Pietikainen (1998b, p. 380) suggested instead that archetypes are "culturally determined symbolic forms," that is, that they are transmitted by learning. Hogenson (1998, pp. 367-368) disagreed with both Stevens and Pietikainen. He referred to recent work in cognitive science and suggested, as did Jung, that we inherit not an image, but the tendency or the potential to form the image.

Genes and Self-Organization

Several lines of evidence from biology suggest that no image is inherited. If an image were inherited, it would have to be hard-wired into the cortex in the form of connections between neurons (Elman et. al. 1998, pp. 25-26, 275-282). Recent experiments have shown, however, that the fine-structure of wiring in the cortex is highly malleable and is determined by sensory input. In new-born ferrets, for example, visual input was surgically redirected to the auditory cortex. As these ferrets matured the auditory cortex organized itself successfully for vision (Sharma et. al., 2000).

A more general argument concerns the machinery of inheritance. I have only about 100,000 different genes while a bacterium has 3 to 5,000 genes (Alberts et. al., 1994, pp. 339-340). But my anatomy is astronomically more complex than that of a bacterium. It has been estimated that the human body contains about 5x1025 bits of information in the arrangement of its molecules while the human genome contains less than 109 bits of information. Again the disparity is of astronomical proportions. These numbers prove that my genes must be used economically. They must code for processes which enable my structure to evolve, but they are too few to form a "blueprint", or image, of my final structure (Calow 1976, pp. 101-103; Elman et. al., 1998, p. 319). My body's structure, therefore, must be emergent. An emergent structure is layered in distinct, successive levels of complexity; each level self-organizes with minimal guidance from the genes. Self-organization is directed by the inherent properties of the component parts (what fits with what). It is also directed by the inherent tendency of a dynamic system to assume an ordered form. I will say more about this later. Finally self-organization is directed by information from the environment (Elman et. al., 1998, pp. 319-323).

There is much evidence for self-organization in biological systems (Elman et. al., 1988, pp. 270-282). I have already noted the experiments with ferrets which showed that neuronal connections form under the direction of sensory input. Sensory input is translated into appropriate connections by the anatomical constraints of the brain. Constraints are provided by gross anatomy (for example, in normal development only the visual area of the cortex receives visual input), by the patterns into which neurons are arranged (for example, cortical neurons are arranged in six distinct layers), and by the anatomy and physiology of the neuron itself (Elman et. al., 1998, pp. 27-30).

An analogy may help here. Imagine a sand-dune rippled by the wind. The dune is an emergent, self-organized structure. Its surface organizes itself according to information contained within the wind, its velocity, for instance, and its direction. That information is translated into a particular set of ripples by the constraints of the dune's height and shape (equivalent to the gross anatomy of the brain) and by the constraints of an individual grain of sand (equivalent to the anatomy and physiology of a neuron). Once the ripples have been established they influence the subsequent movement of air over the surface of the dune. In the same way, once the fine structure of the brain has been established it controls the subsequent flow of sensory information.

My point is that while genes must influence the gross anatomy of the brain, genes cannot specify the detailed wiring between neurons. Since my genes are too few to define the wiring of neurons, it follows that they are certainly too few to define the archetypal images which are part of the anatomy of my personality (Elman et. al. pp. 41-42).

Genes and Behavior

Then in what sense may genes control behavior? I can deduce an answer to this question by comparing the rate of human evolution with the rate at which genes mutate. Our species evolved very rapidly, within about five million years, from an ancestral ape (Mckinney and McNamara 1991, p. 293). But mutations occur in the genes at a slow constant rate, such that only a small number could accumulate in five million years. Only a few hundred mutations separate me from a chimpanzee, about the number of mutations which separate two mice of different species (Hopkins 1999; McConkey et. al. 2000). Of these only a fraction, perhaps as few as fifty mutations, can be responsible for the difference between my brain and a chimpanzee's (Wade 1998). These few mutations must enable the patterns of behavior or images by which I differ from a chimpanzee, but they are too few to define those patterns.

How can just a few mutations enable a pattern of behavior? Many human characteristics are due to heterochrony, that is, to changes in the timing of development (Mckinney and McNamara 1991, pp. 291-325). Compared with a chimpanzee, each phase of human growth (gestation, infancy, juvenile, and adult) is hypermorphic or prolonged. The juvenile period, for example, lasts about eight years in chimpanzees, but about 16 years in humans. The longer juvenile period in humans is due to a simple change in the timing of events in the hypothalamus, a change which would require only a few mutations. (The hypothalamus releases hormones which initiate new phases of growth.) The hypermorphosis of our growth phases makes our body taller, our period of juvenile dependency longer, and our life span longer.

The same hypermorphosis of growth phases makes our brain about three times larger than that of a comparable-sized ape. All the neurons in the cerebral cortex are created by mitosis (cell division) between 15 and 18 weeks after conception. In the human brain mitosis is simply prolonged to create about 25% more cortical neurons. Then the phase during which axons grow longer is also prolonged, as are the phases of dendrite growth and glial cell multiplication. These changes account for our large brains. Within the enlarged cerebral cortex there are local disproportions, for example, in Broca's area. In apes Broca's area controls face and mouth movement during feeding, while in humans it also controls speech. In humans it is disproportionately enlarged and more connected to other parts of the cortex. But these local disproportions are in part controlled by information from the environment: Broca's area only enlarges if the child learns to speak. My point is that while our brain is larger than an ape's, and while some proportions within the brain differ, all of these differences can be achieved by a small number of mutations which affect the timing of growth.

Our larger brain in turn enables increased fine-motor skills, curiosity, learning, reasoning, imagination, creativity, and communication. During our longer juvenile period we learn more from caretakers. During our longer life span we accumulate more skills, knowledge, and judgement. All of the above enables our more complex social and cultural behavior (Mckinney and McNamara 1991, pp. 292-296).

I have explained how a small number of mutations may enable complex patterns of human behavior. These mutations are too few to define the patterns. Does this mean that archetypal patterns must be defined by cultural learning, or is there another possibility?

The Image

Jung said that the archetype-as-such is an underlying constant, while the archetypal image is a particular image which has been chosen to represent that constant. The image can be replaced by an equivalent image. It is derived from the environment by learning. For example, the archetype-as-such of the individuation journey is sometimes expressed in my dream by the image of riding a bicycle. Obviously I do not inherit the image of a bicycle in my genes: I take it from the environment. Before there were bicycles I might have dreamt of a knight's quest on horseback. Millennia before that I might have dreamt of Gilgamesh's journey. Thus the source of the image is not in question. But what is the source of the underlying archetype-as-such?

Pre-Existing Principle

Jung said that the archetype-as-such:

might perhaps be compared to the axial system of a crystal, which ... determines only the stereometric structure but not the concrete form of the crystal ... [Amongst different crystals of the same substance] the only thing that remains constant is the axial system, or rather, the invariable geometric proportions underlying it. The same is true of the archetype. In principle it can be named and has an invariable nucleus of meaning - but always only in principle, never as regards its concrete manifestation [or image] (Jung 1938/68, para. 155).

Thus Jung said that an archetype-as-such is like a geometrical principle.

Jung's idea had great explanatory power but it was confused by the suggestion, which he made in the same passage (see also Jung 1936/68, para. 90), that an archetype-as-such is inherited. A principle is not inherited, nor does it evolve. It is inherent to our universe.

It is clear from Jung's writing (Jung 1936/68, para. 99; 1917/66, para. 109; 1919/60, para. 339) that he did not understand the mechanism of evolution, nor the mechanism of inheritance. Jung's understanding was based on Lamarck rather than Darwin and Mendel. Jung said that an archetypal form of behavior would, if it were rehearsed often enough, be inherited. We now know that only genes are inherited. Genes are not altered by behavior but by random mutation. An individual who, by chance, is better-adapted reproduces more and so perpetuates his or her own genes.

Jung's idea, that an archetype-as-such is a pre-existing principle, can be traced back to the Greeks. Pythagorus showed that for any right-angled triangle a2 = b2 + c2, where a is the length of the hypotenuse and b and c are the lengths of the other two sides. The geometrical principle is always and everywhere true; Plato called it an "ideal", an "eternal ... true ... form". A particular right-angled triangle, however, whether it be traced in the sand, or on a computer screen, or on the cerebral cortex, is located in time and space. This Plato called a "fact ... of daily life ... which is ... perishing and transient" (Philebus 51; Republic 172, 527). Such a fact, Plato said, can only be learned through the senses. My point is that Plato's "eternal true form" corresponds to Jung's archetype-as-such, while Plato's "transient fact of daily life" which is learned through the senses corresponds to Jung's archetypal image.

Dynamic Systems

A triangle is static, but a dynamic system also has such pre-existing possibilities. Think of a mountain stream. It is a dynamic system because it only exists while energy flows through it, in this case the water's kinetic energy. Sometimes the stream forms a whirlpool. Sometimes it assumes the serpentine form. The latter is seen most clearly in an aerial photograph of a river delta. Both forms are pre-existing possibilities, characteristic of rivers and streams everywhere. Even the stream of stars in a galaxy sometimes forms a whirlpool (Hildebrandt and Tromba 1996, pp. 12-13). A stream organizes itself, but the ways it can do so are constrained: only certain pre-determined forms are possible.

Like a mountain stream, a living creature is also a dynamic system. It too exists only while energy flows through it, either from food if it is an animal, or from the sun if it is a plant. Like the evolution of a mountain stream, evolution in biology is self-organized: it is directed by no outside agent and it leads to emergent levels of order (Holland 1998, pp 225-231). Like a mountain stream, a living creature evolves forms which are pre-existing possibilities.

The snake is an example. Not all snakes are related: at different times, several different groups of reptiles evolved the snake body-form (Zug 1993, p. 119) as an adaptation for moving through narrow spaces. A snake-like body-form also occurs in fish (the eel) and in mammals (the ferret). Amongst invertebrates roundworms, earthworms, and centipedes have a similar body-form. The first worm-like fossils, of animals about a meter long, appear in the Precambrian era, about 700 million years ago (Kauffman 1995, pp. 158-161). Thus the body-form of the snake is a pre-existing possibility which waits to be discovered by evolution.

The wing is another example. It was discovered independently by plants (for example, the sycamore seed), insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Thus the wing is a pre-existing possibility. Though it is only an abstraction, the possibility of the wing has exerted a profound influence on the evolution of life.

There are a myriad of examples. The camera-eye of an octopus closely resembles the eye of a mammal though these two structures evolved independently. The Tasmanian Wolf, a marsupial, resembles a placental wolf though these two predators evolved independently. Thus the camera-eye and the wolf-form are both pre-existing possibilities.

In a dynamic system a pre-existing possibility is not a static form like a triangle. Rather it is a dynamic, an ordered way for energy to flow. The whirlpool and the serpentine form order the energy of a stream. The snake's body-form organizes sinuous movement. The wing-form organizes flight. The eye organizes light into nerve impulses. The wolf-form organizes predation.

I have said that evolution is an emergent process in which structures self-organize. The examples I have just mentioned, snake, wing, eye, and wolf, prove that this process is "guided" by, or fulfills, a limited number of pre-existing possibilities. (The number must be limited since the same possibilities are realized again and again.)

In two authoritative books on complexity and emergence, Holland (1995 pp. 27-28; 1998, pp. 225-231) acknowledged the fact of pre-existing possibility, but did not pursue the issue:

The two eyes [octopus and mammal] fill the same niche in different physiologies, a niche [pre-]determined by the interactions eyes must provide.

With regard to the evolution of fruit flies in the genetically isolated islands of Hawaii, Holland said:

these new species fill all sorts of niches that are occupied by very different fly species elsewhere in the world. The ecosystem interactions are largely re-created, although the agents are quite different.

Pre-existing possibility has also been acknowledged in cognitive science. Elman et. al. (1998, pp. 16, 34, 41-42, 112) examined knowledge that is "innate" to the brain. They asked what determines how neurons are interconnected during the brain's development. They explained part of the answer by analogy with the honeycomb:

Useful self-organization may occur in the absence of explicit guidance from the environment. Certain problems may have intrinsically good (or sometimes unique) solutions. All that may be required are a few gentle nudges in the form of pre-wired biases and constraints ... The hexagonal cell shape of the beehive is an example ... [It] is a natural consequence of the rules of geometry having to do with maximizing packing density of spheres (which then deform under pressure into hexagons) ... The bee doesn't need to "know" anything about hexagons .... [Such solutions] follow from the laws of physics, geometry, topology - laws of great generality, but laws that have very specific consequences for the actors on that stage.

Elman et. al. were saying that pre-existing laws sometimes specify neuronal connections.


What does a mountain stream, an evolving creature, or a developing brain have to do with my personality? I said earlier that my personality must be at least an assembly of instinctual impulses, affects, feelings, sensory perceptions, images, thoughts and the memories of all of these, and that it must also include a subjective sense of self and other. But my personality only exists while energy flows through it: at one level my personality depends upon chemical energy from food and oxygen; at another level it depends upon psychological energy, for example, on affection, mirroring, and challenge. Like a mountain stream, an evolving creature, and a developing brain, therefore, my personality is a dynamic system. Psychoanalytic writers have also concluded that the personality is a self-organizing dynamic system (Sander 1985, pp. 23-24; 1987, pp. 340-341; Beebe and Lachmann, 1988, p. 307).

I have shown that a dynamic system organizes itself under the guidance of a limited set of pre-existing possibilities. The above facts suggest that my personality also organizes itself under the guidance of a limited set of pre-existing possibilities. Jung argued, likewise, that the personality is organized by archetypes.

Note the difference in time scales. For a mountain stream self-organization takes only seconds, while for an evolving organism self-organization takes much longer. My personality is more like a stream in that it may self-organize from one dynamic form to another in a matter of seconds: I may be seized by an archetype (complex) in a moment. My personal growth takes longer because it requires painstaking work, whether conscious or unconscious, to integrate each archetypal form. Being possessed by a complex is not the same as integrating it.

I have shown that the possibility of the snake manifests itself in biology as a living snake. But the same possibility, of penetrating sinuously from one area to another, or from one level to another, also manifests itself in my personality. Then I may dream of a snake, or perhaps of someone descending a spiral staircase. The possibility of the snake-like descent is also expressed by the god Hermes who represents the descent into and return from the unconscious (Edinger 1994, pp. 29-30).

You may object that a dream image is only an ephemera, but my personality evolves by means of such ephemera. Clinical evidence shows that when I dream, for example, of being bitten by a snake, then my analysis may be taking hold at a deeper level. Thus the principle of the snake appears to catalyze change in the medium of the personality. I do not inherit the principle. What I inherit is a dynamic system, my nascent personality, which can be gripped by the principle. An evolving organism is likewise a dynamic system which can be gripped by the principle of the snake.

Related to the snake is the principle of the spear which is seen, for example, in an airplane's body, a fish's body, a ship's hull, and ice skates. The spear is a mathematical solution to the problem of moving through a resistant medium. It seems apparent that the same mathematical principle is expressed in the personality as phallic power.

Reflection will show that any archetype can be described as a simple pre-existing possibility. The father archetype is the possibility that new order can be injected into a set (fertilizing), or can be imposed upon it (lawgiving). The archetype of the Self is the possibility that all members of a group of sets may be integrated to form a unity. By its very definition this is an overarching possibility (McDowell 1999, pp. 25-27: "The Self").

An Archetype Organizes a Complex

The god Ares was associated with slaughter and war-madness (Rose 1946/59, p. 53). He personifies another pre-existing property of sets, that a set can be cleaved into smaller sets by a divisor. When a soldier in wartime holds a weapon in his hands, that possibility impresses itself upon his mind. It may induce him to commit terrible acts. If I pick up a sword, or a loaded rifle, or a hammer, I feel gripped by the archetype. This may be why boys like to play with toy weapons.

Ares is connected to dismemberment. If an infant is not adequately held, then the infant may fear that his or her body will disintegrate, that is, dismember itself. When she was four Louise would watch her mother dismember a side of lamb with a cleaver. Since the carcase was as big as Louise's own body she imagined herself being dismembered in the same way. She feared that she might be dismembered by her mother's aggression. At the same time Louise felt more connected to her mother than to anyone else.

Louise formed an "Ares complex" or a "cleavage complex", that is, a group of images, ideas, feelings, memories, and the like became organized together around the pre-existing possibility of cleavage to which she had been traumatically exposed. In adult life whenever Louise formed a connection with another she would compulsively sever it. Connection was a challenge to which Louise's personality had to respond. Guided by its associations, it responded according to its Ares complex.

Note that Louise did not meet the pre-existing possibility as an abstraction. She met it in concrete form, as an act of cleavage. This generated associations which led her to further concrete acts of cleavage. But the sequence of external events had form and meaning: above it all hovered the god Ares. Louise and her Ares complex are an example of the clinical evidence for Jung's contention that a complex is formed around an archetype.

When Alexander cut the Gordian knot with his sword, he found a simple and compelling solution (Ares) to a complex problem. The simplicity of the pre-existing principle seems to be one source of its power. In politics a simple idea has the power to organize the populace. That Alexander acted impulsively suggests archaic organization. (There is other evidence for this in his biography.) An archaic personality structure, for example a borderline, narcissistic, or addictive structure, may result when the personality is gripped excessively by a pre-existing possibility. A narcissistic personality, for example, is gripped by the possibility of being central.

Van Eenwyk (1997) connected archetypes to chaos theory, while Conforti (1999) has related archetypes, complexes, and "replicative patterns". Conforti (1999, pp. 41-42, 127) postulated an a-causal "archetypal field" which creates complexes in the personality. But there seems to be little evidence for such a field. The concept of pre-existing possibility substitutes for Conforti's archetypal field and is to be preferred for several reasons: it is more economical, it is causal, and it is supported by much direct evidence. As Jung insisted (1952/60, para. 967), we must adopt a causal explanation whenever it will suffice.


Jung said (1950/84, para. 466) that in a polytheistic religious system each god personifies an archetype-as-such. I have argued that an archetype-as-such is a pre-existing possibility. Thus each of the gods personifies a pre-existing possibility. I have already discussed Ares in this regard.

We know that Aphrodite personifies the archetype of beauty and sexuality (Rose 1946/59, pp. 53-54). But she also personifies a mathematical property of sets: when two sets intersect they create a third set which includes components of the first two sets. Imagine a fenced-in field of beets which partially overlaps a fenced-in field of cabbages. In the area of overlap they create a new fenced-in field of intermingled beets and cabbages. This is the essence of sexuality, the sharing of genes, the sharing of bodies, and the sharing of psychological qualities.

"Surely," you object, "a property of sets does not do justice to Aphrodite?" It is true that my associations to Aphrodite are much richer, but that is why I personify her. Her principle pre-existed life itself. In my imagination I associate that principle with the image of a sexual woman which I have absorbed from my environment. Then I use all that I know about the woman to elaborate the archetypal image.

The personal mother, in turn, fleshes out the geometrical principle of the vessel:

At the center of the feminine elementary character, in which the woman contains and protects, nourishes and gives birth, stands the vessel. (Neuman 1955/72, p. 120)

Rachel dreamt of the witch who consumed the lawns because her own mother personified the devouring aspect of the vessel. I will come back to this later.

The Image is Charged

When I dream of a pre-existing principle its image tends to be charged and mysterious. Sometimes such an image is strangely highlighted: this is indicated by the halo in religious painting. In literature, likewise, an archetypal image is charged. Why?

Unlike my conscious personality, a pre-existing principle is eternal and unchanging. It is a foundation stone upon which my personality forms itself. If my conscious personality tries to divorce myself from one of its fundamental principles, then an image of the principle will thrust itself forward to compensate. My conscious personality will be threatened by the particular force which it has denied (McDowell 1999, pp. 23-27).

In his mid-thirties Jack was suffering because he could not claim his own authority and because he was unrelated or alienated, both from himself and from others. He dreamt that

I was lying sick on a cot in a jungle hut. Three gorillas came into my hut and sat around my cot, looking at me.

Jack's image of the gorillas was highly charged. The numbers in Jack's dream (one plus three make four) suggested that individuation was at issue. (Because four sides complete a square, the number four suggests completion or wholeness. Individuation is the overall maturation and unification of the personality, a process which may become more conscious in the second half of life.) Jack's sickness together with the primitive cot and hut indicated that his ego structure needed to develop. By virtue of their weight and strength gorillas symbolize authority. Since they are intelligent and highly social they also symbolize relatedness. Both authority and relatedness are pre-existing principles. In sum the dream suggested that Jack's ego was weakened and that, if he was to develop further, he would have to attend to the issues of authority and relatedness. In part because he was gripped by this dream, Jack came to me to begin his analysis. In the ensuing decade of treatment authority and relatedness were central issues.

My point is that the charge or highlighting of the gorillas suggested, in the language of the unconscious, that they represented pre-existing principles of overriding importance to Jack.

How Does the Personality Evolve?

When my defense is analyzed I may change abruptly. Then I will shift abruptly back-and-forth between the old and the new positions until I feel secure in the new. Similar discontinuities, or "jumps", can be seen in the development of children. Kathy was an eleven-year-old girl who was close to her mother. Quite suddenly she began to criticize her mother ruthlessly. This continued for about a year and then stopped. It is a predictable phase for a girl, partly about separation and partly an angry reaction to the sexist messages girls receive in adolescence (Pipher 1994, pp. 17-28). My point is that Kathy's personality jumped abruptly from one pre-existing possibility to another.

Kathy's personality was a dynamic system. If we are to understand how her personality changed we need first understand how a dynamic system changes. Here I must step away from psychology for a moment in order to discuss change in two more transparent systems. I draw upon complexity theory which describes the behavior of complex or higher-order dynamic systems1. I will explain this term.

(a) a mountain stream

For a stream the whirlpool, like the serpentine form, is robust or homoeostatic which means that its order is stable. If it is deformed or shifted away from its pattern then it tends to reform. Imagine a whirlpool around the drain in your tub. Interrupt the whirlpool by putting your hand in it. The water will continue to drain but not as a whirlpool. Then remove your hand. The whirlpool will reform. The whirlpool is called a stable attractor (Kauffman 1995, p. 187) because it is a stable form into which a dynamic system is attracted.

Besides the whirlpool and the serpentine form, there are many other forms that a stream could assume, but most of them are unstable. Whatever form the stream is placed into, it will slide spontaneously into one of its few stable attractors and remain there.

Imagine all the possible forms which the stream could adopt plotted on a three-dimensional map or landscape. The north-south and east-west directions show all possible forms, each varying continuously into the next. The up-down direction shows the stability of each form. A stable form lies at the bottom of a valley: the deeper the valley, the more stable the form. I call this a stability valley in a stability landscape. Now imagine a ball placed somewhere on this landscape. It will roll downhill and settle into a valley.

This model shows how the stream's stable attractors are related to other possible forms. When the ball rolls to the bottom of a valley it represents the stream shifting spontaneously from an unstable form and settling into a stable attractor. Because that attractor is locally the most stable form, the stream is then trapped in it. No more change is possible. But if the landscape of possible forms were shaken up like a blanket, then the ball might find a new downhill path into a new valley. This shows that a dynamic system may shift abruptly from one stable attractor to another, but only when it is disturbed in some way. For example, the stream may shift abruptly from a serpentine form to a whirlpool if its flow-rate is changed.

Note that the stability landscape-and-ball model does not show the stream's form. It shows differences in stability and it shows how the stream may shift spontaneously from one form to another.

(b) a living creature

Kauffman (1995, pp. 149-224) used the landscape model to analyze biological evolution. Imagine all the possible forms which a living creature could adopt, plotted as before on a three-dimensional landscape. When a creature evolves it moves across the landscape into a fitness valley. The up-down direction here represents the fitness of possible forms. The deeper the valley, the fitter the form.

Note that this fitness landscape compares the evolutionary adaptedness of forms, while a stability landscape (above) compares the stability of forms.

Here change is sometimes gradual as when the "ball" rolls a short distance to the bottom of a local valley. Then evolution is a matter of fine tuning. In the most active phase of evolution, however, a living creature changes its form abruptly. The ball then moves by leaping from valley to valley. Each new valley is deeper than its predecessor and may be distant from it.

The most active phase of evolution occurs when population pressure is reduced (for example, following a mass extinction) and competition is relaxed. Then radically new experimental designs may find a niche and survive long enough to be developed. In the fossil record the active phase appears, for example, in the Cambrian explosion and after the Permian extinction.

Each movement, whether gradual or abrupt, is caused by random mutation. If the product of a movement is less fit then it is eliminated by natural selection; if the product of a movement is more fit then it eliminates the original form, again by natural selection.

Each valley represents a form that is locally fittest: amongst adjacent possibilities it is best-adapted for survival and reproduction. But an adaptive form could not be adaptive unless it were also stable. Thus on the landscape of possible forms a fitness valley must also be, in some sense, a stability valley (Kauffman 1995, p. 222). An example is the cell membrane within which each living cell is enclosed. Such a membrane is a stable attractor because it forms spontaneously when phospho-lipids and water are mixed. Since an enclosing membrane also confers fitness, any mutation which weakens it is selected against. In evolution, therefore, a fit form is shaped both by self-organization (stability) and by natural selection (fitness).

With regard to change in a dynamic system the landscape model highlights a crucial problem: if the fitness landscape remained constant then, after several leaps, the ball would get stuck in the bottom of one valley. Its statistical chances of leaping to an even deeper valley would become vanishingly small, while its leaps to higher positions would all be selected against. The creature would be trapped in one locally fittest form. Evolution would come quickly to a halt.

It follows that evolution must include a mechanism for "shaking up" the creature's fitness landscape. This mechanism is already well known. A living creature never evolves alone. Instead it co-evolves in an ecosystem of other creatures. As each creature changes, it changes the fitness landscape of the others. As the owl evolves better night vision, foraging at night becomes less fit for mice. Since each creature evolves across a fitness landscape that is itself constantly changing, no creature gets stuck in one valley. Evolution can continue.

Whereas a mountain stream or a living creature represents here a dynamic system, an ecosystem is a higher-order dynamic system because it is an assembly of dynamic systems, all of which interact. I have just explained that a dynamic system, if it were isolated, would become stuck in one fitness valley. When it is part of a higher-order dynamic system, however, each dynamic system co-evolves unceasingly because its fitness landscape keeps changing (Kauffman 1995, pp. 222-223).

I said earlier that my body's structure is layered in a hierarchy of successive levels of complexity. Within each layer, complex order self-organizes from simpler components. In a rigorous analysis Holland (1998, pp. 225-231) has shown that each layer is itself a higher-order dynamic system. Thus molecules form a cell and cells form an organ. Immune cells, for example, form a functioning immune system and nerve cells form a functioning brain. Organs, in turn, form an organism. We have already seen that organisms, in their turn, form an ecosystem. These layered higher-order dynamic systems are the basis for emergence in life. Because the personality is an emergent living structure, it is very likely that it too represents a layer within this hierarchy, that is, it too belongs to a higher-order dynamic system.

(c) the personality

I have already noted that my personality changes by means of discontinuous "jumps." When I am defended or isolated I am liable to get stuck in a complex, unable to change. When I am not isolated, but in relationship, then the other person can help me "shake out of it." Relationship may be with family, or intimate friends, or a therapist, or a group. Real relationship (but not symbiosis or fusion) supports change.

These clinical facts are consistent with the landscape model. My personality, a dynamic system, can organize itself in many different ways. Imagine all possible organizations plotted on a three-dimensional fitness landscape. When my personality changes it "jumps" from valley to valley across the landscape. Each valley represents an organization which is relatively fit or adaptive for its environment. I say "relatively" because it is not the best possible adaptation. In fact, each valley represents a complex. Since, as I explained earlier, a complex organizes itself spontaneously around an archetype, each valley also represents an archetype.

A living creature is held at the bottom of a fitness valley by natural selection. Selection pressure is generated by its environment. In an analogous way, my personality is pulled into a fitness valley by association. Association pressure is generated by my environment. If I meet a woman who reminds me of my mother, then I may be pulled into my mother complex. Once I am in my complex, my behavior elicits responses which reinforce my associations. (I give the woman too much power and so induce her to use it over me.)

Each valley represents a complex. My complex resists change because it is adaptive and because it elicits reinforcement from others. But my complex also resists change because it is formed around an archetype. An archetype, I have said, is a pre-existing possibility for order. Thus my complex is a robust or homoeostatic form, like a whirlpool. Indeed that is my subjective experience of being drawn into a complex. It is like being sucked into a whirlpool of associations.

If I am isolated from other people then my fitness landscape cannot change. Hence my personality gets stuck in one valley. If, for example, my mother was envious and withholding then I may get stuck in a "negative mother complex". I am suspicious and guarded, expecting always to be poisoned or devoured. My suspicion was adaptive in the past but now it is less so.

If a more nurturing person engages me in relationship, however, then he or she changes my fitness landscape. (Remember how the owl changed the fitness landscape of the mouse!) Here the valley which represents a more positive mother complex becomes deeper. My personality is pulled into it.

This helps to explain how the analytic relationship may heal. The more related my analyst the more my analyst's presence changes my fitness landscape. Ideally my analyst also suspends judgement and competition. Then, as in evolution, new experimental organizations can find a niche and persist long enough to develop. In a symbiotic relationship, however, I collude to limit my and my partner's possibilities, that is, to prevent change in our landscapes.

When I am too defended or isolated, therefore, my personality behaves like an isolated dynamic system: it tends to get stuck in one valley. But when I engage in real relationship my personality is one component of a higher-order dynamic system. Thus my personality does not so much evolve as co-evolve.

Yalom's (1975, pp. 301-316, 332) observations on group-therapy support this argument. When it is productive, a group "develops its own dynamic", that is, it becomes a higher-order dynamic system which is greater than the sum of its parts. It thereby catalyzes change.

Stern's research on the sources of change in analysis also supports my argument. What I call a fitness valley Stern (1985, 97-99) called an R.I.G. (representation of interactions which have been generalized). Stern said that an R.I.G. is formed in childhood and may be changed by means of the analytic relationship. Beebe and Lachman (1988, pp. 306-307) elaborated:

early interaction structures provide an important basis for the organization of infant experience and emerging self- and object representations. Interaction structures are characteristic patterns of mutual regulations in which both infant and caretaker influence each other.

Stolorow and Atwood (1992, p. 1) agreed:

It is not the isolated individual mind ... but the larger system created by the mutual interplay between the subjective worlds of patient and analyst, or of child and caregiver, that constitutes the proper domain of psychoanalytic inquiry.

From clinical experience I know that an increase in consciousness also supports change in my personality. But consciousness also represents a relationship, that between my conscious awareness and my complexes. When these two systems relate they also form a higher-order dynamic system. Consciousness may dissolve some of the associations within my complex, thereby diminishing it. (The woman has power, but that doesn't mean she is my mother!) In the landscape model, the valley of my complex becomes less deep. It's pull weakens. Again, my personality can evolve because it's fitness landscape is changing.

A traditional remedy for depression is to travel, to "make a change" in one's environment. Even electroconvulsive therapy may be effective because it "shakes things up".

The landscape model is important because it shows how the personality may evolve as part of a higher-order dynamic system. This helps to integrate our clinical knowledge with recent developments in science. It also helps us to understand the process by which analysis may heal.

A Review of the Evidence

My arguments are supported by evidence from a variety of sources. As an analyst I have enough clinical evidence to satisfy myself that an archetype-as-such is an objective reality and that it is inherent rather than culturally transmitted. A lay-person also has evidence that some psychological patterns are both objectively real and independent of culture. Is altruistic love, or joy, or envy, or ambition merely learned? My experience of each says otherwise.

Direct measurement has proven that there is not enough genetic information to provide a blueprint for my biological structure, nor for my psychological structure. Nor are there enough mutations to define those differences which separate me from a chimpanzee. It follows that my psychological structure must be self-organized. It is logically necessary that self-organization be guided by pre-existing possibilities.

Experiments with the brain and with neural networks have proven that pre-existing possibilities determine some of the neural structures which underlie cognition. The wing, the snake, the eye, the wolf, and many further examples, prove that pre-existing possibilities determine many forms in biological evolution. The fossil record proves that evolution sometimes moves abruptly from one form to the next. We know that evolution is, in fact, co-evolution within an ecosystem. We know that the ecosystem constitutes a higher-order dynamic system. Higher-order dynamic systems are ubiquitous in life.

Clinical evidence, including the work of Yalom, Stern, and Stolorow and Atwood, shows that the personality exists in an intersubjective field of other personalities. We know that the personality must constitute a dynamic system. There is clinical evidence that the personality organizes itself in complexes and that each complex organizes itself around an archetype. Clinical evidence shows that, with analysis, the personality tends to heal spontaneously, that is, to re-organize itself. Change often occurs in abrupt shifts.

The above evidence supports my argument that an archetype-as-such is a pre-existing possibility. It also supports my argument that, as it evolves, each personality behaves as one component of a higher-order dynamic system.

Polytheistic Myths

What I have said in this paper affects my view of mythology. Jung said that each god is based on an archetype. I argue that an archetype is a pre-existing principle. Myths about the gods, therefore, say that the pre-existing principles create and regulate the world. But science says the same thing. Science has shown that natural structure, whether it be an atom, a living organism, a brain, or a galaxy, is created and regulated by self-organization. Self-organization is guided by pre-existing principles.

It follows that a polytheistic myth is an accurate (though metaphorical) description of the process by which the world is created and regulated. Thus mythology seems to intuit the process of self-organization which science is only now beginning to explain. The congruence between myth and science seems too great to be coincidental. A myth's value, therefore, is that it allows us to explore in human terms how a pre-existing principle may unfold.

The Archetypal Viewpoint

In clinical terms, why is the archetypal viewpoint important? Recall Rachel, who dreamt that a witch burned up the lawns. A personalistic or reductive psychology might interpret Rachel's image too narrowly as referring only to her personal experience of her mother. But such an interpretation would deny Rachel's creativity and hence would injure her sense of self. It would also miss the healing potential of the image.

Rachel could have dreamt that her mother was cruel to her and made her cry. She did not. She dreamt of a witch. Her witch was like Sakhmet, Re, and Shiva, gods with penetrating eyes who both destroyed and created. Thus Rachel's witch suggested the pre-existing principles of vision, destruction, and creation.

As mother, Rachel's witch also represented the principle of the vessel. As Rachel became conscious of the devouring aspect of the vessel, she became conscious of its implied opposite. The envious "bad witch" implied a "good witch" who would admire her. In part she needed to find the "good witch" in the person of her analyst. In part the "good witch" was consciousness itself which also contained her.

Because Rachel was contained, both by her analyst and by consciousness, she experienced the healing aspect of the vessel. The grip of Rachel's old organization was thus loosened and her personality could re-organize itself.

Thus the archetypal viewpoint encompasses not only personal experience but also the pre-existing principles which structure that experience. These principles include the potential for balance and integration.

A Reductive Explanation?

Jung did not argue that the spiritual was fact, but that our subjective sense of it was recurrent psychological fact. Hence the discipline of psychology had to address our experience of the spiritual (Jung 1940/84, para. 296).

What I have said in this paper hews closely to Jung's thought. Never-the-less it may seem reductive: "an archetype is nothing but a pre-existing principle." But a pre-existing principle is no small thing. It is one of the guidelines by which the universe was created. When I am conscious of a pre-existing principle, then I am conscious that, in the course of my brief life, I incarnate a timeless spiritual possibility. Even an unconscious or somatic enactment is an attempt to express a spiritual possibility. Perhaps this is why I experience the psyche as having "purpose" which transcends my own.


I use the latter term to avoid confusion with complexes. Kauffman (1995, p. 222) used the term "general, complex, dynamical systems," while Holland (1998, pp. 126, 132) used the term "constrained generating procedure." All these terms refer to the same phenomenon.

If you have comments on this paper, brief or otherwise, I would appreciate the feedback. Please send me an email.


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