Jung and Lévy-Bruhl

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For his knowledge of 'primitive' peoples, C. G. Jung relied on the work of Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1857-1939), a French philosopher who in mid-career became an armchair anthropologist. In a series of books from 1910 on, Levy-Bruhl asserted that 'primitive' peoples had been misunderstood by modern Westerners. Rather than thinking like moderns, just less rigorously, 'primitives' harbour a mentality of their own. 'Primitive' thinking is both 'mystical' and 'prelogical'. By 'mystical', Levy-Bruhl meant that 'primitive' peoples experience the world as identical with themselves. Their relationship to the world, including to fellow human beings, is that of participation mystique. By 'prelogical', Levy-Bruhl meant that 'primitive' thinking is indifferent to contradictions. 'Primitive' peoples deem all things identical with one another yet somehow still distinct. A human is at once a tree and still a human being. Jung accepted unquestioningly Levy-Bruhl's depiction of the 'primitive' mind, even when Jung, unlike Levy-Bruhl, journeyed to the field to see 'primitive' peoples firsthand. But Jung altered Levy-Bruhl's conception of 'primitive' mentality in three key ways. First, he psychologized it. Whereas for Levy-Bruhl 'primitive' thinking is to be explained sociologically, for Jung it is to be explained psychologically: 'primitive' peoples think as they do because they live in a state of unconsciousness. Second, Jung universalized 'primitive' mentality. Whereas for Levy-Bruhl 'primitive' thinking is ever more being replaced by modern thinking, for Jung 'primitive' thinking is the initial psychological state of all human beings. Third, Jung appreciated 'primitive' thinking. Whereas for Levy-Bruhl 'primitive' thinking is false, for Jung it is true-once it is recognized as an expression not of how the world but of how the unconscious works. I consider, along with the criticisms of Levy-Bruhl's conception of 'primitive' thinking by his fellow anthropologists and philosophers, whether Jung in fact grasped all that Levy-Bruhl meant by 'primitive' thinking.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)635-658
Number of pages24
JournalThe journal of analytical psychology
Issue number5
Early online date24 Oct 2007
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2007


  • Jung and Levy-Bruhl
  • Levy-Bruhl
  • participation mystique
  • 'primitive' mind
  • 'primitive' peoples
  • Durkheim
  • Levybruhl
  • thought


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