On Romanticism in Jung’s Psychology: A Reflection on Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind
by Ronald L. Boyer

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This essay began as a paper for a doctoral course taught by systematic theologian and philosopher, Fr. Edward Krasevac, a priest and professor at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. The method consisted of close reading and textual analysis, class dialogue, and reflexivity on the history of Western thought described in The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnas. In this brief reflective paper, I address the following questions posed by Krasevac (2015): “Has the book helped you understand the lineage of your own mindset? In what ways?”

As a Jungian scholar, with a graduate degree in depth psychology, my primary perspective and interpretive approach is informed by the theories and methodologies of Carl Gustav Jung and the emerging analytical-scholarly literature created by Jungian and neo-Jungian analysts, as well as scholars in other disciplines significantly influenced by Jung’s writings. These latter scholars include, for example, Joseph Campbell (comparative mythology/literary mythology), Mircea Eliade (history of religion), and Northrop Frye (myth-criticism or archetypal literary theory), among others.

The question of understanding the “lineage of my mindset” as a Jungian struck a deep chord, addressing as it does a broader criticism aimed at Jungian scholarship as a whole: a perceived lack of intellectual rigor on the part of Jungians, at least from the perspective of the mainstream Academy in North America. As students of Jung, presumably hoping to be taken seriously by the Academy (where Jung’s theories are still viewed on the margins of respectability), we might begin by better understanding the role of Jung’s depth psychology within the philosophical lineage of Western thought.


Findings and Discussion

In The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas addressed this perceived deficiency in Jungian scholarship by situating the contributions of depth psychology within the intellectual and philosophical heritage of the Western world-view. Despite Jung’s status as a highly original thinker, his ideas hardly occur in a vacuum, embedded as they are within a historical context and influenced as he was by previous thinkers from Plato to Kant and Nietzche.

Within the broader Jungian community, as I’ve observed, this inattention to Jung’s intellectual heritage and influences results in the perceived lack of a solid philosophical basis and context for Jung’s analytical theories and methods. On a very specific level—not possible in Tarnas’ sweeping overview of more than two millennia of Western thought—a philosophical basis for Jung’s archetypal theories might be found, one example being in the “philosophy of symbolic forms” authored by neo-Kantian German Idealist, Ernst Cassirer. Cassirer’s important theories first appeared in English in his now classic work, Language and Myth (1946/1953), which explored philosophically the human capacity for metaphor and symbolic thought and the evolution of myth and language as two stems sprouting from the same historical root. As philosopher and translator Susanne K. Langer said of Cassirer, his theory of knowledge “became a theory of mental activity, which gave as minute and scholarly attention to the forms of feeling and imagination as to the categories of sense perception and logic” (Langer, vii, in Cassirer, 1946/1953).

While Tarnas (1991) only briefly referred to Cassirer’s work in his “chronology” of key Western philosophical milestones, Cassirer’s emphasis on feeling and imagination, as we shall see, makes him, along with Jung, an heir to Romanticism in Western thought. Tarnas’ summary of the most influential philosophers and ideas of Western thought thus provides an insightful historical and conceptual frame for understanding the evolving legacy of depth psychology placed within the history of Western ideas and long-standing debates about the nature of reality and truth.


Romanticism and the Enlightenment: Two Streams of Thought and Culture

Tarnas (1991) placed depth psychology—especially Jungian psychology—in the historical tradition of Romanticism, and, ironically, the reaction of Romanticism against the “positivist side of Kant” (p. 371), a thinker deeply admired by Jung. As Tarnas indicated, two streams of culture emerged from the Renaissance, “two temperaments or general approaches to human existence characteristic of the Western mind” (p. 366). One stream of thought emerged in the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, and “stressed rationality, empirical science, and a skeptical secularism.” The other stream, its polar complement, expressed those aspects of human experience suppressed by the Enlightenment’s spirit of rationalism. This Romantic temperament found expression in the works of Rousseau, Goethe, Schiller, and German Romanticism, and fully emerged during the late 18th and 19th centuries. Today, the influence of Romanticism remains a potent force in Western ideation and culture, a vital tradition that includes Blake and Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, Keats and Holderlin, and Emerson and Whitman among others, including their successors among our contemporaries.

Competing forms of humanism. In spite of notable similarities in the ideas of both traditions, including the privileging of humanism, several major distinctions are worth noting. The Romantics, according to Tarnas (1991), “perceived the world as a unitary organism rather than an atomistic machine, exalted the ineffability of inspiration rather than the enlightenment of reason, and affirmed the inexhaustible drama of human life rather than the calm predictability of static abstractions” (p. 367). As Tarnas asserted, the character and aims of the autonomous human self are distinctly different in the two temperaments, an idea discussed at length by Theodore Roszak (1973) in Where the Wasteland Ends. The Enlightenment’s intellectual heroes are Newton, Franklin, and Einstein; the Romantic heroes are Goethe, Beethoven, and Nietzsche. Briefly stated, “Bacon’s utopia,” said Tarnas, “was not Blake’s.”

This distinction is evident, for example, in their differing conceptions of nature. “Rather than the distanced object of sober analysis,” Tarnas (1991) observed, “nature for the Romantics was that which the human soul strove to enter and unite with in an overcoming of the existential dichotomy, and the revelation they sought was not of mechanical law but of spiritual essence” (p. 367). Nature, for Wordsworth and the Romantics, was not the machine-model favored by the emerging scientific paradigm. Wordsworth “saw nature as ensouled with spiritual meaning and beauty.” Schiller, for another example, “considered the impersonal mechanism of science a poor substitute for the Greek deities who had animated nature for the ancients.”

Romanticism and the turn to interiority. Another important distinction between the Enlightenment and Romantic sensibilities is evident in their contrasting views of human awareness and the phenomena of consciousness. For Romantics like Blake and Novalis, Melville and Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche and Baudelaire, the interest in consciousness was fueled by a newly intensified sense of self-awareness and a “focus on the complex nature of the human self” in which “emotion and the imagination, rather than reason and perception, were of prime importance.”

The modern eye was turned inward to discern the shadows of existence. To explore the mysteries of interiority, of moods and motives, love and desire, fear and angst, inner conflicts and contradictions, memories and dreams, to “experience … incommunicable states of consciousness … [to] plumb the depths of the human soul, to bring the unconscious into consciousness … such were the imperatives of Romantic introspection” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 368).

Here Romanticism laid the poetic, theoretical groundwork for depth psychology: “Imagination and feeling now joined sense and reason to render a deeper understanding of the world” (p. 369).

Nietzche’s radical interpretivist perspective. Additionally, Nietzsche, who exerted a profound influence on both Freud and Jung, introduced a radical skepticism and relativism to the truth-claims of both science and religion. Nietzsche wrote, “Against positivism, which halts at phenomena—‘There are only facts’—I would say: Facts are precisely what there are not, only interpretations [emphasis added]” (Nietzche, as cited in Tarnas, 1991, p. 370). In contrast to the truth-claims of positivism in Locke and Hume, Nietzsche advocated a radical interpretivist perspective, or rather a plurality of interpretive perspectives, more or less equal in their truth-claims, in which no certain fixed point of authority—neither philosophical (as in Plato), religious (the Christian doctrines throughout the Middle Ages), nor scientific (from Copernicus forward)—provided an incontestable authority from which the truth might be validated. In doing so, Nietzche became arguably the most influential deconstructionist philosopher of modernity (since Kant), and the first truly post-modern philosopher.

In Nietzsche, Tarnas (1991) observed, the philosopher became a poet. Nietzsche raised philosophy to the level of art, a heritage carried forward by the existentialist thinker and novelist Albert Camus (1951/1991) in his important philosophical work, The Rebel, including his essays on Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, there was no basis for assertion of absolute “Truth.” “Truth,” Tarnas (1991) observed, speaking of Nietzsche, “was not something one proved or disproved; it was something one created” (p. 371). This conception of the world, for Nietzsche and Romanticism in general, was not discoverable in abstract reason or validation of facts, but as an “expression of … beauty and imaginative power.” In short, Romanticism advanced a new epistemology, beyond the limits established by Hume, Locke, and the positivist side of Kant, defining new “standards and values for human knowledge.”


The Double-Truth Epistemology of Science and the Humanities

Out of this distinction between Enlightenment rationalism and the compensatory Romantic poetics of the imagination arose a double-truth epistemological approach, Tarnas (1991) observed, expressed in the division between science and the humanities. In this approach, there is scientific truth on the one hand, based on empiricism and measurement, and artistic truth on the other, not provable using the scientific quantified methods of research, but accessible through qualitative methods of learning. Scientific truth emerged as distinct from that of the arts and humanities, including religion. In this view, a novel conception of God emerged, not the God of Christian literalism and dogma nor that of Deism, but a God of mysticism, a “numinous creative force within nature” (p. 373). And art (e.g., music, literature, painting) took on an almost religious quality for the Romantics, the pursuit of beauty for its own sake in a soulless, mechanical world. With this emerged a new importance of the novel, of creative quest and imaginative discipline, in the works of authors from Stendhal to Hermann Hesse. Through such literature, the broad phenomenology of human experience entered the philosophies of Bergson, Husserl, and Heidegger. “Reality,” asserted Tarnas, again alluding to Nietzsche, “was not to be copied, but to be invented” (p. 374).

Because of the incompatibility of the rationalistic and Romantic temperaments, a complex bifurcation emerged. Allied against the sterility of scientism, “romantic poets, religious mystics, idealist philosophers, and counter-cultural psychedelicists” claimed the existence of realities beyond the material and argued for “an ontology of human consciousness” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 375). Romanticism, said Tarnas, continued to inform the inner culture in the arts and literature, as well as religious and metaphysical vision, while science dictated the outer reality of cosmology:

The faith-reason division of the medieval era and the religion-science division of the early modern era had become one of subject-object, inner-outer, man-world, humanities-science. A new form of double truth universe was now established. (p. 376)


Depth Psychology’s Promise of a New Synthesis

According to Tarnas (1991), thinkers like Goethe and Hegel attempted a new synthesis; so did Carl G. Jung. As the modern era moved into later stages, “Romanticism would reengage the modern mind from another field altogether … a new focus on the psyche” as a source of meaning and identity in a world devoid of stable values. The Romantically-influenced science discovered its most enduring, seminal influence in the “depth psychology of Freud and Jung, both deeply influenced by the stream of German Romanticism that flowed from Goethe through Nietzsche” (p. 384). Freud continued the Copernican revolution that removed humanity from the center of the cosmos, as well as the revolutionary thought of Darwin, who relegated human nature to the level of nature (i.e., as a biological animal), observations first posited by philosopher Jacob Needleman (1965/1976) in A Sense of the Cosmos. With Freud, humans were no longer masters even in their own house, particularly given the influence of unconscious, irrational factors in human thought and behavior.

Freud and Jung were both medical psychologists, social scientists laboring to establish psychoanalysis as a legitimate science, but returning to mythology—not understood as an objective scientific picture of the external cosmos or world, but rather as phenomena representative of the otherwise inaccessible unconscious structures of the human psyche. If Freud was more the Enlightenment scientist, the inheritance of Romanticism became more explicit in Jung’s psychology, particularly Jung’s discovery of the collective unconscious and his theory of psychological archetypes that goes back to Plato, dressed now in new human-centric forms. Jung’s archetypes, that is, widely recurring symbolic forms, returned in a sense to the formalism of Plato’s archetypes, but on another level entirely, as expressions of the shadowy side of the human psyche. Jung’s discoveries:

radically extended psychology’s range of interest and insight. Religious experience, artistic creativity, esoteric systems, and the mythological imagination were now analyzed in nonreductive terms strongly reminiscent of the Neoplatonic Renaissance and Romanticism.…Freud and Jung’s depth psychology thus offered a fruitful middle ground between science and the humanities … sensitive to the many dimensions of human experience … yet striving for empirical rigor. (p. 384)

This, in broad strokes, summarizes the Jungian mindset—a primary theoretical and practical lens for my work—rooted in the emergence of Romanticism as a necessary counter to the sterility of scientific rationalism and the increasingly meaningless world emerging out of the Enlightenment. In short, as Tarnas (1991) concluded, “The modern psyche appeared to require the services of depth psychology with increasing urgency” to address the widespread alienation and related social and cultural phenomena characteristic of an increasingly secular and scientific age. In the form of Jung’s depth psychology, “a new faith for modern man, a path for the healing of the soul bringing regeneration and rebirth” (p. 387) arose. Furthermore, according to Jung, this path leads potentially to a condition of psychic wholeness or individuation by way of a transformative psychological process mirrored in the recurrent mythopoetic imagery of dreams, religion, and art. However suspect Jung’s psychology may be within the mainstream scientific Academy, given the dominance of behaviorism, pockets of receptivity are clearly emerging, as Susan Rowland (2010) indicated, for a Jungian hermeneutic within the arts and humanities.



In Jung’s humanism—his conceptions of an ensouled nature and of God as an image of Self, his focus on interiority and the unconscious, his valuing of feeling, creativity, and imagination, etc.—Jung proved himself a modern heir to Romanticism. In his independence from and deconstruction of the inherited truth-claims and dogmatic authorities of formal philosophy, organized religion, and scientific rationalism, Jung positioned his theories and methods as an important perspective in the ongoing post-modern dialogue, the salient characteristics of which will be discussed in Part II of this reflection on The Passion of the Western Mind.



Camus, A. (1991). The rebel: An essay on man in revolt. New York, NY: Vintage. (Original work published 1951)

Cassirer, E. (1953). Language and myth (Suzanne K. Langer, Trans.). New York, NY: Dover. (Original work published 1946)

Krasevac, E. (2015). [Class handout]. Unpublished raw data, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

Needleman, J. (1976). A sense of the cosmos: The encounter of modern science and ancient truth. New York, NY: E. P. Dutton. (Original work published 1965)

Roszak, T. (1973). Where the wasteland ends: Politics and transcendence in postindustrial society. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Rowland, S. (2010). C. G. Jung in the humanities: Taking the soul’s path. New Orleans, LA: Spring Books.

Tarnas, R. (1991). The passion of the Western mind: Understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.


Ron Boyer is a doctoral student in Art and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union and UC Berkeley. He is a graduate of the M.A. in Depth Psychology Program at Sonoma State University. Ron is also an award-winning poet, fiction author, and screenwriter. He lives in Northern California.