What Humpty Dumpty Taught Us About Language & The Parameters Of “The Self”
The following excerpt is taken from Lewis Carol’s “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.” It’s a wonderful example of how our conceptual self is tied to words that are anchored in culture – the main point (sort of?) of this article.
“There’s glory for you.”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Alice considered a little. “But surely,” she said in a sudden flash of inspiration, “you simply have to agree with me that ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’, it means ‘glory’.”
“Not in the slightest bit,” humphed Humpty Dumpty, “I disagree with you totally.”
“Ah,” replied Alice cunningly, “so you do agree with me, for when I hear someone say ‘I disagree with you’, I think they mean ‘I agree with you totally’, don’t you? When I hear a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more nor less.”
“It is a most provoking thing,” Humpty Dumpty cried, breaking into a sudden passion, “when little girls make it impossible to disagree with them.”
“So,” said Alice, “now you do agree with me that ‘glory’ means ‘glory’.”
“Wrong!” Humpty Dumpty exclaimed triumphantly, “it would be alright for me to say that ‘I disagree with you’ meant ‘I agree with you’, because I believe in that sort of thing; but you don’t, or you wouldn’t be being so awkward about it! You can’t go using other people’s arguments against themselves, that’s plagiarism!”
(“He talks about it just as if it was a game!” thought Alice.) Trying hard to conceal her vexation with the phantasmagorical egg, Alice delivered her coup de grâce : “I’m afraid that you can’t get out of it like that Mr. Dumpty, it just won’t do at all. You think that words mean whatever you choose them to mean, but in order to say that I disagree with you, you have to agree with, or understand, my use of words; and if you agree with me, then you can’t disagree!”
“It’s very provoking,” Humpty Dumpty said after a long silence, looking away from Alice as he spoke. “I’d rather see that done on paper.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so little.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “who is to be master – that’s all.”
Alice waited to see if he would speak again, but as he never opened his eyes or took any further notice of her, she said “Good-bye.” and quietly walked away: but she couldn’t help saying to herself as she went, “Of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met –” She never finished the sentence, for at that moment a heavy crash shook the forest from end to end.”
Words Refer; Concepts Create Meaning
Despite what Humpty Dumpty claimed, it is the masses – the culture – not the individual, that determines the meanings of words.
Words mean things. Duh.
But these meanings are powerful and they shape how we feel about ourselves because words are used to create what we think. So we can easily envision how whatever culture we are born into sets the parameters for our understanding of the self.
Indeed, this is what makes revolutionaries so fascinating. Whether they are philosophers, scientists, artists, or even activist they seem to stretch this conceptual boundary. They provide the conceptual potter with more clay as it were.
But frankly, words at their most basic level are just symbols or signs that stand in for something. They are the medium that represents an idea, person, place, or thing. For instance, the word “cat” is a sign which represents that actual species of animal. Likewise, the word “book” represents a collection of symbols that transmit information.
So, the word itself is not an actual thing but a creation of humanity. These so-called “things” are simply concepts that give us the ability to navigate the world physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Moreover, one concept can have many words which represent it – language doesn’t always like to play nice.
Indeed, many concepts are difficult to pinpoint in terms of representation. For example, what does the word “justice” stand-in for? To what does it point to? What does it represent?
What about archetypes? Which will be the bread and butter of this article and which I believe are the ultimate benefactors of the conceptual self. But the archetype is like a ghost, it’s very difficult to anchor and actualize, particularly when the concept is images, symbols, characters or ideas inherited from our ancestors – sort of. Then, of course, we couple that the problem of words not having fixed meaning (what a nightmare!).
Fortunately, “A concept cannot be tied down to a single word, because words change meaning over time while concepts are (if the reader will pardon some Platonic speculation) eternal in the mind of God.” This is ultimately the premise behind archetypical thought – a timeless personality. The following is my definition:
Archetypes are the organs of the psyche which provide culturally-inherited cognitive categories to navigate and inject meaning into the world.
Therefore, for simplicity’s sake, they are the souls meaning manufacturers.
Archetypes: Cultural Brainchild?
According to Jung, the human psyche is composed of three parts:
- The consciousness which is the conscious self (what we are immediately aware of).
- The personal unconscious consists of personal memories – either indifferent or troubling – which have been suppressed.
- The collective unconscious which is the psychological and conceptual inheritance of our ancestors
He argued that a specific aspect of our being, which he referred to as the collective unconscious, is inherited – think of it as a psychological-cultural inheritance. A major component of this inheritance is archetypes, which “represent universal patterns and images that are part of the collective unconscious. Jung believed that we inherit these archetypes much the way we inherit instinctive patterns of behavior.”
This is a more or less fancy way of saying cultural prototypes of the self. Further, these conceptual models of self “are innate, universal, and hereditary.” Moreover, they “are unlearned and function to organize how we experience certain things.” I’d argue they are just culturally agreed-upon concepts but per Jung, they are inborn and inherited; he believed that archetypes function somewhat as first principles. Namely, the world is red not because it’s red in and of itself but because we have rose-colored glasses on. It’s what we contribute to our knowledge of the world – if that makes sense. Again, they are the souls meaning manufacturers.
“All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes…This is particularly true of religious ideas, but the central concepts of science, philosophy, and ethics are no exception to this rule. In their present form, they are variants of archetypal ideas created by consciously applying and adapting these ideas to reality. For it is the function of consciousness, not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses but to translate into visible reality the world within us,”
Jung called these inherited ideas which filter and make sense of sensory experience “Primordial Images.” Thus, our concept of being and our very image or concept of our own being is historically and culturally bound. In terms of meaning, of teleology, is this not basically a theory of everything?
Again, I’ll repeat:
Archetypes are the organs of the psyche which provide culturally-inherited cognitive categories to navigate and inject meaning into the world… they are the meaning manufacturers.
*I’m not beating this dead horse anymore. The poor thing deserves a proper burial! Onto the Four Major Archetypes.*
The Four Major Jungian Archetypes (Meaning Manufacturers)
Persona: The Adaptive Truth
“The word “persona” is derived from a Latin word that literally means “mask.” It is not a literal mask, however. The persona represents all of the different social masks that we wear among various groups and situations. It acts to shield the ego from negative images.”
This veil is the social law residing within us all. For example, society has rules and regulations that are often at odds with our primitive impulses and drives, how does one resolve this tension? Adaptation. This is the power of the persona – it’s the chameleon that is able to adapt and adjust to its surroundings. A powerful tool no doubt, but when taken as absolute one gets lost in the machine of traditionalism and this archetype defeats its usefulness.
When the persona is manufactured correctly it finds meaning, purpose, and value via societal contribution. The focal point is legacy as it were.
However, when the scales are unevenly tipped, this archetype can result in inordinate people-pleasing, intellectual regurgitation (can’t think for yourself), and mindless order following.
The persona is crucial because our true self is one of adaptation and relationalism – so don’t wander too far from these two vital concepts. They are qualifications for sound mental health.
The Shadow: Awaken Suppressed Truth
“The shadow is an archetype that consists of the sex and life instincts. The shadow exists as part of the unconscious mind and is composed of repressed ideas, weaknesses, desires, instincts, and shortcomings.”
The societal mask is balanced by the shadow. In my opinion, the shadow is necessary to maintain personal morality – it pushes back and develops the conscience. It does not allow “inordinate people-pleasing, intellectual regurgitation, and mindless order following.” It fights back.
The shadow can encompass prejudice, hate, and violence. You know, it’s the hairy Greek gentlemen steam bathing in the seven deadly sins (unsure why I used that analogy, now I’m just uncomfortable).
Nonetheless, that’s what we are working with. It’s a part of us all and cannot be denied. You can deny it if you try but this invariably leads to projecting it upon others. It undoubtedly needs some social finessing (thank the persona for that).
Be that as it may, it’s the wonderfully wild, chaotic and unknown aspect of the personality. It’s the heart of the entire human enterprise. So it’s a key to life change!
The change begins with the recognition that not everything that is suppressed by the persona should remain so. When these stones start to be turned drastic change is right around the corner. When you begin to challenge the personas deeply held beliefs you most certainly are on your way to an awakening. The shadow is the recognition of imperfect, it’s the key to the evolution of consciousness.
Anima/Animus: Balanced Truth
Once the light of the incrementally integrative self exposes the shadow against the backdrop of the persona, the first thing which stands out is the obvious cultural parameters – for better and for worse. Particularly salient are the notions of gender. For example,
- The female is described as gentle, empathetic, sensitive, caring, sweet, compassionate, tolerant, nurturing, and submissive.
- The male is defined for his strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness. He is ideally powerful even to the extent of disregard for consequences and responsibility.
As the self becomes more whole, more integrative, the anima (feminine self in the male psyche) and animus (masculine self in the female psyche) begin to flex their muscles.
We know all too well the gender stereotypes. Men can’t talk about feelings, must always remain in control of their emotions and be
constantly successful in all their endeavors. And women, well, women have to be perfect – impossibly so. They must be very emotional but not smothering, nurturing but not overbearing, loving but evenly distributed. None of it really makes sense – perhaps it had adaptive value at one point but that point has long since past.
What this archetype represents is gender balance. It’s not equating the two or denying genders but is purely demanding the balance necessary for emotional health. In reality, men and women should be able to demonstrate any of these attributes as they respond situationally to life around them. However, this would never diminish the role of a man i.e. father, brother, etc., this archetype merely clarifies and refines many sub-archetypes in this category that can get really messy in the absence of self-awareness.
As a rule of thumb, always seek homeostasis of the animus/anima – sway too far in either direction will result in conflicted relationships and a diminishment of overall emotional well being (shadow oppression). This certainly doesn’t entail an easy objective, it is above all things extremely difficult because once more you will be challenging deeply held and culturally ingrained beliefs. Nonetheless, the “born again” process begins with a simple maxim: everything you think you know, ain’t so!”
The Self: Integrated Truth
“Jung believed these archetypes contain elements of our personality that we need to address in order to develop a healthy rounded personality. He suggested that by working through these archetypes, we can begin to choose our actions rather than responding automatically from patterns in our personalities that no longer serve us.”
These patterns are default archetypes that guide and narrate our experience, but as aforementioned, not all patterns are profitable. As society evolves thus does the individual consciousness. This individual evolution is termed by Jung, “individuation.” It’s when the three spheres of the psyche integrate into a unified and harmonious whole. You can call it self-actualization, or enlightenment, or whatever tickles your fancy; Jung referred to it as the cohesive self. Call it what you will. The integrated self – the nexus of all three components of the individual personality (personality being that which extends all quadrants of the psyche) is as close to God-like as can be imagined.
As discussed earlier in the article, words are limiting due to a lack of fixed meaning and parameters of the conceptual self are grounded in and controlled by culture. Concepts, however, are more fixed than words, and so creating a level of predictability necessary to create rational observation and record the progress and regress of human growth. Even if we don’t have a word to adequately capture it, we already understand it conceptually. The image is, therefore, inborn. Archetypes are the inborn conceptual filters of the psyche which provide said stability and enable the evolution of individual consciousness. Yes, there are more than four archetypes, however, I believe the seemingly infinite others are sub-archetypes which can find themselves categorized under the major four. For illustrative purposes, the 12 most common Jungian archetypes (which I refer to as sub-archetypes) are as follows:
- The Ruler
- The Creator/Artist
- The Sage
- The Innocent
- The Explorer
- The Rebel
- The Hero
- The Wizard
- The Jester
- The Everyman
- The Lover
- The Caregiver
Unfortunately, Jung’s theory of the archetypes have been mostly relegated to myth or nonsense in the academic realm, but I see no reason for this. It’s often juxtaposed against Freudian thought – as if that’s anything less mythical! In my mind’s eye, it’s another way of cultivating emotional maturity and fostering spiritual change. Another perspective in capturing the journey of the self and perhaps aid the planet towards a global collective-actualization or, if a may, a cohesive corporate-self.
Timmy G (2019)