Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Living Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming

Transcendent Function

  • Ann CasementEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_705-6


Attachment Theory Transcendent Function Emotional Facial Expression Reflective Function Analytical Psychologist 
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Transcendent function is a term that first appears in a paper Jung wrote in 1916 where he states it is neither mysterious nor metaphysical but is, instead, a psychological function “comparable in its way to a mathematical function of the same name, which is a function of real and imaginary numbers. The psychological ‘transcendent function’ arises from the union of conscious and unconscious contents” (Jung 1960, p. 69). Jung goes on to state that unconscious contents behave in a compensatory or complementary manner to consciousness and vice versa. As a result, if consciousness is too one sided, unconscious contents may break through via slips of the tongue.

Jung’s further elaboration of this concept is that the transcendent function is so called because it enables the transition of contents from unconsciousness to consciousness as well as the other way round. In analysis, the analyst can mediate the transcendent function for the analysand through the transference, and in this way, the patient experiences the analyst as indispensable. Jung defined his approach to transference as “constructive,” which is based on evaluating the symbol via dreams and fantasies. It is the symbol that is “the best possible expression for a complex fact not yet clearly apprehended by consciousness” (Jung 1960, p. 75).

In his paper on the transcendent function, Jung writes about his constructive approach to dream analysis. In order to exemplify this, he cites the dream of a woman patient wherein someone gives her a wonderful, richly ornamented, antique sword dug up out of an ancient burial mound. He interpreted this as the need for an inner father to whom she can relate in order to help her disidentify with a perpetual passive childlike state. Her actual father was a passionate, energetic man, and it is this energy that the patient needs to find in her internalized father in order to live life fully.

According to Jung, the self-regulating function of the psyche may be aided through exploring dreams but, more importantly, via fantasy which enables unconscious material to become activated via the constellation of the transcendent function. In order to achieve this, Jung advocates the use of active imagination through drawing, painting, or sculpting, which can give expression to unconscious material that may then be expressed in a mood. Critical attention must be eliminated during this process and creative formulation allowed to break through. The second, more vital stage of active imagination is for ego not to be overwhelmed by unconscious contents. An important way forward is the development of an inner dialogue which enables the bringing together of the opposites for the production of the third, viz., the symbol. Through this transcending of opposites, consciousness is widened by confrontation with unconscious contents, and the transcendent function proceeds not without aim and purpose but can enable an individual to move beyond pointless conflict and to avoid one-sidedness.

Jung further states that the truth, law, and guidance are to be found nowhere saved in the mind. “Thus the unconscious is credited with all those faculties which the West attributes to God…the transcendent function…the phenomenon of spontaneous compensation, being beyond the control of man, is quite in accord with the formula ‘grace’ or the ‘will of God’” (Jung 1958, p. 506).

The mediatory process of the transcendent function forms the material of construction “in which thesis and antithesis both play their part…in the shaping of which the opposites are united (in) the living symbol” (Jung 1971, p. 480). This symbol formation through the mediation of the transcendent function in the conflict of opposites is to be found in the struggle between Jesus and Satan and Buddha and Mara or the regeneration of Faust through the pact with the devil.

Transference, the Transcendent Function, and Transcendence

The paper of Ann Ulanov, an analytical psychologist, of the above title illustrates how transference, like dreams and symptoms, inevitably introduces the transcendent function in the course of analytic treatment. “The transcendent function is part of the compensatory function of the transference” (Ulanov 1997, p. 125). The analyst and analysand consciously take up what the psyche does spontaneously in producing opposite points of view, in order to reach its goal of individuating or broadening consciousness. The analysand is dependent on the analyst’s involvement, and Jung’s approach to the analytic process “consisted essentially in a dialogue and a mutuality requiring the emotional involvement of the analyst for change to occur” (Casement 2001, p. 79). Ulanov also alerts one to the dangers of analyst and analysand “bumping around in the psyche’ together, which can take the form of inflation, seduction, power plays, and defensive intellectualizing.”

“The transcendent function inaugurates transition to arrival of the new” (Ulanov 1997, p. 126). This initiates the arrival of a third point of view, which surpasses the conflicting opposites and creates a space between consciousness and unconsciousness wherein symbols arise. “In the process of the transcendent function we not only struggle with opposites in ourselves, we also inhabit the opposites of our historical time” (Ulanov 1997, p. 127).

Ulanov relates the transcendent function and transference to transcendence, which is not an abstraction but exists in the here and now.

Spirit and body go together. Transcendence always effects a striking conjunction of the particular and the universal, the awe-inspiring and the humdrum, the vast and the concrete.’ She quotes Jung as follows: ‘Analysis should release an experience that grips or falls upon us as from above, an experience that has substance and body…It must be organically true, that is, in and of our own being. If I were to symbolize it I would choose the Annunciation. (Jung 1925, p. 80)

Jung and Hegel

The analytical psychologist, Hester Solomon, states that

The schema of psychological functioning that Jung developed in the Transcendent Function has a parallel in the philosophical vision of Hegel’s dialectic. In the immediacy of the disintegrating psychological experiences that he went through in the years between 1912–1916, Jung swung from one pole of experience to the other…Through this dynamic interplay, he was able to achieve a personal synthesis, a position of relative integration between the conscious and unconscious attitudes. So Jung himself was living the dialectic. (Solomon 2007)

Solomon goes on to state:

Hegel’s grand design is an attempt to understand reality as constructed historically in pairs of opposites that are not dichotomous but are rather in intimate, dynamic, albeit oppositional relation to one another. The dialectical model allows for a two-fold view of reality, on the one hand in terms of bipolar opposites in dynamic relation to each other, and on the other hand a unity of opposites towards which each strives…The task of dialectical philosophy is to strive for greater and greater comprehension until a kind of totality of understanding is achieved. This is what Hegel called “absolute reason.” (Solomon 2007)

Solomon suggests that the tripartite structure of the dialectical process, like the transcendent function, expressed as thesis/antithesis/synthesis, reflects an archetypal pattern with the third position consisting of a resolution that has the capacity to hold two apparent opposites together. It is through the tension and conflict created by the dynamic relationship that a creative, forward-moving resolution is achieved between, for example, self and another whether it be mother/infant or analyst/analysand. This is also to be met in the “Christian idea of the threefold nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Spinoza and Descartes’ threefold vision of reality as consisting of three different kinds of substance (thought, nature and God); the Socratic dialectic whereby rigid positions are confronted and thereby changed by adroit questioning…all attest to the ubiquitous, deep structural nature of the tripartite dialectical vision” (Solomon 2007).

Solomon’s conclusion is as follows: “Jung’s concept of the transcendent function and Hegel’s dialectical vision both seek to address similar understandings of psychic reality and as such demonstrate a remarkable similarity of structure” (Solomon 2007).

The analytical psychologist, Wolfgang Giegerich, has taken issue with Solomon’s attempt to bring together Hegel and Jung in declaring it to be a “…peace negotiation fantasy about dialectics: two opponents facing each other and trying to find a common third” (Giegerich 2005, p. 4). In fact, Jung asserted that he never studied Hegel properly and, in fact, adamantly rejected his philosophy. Giegerich’s thinking, on the other hand, is based on Hegel’s dialectics. This model starts with not two but one position whereby the mind, by sticking to this position, is forced to admit that it is untenable. This experience amounts to a negation (a Hegelian notion) of position A so that it results in non-A, a contradiction of the original position. The negation again proves untenable and is accordingly negated, which results in the negation of the negation, i.e., not-non-A. This is followed by a return to the original position A but one that has now been mediated and enriched by the negations. Giegerich links Hegel’s dialectical thinking to the dialectics to be found in Jung’s recursive psychological model of alchemy, by asserting that both entail a process of distilling, sublimating and refining the prima materia to achieve a richer, more sophisticated consciousness.

Giegerich likewise takes a critical view of Jung’s transcendent function, inspired by physics, as it exemplifies positivistic thinking about opposites conceived of as two things or physical forces in collision. Jung appears to resort to magical thinking in talking about a “creative synthesis” between the two as he is operating with the idea of an unconscious “as the mysterious ‘author’ or source behind the scene” (Giegerich 2005, p. 7).

Transcendent Function and Reflective Function

Lastly, it is important to take a look at a scientific review of the transcendent function in the analytical psychologist, Jean Knox’s, exploration of the concept, in which she compares it to research that has been done on the reflective function in attachment theory. She states: “The concept of reflective function has emerged to explain the vital role that the parent plays in facilitating the child’s capacity to relate to other people as mental and emotional being with their own thoughts, desires, intentions, beliefs and emotions” (Knox 2003, p. 10).

According to Knox, Jung was using the term transcendent function to describe an individual’s capacity to tolerate difference in others and also in oneself.

In attachment theory it is the development of this capacity which defines reflective function, in that reflective function depends upon the awareness that other people have minds of their own with beliefs and judgements that may differ from one’s own…Both transcendent function and reflective function are descriptions of the capacity to relate to other people as psychologically as well as physically separate. (Knox 2003, p. 164)

She goes on to say:

There would seem to be sound neurophysiological support for Jung’s model of the transcendent function as a dialogue between conscious and unconscious processes of appraisal. Allan Schore draws on empirical research to support his view that the right hemisphere is predominant in ‘performing valence-dependent, automatic, pre-attentive appraisals of emotional facial expressions’ and that the orbito-frontal system, in particular, is important in assembling and monitoring relevant past and current experiences, including their affective and social values. Crucially, he extends this appraisal function of the orbito-frontal cortex to underpin reflective function itself. (Knox 2003, p. 198.


It is the capacity for integrating opposites, emotional appraisal, and psychological separateness that Jung posited for his concept of individuation in which he claimed the transcendent function plays such an important role. If “…the ego is too unstable and weak to moderate impulsivity enough to allow for the constellation of the transcendent function…Shadow roles and impulses are acted out, without the appearance of a transcendent function to bring about an integration of opposites” (Stein 1998, p. 124).

This piece on the transcendent function has set forth criticism as well as other ways of thinking about it from various standpoints for the reader’s critical judgment to evaluate.

See Also


  1. Casement, A. (2001). Carl Gustav Jung. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  2. Giegerich. W. (2005). “Conflict/resolution,” “opposites/creative union” versus dialectics, and the climb up the slippery mountain. In W. Giegerich, D. L. Miller, & G. Mogenson (Eds.), Dialectics & analytical psychology: The El capitan canyon seminar. New Orleans, Spring Journal Inc.Google Scholar
  3. Jung, C. G. (1925). Seminar. In W. McGuire (Ed.), Analytical psychology: Notes of the seminar. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.Google Scholar
  4. Jung, C. G. (1958). On “The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation”. In Psychology and religion: West and East (Vol. 11). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  5. Jung, C. G. (1960). The transcendent function. In The structure and dynamics of the psyche (Vol. 8). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  6. Jung, C. G. (1971). Definitions. In Psychological types (Vol. 6). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  7. Knox, J. (2003). Archetype, attachment, analysis: Jungian psychology and the emergent mind. Hove/New York: Brunner-Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Solomon, H. (2007). The transcendent function and Hegel’s dialectic vision. In A. Casement (Ed.), Who owns Jung? London: Karnac Books.Google Scholar
  9. Stein, M. (1998). Jung’s map of the soul. Peru: Open Court Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  10. Ulanov, A. B. (1997). Transference, the transcendent function, and transcendence. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 42(1), 119–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.British Jungian Analytic AssociationLondonUK