Zen Master Alan Watts Explains What Made Carl Jung Such an Influential Thinker

The twentieth century produced a fair few thinkers on the human mind whose observations still resonate today. The Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung certainly appears in that group, as does the British philosopher and interpreter of Buddhism Alan Watts, and though not a week goes by when I don’t hear their words cited, I seldom hear the words of both of them cited by the same person. Though nearly two generations (among other things) separated Watts and Jung, the two men did once meet, in 1958, as Watts traveled through Europe with his father. Three years later, Jung passed on and Watts recorded the lecture above.

What made Jung such an important observer of humanity? Watts points to “one fundamental principle that underlay all his work and that was most extraordinarily exemplified in Jung himself as a person,” which he calls Jung’s “recognition of the polarity of life. That is to say, his resistance to what is to my mind the disastrous and absurd hypothesis, that there is in this universe a radical and absolute conflict between good and evil, light and darkness that can never never never be harmonized.”



He goes on to talk for a little under an hour about about Jung himself, Jung’s influence on his own work as a “comparative philosopher,” and the continuing relevance of Jung’s ideas to the modern world — all of which he ties together in an integrated tribute to this “integrated character.”

“There is a nice German word, hintergedanken, which means a thought in the very far far back of your mind,” says Watts. “Jung had a hintergedanken in the back of his mind that showed in the twinkle in his eye. It showed that he knew and recognized what I sometimes call the element of irreducible rascality in himself. And he knew it so strongly and so clearly, and in a way so lovingly, that he would not condemn the same thing in others, and would therefore not be led into those thoughts, feelings, and acts of violence towards others which are always characteristic of the people who project the devil in themselves upon the outside, upon somebody else, upon the scapegoat.” And so, whether we enter into this field of thought through Watts, through Jung, or through anyone else, it always seems to comes back to the ancient Greeks: “Know thyself.”

Related Content:

Carl Jung’s Hand-Drawn, Rarely-Seen Manuscript The Red Book: A Whispered Introduction

Carl Jung Explains His Groundbreaking Theories About Psychology in Rare Interview (1957)

Carl Jung’s Fascinating 1957 Letter on UFOs

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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