The Lost Art of Disagreement

In Jung’s last work on the theory of psychological types, published posthumously, he introduced the topic by writing:

“A sane and normal society is one in which people habitually disagree” (Jung 1964, p. 46).

Jung didn’t say (here) why individual disagreements are important to society, but the reasons are evident from many of his writings from 1914 onwards, when he started formulating his theories about “the process of becoming” (Jung 1914, p. 183).

Constructive disagreement is a vital part of Jung’s process of individual and cultural development and it reduces conflict in societal or international relations. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is a natural corollary of Jung’s theories of individuation and collective compensation. I’ll start by explaining these aspects of Jung’s theories, and then conclude with some practical guidelines on what it means to disagree constructively.


Individuation describes how a person becomes more mature and a unique individual. It consists of cyclical process of development, each cycle having four stages (known as the Axiom of Maria). This process is often viewed as relevant only to psychotherapy or religion and the discussion of symbols or numinous images. However, it has its origins in Jung’s theory of psychological types, which describes the normal development of the individual. It is therefore relevant to everyday interactions and attitudes.

There are four stages in the Axiom of Maria. When applied to opinions or beliefs (i.e. the subject matter of disagreements) those stages can be viewed as:

  1. Lack of awareness.   This is a precursory stage, in which the individual does not yet have any experience or knowledge about the subject matter.
  2. Forming an opinion. Through the acquisition of knowledge or experience, the individual differentiates what is good from what is bad, what is of value from what is worthless, what is right from what is wrong, etc.
  3. Valuing the opposite opinion. This involves recognising that the opposite, contradictory or ‘other’ point of view may have some validity, engaging with it and giving it as much respect as one’s own original standpoint.
  4. Constructing a new opinion. Given time and space, our imagination finds a new perspective that reconciles the previous opposites. This is a new opinion, formed by integrating the opposite into our original opinion.

Constructive disagreement plays a key role in stage 3, which requires the difference of opinion to be expressed and explored in a respectful manner. That is, the goal in stage 3 is not for one viewpoint to win out over the other. Rather, through recognising the good, bad, truth, and falsity in both sides, we find (or, rather, our imagination ‘constructs’) a new, third viewpoint that resolves the difference between the first two.

This is not a one-off process, it repeats ad infinitum. Jung described it as “snakelike, a path that unites the opposites in the manner of the guiding caduceus” (Jung 1938/1940, p.6). In the image, I’ve placed some numbers over a Caduceus to illustrate what happens in each cycle. Steps 1 to 4 are shown at the bottom as the first iteration.

The second iteration is represented by 4, 5, 6 and 7. When the first solution (4) has emerged, this new opinion has to be developed or differentiated (5). It then has to confront the opposite perspective (6) which leads to another new opinion (7). Hence, one’s conscious standpoint or understanding progresses over time.

When an opinion is highly differentiated from its opposite, the difference between the two opinions can be very stark and difficult to reconcile. However, when the degree of differentiation is low, it is easier to recognise the opposite – and the progression from one state to the other is less traumatic. This is often the case in scientific disciplines, where the advancement of knowledge can be driven by dialectics.

Practical Example: The Hawthorne Effect

In the 1920s there were psychological studies that showed productivity in a factory went up when the lighting was increased. However, when the lighting was dimmed, productivity also went up – i.e. the two studies yielded contradictory results. The researchers then realised that the changes were not due to the lighting, but to other factors (perhaps that workers were being observed). They went on to do further studies that examined the impact of other factors on productivity. This sequence of development maps on to the Axiom of Maria, and the Caduceus, as follows:

  1. (Lack of Awareness) This was the pre-1920s state when the relationship between lighting and productivity had not been studied.
  2. (Forming an Opinion) This was the study that showed productivity went up when the lighting was increased.
  3. (Valuing the Opposite Opinion) They then took into account the results of studies that showed productivity went up when the lighting was dimmed. At this point there was a contradiction.
  4. (Constructing a new opinion) The researchers concluded that there must be something else influencing productivity. This was later coined “The Hawthorne Effect” in recognition of the factory in which the studies took place.
  5. (Forming an opinion) The researchers then clarified the theory on what caused the change in productivity, and put it to the test.
  6. (Valuing the opposite opinion) They then considered other conflicting evidence.
  7. They developed a new (refined) view of what was causing the productivity increase.
  8. Etc.

Psychologists’ understanding of productivity and motivation developed, and continues to develop, through considering evidence alongside conflicting or contradictory evidence. That is, knowledge progresses (in part) through researchers’ constructive dialogue between opposites.

Advancement of Knowledge and Maturity

The benefits of studying paradox can be seen in many areas of life, e.g. advances of scientific knowledge, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity and, more recently, quantum physics. However in some cases, such as court trials, the weighing up of contradictory evidence does not result in an advancement, but in a simple judgment that one or other side is correct. Jung’s model only applies when there are genuine contradictions or “antinomies” (Jung 1935, p. 4) – i.e. when:

“There are clear proofs for both sides of this antinomy, so that an objective judgment cannot give more weight to thesis or to antithesis. The existence of valid contradictions shows that the object of investigation presents the inquiring mind with exceptional difficulties… Hence we arrive at the dialectical formulation” (ibid)

Although this statement was made in the context of psychotherapy, it represents the essence of Jung’s model for normal learning and development, which he described in the book Psychological Types (Jung 1921). That is, a type – which is a combination of certain typological functions – is one-sided, and the other functions represent the opposite. This is a stage of development to go through, but a person does not fully develop through the Caduceus if they remain identified with that type. On the contrary, for Jung being a type was problematic and something to develop out of:

“There is… another form of dissociation… defined as an identification of the ego with a particular function or group of functions… The most one-sided differentiations are found among semi-barbarous people.” (Jung 1921, p. 206)

Jung intended his theory of types to be an introduction to his theory of development (not a system for classifying people). Typological conflicts explain what happens in the first cycle (or on the first ‘rung’) of the Caduceus. That is, one can begin the process of individuation by reconciling and transcending typological opposites. Thereafter the process should continue with further iterations – to develop a deeper and more unique personality. The ultimate goal is become someone who “liberates himself from the opposites” (Jung 1921, p. 216).

Therefore, individuation begins when we withdraw our investment in typological preferences, or in our side of the argument, and consider both sides more dispassionately and with equal value. Once we have established what is true or of worth on each side, we can then look for creative or imaginative ways of reconciling the opposites. It is through maintaining this stance that we can find the ‘third way’ (which is actually step four in the Axiom of Maria) or what Jung called the “irrational third” (Jung 1921, p. 217) drawing the term from Taoism.

Disagreement, when approached in this constructive manner, plays a fundamental role in each cycle of integration by creating the conditions in which this new and better conscious standpoint can emerge. As a result, our knowledge can develop and personality can mature.

Collective Compensation

The constructive disagreement that takes place in individuation is related to societal conflict through the principle of collective compensation.

  • Compensation is the natural balancing mechanism of the psyche. Whenever the conscious mind takes a strong one-sided standpoint, balance is maintained by the opposite being present in the unconscious. This tends to have an impact outside of our awareness, and/or to be projected onto other people.
  • Collective compensation occurs when there are large groups of people who take the same, strong standpoint. This tends to stir an archetype – “the appearance of the archetype… usually indicates the need for a collective compensation” (Shelburne 1988, p. 60). An ‘archetype’ can be viewed as a collective, cultural phenomenon that has a significant but largely hidden affect on society.

This can be illustrated with the analogy of a boat that is full of people. If everyone moves to look at the water on one side of the boat, the weight of people causes the boat to list. That side goes down, but the other side (which is now out of sight) raises up. The unconscious connections across the world are akin to the boat – they can lead to compensatory relations between societies.

If one culture is lacking in constructive disagreement, conflict may rise up somewhere else in the world. The connection between the two is unconscious, so the temptation is to condemn that society for its conflict, or attempt to destroy it. Although that society bears some responsibility, this attempt at destruction will ultimately fail. This is because it retains a one-sided approach and fails to address one of the sources of the problem.

An important part of dealing with international conflict, therefore, is to recognise and deal with our own deficiencies – not only in constructive disagreement, but also in other one-sided aspects of our culture.   This type of reflection can, however, be a difficult task that we are often not prepared to undertake, as argued by the cultural critic Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Solzhenitsyn 1973, p. 75)

 Practical Guidelines for Constructive Disagreement

There are many obstacles to engaging in constructive disagreement, e.g.:

  • Avoidance of conflict or change, through dislike of difference or contradiction, or wanting everything or everybody to be the same. This might also be driven by fear – of disagreement turning into destructive conflict.
  • Being close-minded, not open to contrary views, thinking one has sufficient knowledge. This one-sidedness prevents us from seeing what is true or of value, on each side. Instead, we set ourselves the goal of defeating or destroying the other, rather than integrating it.
  • Receiving only positive support and reinforcement for our beliefs, e.g. by engaging only with like-minded groups and discussions. This can include being misled by social media that only provides positive feedback – such as the Facebook ‘like’ system.
  • Feeling uncomfortable with, and unable to tolerate, the ambiguity, ambivalence or tension that can arise in constructive disagreement.

Such obstacles need to be recognised and circumvented – otherwise they will imprison us in our current attitudes. For constructive disagreement to become habitual, we need to learn to:

  • Withdraw some of the emotional investment in our own beliefs, reflecting on our own opinions critically, and looking at contradictory views dispassionately rather than defensively.
  • Engage in relationship and dialogue with those who disagree, e.g. by taking part in social media or discussion groups with people do not share our views.
  • Discern the bad and the good, the truth and falsity, in both sides of the argument.
  • Avoid jumping too quickly to superficial conclusions about how differences are to be resolved, but give our creative imaginations time to produce more meaningful and powerful solutions.


Jung, C.G. (1914), On Psychological Understanding, in CW 3 (London: Routledge, 1991).

Jung, C.G. (1921), Psychological Types, (London: Routledge, 1971).

Jung, C.G. (1935), Principles of Practical Psychotherapy, in CW 16 (London: Routledge, 1993)

Jung, C.G. (1938/1940), Psychology and Religion in Collected Works 11, (Hove: Routledge, 1969)

Jung, C.G. (1964), Approaching the Unconscious, in Man and His Symbols (London: Picador, 1978).

Shelburne, W.A. (1988), Mythos and Logos in the Thought of Carl Jung: the theory of the collective unconscious in scientific perspective, (New York: SUNY Press).

Solzhenitsyn, A.I. (1973), The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

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