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"The Psychological Significance
of Chaos and Disorder"

Jonathan Marshall

The importance of disorder

Normally, we tend to flee from disorder and chaos; identifying chaos with evil and destruction.  We do our best to tidy it up and repress it.  We tend to see disorder as something left over from our efforts at making order, a passing phase on the way to further order, or just evidence of the general ‘cussedness’ of the world.  However it might be suggested that life is that which resists order and predictability, and so the more we are alive, the more unpredictable, and perhaps disordered, we may appear.  It might even be worth wondering if spiritual, social and psychological growth may necessarily involve living with chaos?  If so, then taking disorder and chaos seriously, may allow us to transform our views of psychology and the world. 

Chaos and disorder is a fundamental part of Jung’s theory, especially after he studied alchemy, but it is often bypassed in our rush to psychological order.  We can summarise his position by saying that the experience of chaos, the materia confusa, leads to transformation and is essential to transformation.  What we will find at some stage in our lives is that the order that we wish to impose upon the world, or on the unconscious, no longer works – it may even produce further disruption – and that this failure portends the possibility of new life – or further distress; there is no sunny unrealism in Jung.  The whole ‘spirit’ is hidden in what we see as chaos and, as a result, disorder is not to be feared, but to be investigated and listened to.  The detritus and disruptions we tend to ignore may be significant and may inform us about ourselves or about the world.  This attempt to integrate, and listen to, chaos rather than to control it, or hide it, is a defining characteristic of Jungian thought. 

This article starts with disorder in psychology and then looks at our preconceptions about order, which primarily come from our religious mythology.  This of course, relies on us recognising that mythic thought is not dead in Western society; we are still influenced by the stories of the past, except that they have come to seem like common sense.  Our primary myth is that we have no myths, only other people, somewhere else, or at sometime in the past actually have them, we supposedly have outgrown them or lost them.  Some think this is good, some think it is bad, but the proposition is simply not true.  Listen to a politician some day and see how much of what they say depends upon a taken for granted myth, however impoverished, such as the myth of order and the necessity for its imposition.  Myth always feels real – otherwise it would not be myth, and would have no effect.  From consideration of our main relevant myths we move briefly in to alchemy and then back into psychology.  So we have a circle, which contains and expresses the chaos:

This primary substance [the chaos] is round (massa globosa, rotundum),
like the world and the world-soul;
it is in fact the world-soul and the world-substance in one (Aion CW 9 II: §376).

We dissolve into flux and coagulate into a temporary order, which dissolves again.

The theory of chaos and disorder

Only a side illumination is needed from contemporary chaos theory, because most chaos theory is more interested in hidden order than in disorder itself.  However, the theory popularly known as the ‘butterfly effect’ has relevance.  This asserts not just that we cannot predict the results of things with accuracy, because of lack of knowledge, but that different degrees of accuracy in our measurements of the same events, may give completely different results.  We might normally expect that as we get more accurate data, we would converge towards a particular result, however in a sufficiently complex interactive system, increasing accuracy of measurements may result in entirely different results.  As a consequence, some things are inherently unpredictable and thus chaotic; they escape predictable order.  I would say that it is obvious that human beings and human systems are complex and interactive in this sense, and thus tend to subvert our predictions, and thankfully so.  There is always potential for surprise in life – good or bad – and life always escapes our exact plans.  Indeed the more exact those plans are the more our life will tend to escape them.

There is also no easy definition of order or disorder.  As people will know, these are subjective, or even political, terms.  If someone else has ever tidied your rooms or your desk, you will understand that someone else’s order is not necessarily your own.  However, disorder has more ways of occurring than order, so we can sometimes agree on what is disordered, even if we cannot agree on what is ordered.  The more obsessional you are about order, the easier it is for something to appear disordered.  A knife in a table setting might be just ever so slightly diagonal… Thus, there is a sense in which order and disorder are mutually implicated and form an order/disorder complex rather than an opposition.  The type of order you cultivate turns those events, which escape that order, into what you call disorder.  It is the order, and the rigour of that order that creates that possibility of disorder, and the order often depends upon that disorder, for its justification.  As a result, ordering can get more and more intense the more it is inappropriate and fails.  For example, intense policing can create crime by looking for guilty people and arresting people for less and less significant offences.  This is not to say I am simply reversing the moral value attributed to order and disorder, and saying that disorder is ‘good’ and order is ‘bad’, but simply pointing out that they come together, and both may tell us something.  If disorder gets most of the praise and attention here, it is simply because such attention is rare – even anarchists talk of spontaneously arising order, and not of the virtues of disorder.

Chaos in human psychology

To be simplistic: ego equals order, and unconscious equals disorder.
The order of the ego is both the order we impose or discover in ourselves and the order we impose upon, or discover, in the world.  The unconscious is everything else:
   * That which escapes our order,
   * That which is created by our ordering and subverts that order,
   * That which our ordering leads us to ignore, and
   * That which is completely beyond our conception but which still affects us. 

The unconscious resists our ordering.  Many processes are unconscious – not only psychological, physical or biological processes, but social and ecological ones.  Jung would later call this wider system which seeks balance ‘the Self’.  But here, the important point is that the unconscious is collective and plural.  There is nothing singular about these processes, and there is no need to assume they are always in harmony, or can be reconciled – hence they can appear, feel, or be, chaotic and disordering. 

The ego’s ordering is often an order of requirement, hence the disorder of the unconscious, appears threatening.  The order we want, and expect, is not arising, so we tend to repress what is happening, ignore it, or attempt to triumph over it.  Hence, the dynamic unconscious was discovered (to distort a little for simplicity) when Freud paid attention to disruptions – slips of the tongue, memory loss, and dreams – and when Jung conducted experiments on delays in associations between words and discovered the complexes (CW 2).  Sadly, Freud reduced the possibility of unconsciouses to an unconscious, and furthermore stayed within the Christian tradition and made the unconscious an equivalent of St. Paul’s ‘the flesh’ which had to be conquered, or at best sublimated, so as not to disturb order and convention.  One of the causes of the split between Jung and Freud was not just that in Psychology of the Unconscious (Symbols of Transformation [CW 5] is the name given to the second edition) Jung expanded the libido to include all energetic processes and made the Oedipus complex symbolic rather than literal, but that Jung raised the possibility that the unconscious was not only a hostile disorder, but also a potentially beneficent disorder.  He suggested that there is an unconscious wisdom; a wisdom that is currently refused by the order of the ego, and that part of the process of therapy is to get in contact with this wisdom and listen to it, without being possessed by it.  Disorder arises again, because the ego can only translate the unconscious via symbols, which may open to misinterpretation. We still need the ego to judge the value and meaning of that wisdom, at the same time as we suspend the ego’s judgmental dismissal of that wisdom.  Hence, for individuation, the ego needs a new relation to disorder and an ability to tolerate processes outside its control.

Jung is saying that the ego is necessary, but it is finite, incapable of predicting the results of action in complex systems, and has, at best, an approximate knowledge.  Because of its limitations, the normal ego when acting to control the world disrupts the intricacies and multiplicities of the wider ‘Self’ and produces compensatory and disruptive unconscious dynamics.  The forces we repress or ignore eventually clamour to be heard – or no longer work that well, so life becomes hard or meaningless.  This unconscious reality cannot be removed by force or egoic reason.  The only solution is to learn to live in a new relation with it, so that it becomes less painfully disruptive.  

We tend to think of people being disrupted by ‘mental disorders’, but many of what we call mental disorders are actually excessive orderings.  Among the common ones are ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’ in which a person must order things, and cannot cope with disorder, they may have to repeat a particular action or set of actions.  They have relatively few responses and their lives aim at excessive ordering.  In paranoia, everything that happens is drawn into a central vortex of theories.  Everything is made to be about the one thing.  Again the person is so excessively ordered that their life and responses are disordered.  The psychoanalytic transference occurs because we are insisting on replicating a particular kind of order (say the order of our family), which, while appropriate in some circumstances, may not be appropriate in others.  It is often not a disorder, that is the problem, but an inappropriate order.

Myth and order, the origin of order

So why do we value order so much that we often cannot see its harmful effects?  This could be because our prime myths suggest virtue and order are the same.  Creation myths are myths that form and express templates for how we collectively think the universe behaves, and for how we work. 
cosmogonic myths are, at bottom, symbols for the coming of consciousness….  The dawn-state corresponds to the unconscious; in alchemical terms, it is the chaos, the massa confusa or nigredo; and by means of the opus, which the adept likens to the creation of the world, the albedo or dealbatio is produced, the whitening, which is compared sometimes to the full moon, sometimes to sunrise.  It also means illumination, the broadening of consciousness that goes hand in hand with the ‘work’ (Aion CW 9, II: §230).

In Genesis, the Bible states that, after the initial creation, the world begins as chaos, “without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters”.  Or in another translation: “the world being then a formless waste, with darkness over the seas and only an awesome wind sweeping over the water”.  Then God separates Light from Darkness, Day from Night, “the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament”, the Land from the Sea and so on.  God goes on to make sure that things reproduce after their kind (miyn – portion), in an orderly manner, and so on. 

The message of the myth is that without the ordering and sorting of God there is no process, there is no life, and no constructive dynamics.  The world requires ordering.  Christianity further implies that disobedience and disorder are a regression back to chaos and that this is evil.  We might note that there is nothing in the story, except the presupposition that obedience to order is good, to indicate the Serpent is evil as such. 

People who are influenced by this myth will think that without ordering, without recognised authority, the world will collapse into chaos.  Thus under this myth intelligent virtue involves actions which convert the chaos of ‘raw materials’ into useful products and energy, and that without such ordering action the world would collapse.  Disorder is bad.  Similarly, as there is only one God there is only one order.  There are no competing and legitimate orders.  Thus if our ordering is actually producing chaos (as when our economic and political ordering produces, or enhances, ecological degradation), there seems to be no way forward and we try to stick with our orders, or intensify them, rather than face up to the work of change.

The power of this myth can be felt if you have ever been swayed by the argument from design.  The argument assumes that what we perceive as order can only emerge if there is someone doing the ordering.  Thus it says if you can see order in the world, it must arise through God doing that ordering.  However, it is the myth of Genesis, itself, which implies and frames the argument that perceived order arises through ordering.  If we deny, or query, that proposition, then the whole argument collapses.  Taoism, for example, can suggest that it is making disorder that takes work, and that proper order will settle out the less we do.

The order inherent in our one God also produces the idea that the world should be explained through one set of principles.  We can talk of ‘The Western Mind’, or ‘The Soul’, or ‘The Unconscious’ etc., and tend to explain disorder by a ‘fall’ of some kind from a perfect unity.  This understanding makes multiplicity bad, and suggests that difference or conflict is something which should be suppressed, rather than explored.  We should destroy our enemies, as listening to them is chaos threatening weakness.  The so-called ‘radical atheists’ (such as Richard Dawkins) seem as influenced by this monotheism as are orthodoxly religious people; they also only want there to be one truth, one principle, one cosmology.  Similarly it can be argued that with one all-powerful God there is no room for contingency or even that there is no real free will (hence the idea of pre-destination), as that would lessen the control and power of God.  The monotheistic ordering argument assumes that if everything, or anything, were contingent then the world would be meaningless, and certainly not enriched.

This assumed opposition between chance and purpose is rather odd.  Why should something which is contingent within boundaries have no purpose, or be expressive of no purpose?  Modern avant-garde art, or the work of Leonardo da Vinci, shows the interaction between contingency and purpose.  The idea is to produce something the creator would not have conceived of in advance.  Chance adds possibilities, excitement and interest, and hence there is no reason to assume that God would want to know everything that was going to happen in advance.

There is classic theological paradox: is God powerful enough to make a rock so big he cannot move it?  This allows us to set up another paradox: is God so omniscient and omnipotent that he can make a system so complex he cannot predict exactly what will happen?  Ultimately this comes down to a question of what God chooses to do.  If God so chose, then he would not move a pebble. Likewise if he so chose he could not predict all outcomes.  The idea that God controls absolutely everything, not only leads to fundamental problems for the role of human choice, but also makes God a tyrant. 

However, there is no reason why the chaotic and disordered should be meaningless, nor why the more likely interplay of chaotic and ordered should be meaningless.  As it happens a completely ordered statement, or message, is largely meaningless, as you know what it will say in advance – what is being conveyed to you is completely redundant.  It is the unexpected events, that give the message meaning, that produce change.  So, again, it might be useful be open to the potential of chaos and disorder; to the possibility that something might have a meaning which does not tie up with other meanings or, indeed, which contradicts them.  This is one way that we can learn. 

While as Jungians we are used to sitting with feelings and sitting with images, allowing things to emerge, we are perhaps more reluctant to sit with meaninglessness, or with the random, without seeking to integrate them, and usually to integrate them into our existing world.  However, everything does not have to be one.

It might be easier to listen to disorder where Gods are not just ordering or tied to order.  Polytheism allows disorder because the Gods don’t agree and portents can have variable meanings.  Conflict is not inherently bad. 
all energy proceeds from opposition, so the psyche too possesses its inner polarity, this being the indispensable prerequisite for its aliveness, as Heraclitus realized long ago.  Both theoretically and practically, polarity is inherent in all living things….

Wherever the psyche does announce absolute truths such as, for example, ‘God is motion’, or ‘God is One’ it necessarily falls into one or the other of its own antitheses. For the two statements might equally well be: ‘God is rest’ or ‘God is All’.…. Indeed, this is inevitable, for, as Heraclitus says, ‘Everything is flux’.  Thesis is followed by antithesis, and between the two is generated a third factor, a lysis [separation, breaking down] which was not perceptible before. In this the psyche once again merely demonstrates its antithetical nature and at no point has really got outside itself (Jung Memories Dreams and Reflections).


The Trickster can be thought of as an archetype which gives chaos and disorder a place.  Trickster is fluid and ever changing.  Trickster does not hold with normal rationalities and tends to produce disorder, or upset the normal order of things.  Trickster figures are not a feature of Western mythology.  There is a marked lack of jokes in the Bible.  The Serpent in the Garden of Eden tricks Adam and Eve, trying to set up a situation in which humans are free and like gods.  However, this trick is not celebrated.  With God being the orderer it has to be condemned and mourned, and Christianity is largely about undoing the trick through sacrifice.

Jung rather sadly here accepts the Western valuation of order, and demotes the trickster, writing it is: a “faithful representation of the absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche which has hardly left the animal level”.  He talks of it representing a split personality or shadow, and at best a primitive foreshadowing of the redeemer.  Vine Deloria, a contemporary Sioux writer states:
the trickster figure primarily represents the arbitrary side of natural events, those often near coincidental happenings that demonstrate the fickle side of an individual’s fate, the ironic unpredictable situations that arise despite our selves (Deleoria, C.G Jung and the Sioux Traditions: p26-9).

In a way, the trickster ‘sanctifies’ the role of disorder and contingency.  We could also suggest Trickster symbolises and channels the energy which allows us to break out of our stereotypes, conventions, customs, habits, rationality, or orders, etc.  It represents an energy that opens the world of possibilities before us – but yes it is dangerous.  It is a force beyond, or subverting of order, which is comic, useful and threatening.


Alchemy is, according to Jung, a kind of collective dream.  It acts as a compensation for particular historical aspects of Western consciousness.  Alchemy restores the shadow realms of matter, chaos, participation and cyclic repetition to our psychological life.  In it there is no separation between subject and object, spiritual and material, or good and evil.  In alchemy, truth and understanding are not absolute.  Nor do alchemists flee chaos: “The chaos is the materia confusa. This materia prima is necessary to the art”, writes Aegidius de Vadis.

By the Second birth of Chaos, namely Pan, [the ancients] point at the universal nature of the world, and the peaceableness and accord of contrary elements, arguing thereby, that after that great discord which was in the first opening of the womb of Chaos, concord did follow in the second place, which was as beautiful and acceptable unto God in the later birth, as deformed discord was foul and odious in his sight in the first (Robert Fludd Mosaical Philosophy). 

Fire and water … are forced to engender continually a regenerated Chaotic water or primordial Chaos out of their Centre, for the generation, preservation, destruction and regeneration of all Things, and this will continue until it pleases God to Calcine and regenerate the whole Earth! (Golden Chain of Homer).

For Jung, although he changes his mind in various places as to where it occurs, chaos is a vital part of the work.  Usually the experience of chaos occurs in the beginning of the work – without it nothing happens.

[Uniting symbols] arise from the collision between the conscious and the unconscious and from the confusion which this causes (known in alchemy as ‘chaos’ or ‘nigredo’). Empirically, this confusion takes the form of restlessness and disorientation (Aion CW 9 II: §304).

Alchemical change is marked by suffering, dark depression, dismemberment, putrefaction, and dissolution; and all are essential to the work.  The act of disordering allows new possibilities to arise – if painfully.  But without the loss and the suffering, then perhaps there is no movement towards the wholeness of the Philosopher’s Stone. “Truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Gospel of John 12:24).

the constellation of the unconscious is a troublesome factor. The situation is enveloped in a kind of fog, and this fully accords with the nature of the unconscious content: it is black blacker than black (nigrum, nigrius nigro), as the alchemists rightly say and in addition is charged with dangerous polar tensions with the inimicitia elementorum.  One finds oneself in an impenetrable chaos, which is indeed one of the synonyms for the mysterious prima materia (Jung “Psychology of the Transference” CW 16: §383 ).

As the spirit of chaos is indispensable to the alchemical world order, so the unconscious is essential to the balanced working of the mind.


What happens when we do take life as an interplay of order and disorder seriously? 

Firstly we can accept that everything about life is not controllable.  Things will go wrong; we will be ill and so on.  The issue is not how we control these events, but how we react to them, and that reaction itself can be messy.  We can accept that while we think we are being rational and seeking truth, we actually producing further disruption.  We can pay attention to the neglected things, the disruptions that hide new potentials and wisdom, the messages from life and the unconscious, rather than desperately seek to find, or impose, the order we already believe in. 

We don’t have to be hostile to life’s uprisings and escapes and accept that even our best-intentioned actions are open to unforseen results.  We may accept that our models of the world are just models, useful but limited and not necessarily true, and amenable to change.  We can discard them and learn again rather than discard the disorders they produce.  Our models stop being ‘the way things are’ and we can be more open to the disorder which shows what actually is. Divergences from order become of interest rather than something to suppress.  Thus by taking disorder seriously we can more readily adapt to the complexities and the realities of life and the unconsciousness we all exist within.  Perhaps we can listen to disorder and learn from it and perhaps revise our ethics, so that we become more attentive to the complex and confusing nature of reality and of the others we share the world with.  We might no longer imprison reality so harshly, and so without appeal.

I want to finish this piece with a story from David Peat (Pathways of Chance: 161).  Peat tells of how the physicist David Bohm was talking with some Blackfoot Indians.  Bohm was describing how Western scientists have built a superconductor, which is a state of extreme order.  After thinking quietly an unidentified elder says to him “everything in nature is in balance, so if there is order in one place there is disorder in another”.  Bohm agrees: “Yes, that is correct.  This disorder is called entropy”.  The Elder asks him: “Then are you morally responsible for the disorder you create through your order?”  Ordering may never have quite the consequences we anticipate.



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