Carl Jung and E.F. Schumacher on the Insolubility of Life’s Greatest Problems

Carl Jung

That paradox is the inescapable destiny of any logical system is a conclusion arrived at by some of our greatest minds, from Nāgārjuna to Kurt Gödel. These paradoxes arise precisely when we turn our attention towards the most perplexing and existential questions. How to proceed when confronted with these polarities that bar our inquisition into the mysteries of existence is a question tackled, or stumbled upon, by many great inquirers, none more fascinating than Carl Jung and E.F. Schumacher.

Carl Jung, father of analytical psychology, and E.F. Schumacher, celebrated British economist & philosopher, each spent their lives investigating the deepest potentialities of humankind, and how to cultivate growth towards that end. Jung employed a clinical approach, while Schumacher worked towards a theoretical structure of understanding ‘life in the raw’.

This makes their convergence upon a central idea, that life’s greatest problems, questions, mysteries, cannot be ‘solved’, but only outgrown or transcended, all the more fascinating. In much the same way that Einstein believed no problem could be solved from the level of consciousness that created it, Jung & Schumacher tell us that to solve the “most important problems of life” does not require greater insight into the problems, as the scientific approach might call for, but greater insight into our selves:

…the greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They must be so because they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”

~ Carl Jung, Commentary on “The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life” (1962)

In giving Schumacher’s parallel statement, it’s important to note that by a “divergent problem”, he implies the same idea as Jung’s “greatest and most important problems of life”:

…I have said that to solve a problem is to kill it…Divergent problems cannot be killed…They can however be transcended. A pair of opposites – like freedom and order – are opposites at the level of ordinary life, but they cease to be opposites at the higher level, the really human level, where self-awareness plays its proper role.”

~ E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977)

Schumacher draws a fascinating distinction between convergent and divergent problems, one that greatly characterizes the one-sidedness of our industrial, scientific era. To Schumacher, a convergent problem exists within time. It is chronological, impersonal; not experiential. One can mechanically work towards the answer, discover it, write it down, and it is thus immediately available, in full, to anyone bothering to read it. Problem no more.

With a convergent problem…the answers…can be finalised and written down in the form of an instruction. Once the answer has been found, the problem ceases to be interesting: a solved problem is a dead problem. To make use of the solution does not require any higher faculties or abilities – the challenge is gone, the work is done…because the subtle, higher forces, which we have labelled life, consciousness and self-awareness, are not there to complicate matters…The moment we are dealing with problems involving the higher Levels of Being, we must expect divergence, for there enters, to however modest a degree, the element of freedom and inner experience…”

Schumacher asserts that divergent problems are those that correlate to inner experience, and that the way to properly face them is through an intensified application of self-awareness, where “self-awareness plays its proper role”. Echoed by Jung:

“Such self-knowledge is of prime importance, because through it we approach that fundamental stratum or core of human nature…Here are those preexistent dynamic factors which ultimately govern the ethical decisions of our consciousness.”

~ Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962)

Regarding the solution to a convergent problem, Schumacher remarks, “the challenge is gone, the work is done…”, implying that any given solution to a divergent problem does not mean that “the work is done”. This contains the crux of divergent problems, spirituality, philosophy, religion, and the inquiry into being itself. That the problem, the work, begins anew with each iteration of subjectivity. No matter who’s come before us, no matter how ‘enlightened’ a society we may be born into, each person must always start over, from scratch.

From a different angle, the late political philosopher Hannah Arendt provides a beautiful take on what lies beyond the inherent polarity of the human mind, and the absolutely individual nature of pursuing this “small inconspicuous track of non-time”:

This small non-time space in the very heart of time, unlike the world and the culture into which we are born, cannot be inherited and handed down by tradition, although every great book of thought points to it somewhat cryptically…Each new generation, every new human being, as he becomes conscious of being inserted between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave anew the path of thought.”

~ Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (1978)

Answers don’t lie ‘out there’. Divergent problems, the most important problems of life, can only be cultivated inwardly. They can only be “outgrown”, as Jung wrote. And just as Alan Watts spent a lifetime revolting against the notion that there are fixed forms, particular methods for uncovering “the lowdown on life”, this ‘outgrowing’ does not rely on any single piece of information, or any immutable method; it is not through outward information but inner experience, subjectivity, consciousness, that we transcend the boundaries of paradox. Outer things are only useful insofar as they catalyze some development, some change in our inner experience. Books are useful in that they provide readers with new concepts to map their inner experience to. They enlarge one’s vocabulary with which to probe their own subjective experience. 

The spiritual value in reading is not to absorb mountains of information you didn’t know, but to enable you in becoming more aware of what you already feel. There’s nothing new out there that must be grasped, only unexplored inner experience to be uncovered. This idea, that in order to truly understand something we must have some correlate in our own experience, is what Schumacher called “the Great Truth of ‘adaequatio’ (adequateness)”

If this is all the case, then what are we to do? No matter how far one may travel down their own path towards that “small inconspicuous track of non-time”, the findings cannot, by definition, by conveyed to anybody else. And the farther down the path one goes, the less conveyable the experiences become. Still, and thankfully so, this doesn’t stop voyagers from writing, or in any other artistic form, documenting, their trip. The world might seem slightly more drab if we all kept to ourselves about these existential inquisitions. 

But, in the end, it remains that any solution to life’s divergent, or greatest problems cannot be transmitted. Only provoked. Perhaps the best anybody can do who stumbles upon Arendt’s “non-time space in the very heart of time” is to embody their findings. If you can’t write them down, live the answers as vividly as possible. Among the simplest and yet most profound commentaries on what we ought to do in the face of life’s insoluble perplexities, American poet Anne Waldman writes:

We’re here to disappear; therefore let’s be as vivid & generous as we can”


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