Jungian Typology and the Four Elements

Twentieth Century psychologist Carl Gustav Jung subdivided the discriminating faculties of the human personality into four general “types:” sensation (encounters with the physical world that trigger our five bodily receptors); thinking (the intellectual function by which we process the evidence of our senses); feeling (the emotional ways in which we do the same thing); and intuition (the subconscious “hunches” by which we “connect the dots” and try to make sense of the experiential landscape). Tarot writers later in the same era decided that these four types should be assigned to the classical elements as used in the tarot as follows: sensation applies to Earth and the suit of Coins (Pentacles/Disk), the realm of mundane phenomena; thinking relates to Air and the suit of Swords, the domain of the intellect; feeling belongs to Water and the suit of Cups, where all “affairs of the heart” originate; and intuition corresponds to Fire and the suit of Wands, the spark underlying all aspiration and initiative.

I have no quarrel with the first three of these allocations. But Fire as intuition never did much for my comprehension of how tarot fits the psychological model. I see the association as an expedient non-choice rather than an ideal match like the rest; after all, Fire had to go somehwere. To me, intuition makes much more sense as a subcategory of “feeling” since it relies on sensitivities that are more elusive and mystical than the brash forthrightness of Fire. (It’s customary to say we “feel” something is true but we “can’t quite put our finger on” why.) However, in the Qabalistic system Fire also does double duty as “Spirit,” so I can certainly see “inspiration” as the appropriate cognitive activity. Our waking consciousness is “in-spirited” by subtle influences outside ourselves that give subliminal hints of occurrences the senses can’t intercept. The processing of these intimations happens at a level below the rational purview of the intellect, falling more into the sphere of emotional integration.

A comparative definition is probably in order here: Intuition is knowledge obtained by non-rational means; inspiration means being “invested with Spirit,” kind of like “push” advertising. One you actively seek by focusing your attention, with the other you open yourself to unbidden insights. Inspiration operates at the creative level of “art” while intuition is more interpretive in nature. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I do believe there is a subtle difference. Much of what we call intuitive tarot reading involves free-association from the images, which is a form of focusing even if we do intentionally blur the boundaries. As a visual artist I can vouch for the fact that inspiration often comes completely out of the blue when I’m not seeking it. To show that I”m not completely deaf to counter-arguments, I did learn from a Facebook acquaintance that “Jung saw intuition as an ‘awareness of possibilities’ rather than intuition as we understand it. It’s more entrepreneurial, which does fit quite well with Wands and Fire.”

The truth of the matter may be that those who profess to reading the tarot intuitively (which has always struck me as a purposely non-rational approach) are tapping into the “spirit vision” and not drawing their conclusions directly from the cards, which serve more as convenient “signposts” by which to steer the querent into constructive avenues of understanding. Thus, on the scale of psychological responsiveness, the individual grows from automatic “knee-jerk” reactions to stimuli into both an objective (reasoned) and subjective (creatively surmised)  estimation of circumstances and finally into an inspired contemplation of the abstract significance of one’s experiences. My main point in all of this is that either Jung could have chosen a better word or the original tarot incorporators could have found a better way to integrate Fire into the model. As it was they had little choice since Wands was “the last man standing.”


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