Analytical psychology's theory of complexes is rooted in its understanding of apperception as the psychic process by which a new content is articulated with similar, already existing contents in such a way that it becomes understood, apprehended, and clear. As such, apperception is the bridge that connects the already existing constellated contents with the new one. According to analytical psychology, apperception is either "active" or "passive." When apperception is active, the bridge between the already existing and new contents is fashioned by the association of similar contents. When the apperception is passive, the conditions are lacking for an associative bridge based upon the similarity of the already existing contents and new contents. This has as its result the dissociation between the former and latter contents, which, paradoxically, functions apperceptively to link the two. The paradoxically apperceptive apprehension of new contents that occurs in dissociation manifests these contents as symptoms.
The absence of an associative link between ego-consciousness and unconscious contents (i.e., the symptoms) in passive apperception does not preclude for analytical psychology the existence of associations with respect to the latter contents. Rather, the theory of complexes maintains that the existence of associations that refer psychic contents to other such dissociated contents and therefore not to the ego can be both observed and investigated. By the term complex, analytical psychology understands the loose association of passively apperceived contents, which lack an associative link to ego-consciousness.
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