On the Relevance of Alchemical Literature for a Systems Theory Approach to Depth Psychology

On the Relevance of Alchemical Literature for a Systems Theory Approach to Depth Psychology

John S. Uebersax


Someone I know recently questioned the value of my studying (fairly casually) the history and literature of alchemy. They expressed the not- uncommon belief that alchemy is mere fantasy, lacking even the remotest scientific value. Somewhat chagrined, and perhaps partly even in need of justifying this activity to myself, I felt that a re-examination and statement of my reasoning would be appropriate. Accordingly, I contend here that: (1) alchemy is basically, though perhaps not in every detail, scientific; (2) it contains a proto-science of what we now call systems theory; and (3) its principles in this sense are very relevant. I am especially interested in possible social science applications, particularly in psychology, social change and international conflict.

We first address a common misconception: that alchemy was mainly concerned with the transmutation of lead into gold. Actually, the desideratum of alchemy was to produce the philosopher's stone, believed to have broad magical and transforming properties. For example, it could produce immortality as well as gold.

In it earliest stages, alchemy was basically metallurgy. Even up to the 17th century, alchemy and scientific chemistry were not separated. No evidence suggests that any more than a few, mostly disreputable alchemists sought material wealth by producing gold. More, it seems, understood "transmutation of lead into gold" as allegorical and symbolic-in particular, as a process of purifying the soul or mind.

We now proceed to the task proper. To state our central theses:

  1. Alchemy is interpretable as a science of the transformation of complex systems.
  2. Its principles are sufficiently general, abstract, and broadly applicable that they may be compared to mathematics or logic.
  3. Many alchemical principles are relevant to the modern systems theory.
  4. Study of alchemical literature may reveal many useful ideas for systems theory. Special attention might be given to stages of alchemical transformation as identified by medieval and Renaissance alchemists.

It may interest the reader to know that I am a psychologist and a computer scientist, and able to keep these views separate in own mind as required. I develop my argument here in the latter capacity.

A series of statements follow, analogous to the propositions of a logical or mathematical exposition. By these we wish to show that alchemy may be seen as a valid and productive area of scientific study.

If a proposition appears obvious to the reader, there is no need to read the amplifying material which follows it.

1. Complex systems exist.

Definition of complex system: a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole, often hierarchically composed of other systems, and often with a definable goal, purpose, or course of development.

2. Complex systems are ubiquitous.

Biological organisms, societies, solar systems, ecosystems, economies, geopolitical structures and businesses are all complex systems.

Atoms are complex systems, composed of subatomic particles. Molecules are complex systems. Metals, ores and minerals are complex systems.

Human beings are complex systems.

3. There is a science of Systems Theory.

Systems theory studies general principles and properties of complex systems. As a recognized scientific discipline, it originated with the work of Bertalanffy around 1945, with later contributions made by others.

Systems theory is now widely studied. There are many professional societies (e.g., International Society for the System Sciences, Federation for Systems Research), journals (e.g., Complex Systems, Journal of Complex Systems) and scientific centers (e.g., Santa Fe Institute) devoted to it.

Aside: Interestingly, the emblems of several professional societies devoted to systems studies see to have alchemical reference. See Figure 1.

American Society for Cybernetics       UK Systems Society       Journal of Systemics       International Society of Systems Studies

Figure 1
Emblems of Several Professional Societies Related to Systems Theory.

The rightmost three seem clear allusions to the yin-yang symbol associated with Chinese alchemy. The leftmost emblem, for the American Society of Cybernetics shows a green dragon and red salamander, symbols in medeival alchemy (however, we find no reference to the word "alchemy" on the ASC website, suggesting perhaps a kind of ambivalence towards alchemy, or a recognition of its relevance that is only sub- or unconscious).

4. Systems contain: components, structures and relations.

True by definition. For example, a biological organism contains cells, groups of cells, and interactions among cells; societies consist of individuals, institutions, and relations; and so on.

5. Basic principles apply to all complex systems.

True by definition. Some general principles are listed below.

5.1. Systems change over time.

Systems come into being, evolve, and transform.

Complex systems may grow or decay; may progress or regress; may accelerate or decelerate their rate of change. They may be static or volatile, stable or unstable.

Change may be linear and gradual (example: simple growth of an organism), or it may be nonlinear, occurring in distinct phases (example caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly)

Change may be self-initiated, or produced by outside factors. It may be spontaneous or scripted. Example: DNA contains a general script for the operation and development of a cell.

5.2. A system may temporarily regress to an earlier stage.

This may be normal, or it may be unhealthy.

5.3. Systems may ordered or disordered.

A system can be well-ordered or disordered, harmonious or discordant, well-regulated or chaotic, functional or dysfunctional. There are processes that may restore order or health to a disordered system; there are processes that may produce disorder in a previously ordered system.

5.4. Systems may have recognizable goals, immediate and long-term.

Example: an army waging war has the goal of defeating another army.

5.5. Systems may interact with one another.

They may cooperate or positively reinforce other systems, or they may compete with or negatively reinforce other systems. Example: two nations fighting, or engaged in productive trade. Systems may assimilate other systems, or be assimilated.

6. Molecular structures are complex systems.

Atoms, formed of electrons, protons and neutrons, bound by atomic forces, are complex systems. Molecules are systems of atoms.

7. Minerals and ores are complex systems.

Minerals and ores are complex systems composed of molecules. They have structures. There are internal forces. They are mixtures of elements, bound together with varying degrees of cohesion and uniformity.

8. Metal extraction from ores and combination of chemicals are transformations of complex systems.

An ore is a complex system containing metal and other minerals. The metal within the ore is a complex system. Heating and/or combination with other minerals effects a transformation of the form of the metal, letting it be separated from the surrounding mineral matrix.

9. The ancients discovered metallurgy and primitive chemistry; this was the origin of alchemy.

Alchemy began as metallurgy in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and elsewhere. Extraction of metal from ore was a major step. Another was the combining of metals, such as copper with tin to make bronze. Substances like mercury and sulfur were important for these processes.

Some early alchemists also studied fermentation and the art of brewing alcoholic drink. Later alchemists invented distillation and hard alcohol. Alcohol was called "aqua vitae" (water of life) and believed to have metaphysical properties. We still refer to alcoholic beverages as "spirits."

10. They saw that certain principles governing metallurgy and chemistry apply in other domains.

Alchemists recognized principles like purification and ennobling. An end product of a process, such as a pure metal, especially gold, seemed a fitting analogy to advanced psychological or spiritual attainment.

Other basic principles of alchemy include: that things evolve and change in form; that things may be more accurately be viewed as processes, than as disjoint, unrelated states.

11. As alchemy developed, the principles became increasingly codified, general and abstract.

That is, a set of regular concepts and principles applicable in general to alchemical transformation were identified and named.

12. Alchemy identified general steps or stages of transformation.

These include:

Other terms or concepts include Precipitation, Impregnation and Volatilization.

13. Alchemy considered the dynamic tension of opposites a basic principle of change.

The beginnings of this view may be found in Chinese systems and in pre-Socratic philosophy (Pythagoras, Heraclitus, etc.)

14. These principles are analogous to those of mathematics and logic.

Like those of mathematics and logic, these general alchemical principles are an abstract representation of a domain of reality.

Rather than consider these principles obsolete and atavistic, one could view them as progressive. Just as not all people yet know or apply many basic principles of logic, mathematics or algebra, so too these principles of transformation are very gradually disseminating and being incorporated into human culture.

Example: It is advantageous and accurate to see reality in terms of processes, not states. But few people yet have this perspective; else we would show greater patience and foresight in affairs with other persons or nations

15. As with mathematics and logic, there are benefits with the recognition and study of abstract principles of transformation.

Understanding of general principles lets one see lawfulness and regularity and applicability to diverse instances. It aids both our thinking and powers of observation. It may improve prediction and control.

With mathematics we have algebra. With logic we have Boolean algebra and predicate calculus. So too we may potentially construct and profit from a symbolic "calculus of transformation."


Denote by:

     S(x) --> (A, B)

the separation of a composite system x into components A and B.


     S(cinnabar) --> mercury and by-product
     S(hematite) --> iron and by-product

We may define other functions and operators, chaining them to describe more complex functions, operations, processes and sequences of change.

The study of alchemical manuscripts, which contain many suggestive symbols, might in fact show that some alchemists employed such a calculus. [Note: Perhaps this is so and is common knowledge; those more well-versed in the subject may inform me, if so.]

16. Many famous scientists were alchemists.


Several treatises on alchemy are attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1250).

17. The poor reputation of alchemy must not unduly prejudice our opinion.

Alchemy was firmly distinguished from neither science nor philosophy up until the Age of Enlightenment (c. 1700). After this, rationalism dominated the cultural landscape. Chemistry diverged from Alchemy, and the latter fell into disrepute.

Even before the Enlightenment, alchemy was often viewed negatively by religious institutions. (This is ironic given that Western alchemical writers were, almost without exception, unusually devout adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam; see, for example, Theisen, 1995). To avoid censure or persecution, alchemists often used intentionally oblique and esoteric language and images.

It seems safe to say that what has been passed to the 20th and 21st centuries is a prejudiced view of the subject.

In any case, the esoteric associations of alchemy do not per se invalidate the potential scientific value of its principles.

18. The long tradition of esoteric alchemy suggests some valid basis.

For esoteric alchemy to have existed so long (perhaps 2000 years) implies possible value of its principles, psychological or otherwise. Other esoteric practices with comparable dates of origin and initial distribution (e.g., Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Mithraism, Orphism) did not remain popular so long.

Against the argument that these others were actively suppressed by the early Christian church, we note that this was also partly true of alchemy.

19. We do not suppose that all of alchemy is relevant to modern science.

We allow that, from its beginning, due to the seemingly magical nature of empirical chemistry and metallurgy, that, as alchemy developed, science, philosophy, religion, and primitive superstition were not always firmly distinguished.

We further allow that among alchemical writers were imitators lacking genuine insight, and charlatans.

However, we recognize that these considerations do not invalidate the valid scientific, empirically-based ideas of alchemy, or the abstract principles concerning the nature of change derived therefrom.

20. The human mind is a complex system.

Most will accept this as obvious. Otherwise, consider the following.

Argument based on common language. Example: We routinely speak of a person changing his or her mind. Especially as this may be associated with observable behavioral changes, we do not doubt that some actual change of mind takes place.

Argument based on neurology. It seems beyond debate that brain neuronal systems constitute a complex system. Numerous parallels between neuronal activity and phenomenology or subjective experience are evident. Regardless of ones beliefs about causation between these two realms (if any), the parallels suggest that if the brain is a complex system, so is the mind.

Argument based on psychology and philosophy. Since Aristotle and before, philosophers and psychologists have referred to different "faculties" of the mind or psyche. These include memory, reason, sensation, conscience, etc. These presuppose mental structures, entities, and relations among them. More recently, Freud and others have postulated psychodynamic models. Widespread acceptance of some of these (such as the tripartite model of id, ego, and superego) suggests they are plausible, realistic and of practical value.

21. It is evident that human beings and the human mind undergo transformations.

We speak of a reformed gambler, alcoholic, or criminal; or of religious conversion. St. Paul (Rom 12:2) tell but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" (metanoia).

Most cultures have special rituals and ceremonies, rites of passage, to mark transition from one stage, phase, or state of life to another.

Psychologists like Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson have identified recognizable stages of human cognitive and personality development.

These and other examples make clear that we routinely accept that important changes to the human mind occur in a way interpretable as nonlinear transformation.

It is possible that such transformations have identifiable general principles, that we may discover them, and that they are in some way related to principles of transformation in other domains, including chemistry, physics -- and alchemy.

22. Psychology, physiology and common custom recognize different states of consciousness.

Examples: Waking, sleep, intoxication, arousal, depression.

Some physiological models and data (for example, EEG studies) suggest that transitions among these states are nonlinear rather than gradual, and related to principles of systems theory like chaos theory and attractors.

23. Alchemists were interested in psychological transformation.

As Carl Jung fairly convincingly demonstrated (Alchemical Studies, Psychology and Alchemy and Mysterium Coniunctionis), much medeival, Renaissance and later alchemy can be understood in psychological terms.

Many alchemical treatises of the Renaissance and period and after were accompanied by sets of illustrations or emblems. These, which still exist, are richly symbolic, almost surreal. In many sets, the final emblems portray the end state of the alchemical process of producing the philosopher's stone.

Often this is understood as the result of a mystical or alchemical marriage between opposing forces. The basic duality united can be variously understood as masculine/feminine, solar/lunar, or spirit/matter principles.

The images and texts suggest that end result was a type of "superhuman" or trans-mundane state of the alchemist him- or herself. The state could be understood as one of advanced spiritual attainment, or else as total mastery (kingship) of oneself and ones relationship to the world.

It seems very evident that late alchemists were partly speaking of a resolution of basic conflicts between body and mind, instinct and reason, feeling and intellect, etc. Resolution of these conflicts might produce a state of anxiety- or neurosis-free self-actualization. Certainly we can imagine, without straining scientific credibility, that a person free from neurosis and undue anxiety would be "superhuman" in certain respects.

Later alchemists closely watched (meditated) on their experiments and chemical transformations. Their writings imply that by this they sought to induce or promote corresponding mental transformations. An intriguing possible link exists between Western alchemy and the practices of Tibetan tantric Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual practices.

A transformation of a personality from an initial state (in alchemical terms, base material or prima materia) to the end state would imply a series of intermediate stages and transformational processes.

The literature of religious mysticism presents a similar view, with its identification of stages of purification, and the "dark night of the soul" leading up to illumination and the "unitive life" (Underhill, 1911).

24. Society is also a complex system.

If alchemical principles are applicable to psychological transformation, it is also possibly they apply to various kinds of societal transformations. Examples:


There appears sufficient logical grounds to justify the study of the history of alchemy and to attempt to relate its principles to modern systems theory. A literature search has failed to identify existing articles on this subject. Perhaps that is due to the interdisciplinary nature of the project. A contributing factor may be fear of ridicule or of not being taken seriously, or a more general reluctance to conduct research on a "politically incorrect" subject.

A preliminary step might be to consider some of the alchemical stages listed above (point 12) and to identify corresponding examples in psychology, political science, international relations or other areas.

Even if we do not formally study and scientifically apply principles of alchemy, we might adopt with profit a more alchemical outlook on the world.

John S. Uebersax
April 2006


Eliade, M. The Forge and the Crucible. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979.

Jung, C. G. Psychology and Alchemy. Collected Works v. 12. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton: Princeton University, 1953.

Jung, C. G. Alchemical Studies. Collected Works v. 13. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton: Princeton University, 1967.

Jung, C. G. Mysterium Coniunctionis. Collected Works v. 14. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton: Princeton University, 1970.

Jung, C. G. The psychology of the transference. In: Jung, C. G., Collected Works of C. G. Jung, v. 16, The Practice of Psychotherapy, R. F. C. Hull, trans. (p. 163-323). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1966.

Theisen, Wilfrid. The attraction of alchemy for monks and friars in the 13th-14th centuries. The American Benedictine Review, 1995, 46:3, 239-253.

Underhill, Evelyn (1911) Mysticism. London: Methuen. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/underhill/mysticism.html

Yates, Frances. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London: Routledge, 1972.

Psychology and Religion
Existential Psychology

(c) 2006 John Uebersax PhD

rev 21 July 2006 (first version)