This may sound a bit silly, but I only really felt that I mastered the cards once I realized the powerful connection between the Jungian cognitive functions and the tarot suits.
Of course, for the average tarotist, learning about the Jungian cognitive functions may never come in handy, but for the deep, archetypally-inspired reader, these connections can make all the difference.
While “Jungian cognitive functions” sounds a bit snobby or hyper-intellectual, you probably already know a bit about them without realizing it. We have all at some point taken the MBTI or Meyers-Briggs test (and you probably all are INFJs, yes I know), which are built on Jung’s theory of cognitive types. But of course, Jungian functions are much richer than applying them solely a typological system with a cute name like “The Advocate” or “Campaigner”.
The cognitive functions are essentially the styles of psychic processing, which together form an exact formula of youness. Jung describes these functions as, “a certain form of psychic activity that remains theoretically the same under varying circumstances.” In other words, our personalities display a consistency in response to our experiences. The hierarchy of the four cognitive functions within us informs how we apprehend information, what we value, how we act in conflict, and much more.
So let’s move (briefly) through these four functions now.
The Thinking function is about intellectual judgment and logical inferences. In this mode we are discerning whether things are true/false or right/wrong.
The Feeling function is not about emotions, but the evaluation of things and what they mean to us, or how we relate to them as pleasant/unpleasant, good/bad.
These two functions are what Jung identified as the rational functions, because they are based in judgment and evaluation. There is evidence that informs the function’s response, whether it comes from the mind or the heart. These next two functions, however, are what Jung called irrational because they rely more so on perceptions, which don’t require further interpretation. In other words, they’re irrational not because they are without reason, but because they are beyond reason. They just are.
So the Sensation function is about perceiving something as it is, in the concrete realities of what it is or isn’t.
And the Intuition function is about identifying inherent potentiality or a greater meaning in something, what it’s really about.
As Frith Luton explains, “Briefly, the sensation function establishes that something exists, thinking tells us what it means, feeling tells us what it’s worth to us, and through intuition we have a sense of what can be done with it (the possibilities).”
We all hold all four functions, but there is always one that is superior and one that is inferior, meaning one that is pretty much fully conscious and one that is somewhat unconscious. The other two will straddle the boundary, holding a sort of middle ground, though one is still more accessible than the other. Therefore, every person has a functional hierarchy of personality.
Let me give you an idea of what this sort of looks like. Personally, I am a feeling type. I always relate to something as whether or not they feel good or bad to me, and secondarily I tend to err toward the intuitive side of things—being far more interested in history class by what I imagined motivated people to their actions than going the sensation route and learning the precise dates and facts of the events themselves, though I can still access that part sometimes.
But my inferior function is thinking. When I’m being super logical I feel very unlike myself, and I often don’t even really understand the theoretical debate of right and wrong. My rational mind works through the evaluation of things based on my own feeling experience, not on logical analysis. (Hence why philosophy classes always sounded so exciting and then ended up being so damn hard.)
When we have a function that is weak or inferior, that side of our life will be difficult. So with my weak thinking function, making conclusions drawn from my own sense of judgment feels very unsure, leading to a frustrating susceptibility to become overwhelmed or be gaslighted by both others and my own shadow self. I need validation of my conclusions because I don’t trust them. I don’t always have access to that that critical analytical process to guide me and keep me in-check. Therefore, in working to balance my thinking function, while I will always live primarily through my sense of feeling, I’ll be able to create better boundaries around what I know to be right and wrong.
And this brings us back to the tarot, because the cards point to these imbalances all the time. It is no accident that over and over I pull the Ace of Swords, the purest expression of the thinking function, because it is so often the part of myself that, if developed, could give me clarity and agency. The tarot suits point us to these cognitive functions and teach us how (and how not) to develop them.
Of course, Jung’s system of the four cognitive functions lines up neatly with the 4 tarot suits. This is how it works out:
Thinking — Swords
Feeling — Cups
Intuition — Wands
Sensation — Pentacles
The Thinking function of absolute rationality needs pure, clean air and the sharp edge of a discerning sword. The Feeling function is comfortable in the pulse of the rhythmic waters, and drops us into our emotional centers of the cups. The Intuitive function is vibrant as a flame, and is always sniffing out the deeper energetic direction of life guided by the wands. And the Sensation function is real, it’s here, it’s as grounded as the earth beneath us and contemplates our immediate reality and the pentacles we can hold.
So here’s an example of how we can use these functions to understand the cards more deeply. Let’s take the tricky example of the 3 of Swords.
Traditionally, when we see the 3 of Swords we think about heartbreak, which we should. But the deeper wisdom comes in the swords themselves, which point to the thinking function and our faculties of analysis and discernment. The three swords stabbed into the heart, therefore, are not only our pains, they’re our thoughts, our attempts to rationalize or make intellectual sense of our pain. And of course, this only makes the pain worse.
The swords represent our thoughts trying to intellectualize our way back to stasis, telling us things like, “If you weren’t so clingy . . .”, “It’s because you’re too . . .”, “You always make things worse when you . . .”. These thoughts are trying to make sense of the pain, but when the heart is aching, the greater need is to tend to it, love it, meet it with softness and compassion.
Therefore this card might point to a tension between the wounded and the ruthless thinking function trying to rationalize the pain away.
This is just a taste of how we can go deeper with the tarot minors using the Jungian cognitive functions. If this has intrigued you, you’re a great candidate for the Archetypal Tarot School, a 9-week program learning the depth psychological secrets of the cards!