Given I am often around academics for whom “rational” thinking is considered deeply important, I often laugh warmly when hearing about the “unscientific” aspects of Tarot. This is the viewpoint of those for whom any spiritual-based practice is considered inherently nonsense and any importance placed on it anathema. But then “rational” thinking depends upon the definition one uses for rational — does it need to be wholly provable, factual, and quantitative (vs. qualitative), or adherent to the scientific method? And is the ignorance about Tarot — Tarot having been used since at least the Renaissance as a means of understanding externally an interior process that can help lead to certain thought or action an excuse to disregard its uses and benefits from a philosophical and psychological perspective?
Psychology, Probabilities, and Semiotics
There are three different, but related “rational” means of approaching Tarot: psychology, hard science in terms of probability theory, and philosophy. I’ll handle the less supposedly “scientific” of the two first — the ones that “hard” science sometimes scoffs about, but nevertheless, these are (and should be) considered “rational” and important to any discourse regarding the “human animal.”
One of these is psychology. There have been many different academic articles written about tarot and their psychological relevance—including the use of tarot (particularly Major Arcana) as a psychological tool. Carl Gustav Jung in his formation of Analytical Psychology identified certain theories that are deeply relevant. These include the notion of archetypes, individuation, and synchronicity.
The Major Arcana in tarot, numbered from 0 to 21, ostensibly display certain archetypes that, in order, tell the story of the Jungian process of Individuation, or the human journey one takes in the process of becoming a self-actualized, whole individual, free of excessive neuroses and psychoses to live a full, healthy life, living from that center toward true fulfillment.
No one is ever perfect, and one goes through cycles according to age and experience, but in each cycle (each in tarot would be, again, going from 0–“The Fool”–toward 21–“The World”), there is that sense of progressing through such cycles in an ever-more illuminated trajectory, like that of a spiral — ever upward to greater and greater wisdom and understanding.
(This is considered, by those of a more spiritual bent, to be ascension. For those of a more hard scientific mind, think of an electron jumping to higher and higher energy levels.)
In terms of the archetypal tendency, identifying with each step in the process from card 0 to 21 (though steps can be skipped, which may mean having to go back to the one skipped if there are unexplored or essential nuances that were not identified or deemed important at the time) can also can be a modality similar to a Rorschach Test for the purposes of understanding thought process and accessing inner, perhaps unseen, qualities at work. What you see or react to–in the card(s) offers clues as to what elements of your own psyche are at work or may need either understanding more fully, or they may lead to healing.
The next card in the progression may then show what one can shoot for, or seek to incorporate, in the process of that healing or enlightenment toward individuation. The previous card in the series may show what you’ve already dealt with, incorporated, or come from in such a progression. When certain cards keep being drawn over and over again, even though the cards are being shuffled, and it resonates, or it displays certain symbolism that is personally meaningful, this also indicates a Jungian concept of synchronicity.
This can be described, in layman’s terms, as “meaningful coincidence”—though Jung would suggest it absolutely isn’t a coincidence—it’s the threefold meeting of conscious reality with both the personal unconscious state and the collective unconscious. This indicates great meaning and something to which one might want to pay attention. The ultimate aspect of this can be seen from the perspective of a new wave in psychology associated with the Positive Psychology movement—identifying and magnifying what works instead of consistently attacking what doesn’t. The ultimate in Positive Psychology is considered “flow” – the theory suggested by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (see his TED talk here.)
Tarot, in both identifying what resonates with you—and why—and seeing how certain cards may resonate more than others when drawn—indicates certain information that can better help achieve a “flow” state.
Via semiotics, which is the study of how meaning is derived in the use of signs and symbols, especially for purposes of communication (one famous academic in semiotics is the popular author Umberto Eco, who wrote such classics as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum), such signs and symbols and deriving meaning from them indicates as well what and how someone is thinking and in what someone finds meaning. The bottom line in this kind of research is how one accesses meaning, including any such intrinsic meaning that will, in combination with the positive psychological element of flow, indicate, foster, or create more positive outcomes.
The tarot, by personally accessing an inherent symbology in the cards, and it being associated with the person’s personal set of meaningful symbols, thereby creates meaning for the individual, and it acts as a meaningful and symbolic means of communication.
The probability of receiving any one card in the tarot deck is 1 in 78. The probability of receiving any one card in the Major Arcana is 1 in 22 (cards marked 0 through 21). So why is it that the same cards come out over and over again, or combine in such a way to create meaning? Probability theory itself suggests, in its rather quantitative fashion, that any card drawn should be completely random—especially if the cards have been shuffled multiple times (and this includes by a computer that supposedly chooses cards at random).
However, anyone who has ever worked with the Tarot knows that this is often not the case. More often than not, one can receive the same card or cards over and over again, no matter how many readings one has done. Why is this if the drawing should show something as being completely random? Ah—this is the meaning and mystery of the Tarot. But this is also where all aspects of these different nuances—psychological, philosophical, and in terms of probabilities—come into play.
The archetypes showing in a synchronous fashion are happening according to individually-derived semiotic meaning, and often in a way that completely counters the usually-scientific belief in randomness according to probability, and any such meaning derived, and acted upon toward greater flow will only help an individual toward his or her greatest individuation. This, outside of Tarot readings for sheer entertainment, is where there is significance in the use of Tarot as a meaningful tool, and it is also indicative of something Medieval and Renaissance thinkers also realized—science and mysticism are two sides of the same coin. They are different expressions, or lenses of perception, of the same reality. That of our own experience, its meaning, and the interpretations and expressions of that meaning.
This is the reason such scientists and mathematicians as Isaac Newton were also inherently as interested in alchemy, hermeticism, and other aspects of mysticism. They understood that great insights come not from just the “rational” thought according to science, but from the great philosophical and mystical truths that acted as inspiration when trying to understand both humanity and the natural world. They are inherently connected. Even more modern science (such as quantum theory) proves this even further. We are only at the tip of the iceberg in science, more and more proving certain philosophical and spiritual truths we seemed to inherently know long before the modern age.
These are all of the nuances I explain to my academic “rational” friends and colleagues when they start giving me a hard time about the Tarot. I know they only seem to think about the carnival-like “fortune teller” aspects of it, instead of realizing that there is an inherent profundity at work, were they to actually scratch the surface and get past their preconceptions. But one thing that is true: meaning will always depend on the person and his or her lens of perception.