James Hillman on Metaphysics and Cosmology

Back in 1983, Claremont Graduate School invited Whiteheadian philosophers and Jungian psychoanalysts to a dialogue concerning possible cross-fertilizations between process metaphysics and archetypal psychology (published as Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman in 1989). James Hillman gave the keynote, wherein he admitted that “something further [was] needed” than his typical psychologizing via negativa. His endless criticism, perspectivalism, and “seeing through” came to seem like “merely another strand of Western skepticism and nihilism” (216). He reports that it was in 1979, during a lecture by David Bohm at a conference in Córdoba, Spain, that he first recognized “the terrible need for metaphysics”:

“Bohm admitted frankly and sadly that physics had released the world into its perishing, and that physicists had neither learning nor ability to think the world out of its peril…we saw that our plight was way beyond the discipline of the men who had advanced this plight…The physical threat of the end of the world results from a metaphysical catastrophe” (215).

Hillman’s skepticism regarding traditional Western metaphysics is well-founded, of course. The Cartesian ego’s paranoid search for absolute certainty and formulaic Truth neglects the ambiguity of our world-in-process. The problem for the metaphysician, it seems to me, is not that Truth is “merely” a fiction–that the real world is forever beyond our grasp–but that that the world’s meaning is immense, immeasurable. There is too much meaning! It is for this reason that metaphysics has so often failed the polyphonic psyche and short-circuited its soul-making. The philosopher’s search for system, for some Grand Synthesis or Theory of Everything, is all too easily psychologized:

“Western metaphysics, with its inherently world-denying, abstractive tendencies has been thought mostly by men–from Plotinus through all the Catholic Schoolmen, through Hobbes, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche to Wittgenstein and Santayana–men, furthermore, who did not wed, who did not spawn, who touched the world with mind in such a way that its existence became a ‘problem’” (218).

Hillman, then, seeks to return metaphysics to the world, to think the Real in service of soul-making. He is after a “metaphysical praxis,” a “psychological metaphysics” closely bound up with the practice of therapeia. Like the Jamesian pragmatism that Whitehead’s cosmology emerged out of, Hillman demands that we stay close to the practical effects of our abstractions. What do ideas do to soul, to world? Sticking close to the effects of metaphysical pronouncements means asking of their Truths, “True for who?” Metaphysics must situate itself in the mythic context of psychic life, where everything is personified and speaks through the masks of image and symbol. Truth is not “mere” fiction if the deeper structure of the universe is semiotic: The Truth is a story. Where literalisms (scientific, religious, or otherwise) would replace–or paste over–the given with its favored abstractions, a psychological metaphysics drops the bottom out of the given by forestalling the paranoid rush to formulaic certainty. Metaphysical knowledge is here checked by–not the limits of–but the infinity of metaphor.

“We practice an alchemical metaphysics: ‘account for the unknown in terms of the more unknown’” (220).

Hillman has always defended the poetic basis of mind. When called to make his imaginative psychology cosmological, he is forced to posit a poetic basis of the universe. He affirms the inherent intelligibility of things: “The cosmos has a logos” (225); but he asks why this intelligibility has become obscured to the modern mode of intelligence. Modernity has de-souled and disenchanted the world, as the story goes. We no longer have the perceptual capacity to connect soul to world, or world to soul.

“A living sense of world requires a corresponding living organ of soul by means of which a living world can be perceived” (225).

Hillman blames the empiricist tradition dating back to Locke for the death of such a living organ. He wishes Whitehead

“were still around to take down structuralism and the deconstruction that follows it, because they continue this indifference to the actual occasions of the phenomenal world” (225).

The seemingly outdated dichotomy between primary (“real”) and secondary (“illusory”) qualities continues to hold sway over the popular imagination, beholden as it is to the priesthood of physical scientists. At the cutting edge of continental philosophy, thinkers like Badiou and Meillassoux are even calling for an explicit return to such thinking, though now in an even more radical form where anything not reducible to mathematical notation is unreal. All of this is overcome by Whitehead’s illuminating analysis of the empiricists, Locke and Hume, in terms of their mistaken reversal of the two basic modes of perception (causal efficacy and presentational immediacy). I’ve explored his constructive critiques elsewhere.

For further links between OOO/SR and Hillman, see this conversation between Adam Robbert and I last year, as well as Graham Harman’s response.

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8 thoughts on “James Hillman on Metaphysics and Cosmology

  1. Brilliant! These remind me what Pirsig calls “Metaphysics of Quality” under influence of Alfred N. Whitehead and the classic pragmaticism/ radical empirism by Dewey and James.

    But…in this sense….how can Hillman defines himself as a neoplatonist (see The Soul´s Code) ? Seems a little contraditory?

    By the way, thanx for the text and your blog.

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