More Reflections on James Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology

Building on what was said here last week:


View of Mont Ventoux from Mirabel-aux-Baronnies.
Mont Ventoux

James Hillman’s psychology, above all else, aims to remind the modern Western psyche of its roots in the Renaissance. To illustrate his methods, he dwells upon the lives of Renaissance figures like Petrarch, “the first modern man…perhaps…the first psychological man.”1 Most cultural historians focus on Petrarch’s ascent of Mt. Ventoux in 1336 as the symbolic beginning of the Renaissance resulting from his discovery of the spirit of “Man.” Jean Gebser, for example, marks the moment as the dawning of humanity’s conscious mastery of extended, perspectival space as over and against an increasingly interiorized soul life.2 Hillman, who has little patience for often inflated “peak experiences” championed by the humanistic psychologist Abe Maslow, draws attention instead to the significance of Petrarch’s descent. It is not a result of “highs,” but rather the survival of depressive “lows” that determines the true worth of a person.3

Upon reaching the summit, Petrarch opens Augustine’s Confessions randomly and reads the lines:

“And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains…the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, and pass themselves by…”4

Stunned by the synchronicity, Petrarch realizes his calling in life is to look inward so as to “know thyself,” as Thales put it many centuries before Augustine. Most historians here refer to the decisive shift to the study of “Man,” to the beginning of the humanities as a distinct discipline separate from theology or natural philosophy. Hillman’s psychological project, on the other hand, is founded upon the dehumanization of the Renaissance. Despite the fact that Petrarch uses the Latin animus when recounting his experience on Mt. Ventoux,5 Hillman insists that it was essentially a deepening into soul. He points to an earlier sentence in the same section of the Confessions which discusses the infinite depths of memory, “the soul’s imaginative faculty,” and argues that

“The revelation on Mont Ventoux opened Petrarch’s eyes to the complexity and mystery of the man-psyche relationship and moved him to write of the marvel of the soul, not the marvel of man.”6

In light of the diverse array of scholarly interpretations of Petrarch’s transformative experience atop Mt. Ventoux, it seems all that can be said for certain is that it generated within him an irresolvable, yet creative, tension between spiritual transcendence and soulful immanence. He felt, perhaps more powerfully than anyone alive around him or before him, the smallness of his ego in relation to the depths of psyche and of cosmos.

English: Illustration of Petrarch's Triumph of...
Petrarch's triumph of death

There is a certain tragedy in Petrarch’s discovery, a certain dis-ease, since after the mutation in consciousness he initiated, the soul became vulnerable to a whole new set of pathologies. No longer swallowed whole by the earth and sky, the human soul began to feel utterly unlike the world around it. More than anything else, Renaissance philosophers like Petrarch, and later, Ficino, contemplated death.

“Yet the more occupied with death, the more these humanists thought, built, wrote, painted, sang.”7

Death became their muse, and in this way Renaissance philosophers hearkened back to Socrates and Plato, who rather than empiricizing or biologizing the soul like Aristotle, sought to dwell upon the shadows cast by the living body, to descend into the underworld in search of metempsychotic transformation. The soul was identified with the death principle instead of the life principle, and in that way “the first metaphor of human existence” was seen through: “that we are not real.”8 The “skin encapsulated ego” (as Alan Watts put it) is a fantasy of soul.

“No longer is it a question of whether I believe in soul, but whether soul believes in me, grants me the capacity to have faith in it, in psychic reality.”9

If Hillman were a metaphysician, he’d have to say that the final real things are images, fantasies of soul. Not facts, but fictions are the stuff out of which reality is woven. Or at least, if facts be our focus, they must be psychologized into acts, the poetic creations of soul. Like Teilhard de Chardin in the preface to The Human Phenomenon (itself a profound metaphysical work), Hillman dubiously claims early in Re-Visioning Psychology that he is not a metaphysician. In fairness, perhaps it would be truer to his intentions to call him a “meta-psychologist” always in search of an ensouled cosmology. After all, his skepticism regarding metaphysics as it has been articulated in the modern West is well-founded. The Cartesian ego’s paranoid search for absolute certainty and formulaic Truth leads to the repression of the ambiguities and paradoxes of soul-making in the valleys of the world.

His emphases upon death and depth are not simply a matter of coming down to earth from the heights of the sky, however, since for Hillman the planets are gods “by means of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”10 His turn away from the methods of the modern metaphysician to the therapy of the ancient “Doctors of Soul” is not a retreat from the cosmos, but the longing for the renewal of “relations with archetypal principles personified by the planets of the pagan pantheon.”11 Like Plato, Hillman longed to relate to the universe as a living creature, a being ensouled. His dwelling upon individual death is meant to remind the living soul of its embeddedness in and dependence upon the anima mundi, the soul of the world.

“If we could reoriginate psychology at its Western source in Florence, a way might open again toward a meta-psychology that is a cosmology, a poetic vision of the cosmos which fulfills the soul’s need for placing itself in the vast scheme of things.”12

The problem for the disenchanted metaphysician is not that Truth is “merely” fiction–that the real is forever beyond the mind’s conceptual grasp–but that the world’s meaning is immense, immeasurable. There is too much meaning! The literalistic mind’s attempt to explain the real can never be completed. It is for this reason that the metaphysician has so often failed the polyphonic psyche by repressing its desire for 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…who did not wed, who did not spawn, who touched the world with mind in such a way that its existence became a ‘problem.’”13

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.14 Existence then becomes, not a problem to be solved, but a pathos to be deepened into in search of insight.

Hillman demands that we stay close to the practical effects of our abstractions by paying attention to the power of archetypes to recursively shape both the creation of theories and the discovery of facts: an archetype is both a way of seeing and a thing seen. True to the etymological meaning of “fact” (from the Latin facere: “to do”), Hillman implores us to ask: What do ideas do to soul, to world? Sticking close to the effects of metaphysical pronouncements means asking of their Truths, “True for who?”

The metaphysician must situate himself 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 story; theory is a special kind of myth. Where literalisms (whether of the metaphysically scientific or religious sort) would replace–or paste over–the given with their favored abstractions, a psychological metaphysics (or meta-psychology) 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.'”15

Hillman has always defended the poetic basis of mind. In making his imaginative psychology cosmological, he is forced to posit as well a poetic basis of the universe.16 He affirms the inherent intelligibility of things: “The cosmos has a logos.”17 He then asks why this intelligibility has become obscured to the modern mode of intelligence, concluding that we have lost the perceptual capacity to connect soul to world and world to soul. We lack the requisite organ of perception: the “imaginational heart.”18

“A living sense of world requires a corresponding living organ of soul by means of which a living world can be perceived.”19

The heart is no mere pump. Neither is the heart the organ of personal sentiment or subjective feeling. For Hillman, the heart is the seat of the imagination, the microcosmic Sun around which all the world’s meaning revolves.20 It is through the heart that the individual finds their point of entry into the anima mundi. To perceive with the heart is to “[hear] the confession of the anima mundi in the speaking of things.”21 This is a form of aesthesis, of “breathing in” the world, that un-Lockes perception from the chains of prosaic empiricism and places the soul’s horses22 before Descartes’ rationalistic reductionism.

1 Re-Visioning Psychology, 195

2 The Ever-Present Origin, 12-15

3 Re-Visioning Psychology, 66

4 X,8

5 Richard Tarnas, personal correspondence, 12/29/2011

6 Re-Visioning Psychology, 196

7 Re-Visioning Psychology, 206

8 Re-Visioning Psychology, 209

9 Re-Visioning Psychology, 50

10 Archetypal Process, 220

11 Re-Visioning Psychology, 202

12 Anima Mundi, 110

13 Archetypal Process, 218

14 (ibid.)

15 Archetypal Process, 220

16 Archetypal Process, 221

17 Archetypal Process, 225

18 The Thought of the Heart, 7

19 Archetypal Process, 225

20 The Thought of the Heart, 28

21 The Thought of the Heart, 48

22 See Plato’s Chariot Allegory in Phaedrus