Robert Romanyshyn’s “alchemical hermeneutics” as the foundation of a method in the participatory study of esotericism

Romanyshyn’s alchemical hermeneutics as the foundation of a method in the participatory study of esotericism

Robert Romanyshyn has developed a depth psychological method informed by hermeneutic phenomenology but ultimately rooted in alchemy. In approaching my research on the etheric imagination, I’ve turned to Romanyshyn’s method of alchemical hermeneutics because it allows for the retrieval of pre-modern esoteric wisdom in a post-modern academic context. An alchemical hermeneutics avails me of many of the same symbolic spells and metaphoric magic once invoked by ancient alchemists in the ritual performance of their ensouled universe stories. Romanyshyn has made it easier to become methodologically aware of the creative power of the very etheric imagination my historical research aims to discover. My study of esoteric philosophy can thus itself proceed by way of a magical method. As Fichte wrote, the sufficiently imaginative philosopher “has the power of telling his hearers in advance what he will produce in them and, if they will but understand him, the power of producing it.”57

Fichte, despite being a philosopher of absolute subjectivity, immediately adds to the above statement that he not only has the power to produce insight in his listeners, he has the power to do so “with certainty.” Philosophy has long been dreaming of an infallible, scientific method–a way of presenting its findings that would imitate geometry (more geometrico) so as to force any listeners to accept its objectively derived verdict. Romanyshyn argues that anxiety concerning the ambiguous presence of the subject in scientific work provides the principle motivation underlying “method” in the sciences.58 Scientific method in this sense becomes “technique” and is “designed to replace the presence of the researcher as subject.”59 In practice, such methods only succeed in repressing the “transference field”60 that inevitably emerges between a researcher and his or her work.

Romanyshyn draws on Martin Packer and Richard Addison’s Entering the Circle: Hermeneutic Investigation in Psychology (1989) by suggesting that philosophers and psychologists have had only two “traditional twins” to draw from in pursuit of a method that apes the sciences: rationalism and empiricism. “In both stances,” they write, “method is considered a matter of procedure or technique, involving analytical operations that require no involvement of human judgment and valuation.”61 Romanyshyn, like Schelling and Whitehead, opts for a third way beyond the simple opposition between empiricism and rationalism by articulating an imaginal approach to philosophical hermeneutics.

For Schelling, it may seem at first that idealism would be preferred over empiricism, but even in his early System of Transcendental Idealism (1800),62 he already understood how these apparently distinct philosophical schools represent the dependently co-arising active/intellectual and passive/sensory poles of imagination. Imagination always oscillates between the ideal and the real without settling on either as primary.63 From Whitehead’s perspective, both the empiricist and the rationalist branches of modern epistemology stem from an identical set of related mistakes: 1) the assumption that the five senses are the only definite “avenues of communication” between human experience and the external world, and 2) the assumption that conscious introspection is our sole means of analyzing experience.64 The first mistake is to ignore the fact that “the living organ of experience is the living body as a whole.”65 This “living organ” is etheric imagination, capable of perceiving the creative advance of nature through a sub-sensory mode of experience referred to by Whitehead as “causal efficacy.” The second, related mistake is to ignore the way that conscious introspection, though it “lifts the clear-cut data of sensation into primacy,” for that very reason “cloaks the vague compulsions and derivations which form the main stuff of experience.”66 Whitehead’s speculative philosophical method, like Romanyshyn’s psychologically-informed method of alchemical hermeneutics, attempts to draw its data not only from the clear and distinct ideas of conscious attention, but from the unconscious depths of psychosomatic experience.

Rather than attempting to remove the subject from research by repressing the transference field between researcher and work, an alchemical hermeneutics is ever attentive to the depths of the unconscious psyche, depths ranging “from the personal through the cultural-historical and collective-archetypal to the eco-cosmological realms of the psychoid archetype.”67 Contrary to those who cling to the solar rationality of consciousness by dismissing the unconscious as purely irrational, Romanyshyn affirms the capacity of the unconscious to think in its own lunar way, a way of thinking the ancients believed was reflective of the lumen naturae, the “light of nature.” Despite the daytime brightness of our egoic consciousness, we still ultimately live within the unconscious of nature and so remain at least dimly aware of nature’s “dark-light.”68 Just as Plato suspected in Timaeus, the soul is active in perception due to a dark-light that streams from the eyes to meet the day-light reflected off of material things. Before the “dayenglish” of our spoken signs, “dark precursors” silently run ahead of conscious meaning to dissolve and coagulate the meaning of things themselves. The meaning of the world, like language itself, is encrypted. If words, sentences, and stories lose their living spirit, language dissolves into letters, mere bones lying still in a silent crypt. An alchemical hermeneutics approaches imaginative work as a magical, theurgical practice–a practice capable, with proper cultivation, of raising the dead letter to its spiritual meaning.

Romanyshyn etymologically links “method” to the images of a path or a journey. When one articulates a method, they are mapping out the journey to be taken from a place of not knowing one’s topic to the place of coming to know it.69 A researcher’s chosen method already incarnates and enacts his beliefs about his subject. The “transference field” that emerges between a researcher and his work is a function of these beliefs and the metaphors deployed to support them. “Method is a perspective that both reveals a topic and conceals it,” writes Romanyshyn.70 Whitehead similarly suggests that, while “theory dictates method,” method provides the criteria determining in advance what can count as evidence in support of the theory.71 This means the researcher must remain hermeneutically sensitive to the way the metaphors deployed by his theoretical method have their generative roots in the polarity between identity and difference. The goal is to maintain a tension between these poles in the deployment of metaphors, without allowing them to slacken such that one or the other pole becomes the sole focus of one’s theory.72 If identity becomes the focus, the researcher becomes trapped in a sort of literalist realism, while if difference becomes the focus, he becomes trapped in relativism. It follows that we should not ask whether a theoretical method is true or false; rather, we should remain ever-attentive to the scope of its pragmatic application in the elucidation of experience.73

Hermeneutics is the method of choice whenever an ambiguous experiential topos, like etheric imagination, is the site of one’s interpretative activity. Romanyshyn links hermeneutics to the phenomenological practice of distinguishing between a text’s “presence” and “meaning.”74 This practice involves following the way meaning unfolds through repeated acts of turning and returning to the text. “Within the embrace of this circle of understanding, the knower approaches a text with some foreknowledge of it, which in turn is questioned and challenged and amplified by the text, thereby transforming the knower who returns to the text with a different understanding of it.”75 The hermeneutic circle of interpretation is a never-ending and so infinite task whereby the reader and the text entire a “spiral of engaged confrontation.”76 In the context of Schelling and Whitehead’s etheric process philosophies of nature, the researcher must be understood not only to turn and return to the latent meaning of historical texts, but also to find himself immersed in the sub-sensory textures of the physical cosmos, encompassed by the elemental forces of earth and sky informing our experience of the visible world. “The time of merely historical faith is past,” writes Schelling, “as soon as the possibility of immediate knowledge is given. We have an earlier revelation than any written one–nature. It contains archetypes which no one has yet interpreted, whereas the written ones have long since received their fulfillment and exegesis. If the understanding of that unwritten revelation were inaugurated, the only true system of religion and science would appear, not in the miserable garb pieced together out of a few philosophical and critical conceptions, but at once in the full significance of truth and nature.”77

By bringing hermeneutics to bear on alchemy, Romanyshyn aims to make the research process as receptive as it is reactive. By bringing alchemy to bear on hermeneutics, he aims to allow the researcher to be content to linger in reverie before immediately turning to critical analysis. Romanyshyn writes: “Alchemical hermeneutics is a way of remaining present to the fact that the wholly and holy other is present in the complexes that haunt our concepts, as well as in the myths that haunt our meanings, in the dreams that haunt our reasons, in the symptoms that haunt our symbols, in the fantasies that haunt our facts, in the fictions that haunt our ideas, and in the images…that dwell in events.”78 In this sense, alchemical hermeneutics aims to return the critical mind to its virginal state, such that Sophia and Hermes can stand beside one another: “To let Sophia join Hermes in the hermeneutic act challenges the usual position of the critical ego-mind in the research process,” writes Romanyshyn. “Alchemical hermeneutics is a joint affair, an animated hermeneutics of reveries and hospitality akin to the kind of presence that the alchemists and soror mysitca of old brought to their work.”79 Schelling calls the “mystical sister” of his own modern alchemical philosophy Beauty: “finally the idea which unites all, the idea of beauty, the word taken in the higher platonic sense. I am convinced that the highest act of reason…is an aesthetic act, and that truth [Hermes] and goodness [Sophia] are united like sisters only in beauty–The philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. The people without aesthetic sense are our philosophers of the letter. The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy.”80

As in alchemy, the key to an imaginal process philosophy is to continually “dissolve and coagulate,” since the goal is not to arrive at some final meaning as a solution, but to continually dissolve the meanings that emerge until the deeper soul of the work has been heard.81 We can be sure myth is operating unconsciously whenever we read a philosopher claiming self-certainty in method and meaning. To make myth consciously, we must engage the process of knowing poetically, which is to say, we must approach philosophy imaginatively. This means re-searching not for explanation, and not simply for understanding, but primarily for transmutation of both self and world. In service to such transmutation, an alchemical hermeneutics takes seriously not only conscious thoughts and sensations, but unconscious feelings and intuitions. In other words, all four of Jung’s psychological functions, or imaginal powers, are brought to the table (thinking, sensing, feeling, and intuiting). As an imaginal method, alchemical hermeneutics begins at the root of these four functions: imagination, which is not simply the common sense, but rather the protean organism without organs underlying each sense organ’s specialized function.82

Romanyshyn lists seven characteristic of an alchemical hermeneutic83:

Creative- it remains open “to whatever emerges from the ongoing dialogue between researcher and topic;

Dialogical- it seeks not a self-certain monological deduction or formal proof, but an other-hospitable con-spiracy capable of discovering truth not only through “complete speech” but through active listening (Hermes married to Sophia);

Imaginative- it “gives primacy to the invisible, an invisible that lends all sensible phenomena an other, supersensible reality”;

Aesthetic- it encourages writing poetically from experience, or writing that arises out of experience, rather than writing about experience;

Hierarchic- it “transmutes everything visible into symbols,” thereby “saving the appearances” of things by returning them to their original form (akin to Henri Corbin’s mystical method of “ta’wil”). “Maybe all our attempts at re-search,” writes Romanyshyn, “are sacred acts whose deep motive is salvation or redemption. Maybe all our research re-enacts the Gnostic dream of the fall of soul into time and its desire to return home”;

Spiritual- research can and must become an aspect of the individuation process;

Recreational- it is never finished, an infinite task, an ongoing play with others, with ancestors, those who shepherd the work. Akin to alchemical “meditatio” where the practitioner engages in inner dialogue with someone unseen.



57 Fichte, The Basic Traits of the Present Age (1804), transl. by Fritz Marti, introduction to On the Unconditioned, 18.

58 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 208.

59 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 209.

60 The “transference field” is “the alchemical vessel in which the complex researcher and the unfinished business in the soul of the work are mixed” (Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 227).

61 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 27.

62 Before his later differentiation between negative, rationalistic philosophy, and positive, “metaphysically empiricist,” philosophy.

63 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 70.

64 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 225.

65 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 225.

66 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 226.

67 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 210. The “psychoid,” following Jung, is “the place where consciousness matters and matter is ‘conscious’” (Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 255).

68 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 256.

69 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 215.

70 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 212.

71 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 221-222.

72 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 213.

73 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 221.

74 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 221.

75 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 221.

76 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 233.

77 Schelling, Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom transl. by James Gutman (Peru, Illinois: Open Court, 1936), 98.

78 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 226.

79 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 233.

80 “Oldest System Program of German Idealism”

81 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 233.

82 See my discussion of Deleuze’s “body without organs” in relation to the synthesis of the faculties.

83 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 265-271.



5 Comments Add yours

  1. dmfant says:

    how does one decide if one is doing justice to the “invisibles” vs just using their image/face/author-ity for one’s own ego-centered/habitual purposes, speaking in their name if you will?

  2. mary9macrina says:

    go for the gold, Matt….Tom Cheetham’s right there with you:

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