in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

James Hillman and Soul-Making

I am just coming to the end of writing two more chapters for the new book 'The Pursuit of the Soul' and have been looking at 'the soul' in Jung, Freud and their followers. The following is an extract from the chapter on James Hillman, the American analyst who died recently in 2011. I started looking at him in my last book 'Teresa of Avila - Doctor of the Soul' and wanted to go deeper into this infuriating and challenging writer. It has been as frustrating and demanding as I thought it might be - like trying to pin down an eel! However, with the backdrop of Robin Williams's suicide and the terrible events in the Middle East his writings have seemed strangely prescient. After Mr Williams' suicide the newspapers were full of discussions along the lines 'How could he do this?', 'How do we stop this happening again?', 'What is this disease called Depression and how can it be cured?' Hillman was a trenchant and eloquent critic of psychology depending too much on pseudo-science and in particular the pathological and medical models of 'mind' - hence his adoption of the term 'soul'. This may make him sound like some recidivist necromancer - yet in all the columns of news generated after Mr Williams' death I have seen a great deal of heat and very little light - I think Hillman's critique is valid (although wrong in some crucial respects) and we do need to challenge the sloppy assumptions under which a lot of present day psychology labours.
So I shall leave you with these more positive thoughts on Hillman's critique as I head off on holiday on Thursday. I shall try and post from holiday if the internet works!
Best wishes


James Hillman and Soul-Making

Hillman has had a huge influence on contemporary psychological culture and some of his views have been accepted uncritically by others. However, if the current recurrence of ‘soul-language’ in psychological literature is primarily because of Hillman if we want to understand that language there is no better place to begin than with Hillman, in all his contradictions and ‘twists and turns’. Yet, in addition to this somewhat negative reason for reading Hillman I would like to suggest before reaching our conclusions in this chapter, that we might find more positive aspects to Hillman’s approach:

1. ‘The Third Path’

As well as his critique of the ‘over-spiritualization’ of the psyche, Hillman, let us not forget, is equally a trenchant critic of the over-scientism and reductionism within contemporary approaches to the psyche. The past few decades, since Hillman started his writing, have seen a marked reduction in the significance of the spiritual and religious control of the psychological therapies. The same cannot be said for the empirical and pseudo-scientific approach. Indeed, in many respects, with the rise of quasi-neurological ‘explanations’ and ‘interpretations’ of the mind it seems as though this approach may have reached its zenith in recent years. Along with Wittgenstein (whose objections we shall return to in the following chapter), Hillman had a justifiable and deep-seated suspicion of the over-idolisation of psychology as a ‘science of the mind’ and was every bit as trenchant as Wittgenstein in challenging the unquestioning acceptance of this position. His own approach was to advocate a ‘third path’ between reductionism and idealism, theology and science, which gave him, he believed, the right to challenge scientific and medical models of psychology, especially psycho-pathology:

As connecting link, or traditionally third position, between all opposites (mind and matter, spirit and nature, intellect and emotion), the soul differs from the terms which it connects. (RP, p.174)


The science fantasy with its reliance upon objectivity, technology, verification, measurement, and progress – in short, its necessary literalism – is less a means for examining the psyche than for examining science.

Our interest lies not in applying the methods of science to psychology (to put it on a ‘sound scientific footing’), but rather in applying the archetypal method of psychologising to science so as to discover its root metaphors and operational myths. ( RP p.169)


Distrusting too the contemporary language of psychopathology - ‘the descriptions of the alienations, sufferings and bizarre life of the soul’ MA121 – Hillman felt that such a language ‘insults the soul’. Only psychotherapy as imagination (and very much out of the academic context) can ‘unleash the soul’ MA 122. Whether we accept Hillman’s critique or not (and many academic psychologists will of course simply dismiss it), as with his critique of organised religion, there is much here to challenge some of the basic, unthinking assumptions upon which contemporary psychology (especially academic psychology) is built, and to which it should answerable. As we have seen in these last two chapters, Hillman and others can both best be described as ‘psychological heretics’ and it may ultimately be to our advantage to heed their criticisms (or at least take them seriously as I have done here) rather than rushing them immediately to the Stake.

In conclusion, Hillman challenges all professionals, no less professional psychologists as well as ministers of religion, to look again at unexamined concepts of self and the psychological life. As he puts it in Insearch p. 46 ‘let the clergy follow the imitatio Christi rather than imitate psychotherapy’


2. The symbolic/mythic self

With Rank we saw that creativity must play a decisive role in any future ‘soul-psychology’. Likewise, with Hillman we see the importance he attached, as a post-Jungian, to the role of imagination and the symbolic. As he puts it in Revisioning Psychology:

Psychological faith begins in the love of images, and it flows mainly through the shapes of persons in reveries, fantasies, reflections and imaginations... (the ego’s) trust is in the imagination as the only uncontrovertible reality, directly presented, immediately felt. p.50 RVP

For analysis goes on in the soul’s imagination and not just in the clinic:

Essential to soul-making is psychology-making, shaping concepts and images that express the needs of the soul as they emerge in each of us p. Xviii RP:

We let imagination speak for itself without interpretation. As we saw in last chapter from the Wittgensteinian perspective, psychology as a peculiar art, takes the Weltbild to view the ‘foundation of possible Weltanschauungen’:

‘Insight would no longer mean translation, no longer mean the reformulation of imaginal speech into psychological language, mainly through understanding our fantasies, interpreting our dreams. We would let the insight contained with the fantasy appear of itself, in its own ‘intrinsically intelligible’ speech’ MA p.201 .

Or as my training analyst, Hymie Wyse, used to put it, in analysis the analyst must pray: ‘Lead us not into interpretation!’ The soul/psyche for Hillman is at root imaginal and myth is in the natural discourse of the soul. In an earlier work (Teresa of Avila) I stressed the links between the postmodern Jungian view of the symbolic with the premodern medieval understanding of the symbol. As a great medievaelist/renaissance man, Hillman, like his mentor Jung, recognises the symbolic nature of the psyche and how the psyche really lives in the realm of the symbolic and mythic, for ‘the imaginal does not explain, myths are not explanations’. As such the symbolic utterings of the soul ‘are bound to ritual happenings; they are stories, as our fantasies are, which project us into participation with the phenonemena they tell about so that the need for explanation falls away. ‘ p. 202 MA

For Hillman, ‘the psyche speaks in metaphors, in analogues, in images, that’s its primary language’ (lament of the dead p.81). The psyche, for  Hillman, is in its heart essentially symbolic – it is ‘its natural language’. For


By soul I mean the imaginative possibilities in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image and fantasy – that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical RVP xvi



3. The Importance of Relationship

Hillman wants to use his soul-language to place relationship once again at the heart of psychology – rather than pathology or intellectualisation. Against psychopathologies and all terminology of pathology, Hillman rather calls for psychology to be a ‘speech that lead to participation, in the Platonic sense, in and with the thing spoken of, a speech of stories and new insights, the way one poem and one tune ignite another verse and another song’ (MA p.206). For:

Psychological work begins with the human meeting. What we know and have read, our gifts of intelligence and character – all we have gained through training and experience leads to this moment. (insearch p.16)

It is, as he repeatedly stresses, a work of love, and the jargon and styles of psychology can often get in the way of the love-relationship that must lie at the heart of all true psychology.



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