Archetypal Psychologies: Reflections in Honor of James Hillman



The work of James Hillman provided me with many of the ideas I think with; but even better than an expansion of my thinking, his work has given me a definition of reality, one that has amplified for me the joy of being alive. We all have a choice as to which kind of reality we pay attention to, every day, every minute. There are many kinds of realities, and some require an initiation, as is the case for imaginal reality. The field of archetypal psychology can be appreciated as an intellectual initiation into the richness of inner life. All initiations provide for the neophyte a group, a clan, a subculture, a family of some sort. I wish to explore, in this article, the kind of clan “we” constitute, and in this “we” I am including all of us who feel that imagination is an essential form of reality.

Each author writing in the field of depth psychology presents a different definition of the reality of inner life, sometimes concordant, sometimes discordant. The clan of depth psychologists has a family tree starting with Freud and a few other revered ancestors. The many dissensions, divorces, and rebellions are part of our family saga, like structural tension in the frame of an old ancestral house, which requires our attention and repair. In most families, discord leads to tension, not murder; to divorce, not deadly shunning. At Christmas or Thanksgiving, a “good enough” family is still able to share a meal together, in spite of internal battles and tensions. Intellectual families have the same range of possibilities and allow the younger members to build their identities through a distinct processes.

The first is a polemical approach-the confrontation of ideas of which strengthens one’s capacity to fight, eventually, with any idea. An oral defense, as the word “defense” suggests, is a testing of a newcomer’s capacity to defend ideas and serve them as a good soldier defends his or her country. This mode exists because hatred and wars do arise in the world of ideas, as much as in the world of families and nations. Intellectual wars exist because of a basic philosophical dilemma that no finessing will dissolve: how tolerant can one be of intolerance?

Theories in psychology are not immune to those tensions and territorial wars. Tolerance is easy when the values of the other do not threaten my sense of survival; it is not quite so easy for a girl discovering that her homosexuality is interpreted as being caused by sickness or sin. To survive psychically, the girl will have to fight the theory, engage in a war against “family values.” Many of the students studying at the Institute where I teach need to deconstruct oppressive myths as much as they need air to breathe. The history of ideas is full of fascinating wars of ideas, where those who refused to go to war for their ideas ended up victimized. My guns are always ready against the sexism and racism of the three great monotheisms and I try to be a brave little soldier when it is time to attack. Ideas are intellectual territories; left undefended, they will be colonized.

The second approach that is necessary to build an intellectual community is a Dionysian one. It involves regularly falling in love with ideas offered by other members of the clan. One then wants to incorporate these ideas, digest them, become a living symbol of them. It begins with an attraction, a desire to melt into that particular cultural pot, a hunger for the delicious new recipes for thinking. I like the way the people in this group think, I want to join them, study with them, become one of them. I felt that kind of appetite when I first read Hillman’s Re-Visioning Psychology (1975) when it came out. His massive oeuvre kept me busy for quite a while. I felt like a cat let loose in a creamery – here at last was the Dionysian orgy of ideas that I craved.

The Dionysian mode, however, also has its own way of becoming destructive: when the strongly held enthusiasms are short-lived, when they follow one charismatic star after another, then any real training of the mind is rendered impossible. Instead of a group, there is a master and his groupies. The group may have fun and a great sense of belonging, but the thinking becomes shallower and shallower. Everybody gets an A; let’s hold hands in a circle, honor the ideas of the master; and not discuss anything that may spoil the fun! As for the polemical, war-like mode, it becomes self-destructive when a school of thought rigidifies in its position, like a scorpion turning its poison against itself. The symptoms of that form of decadence are the same everywhere: a tendency to consolidate group identity through exclusion, condemnation, contempt, issuing one intellectual fatwa after another, shunning anyone who strays away from the orthodoxy or who dares contradict the Theory.

An intellectual fatwa is issued each time a clique gains control of teaching positions and tenure, research grants, scholarships, media. An example of intellectual fatwa can be found in Professor Alan Dundes’ public contempt for Joseph Campbell’s work, especially around Campbell’s broad definition of the word “myth.” None of Dundes’ students, if they wanted to survive academically, could admit to having been interested in or delighted by Campbell. Discovering at a conference that the bookstore had put the folklore and mythology books under a sign that read “Joseph Campbell,” Professor Dundes wrote: “I remember being almost relieved that at least none of my books were to be found in that section.” Professor Dundes’ critique of Campbell is informed, intelligent, and articulate, yet it is so contaminated with contempt and even rage, that one feels there is some complex at work. That kind of intellectual milieu self-destructs because academics sooner or later will migrate elsewhere to avoid the intellectual dictatorship.

Academic freedom is supposed to stage confrontation, not give a show of hysterical contempt and shunning. In order to have a balance, one should feel the freedom to diverge, but with enough group libido that there is a certain pleasure in confronting ideas. Some milieus won’t allow real conversation; over the years, I had my share of having to learn empty technical terms, the meaning of which is, too often, to keep others at a distance and erect theoretical boundaries. I have to answer, every semester in my classes, the same question: what is archetypal psychology and how is it different from the other depth-psychological perspectives? How can one interested in the unconscious dimensions of the psyche answer these questions simply?

Most of my kind (professors/practitioners) have professional identities that are like a minestrone, a soup made of whatever vegetables happen to be in season (or in the refrigerator). My vocation being to teach and not to preach, I have mostly refused to belong to “a” school, but this does not mean that I refuse to follow a disciplinary track or a master as far as I can go, because that is precisely how one learns. There is also such a thing as intellectual manners: one has to listen to one’s teacher or master long enough for the full logic of the argument to be expressed, all the while keeping under control the tendency to interrupt with too many instances of “yes, but I myself think. …”

If schools of thought are families, bibliographies are their family tree. Looking at the list of the authors that have shaped my vision of inner life, beginning with Freud and the post-Freudians, Jung and the post-Jungians, the work of James Hillman stands out because of his radical reinterpretation of the theories of Jung. His work is a window with a view on the history of psychology, its philosophy, its roots in ancient Greece, and its future as a renaissance of psychological imagination.

The Hillmanian approach has for me the supplementary advantage of being acceptable in academic milieus that are still very critical of Jung. Jung via Hillman is a strategy that has worked with the most critical minds. Hillman’s take on Jung (which takes some and leaves some) travels through the Jungian country and then continues the voyage beyond. His approach is that of someone who has consistently called for a renaissance of psychology, a call that his own work is answering. He represents the part of depth psychology that is opening up to an ecological thinking as well as a spiritual renaissance, reaching for the future and establishing itself back in the humanities and into the flow of the rising eco-revolution. Although Hillman’s oeuvre is now mostly behind him, it belongs to the next incarnation of depth psychology.


1. Alan Dundes, “Folkloristics in the Twenty-First Century,” Presidential Plenary Address to the American Folklore Society, 2005, subsequently published in Journal of American Folklore 118, no.470, (2005): 385-408.