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James Hillman’s most fundamental idea, the foundational idea upon which archetypal psychology rests, is that which he calls the poetic basis of mind. When one interprets poetically, as opposed to literally, one sees through the physical reality or ‘fact’ that is presented, and using imagination grasps a more meaningful reality given by soul. Looking at the events of one’s life metaphorically or mythologically imbues life with a poetic beauty and an imagined meaning, which according to archetypal psychology, is a truer meaning given by soul. Imagination is invoked to behold the metaphor that lies beyond literal ‘reality’ and a new, equally valid and ‘real’ experience of life rich with significance is encountered. The poetic basis of mind can be seen as the shift away from the literal to the metaphorical, from the quantitative question of “how much?” to the qualitative question of “how does this matter?” It is the move from form to the idea behind form, from the limited personal ego to the impersonal ego as an expression of psyche, as infinite possibility given by soul. The importance and validity of the reality given by imagination is uppermost in archetypal psychology, and a poetic basis of mind becomes the lens through which all other ideas are to be understood.

While archetypal psychology is seen as having a broader vision than that of analytic psychology, the father of archetypal psychology remains Carl Jung (Hillman, 1983). Archetypes can be thought of as primary patterns or forms that govern not only the expression of personal psyche, such as dreams and mental disorders, but also the expression of phenomena in the natural world. As such, archetypal psychology extends Jung’s analytical psychology beyond the realm of science and the clinical practice of psychology out into the world through culture, religion, history, and the arts. It locates psyche via the de-literalization of reality, invoking a metaphorical viewing of life through our mythology - our stories – seen as primary archetypal expressions of soul.

Nearly as significant an influence as Jung to archetypal psychology is the work of Henry Corbin, who powerfully argues for the validity of ultimate reality given by the imagination as opposed to quantitative measures. Corbin places the highest conceivable power within the imagination – theophanic imagination as creation. He argues against those who dismiss the God envisioned in the imagination as “unreal” or assert “that there can be no purpose in praying to such a God. For it is precisely because He is a creation of the imagination that we pray to him, and that He exists” (1969, p. 248). It is through Corbin’s idea that knowledge of an object is gained through the imagination that “the entire procedure of archetypal psychology as a method is imaginative” (Hillman, 1983, p. 15).

Archetypal psychology, with its emphasis on the revelation of soul through the cultivation of the imagination, is situated firmly in Western culture and philosophically influenced primarily by Neoplatonism and Romantic philosophers, poets, and authors. In addition to Jung and Corbin, influential figures include Freud, Dilthey, Coleridge, Schelling, Vico, whose New Science exhorted education’s return away from mathematics and the physical sciences back to the arts, metaphor, and imagination, Ficino, with his introduction of Platonic philosophy to Europe and consideration of the soul as an image of the God-Head (Schumacher, 1909), Plotinus, and Plato up through to Heraclitus, who spoke of the infinite nature of soul (Hillman, 1975, 1983). Poets such as William Blake and John Keats also contribute to the idea of “soul-making” as the purpose of the world. But it is the brilliant, compelling, and passionate voice of James Hillman, who coined the term Archetypal Psychology, which continues to inspire its expanding influence into a myriad of fields beyond psychology. 

Archetypal psychology is critical of the current dominant cultural themes that emphasize cold technological efficiency, an empirical and positivistic scientific view of reality, and fundamentalist and dogmatic ideologies that literalize the events and objects in our lives. Archetypal psychology instead attempts to recover soul through the elevation of indigenous cultural historical ideas and narratives and a re-birth of classical Western thought that promotes mythical understanding (Sipiora, 2008). Hillman provocatively calls for an uprising against the tyrannical convictions of positivistic science, economics, and fundamentalism and makes a compelling argument that character “has been obliterated by the dominant ‘isms’ of our day and [is] therefore absent from our daily lives” (Sipiora, 2008, p. 138). 

A full embrace of the inhuman side of humanity and a recognition that Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto - "I am human, I count nothing human as alien to me" (Terence's Heautontimoroumenos) – is a primary theme in archetypal psychology. Jung’s fundamental idea that the symptom leads us forward toward soul is taken up very seriously. According to Hillman, “any attempt at self-realization without full recognition of the psychopathology that resides…in the soul is in itself pathological, an exercise in self-deception” (1975, p. 70). In fact it is our pathology, our wounds, that provide the “Gods’ main route of access” to soul (1975, p. 186). Hillman criticizes humanistic psychology' as “the myth of man without myths” (1975, p. 190) and cognitive-behavioral psychology in its empirical approach of “analyzing and guiding images [to] strive to gain control over them.” (1983, p. 20). Regarding psychoanalysis, “for us,” he says, “it is the conservation and exploration and vivification of the imagination and the insights derived therefrom, rather than the analysis of the unconscious, that is the main work of therapy” (1989, p. 59). From a practical clinical standpoint, the aim of archetypal psychology is “the development of a sense of soul…and the method of therapy is the cultivation of imagination” (Hillman, 1983, p. 15).  

 “Of all of psychology’s sins, the most mortal is its neglect of beauty” (Hillman, 1996, p. 35). Hillman surmises such curious neglect in psychology as due to the reduction of beauty to aestheticism, the interpretation of beauty as symbolic and therefore meaning something other than itself, and the failure to recognize beauty as integral to soul. Hillman appeals to Corbin’s rendering of beauty as “the supreme theophany, divine self-revelation,” in that beauty is present in the very manifestation of anima mundi. Here we are to recognize that beauty appears in the actual images themselves, such that the very beholding of them, the “sniffing, gasping, breathing in of the world” enables the “transfiguration of matter” which “occurs through wonder” (1992, p. 47). According to Hillman, it is the rapturous beholding of beauty in manifest images, or the aesthetic response of the heart, that is essential to archetypal psychology. Such soul-making happens in the taking in of an object, thereby activating its imagination “so that it shows its heart and reveals its soul.” In this way, the things of the world are saved by the anima mundi, “by their own souls and our simple gasping at this imaginal loveliness.” In such an aesthetic response to the world lies its very salvation. Here we see the inherent ethical expression of archetypal psychology as the care of the very soul of the world, for the aesthetic response is an ethical response and in fact a political action in itself. According to Hillman (1983), “Beauty and justice interlinked have been the aim of soul work ever since Socrates and were declared the fundamental principles of an ecological psychotherapy” (p. 74).

But what of ugliness? Hillman borrows Plotinus’ definition of beautiful and ugly: “We possess beauty when we are true to our own being; ugliness is in going over to another order” (V.8.13). The idea of “going over to another order” is inherent in any kind of psychology that attempts to locate the inner workings of a person in a thing they are not; comparing the human mind to a computer would be an example (Sipiora, August 2009, class notes). According to archetypal psychology, such a perspective is considered ugly and lacking beauty precisely because it has breached the integrity of what a human being is, thereby neglecting soul. How are we to discern a breach? We are to look to our aesthetic response. Hillman again turns to Plotinus and notes that when we feel cramped, resentful, and not ourselves we have “fallen away from soul” (p. 59). We can therefore turn to our aesthetic reflex as our guide in soul-making. 

The proximity and availability of one’s aesthetic response to phenomena as the source of soul-making, witnessing “that immediate thing as image, its smile, a joy, a joy that makes ‘forever’” (1992, p. 49), in the enlivening and salvation of phenomena given by the anima mundi through our aesthetic response, and the guiding properties inherent in the aesthetic reflex are unique and profound ideas in archetypal psychology. Hillman’s description of the experience of the aesthetic response seems to me undifferentiated from a feeling response to the image of an object, however, and somewhat incongruent with his criticism of feeling as the basis of guidance toward soul. “The faith in human feeling is nothing other than a new religion…” (1975, p. 181) Hillman states. However, I think it is the gift of himma, the faith that the images presented to us are “genuinely created” (Hillman, 1992, p. 5) and true theophanic beings, that distinguishes the aesthetic response from mere feeling.


Corbin, H. (1969). Creative imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press.

Hillman, J. (1975). Re-visioning psychology. New York: HarperCollins.

Hillman, J. (1983). Archetypal psychology: The uniform edition of the writings of James

Hillman, volume 1. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications.

Hillman, J. (1989). A blue fire. (Ed., T. Moore). New York: HarperCollins.

Hillman, J. (1992). The thought of the heart and the soul of the world. New York:

Spring Publications.

Hillman, J. (1996). The soul’s code. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Schumacher, M. (1909). Marsilio Ficino. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York:

Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved August 18, 2009 from New Advent:

Sipiora, M. (2008). Myth and Plot: Hillman and Ricoeur on Narrative. In S. Marlan

(Ed.), Archetypal psychologies. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal Books.

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