Archetypal Psychology – a Brief Account, Part II

In part II of this exploration of James Hillman’s book, Archetypal Psychology, a Brief Account, I want to write more specifically about the nature of images within the context of Archetypal Psychology. You can read Part I of the series here.

“Archetypal psychology axiomatically assumes imagistic universals, com- parable to the universali fantastici of Vico (Scienza Nuova, par. 381), that is, mythical figures that provide the poetic characteristics of human thought, feeling, and action, as well as the physiognomic intelligibility of the qualitative worlds of natural phenomena.”

When I first began to study Hillman’s ideas I admit that I did not understand much of anything of what I was reading, and  I was perhaps looking for a way to understand myself, others and the world. My fear of being misunderstood, I have come to see, is related to my fear and reluctance to understand others.  Although I would never claim that I know what anyone is really saying, or what they really mean, I have come to appreciate that any understanding garnered comes from practice and is an art, a creative act like many other seemingly mundane things in our day-to-day can be.

Everyday things, from cooking to washing dishes, when experienced contemplatively, can bring unexpected insight and joy. The same is true in the practice and contemplation of ideas, language, and especially in understanding ourselves and other people.

There is an art to understanding, or there can be, either by naturally feeling drawn to, and nurturing the depths of what life shows and offers you, or if, and this is more my story, you feel so lost and incapable of understanding yourself, others and the world, that you are compelled to seek ways to live with yourself out of necessity.

“An arche-typal image is psychologically “universal,” because its effect amplifies and depersonalizes. Even if the notion of image regards each image as an individualized, unique event, as “that image there and no other,” such an image is universal because it resonates with collective, trans-empirical importance.

And, the universals problem for psychology is not whether they exist, where, and how they participate in particulars, but rather whether a personal individual event can be recognized as bearing essential and collective importance.”

File:Wiccan Syzygy.pngBecause Hillman speaks of archetypal images and frequently writes about the Greek gods, it took me awhile to understand that he was not claiming that the gods were literally true, or the only means by which we experience archetypal forces or images, but that the mythology of the Greeks shows us archetypality in abundance and the archetypal nature of the soul, and that these images and myths, as all images and myths do, still speak to us because of the universals that we recognize in their distinct natures through the stories of their adventures, misfortunes and relationships.

But if image is primary as Hillman says, then we are in psyche, all of us subject to universal currents or personas that live through us. Not that we need to be free of their influence, as if we could, but perhaps grant that we are subject to them as much as we are subject to our home planet earth, and the vulnerability and universality of our mortal existence.

So…what does this do for us?…you might ask. For one, it helps us to acknowledge a multiplicity of perspectives, and by accepting the universal nature of archetypes we may depersonlize our ideas, and can then perhaps understand what any idea does for us or others. This understanding may provide an opening up of ourselves, freeing us to explore the nature of the human experience and the world we all share with less fear and a sense of separation.

“Archetypal psychology has pressed beyond the collection of objective data and the correlation of images as verbal or visual symbols. If archetypal images are the fundamentals of fantasy, they are the means by which the world is imagined, and therefore they are the models by which all knowledge, all experiences whatsoever become possible: “Every psychic process is an image and an ‘imagining,’ otherwise no consciousness could exist …” (CW 11: 889). An archetypal image operates like the original meaning of idea (from Greek eidos and eidolon): not only “that which” one sees but also that “by means of which” one sees.” 

File:Psyche-Waterhouse.jpg…by archetypal psychology we mean a psychology of value. And our appellative move is aimed to restore psychology to its widest, richest, and deepest volume so that it would resonate with soul in its descriptions as unfathomable, multiple, prior, generative, and necessary. As all images can gain this archetypal sense, so all psychology can be archetypal … ‘Archetypal’ here refers to a move one makes rather than to a thing that is” (Hillman 1977 b). Here, archetypal psychology “sees through” itself as strictly a psychology of archetypes, a mere analysis of structures of being (gods in their myths), and, by emphasizing the valuative function of the adjective archetypal, restores to images their primordial place as that which gives psychic value to the world. Any image termed archetypal is immediately valued as universal, trans-historical, basically profound, generative, highly intentional, and necessary.”

If highly intentional and necessary, the archetypal nature of images and perspectives have us in mind. They can guide and help if we attend to their presence in our lives, through dreams, fantasies, religious or spiritual urges, our callings and even our pathology.

“As intentional force and person, such an image presents a claim – moral, erotic, intellectual, aesthetic – and demands a response. It is an “affecting presence” (Armstrong 1971) offering an affective relationship. It seems to bear prior knowledge (coded information) and an instinctive direction for a destiny, as if prophetic, prognostic. Images in “dreams mean well for us, back us up and urge us on, understand us more deeply than we understand ourselves, expand our sensuousness and spirit, continually make up new things to give us – and this feeling of being loved by the images … call it imaginal love” (Hillman 1979 a). This message-bearing experience of the image – and the feeling of blessing that an image can bring – recalls the Neoplatonic sense of images as daimones and angels (message bearers). “Perhaps – who knows ? – these eternal images are what men mean by fate” (CW 7: 183).”

All quotes taken from: Hillman, James (2013-09-18). Archetypal Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 224-230). Spring Publications. Kindle Edition.

Art courtesy of Wiki Commons.

15 thoughts on “Archetypal Psychology – a Brief Account, Part II

    1. Hi Jerry,
      I think the most accessible book of Hillman’s would be the Soul’s Code. It is less a discussion about his ideas and more of an anecdotal display of archetypes living through the lives of a few artists, writers, musicians and other famous people.


  1. Debra, I find what you said about the link to self-understanding is understanding others. Never really thought about it quite that way.
    I am much more adept and drawn to understanding others because I rarely see myself clearly. There is an astrological reason for this ~ My Sun is Conjunct Neptune. Neptune also squares my ascendant. So haze and mystery reign supreme! thank you for providing an illuminating inquiry. I learn so much here, even though the material is sometimes quite dense 🙂


    1. Hi Linda,
      I was so horribly miserable earlier in life that I was compelled to find a way to make peace with myself, others and life.
      Haze and mystery, to be able to live with that is very valuable, and something I need to be more comfortable with. I don’t have to figure everything out, I won’t get it right anyway 🙂
      While reading Liz Greene’s book on astrology and fate I decided to look at my chart again. Talk about mystery and haze!!!
      It kind of scares me to look at the chart and read what all of the aspects and planetary positions mean. So much of it resonates but I’m not sure I like some of what it tells me 🙂 One more mirror, yes?
      Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts here!


    1. The book is short, something like 176 pages, many of which are references to other books, other authors, and yet, I think I could write more posts on this book than Hillman’s Alchemical book…not that I plan on it though 🙂
      Thanks for the note Monika!


  2. …Like a lot:

    By accepting the universal nature of archetypes we may depersonlize our ideas, and can then perhaps understand what any idea does for us or others. This understanding may provide an opening up of ourselves, freeing us to explore the nature of the human experience and the world we all share with less fear and a sense of separation.



      1. The idea is as helpful as in explaining what water feels like for the man dying of thirst 😀

        No but really…we have to drink that water…

        For me it is no longer a matter of choice:

        Either I willingly “depersonalize” unfolding the pathless journey, or remain in the clutches of the “known”, which – at best – means vapid stagnation…or at worst…not even mentioning…


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