Hillmanian psychologism

The technique of perspective reversal, frequently as it is used throughout Hillman’s early work, is more than a neat rhetorical trick. (Although it must be said that Hillman does have a pronounced preference for the chiasm in any case.) I have already noted that both Jung and Hillman seemed to think that human hybris needs to be checked, particularly in the form in which the human person is thought of as the creative source of soul phenomena: if we think that the psyche is something “in” us, something we own and which we perhaps even consider as being of our making, we are gravely mistaken. That view is not just erroneous, but actually dangerous. It’s what Jung generally calls ‘inflation’ of consciousness, whereas Hillman has many names for it, typically ending on “-ism”.

Let’s review a further example:

We keep from psychologism by remembering that not only is the psyche in us as a set of dynamisms, but we are in the psyche. (RVP 134)

The “not only … but …” portion is of course once more an instance of the move I have called “perspective reversal”: Hillman reminds us that psyche is something wider than merely the bundles of psychological phenomena each of us are aware of in ourselves (and some of which we can observe or assume in other people as well). Psyche comprises processes in which individual humans share, but which are not exhausted by that sharing. (The psyche, he says at a later point, “extends beyond the nature of man. The soul has inhuman reaches”; RVP 179).

What is the danger from which this move is supposed to protect us here? It is, according to Hillman, the erroneous view called “psychologism”.

1. “Psychologism” is only one of the many enemy images Hillman paints (they also include “literalism”, “materialism”, “nihilism”, “nominalism”, “personalism”, and so on and on and on; almost each of his works contains an early chapter or passage with “obstacles”, “barriers” and the like to an archetypal psychology, see DU 68-90; RVP 58-67 for a good impression). He usually piggybacks on some broader critical discussion in those cases, and “psychologism” is no exception. The term was widely used as a negative slogan in 19th and early 20th century philosophy, and generally meant as referring to an overreach of psychological thinking.

Now Hillman’s view that the whole point of human life is soul-making certainly looks, at first glance, as a version of psychologism. (And Jung’s statements that every product of human culture, including science and logic, is a product of psyche and therefore the subject area of a psychology of the unconscious seems even more clearly an instance.) But Hillman distinguishes his position from a “psychologism” which he calls fallacious. What does he think is the difference?

Psychologism means only psychologizing, converting all things into psychology. Psychology then becomes the new queen and — by taking itself and its premises literally — becomes a new metaphysics […]: there is only one fundamental discipline and ultimate viewpoint, psychology. (RVP 133)

Psychologism, thus, is a kind of reductionism: everything is “really only” in the mind, and whatever else (outside psychology) we study is merely derivative. (For example, we might thus reduce the laws of logic to laws of personal thinking, something that “goes on in the mind” or “in the brain”.) In this, I think, Hillman is close to the usual understanding of psychologism in those broader debates. And since he, too, characterizes it as fallacious, I presume he also subscribes the criticism that it is too narrow and must be avoided.

At least programmatically this seems to be the case, for Hillman makes a point that all “psychologizing” (viewing the world through the lens of myths, archetypes, and the like) generally stands next to the literal interpretations which are also valid (have “content, merit, and import”; RVP 133). So for example, there are laws of logic which are universally and objectively valid (and not mere constructs of the human psyche), and their study in its field (logic, mathematics, …) is correct to proceed as it does (expressing them literally). There is, however, a psychological aspect to it in addition, which is brought out by psychologizing. To see and include that aspect would not be reductive (as psychologism would be), but merely broaden our set of perspectives.

2. How does Hillman’s own, “archetypal” psychology avoid this fallacy of psychologism, then?

Hillman insists that this is achieved already by interpreting archetypes (the fundamental psychological patterns) as “the perspectives of mythical persons who cannot be reduced to human beings or placed inside their personal lives, their skins, or their souls.” (RVP 134)

Thus, strictly speaking, the fallacy is avoided, not by rejecting reduction to the psychological as such, but by rejecting reduction to the personally psychological. Since Hillman (like Jung) had a much broader view of what counts as psyche or soul than a narrow personalistic psychology would, he can maintain the position that, on that broader notion, basically “everything” might be understood in terms of psyche (in terms, that is, of archetypal enactment of fundamental patterns in the soul). Only once we shift to a more personalistic notion of psyche we land in trouble with such a position, for then we end up with the view that the entire universe is, to put it somewhat simplistically, “inside our heads”.

One can detect this whenever religious, moral, aesthetic, or logical events are given (1) a literalized account in terms (2) of underlying psychological processes only, and (3) when these processes are made personally human; the psychologistic fallacy requires all three legs. (RVP 134)

Under a narrow (non-Hillman/Jungian) understanding, someone holding both (1) and (2) would already be a psychologistic reductionist; but given the broader understanding, the dangerous step ensues only when (3) is added. Rejecting (3), however, Hillman can claim to avoid the mistake of psychologism.

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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