Understanding (Hillman’s notion of) pathologizing

I have quoted Hillman, from his “Peaks and Vales” essay on the difference between spirit and soul, as listing three distinctive features of soul-work, in contrast to spirit-work. The first of those three is that “pathologizing” is not “dismissed for growth” (UE 3, 84). Now what does that even mean?

The way I read him (cf. RVP 64-67), Hillman thinks that spirit-work, focusing on (spiritual) growth, would dismiss or even suppress psychological phenomena that look sick, disruptive, defunct. Those are to be straightened out or healed, i.e. eliminated, in order to reach spiritual peaks. This may perhaps be a valid tactic if we’re in the business of spirit-work; but conversely, if we think and aim that way and at the same time think we’re doing psychology (or psychotherapy, i.e., soul-work), we have fallen to a confusion between spirit and soul (or more strictly, between spirit-work and soul-work). Soul-work, properly understood, does not aim at ignoring, suppressing, supplanting, or overcoming pathologizing.

This is a start, but we have to get clear about this terminology of the pathological and “pathologizing” (which is a technical term in Hillman’s work). Pathological means that something shows up as sick or even dead, as out of order, defunct. Pathologizing means that the psyche sometimes produces images of pathologies. The psyche produces all kinds of images (dreams, fantasies, compulsive behaviors,…), not all of which are images of something sick or defunct. But some are, and when they appear, we say that the psyche pathologizes.

Let’s go through some examples to flesh this out.

1. The most familiar case is probably that of dreams. The images we experience in dreams range from visual impressions (e.g. we “see” a landscape) to sounds (noises, speech, even music), from simple bodily sensations (e.g. a constricted feeling in the chest) to quite sophisticated emotional feeling complexes (“I felt a sadness similar to when my hamster died when I was nine.”). And all this can be combined into elaborate scenes and sometimes even complicated, twisted narratives.

Now among such dream images, scenes, and narratives are frequently pathological ones. For instance, we might see a landscape with a dead tree in the center; or a sick dog limps across our path. We might find ourselves paralyzed, unable to walk (cf. DU 155f.). Evil spirits might capture and boil us in hot water, or dismember our bodies slowly (a staple of Shamanic initiation dreams), or we walk along the street in a ghost town, where all living beings have disappeared …

Again, only a portion of dream imagery is like that, but there seems to be generally some amount of it (sometimes more, sometimes less; for some people more frequently, etc.). Thus it is a significant part of the dream phenomenon that a portion of its imagery is pathologizing, i.e. presenting images of the pathological.

2. We should begin to eliminate some confusions right away. (Cf. RVP 78-80; also 85-85.) If a person dreams about something pathological (e.g. a sick dog), it does not follow that this person must therefore themselves be psychologically sick.

For one thing, obviously dreams are built out of materials from our waking experience. Just like a painter might make sketches of some detail (e.g. a vase) and then later use it in a painting, or like a writer listening to a conversation on the street might note and later build it into a dialogue in a novel, the psyche uses details from what we see, hear, feel throughout the day and re-assembles (potentially re-shapes) them into those dream scenes. And obviously, our daily world contains a good portion of illness, dysfunction, and little reminders of death (memento mori), too. So it is quite natural that those are included in the dream imagery.

We must be careful, in other words, to not assume that our dreams “should be healthy” in the sense that they never contain any pathology. That is just a wrong definition of “healthy”. (And nobody would ever have “healthy” dreams in that sense of “healthy”.) Hillman refers to this mistake as a variant (in psychology) of the well-known naturalistic fallacy, i.e. an invalid inference from an “is” to an “ought” (RVP 84-86).

It gets more controversial if we assume that dreams “mean something”. Whatever the supposed meaning in a dream is, it is never quite as simple as “I’m dreaming of a sick dog; if I were mentally healthy, that dog would be healthy, too; therefore, something must be wrong with me”. Of course, written out explicitly like that, this kind of reasoning sounds quite obviously wrong. But it is worth to look closer and figure out exactly what is wrong with it.

Behind that line of reasoning are several assumptions. First, it assumes that dreams are telling us something about “us”, i.e. the person of waking consciousness with which we identify. Dreams, according to that first assumption, are supposed to guide our daytime life in the external world. Then there is a second assumption: namely, that there is a direct translation between dream content (a sick dog) and waking life (I must be sick). The idea is that if there is something pathological going on in the dream, it points to something pathological (“something is wrong”) in waking life, too.

There are many different opinions about the first assumption (that the function of dreams is to guide and interpret our waking life), and I won’t go into that topic here. But even if we grant that for a moment, the second assumption seems outright naive. It says that some of the elements in the dream (it’s about a dog) should be taken semiotically, whereas others (the dog is sick) should be taken literally. The dog is seen as a symbol, but the sickness is not. The dog needs to be interpreted (“The dog probably stands for my physical health.” or “The dog symbolizes my friendships.”), whereas the sickness doesn’t. But this is arbitrary. Who says that the dog is meant “symbolically” and the sickness is meant literally?

(Of course, this goes back to the first assumption: if I have a theory about what dreams mean and how this meaning is to be interpreted, I might come up with a criterion, based on that theory, which tells me why some elements are to be interpreted symbolically and some literally. But again, I’ll leave that aside; this is not the place to go into dream theories as such.)

In summary, then: to infer from appearance of pathology in dream images that this indicates literal psychopathology (in the dreamer) is unsound. Such pathology in the images is more likely to be metaphorical itself, i.e., a case of what Hillman calls “pathologizing”.

3. From this line of thought (which really is just a correction of unsound reasoning), we begin to see why Hillman thinks that a focus on pathologizing is necessary for soul-work:

As the fantasy of illness if first of all fantasy (and not illness), so treating the fantasy requires a therapy that focuses on fantasy (and not illness). Pathologizing must be met by imaginal thinking rather than clinical thinking. […] Fantasy can use any sort of content, divine or morbid, and none of this content should be taken literally until all of it is recognized as fantasy.

RVP 78-79; Hillman’s emphasis.

To be sure, this contrasts soul-work (psychological work, therapy) with clinical literalism, and not with spirit-work (Hillman tends to run these latter two together sometimes). But in any case, the unsound reasoning would distract from soul-work here, because we overlook that pathology in dream images is another metaphor, which needs to be interpreted as such, rather than simply be taken literally (in which case it wrongly looks as if there is no need for soul-work).

4. So far, we have looked at dream images (some of which present illness, dysfunction, etc.) as one example for pathologizing activities of the psyche. But there are other types. Let’s look next at what Freud called the “psychopathology of everyday life” (in his famous book of the same title). This includes the events that have become proverbial as “Freudian slips”, random memory failings, sudden difficulties concentrating, feeling deeply tired whenever a certain topic comes up in conversation, over-sensitivity against outside noise, and the like.

These are “pathological” in the sense that something in our conscious psychology (speech, concentration, wakefulness, ability to focus) suddenly seems weak, disrupted, or defunct. The effect is usually small and temporary, and not generally a problem, but it is marked enough that we might ask ourselves “what is going on?” in those moments. And the answer to that question is typically some stipulation of an unconscious process: e.g. the Freudian slip may happen because of a dislike of the boss which I’m hiding (“professional” that I am, or take myself to be), and which then comes out, surprisingly for myself, in the form of a phrase that I didn’t intend to say.

Freud already would pay careful attention to these everyday pathologies, taking them as clues, which might help him detect deeper unconscious patterns. Jung, in his early work, even systematized this approach into his Association Experiment. The basic idea was the same: finding those words where a subject exhibited measurable hesitation might lead to deeper unconscious patterns (see GW VII, §20; and of course GW II passim).

Now, just as with dream images, the psyche is active here, and the activity is unconscious (not intended and willed by the ego; it “just happens”). And like the dream images of sickness etc., the everyday pathologies belong to that subset of unconscious processes that are expressed as some kind of dysfunction, of disruption or “normal” (i.e. waking-consciousness-like) functioning. Just like the pathological dream images, too, they are a natural subset (we all experience them from time to time). It would be an unusual person who doesn’t exhibit them, if indeed such persons even exist.

5. More generally, covering instances like these, Hillman states that

the soul produces crazed patterns and sicknesses, perversions and decay, within dreams and behavior, and in art and thought, in war and politics, and in religion, because pathologizing is a psychic activity per se.

RVP 79.

It is the fact that the soul produces such patterns, rather their particular content, which is characteristic; and correspondingly, soul-work would have to acknowledge pathologizing as the essential activity and the particular contents merely as accidental (or contingent, depending on context and availability, and so on). This is in marked contrast to a kind of work that strives to ignore or eliminate such patterns, and thus would effectively suppress what is “a psychic activity per se”, i.e. repress soul. We might pursue such goals (in spirit work), but we certainly shouldn’t confuse this with soul-work (or therapy).

6. The purpose of soul-work is not to “clean up” dreams so that they don’t show any images of sickness or dysfunction, or to erase Freudian slips and suspicious little failures of memory from our daily life. (However, sometimes the stated purpose of spirit-work sounds suspiciously like that, and perhaps that was what Hillman’s frequent criticism was directed at. Yet even for spirit-work, that sounds like a distorted purpose. Spirit-work should be focused on following the “divine” contents he gestures at in the quote above, but it should not have any business, including the business of suppressing or eliminating, the “morbid” ones. For spirit-work, that would be a misdirection away from its own proper path; that it also encroaches on the path of soul-work would just be an additional, if secondary failing.)

This is not to say, of course, that pathologizing dream imagery or everyday psychopathology can grow so disproportionate as to threaten the normal live functions of a person; and obviously, that would require clinical attention, if just for the physiological side effects alone. Still, if Hillman is right, then such attention in itself won’t be sufficient. Soul-work (i.e. psychotherapy) would be required, and it would be essential again that the latter were not reduced to clinical literalism (but would supplement it in an orthogonal way).

7. There is, however, yet another type of pathologizing (in addition to dream or fantasy imagery, and “everyday psychopathology”), which is more difficult to grasp. The psyche may also bring about pathological symptoms in a person’s body or behavior. (That is of course the paradigm from which the language of “psychopathology” derives in the first place, although partly for contingent historical reasons.)

In fact, looking at this class of symptoms and behavioral disorders was one of the main sources for Freud, Jung, and others. (Hillman quotes Freud’s statement that one has to begin “with the symptom” at the very beginning of his chapter on pathologizing in RVP, p. 53.) Again, not all such symptoms are psychogenic (without detectable organic basis), but many are, and some of them in a striking way. (Jung relates a particularly dramatic one at the beginning of the first of the Two Essays; GW VII, §4). Looking at those that are psychogenic, there is an obvious conflict here: from a medical perspective, such symptoms require treatment, but from a psychological perspective, this is tantamount to a systematic misunderstanding (“searching for the right treatment we literalize pathologizing into its medical meaning”, RVP 73). Hillman, after pointing it out, faces the conflict head-on. His chapter on pathologizing in Re-Visioning Psychology criticizes not only a confusion between soul-work and spirit-work, but equally a confusion between soul-work and medical treatment, and here his conclusions are harder to swallow (cf. RVP 79, 80), and his subsequent suggestions of alternatives are rather vague.

Since I’m concerned with the distinction between spirit and soul, I’m not going to follow up this latter strand. However, any account of pathologizing along the lines of Hillman’s must face this difficulty: if pathologizing is defined as broadly as he does, it has to cover both the portion that is dream images, fantasies, and everyday slips and the portion including psychogenic symptoms generating suffering similar to their organic counterparts; and if we would, vis-a-vis that entire range, take the stance of “imagining” them as metaphorical expressions, to “not take the fantasy as clinical fact” (RVP 80), we would quickly collide with serious moral constraints in the face of human suffering — at least with respect to the latter portion.

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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.