James Hillman

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The study and art of psychology may have never been so deepened and criticized by the late and great James Hillman. This maverick mercurial philosopher of soul, just passed in 2011. During his career he redefined the way therapy was conceived and delivered unto the world with countless mythological and psychological psychologems, living ideas that are like psychological vitamin and mineral deposits, which place him as one of the 21st century’s most prestigious and interesting of psychologists. A few of his most intriguing ideas include the nature of dream interpretation, the function of the Underworld and dreams, suicide, depression, and above all else, the endeavor of soul making something he constantly expressed was found in the valleys, not heights of experience. The imaginal methods he used to realize the truths about these fields of psychology are explored in this essay. 

James Hillman History

James Hillman died at age 85 from cancer complications as likely the most esteemed psychologist since William James (Kidel). His writing contribution to the field is almost all new however he was deeply influenced by the writings of previous psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (Kidel). His repertoire of inspiration does go well beyond these however with many ancient and modern philosophers and writers such as Keats, Goethe, Schelling, Plato, and mythologies from around the world. His own advancements for imaginal thought are as prolific as any of these fellow since he practically reimagined the way in which the ego relates with the psyche (Kidel). 


When James Hillman spoke of soul, he referred to the “imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy-that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical, that unknown component, which makes meaning possible, turns events into experiences, is communicated in love, has religious concern [deriving from its special relation with death]”. (James C xvi). 

These considerations of soul are what distinguished Hillman as a psychologist and philosopher in the modern age, a time when artifices of technology and convention have never more threatened the psychic wholeness of man. The interactions with the absolute unknown had by the Ego, although threatening and ignored by many, was a key subject for James, similar to Carl Jung, who considered all experience as existing within a tapestry that was psyche. His ideas were as radical and groundbreaking as any scientists. Consider for example how it is that relationship between the ego or person and the absolute are disregarded by materialists who suppose that the universe is just objective. The infinite can never be objectified since objectification is a product of limits, something the infinite is definitively without. Such a narrow vision holds no place in Hillman’s encompassing philosophy which has married the ego, psyche, and immense unknown in a sea of experience, not all of which is positive (Wojtkowski). 

Making use of gestalt and archetypal reasoning, Hillman knew that the psyche, not an external objective reality, was the principle meaning making agent within the worlds of humans. He states “In the beginning is the image; first imagination then perception; first fantasy then reality” (Hillman B 23). Such a conclusion is based upon the fact that all modern perception, no matter how scientific, emerges as just one rung higher on an ever ascending ladder of perception whose depths run deeper than imagining yet nonetheless require imagination to fairly picture their conception. Hillman states that as “we can know only fantasy-images directly and immediately, and from these images create our worlds and call them realities, we live in a world that is neither “inner” nor “outer” (Hillman C 23). 

Dwelling Imaginably

Hillman’s methods for creating soul were simple, varied, contradictory, and inspired. Nonetheless, the process was considered to be synonymous with the goal, soul, and thus was itself meant to be dark, shady, personal, and broadening. Perhaps his biggest concern psychologically, the uncovering, fostering, and expression of soul, was driven by the hard bareness of the modern world which has created a ‘loss of soul’. The loss of soul is a condition described by many primitive peoples wherein a person, in this case a society, is unable to make the connection they need or want to between their inner reality and the outer connection. When such an even occurs, the person is ascribed the status of dead and even gone unto their family, totem, and tribe (Hillman B 17). Rather than be a permanent condition to last until corporeal death, there are conversion opportunities at hand which may return the person to his soul and the powers that reside therein. Hillman in his masterpiece of short essays A Blue Fire, does not even think that is necessary to relate this experience to  modern readers as, loneliness, depression, disconnection, and entropy are dominant social forces (Hillman A 18). Nevertheless, he does outline some of the ways that social movements of the present order may actually destroy rather than preserve soul even in the best of intentions. 

The most telling of instances where such tragedy occurs is actually in curative therapy. The tendency for the aspects of soul, such as aggression, obsession, needs, wants, fantasy, weirdness, and depression to be sublimated within therapy was one of Hillman’s greatest criticisms. Rather than be scrubbed clean within therapy, actually brain washing, Hillman advocated for an open dialogue with one’s soul and the symptoms it produces (Hillman A 18). It was with soul that one reached a deepening within themselves and thus characteristics of withdrawal, depression, and even rage were given a special space within the literature and therapeutic dialogues of this psychologists (Robbins). This conclusion is quite rational despite its extreme conclusions. The soul itself is a place where opposites are conjoined, like Heaven and Earth or Heaven and Hell, and thus it is by reification, not demonization, that the personality achieves wholeness. 

Soul’s elusiveness is a part of what affords it the ability to integrate such wild and divergent experiences. He stays about soul that “Though I cannot identify soul with anything else, I also can never grasp it apart  other things, perhaps because it is like a reflection in a flowing mirror, or like the moon, which meditates only borrowed light. But just this peculiar and paradoxical intervening variable ives on the sense of having or being a soul. However intangible and indefinable it is, soul caries highest importance of human values, frequently being identified with the principle of life and even of divinity” (Robbins). 

His perspective on soul were as radical and groundbreaking as any. He unconditionally followed the conditionality of soul right up to the very brink of what the soul may even call for, death. Indeed, a good proportion of Hillman’s career was made towards refining the psychiatric attitudes that pertain to the abysmal end of life process even when suicided was being contemplated. His thoughts on the subject were purely exploratory which, although bold and daring, made him a controversial thinker (Carey 2011). While suicide is generally held at bay by most therapists and doctors, Hillman wrote about how sometimes the longing for death can be a symptom of soul’s own longing for itself. Even stated that until the personality can consciously consider its own death and possibly own the desire for it at some point, it may be under-developed as it is the acceptance of death that teaches one how to live fully (Hillman C 31). As such, he would give patients the full possibility of expressing themselves when thinking about death so that they may better understand their relationship to this most shrouded and repressed of concepts.  


One of his other most intriguing of notions intimately related to suicide and the soul was that the psyche, the Greek word for Soul, is actually an underworld creation; that is, the psyche is at home most in the underworld.  In his book, The Dream and the Underworld, Hillman recounts how the Underworld, as described in mythology and religion, is a metaphor for the dark and heavy realm that is within the mind-body rather than actually being a literal location (Hillman B 21). This notion is reinforced by the fact that the underworld, like the psyche, is a bottomless affair which cannot be made proper sense of. The underworld has its own way and quite often this way is taboo, the domain of life that the underworld God Pluto, has exercise over in addition to all manner of destruction, oppression, fury, and bewilderment (Hillman B 5). Intriguingly, these experiences of Underworld, although cold and alienating, often are redeeming and soulfully nourishing. Consider the other meaning for Pluto’s name, riches, indicating that the real wealth of life is to be found in connection to death. 

Hillman’s advice for the dream experiencer and interpreter is as a unique as it is profound. Rather than selling straight one to one dream dictionary connections of either a spiritual, libidinal, or arbitrary nature, Hillman taught one is to literally come into relationship with the characters, objects, environments, and memes that play out in the dream and dream-realm. Thus a dream about a tiger is not taken just to mean the approach of danger or possibly a heralding of inner strength but is actually honored for the direct value that it has itself. Thus, instead of being the Herculean ego who will wrest meaning from the image, the dreamer becomes submerged with the image so that it may share in its inner and original meaning (Hillman 18). An excellent way to describe this principle in action is take the same manner of participation used at a move for example, interest for interest’s sake, and apply it to the dream.  It is not a passive relationship however being described. Indeed, the dreamer may be well served to literally name the characters and objects in the dream ‘Man with Smile on his Face’, ‘Skeleton Person’, ‘River of Slime’ as independent features themselves, each of which can bring revelation, understanding, and soul to the personality.


James Hillman’s philosophy on the psyche was poignantly soulful. His readings and thoughts echo with desolation of mid of winter and ring the sprightly dexterity of a jingling Christmas bell. His many works testify to his ability to consistently find the soul within the dark and brooding. Learning of this man and what he wrote is a sure way to increase one’s one appreciation of the same. Furthermore, Dream interpretation methods supplied by Hillman offer one a smooth and inviting way into somewhat chaotic and strange world of the dream.

Works Cited

Carey, Benedict. James Hillman, Therapist in Men’s Movement, Dies at 85. NY Times, 2011. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/28/health/james-hillman-therapist-in-mens-movement-dies-at-85.html?_r=0. 

Hillman, James. A. A Blue Fire. Harper Collins, 1991. Web. August 22, 2016. https://books.google.com/books

Hillman, James, B. Dreams and the Underworld. Harper Collins, 1979. Print. 

Hillman, James. C. Re-Visioning Psychology. Harper Collins, 1977. Web. August 19, 20ma16. https://books.google.com/books

Hillman, James, D. Suicide and the Soul. Spring Publications, 1993. Print. August 22, 2016

Kidel, Mark. James Hillman Obituary. The Guardian, 2011. Web. August 19, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/dec/21/james-hillman. 

Robbins, Brent Dean. James Hillman. Mythos and Logos, 2008. Web. August 22, 2016. http://mythosandlogos.com. 

Wojtkowski, Sylvester. Dwelling Imaginally in Soulless Times. An Appreciation of the Work of James Hillman. ARAS Connections, 2012. https://aras.org/sites/default/files/docs/00051Wojtkowski.pdf.