Back to Beyond: Hillman and Whitehead, Part 2

Back to Beyond: Hillman and Whitehead, Part 2

In section III of Hillman’s essay, entitled Psychological Cosmology, he begins to discuss how Whitehead’s cosmological  ideas could have relevance to archetypal psychology. He starts by discussing the word itself:

The word cosmology refers to the astronomical order of the heavenly bodies, and it also has a metaphysical meaning, according to Whitehead’s Process and Reality (whose subtitle is An Essay in Cosmology): a scheme “of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (PR 3). Now, why not keep together the two meanings, astronomical and metaphysical? Let us say that the astronomical bodies (the planets) offer metaphysical bodies (the Gods) by means of whom every element of experience can be interpreted. What is beyond in both meanings are the heavenly bodies. These afford some nouns and adjectives, some processes and some realities. The planetary persons fill the void of the beyond with the myths of their bodies and the bodies of their myths. This cosmology is a psychological field – a field because metaphysics is placed in imaginal locations; psychological because the planets are persons with traits, with behaviors, and in relation with one another.1

One of the main tenets of Hillman’s psychology is the Neoplatonic idea of epistrophe. Archetypal psychology holds that, when dealing with a psychological breakdown, one must “see through” the symptoms, and examine the mythological material that underlies the event. Assuming the “psychological sickness is an enactment of a pathologizing fantasy, archetypal psychology proceeds to search for the archai, the governing principles or root metaphors of the fantasy.”2 Hillman borrows, here, from Plotinus’ idea of epistrophe, or reversion.

Reversion “connects an event to its image, a psychic process to its myth, a suffering of the soul to the imaginal mystery expressed therein.”3 This is a phenomenological process where one asks the image to reveal its archetypal foundations, to which god or goddess it belongs. One need not necessarily be an expert in Greek mythology. The archetypes arise in most world mythologies, as Joseph Campbell so aptly demonstrated. As a prerequisite, one should, however, be schooled in the manner in which the archetypes manifest themselves, be it in Greek mythology, Norse mythology, or any other foundational mythology. It just so happens that Greek mythology is very well suited to our Western mindset, since it is the substructural mythology of all Western culture.

Most of Hillman’s work was brought forth using the process of reversion. He tackled several notoriously difficult issues by deliteralizing and attempting to return the pathologized images back to their archetypal sources. I am thinking here of his book, Suicide and the Soul, where he mythologized the pathological image of wanting to die as a metaphor for the desire to put an end to one sort of existence, and the wish to begin another. In The Dream and the Underworld, he dealt with the connection between dreams and death, plunging headlong into the source of dreams, the Underworld. Reversion was Hillman’s primary method for treating patients, for writing books, and most importantly, for soul-making.

Now, in this attempt to use Whitehead’s metaphysics, Hillman suggests, since the word “cosmology” has a dual meaning,  why not “keep together the two meanings, astronomical and metaphysical,” thereby retaining the rich mythological meanings of each heavenly body? In this way, all psychological experience can be interpreted via reversion. According to Hillman, if one does this, a cosmo-psychological field is created that provides not only the astronomer, astrophysicist, and astrologer with a method of metaphysics whereby the literal motions of actual planets can be calculated, but also the psychologist with a method to interpret the soul’s twistedness using the same metaphysics. In the future, our thinkers will have unified methods of arriving at truth, not the dichotomies and compartmentalized methods of today. One metaphysics to rule them all, one metaphysics to guide them. I can think of no better metaphysical theory that will work for all than Whitehead’s.

And concerning the twistedness of soul, Hillman elaborates:

One characteristic of psychological truth . . . [is] it follows the way of the psychological mind, that twisting which allows the soul to make its fantasy images. Psychological truth is therefore a twisted truth, what the Renaissance called twofold truth. Psychological beauty is twisted beauty, where, as Plotinus and the Art of Memory recognized, the ugly has more immediate and memorable effect on the soul than does the harmonious (Whitehead sees discord as essential to the richer forms of beauty).4

Think about what convention views as “straight.” Experiences which display and build soul always deviate from conventional straightness. Soul, by nature is a bit twisted. This is why the soul loves mazes, labyrinths, windings and spiralings.The twistedness of soul shows up in myriad areas of human culture and experience.

Hillman refers to the Art of Memory. One of the best mnemonic devices is to associate whatever one is learning about with an unusual, grotesque, or absurd image. These types of images are very difficult to forget.

Hillman’s point in the quote above is that “psychological cosmology will inevitably twist cosmology itself, reading the ancient cosmologies not merely as straight historical predecessors, but also for their psychological fantasies.”5 As an example, one Greek pre-Socratic cosmology proposed the theory of the four elements, water, air, earth, and fire. Hillman points to Gaston Bachelard, who takes these as symbols for “four ways that imagination affects the soul.”6 Bachelard takes an ancient cosmology and, out of it, creates a novel psychological viewpoint. A metaphysics must have room for the soul’s myths and imaginings for it to be relevant to archetypal psychology. Hillman understands that Whitehead’s theory, indeed, does provide such space.

Basically, it seems that a true metaphysics must allow for the Hermetic adage, “As above, so below,” to be valid for the archetypal psychological framework. I would agree with Hillman that Whitehead’s “system” does just this. This topic in itself could be another entire article.

Hillman agrees with Colin Wilson’s assertion that Whitehead’s theory of perception adds back meaning to how we experience the world. He says:

Why do we feel lost, behind a dark glass, disoriented? Is it because the Gods have withdrawn, as Rilke says? Or is it because we have fallen in sin away from them, as Christian theology asserts? No, not Luke; Locke. Our theory of perception simply does not let us see them. . . . our Lockean theory of perception denies qualities to things, removing intelligibility from their faces. . . . The physiognomy of the world has been defaced and removed all to the mind, thereby severing life from appearance, and appearance from truth and from reality.”7

Of course, Whitehead has torn down and destroyed the theory of Lockean perception (see previous articles for details on this great achievement). Hillman believes that Whitehead has restored us to a point where now a “living sense of the world” can be perceived by means of a “living organ of soul.”8 Meaning is now possible in the lives of every person, but it must be fought for and created out of one’s hard work and will to power. Essentially, meaning in life, your self-realization, is in your hands.




Griffin, David Ray, Ed. Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman. Northwestern UP: Evanston, 1989.

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper, 1979.

Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1975.

  1. Archetypal Process, 220
  2. Hillman, Re-visioning. 99
  3. Hillman, Dream, 4
  4. Archetypal Process, 221
  5. Archetypal Process, 222
  6. ibid.
  7. Archetypal Process, 225
  8. ibid.

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4 thoughts on “Back to Beyond: Hillman and Whitehead, Part 2

  1. The mention of the “Soul, by nature is a bit twisted” reminds me of the quote from Blake:
    “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are the roads of genius.”

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