On inferior psychology and religion

Everything that king Midas touched turned into gold. The modern collective spirit has brought forth a counterpart; a personality capable of transforming any genuine subject matter into plastic. While the want of spiritual bread is immense, the very people responsible for providing it tragically fail to satisfy the need. Instead they provide a surrogate. Maria Bergom Larsson (1995) recounts an ominous dream:

I dreamt that the nuclear war had started. The world was on fire and buildings collapsed around me. In the middle of the catastrophe people stood in line before the celeb clergyman Lennart Koskinen to partake of the Communion. But the sacramental bread dealt out by the clergyman looked like GB Sandwich [an ice cream with bread] and it was made of plastic. (Bergom Larsson, 1995, my transl.)

The tragic dimension of the above dream is obvious. There is a synonymous phenomenon which I want to put my finger on. In America, especially, has appeared a brand of “plastic” psychologists who deal out a surrogate bread, wholly lacking in sustenance. Although this is done in the name of Jungian psychology, it belies the legacy of the pioneers and has nearly succeeded in turning their principles into the opposite standpoint. I am thinking of psychologists like Hillman, Romanyshyn and Vannoy Adams whose theories go under names like “phenomenological” or “archetypal”. Surprisingly, this branch is allowed to expand its territory without drawing much fire from dissentient theorists. But it’s high time to take this “plasticizing” psychology properly to task.

The aforementioned psychologists’ fundamental tenet is to “stick to the image”. Such an attitude results in superficiality and delusiveness. This inescapably follows from the call to keep to the surface of things. Whereas traditional Jungian psychology emphasizes moral commitment, this school elevates fantasy and gives it an unwarranted position. Marilyn Nagy is uneasy about this development:

The role of imagination and the function of the archetype also stand in a hierarchical relation of subservience to moral ends in Jung’s clinical theory. Through imaginative attention to inner affective states of mind we become conscious of desire and conflict and have to make decisions for what we perceive as the good. This point has been too little noticed in some Jungian circles in recent years, with the result that fantasy has sometimes come to be valued as an end in itself. But it then becomes empty of all significance for human life — a truly narcissistic occupation which would be entirely antithetic to Jung’s own goals. (Nagy, 1991, pp.159-60)

The phenomenological psychologists hold the epistemologically obscure view that “nothing is more primary than the image” and that the psyche is an “imagining activity” (Hillman, 1997, p.14). Thus, everything else by necessity recedes into the background, most notably any underlying feelings. In Nagy’s words, this ideal of fantasying activity must develop into a narcissistic occupation. But in “The Souls Code” (1996) James Hillman, fully consistently, defends the narcissistic attitude of the ‘puer aeternus’ (also called the Peter Pan type), as this figure is taken for an exemplary model (cf. Winther, 1999, here). Contrary to a one-sided imagining activity, Jung pleads for a whole-hearted commitment to the unconscious:

[The] mere execution of the pictures is not enough. Over and above that, an intellectual and emotional understanding is needed; they require to be not only rationally integrated with the conscious mind, but morally assimilated. They still have to be subjected to a work of synthetic interpretation. Although I have travelled this path with individual patients many times, I have never yet succeeded in making all the details of the process clear enough for publication […] The truth is, we are here moving in absolutely new territory, and a ripening of experience is the first requisite […] We are dealing with a process of psychic life outside consciousness, and our observation of it is indirect. As yet we do not know to what depths our vision will plumb. (Jung, 1993, p.51)

Accordingly, Jolande Jacobi explains that the content of the psyche overreaches the image and transcends consciousness:

The symbol is not an allegory and not a sign, but an image of content that largely transcends consciousness. Yet symbols can ‘degenerate’ into signs and become ‘dead symbols’ when the meaning hidden within them is fully revealed, when it loses its richness of implication because its whole content has been made accessible to reason. For an authentic symbol can never be fully explained. We can open up the rational part of it to our consciousness, but the irrational part can only be ‘brought home to our feeling’ (Jacobi, 1973, p.97).

We realize, then, that the “plastic preachers” (along with many notorious kinsmen in “plastic” American Christendom), have turned the message upside-down. Contrary to their understanding, the unconscious is “always greater” and overreaches the products of the conscious mind. By concentrating on a spiritual and numinous feeling, images are allowed to emerge. However, these images cannot exhaust the meaning of the numinous feeling. Since archetypal psychologists argue that “[phantasy images are] both the raw materials and finished products of the psyche” (Hillman, 1992, xi), it engenders a hubristic standpoint, well-known from the romantic era of philosophy. Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) argued that the ego is world-creating, due to the fact that everything is image and illusion (Encyc., here).

Since Hillman’s followers assert that the image is the most fundamental entity, the subject acquires a world-creating capability, being the exponent and creator of images. This explains why they propound hubristic notions to the effect that images become autonomous and godlike:

The autochtonous quality of images as independent of the subjective imagination which does the perceiving takes Casey’s idea one step further […] but then comes the awareness that images are independent of subjectivity and even of imagination itself as a mental activity. (Hillman, 1997, p.15)

This brings out a call to “return to Greek polytheism” (Hillman, 1992, p.27). Thus, the “plastic preachers” have ventured far from Jung’s standpoint. This comes from the fact that the archetypes are treated as if they were mere images. Against this Marian L. Pauson says:

One may acknowledge the realm of the gods, but as long as one is in the land of the living one is not permitted to dwell too exclusively in the divine sphere. Life is essentially dynamic. The gods live through human beings; without human life the gods become empty symbols. To live a too symbolic life, a life apart from the full engagement of the body in all of its dimensions in process, is to aspire to the realm of the gods and to commit the sin of hubris, for which in all mythologies a human being is repeatedly punished. Herculean ego effort, however, is not the only alternative. Somewhere between the two extremes lies the path. Jung warned against a too symbolic life in which emotional powers or “numinosities” of the archetypes are brushed aside or repressed. In referring to those who admit of the existence of the archetypes, but then treat them as if they were mere images and forget that they are living entities that make up a great part of the human psyche, he says,
  ‘As soon as the interpreter strips them of their numinosity, they lose their life and become mere words. It is then easy enough to link them together with other mythological representations, and so the process of limitless substitution begins; one glides from archetype to archetype, everything means everything, and one has reduced the whole process to absurdity. All the corpses in the world are chemically identical, but living individuals are not. It is true that the forms of archetypes are to a considerable extent interchangeable, but the numinosity is and remains a fact. It represents the value of an archetypal event. This emotional value must be kept in mind and allowed for throughout the whole intellectual process of interpretation. The risk of losing is great, because thinking… abolishes feeling values and vice versa.’ (Pauson, 1988, pp.65-66)

As Jung warrants a whole-hearted commitment to life, Pauson underscores the disparity of Jungian and archetypal psychology:

I suggest, following these words from “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” an important difference between Jung’s ideal and that presented in archetypal psychology, in James Hillman, “The Dream and the Underworld,” and Roberts Avens, “Imagination is Reality.” (Pauson, 1988, p.69)

As the archetypal school gives free rein to any imagining activity, even the theoretical concepts become malleable in their hands. They can be redefined and wrought past recognition. Although people overtly ask for more nourishing material (edible spiritual bread) there is nothing to be had; only plastic theoretical notions that couldn’t survive scrutiny. In the future, I’d wish that Jungian psychology opens up an earnest internal debate, instead of naively gobbling up all strange notions that surface among secondary theorists. In other scientific disciplines one looks at all contributions with stringent critical eyes. Although disquieting, harsh arguments are necessary if Jungian psychology is not to turn into a virtual rubbish-heap. Marie-Louise von Franz, alone unable to halt the flood of rubbish, saw no other possibility than to bail out and found a new psychological institute.


© Mats Winther, 2002


Bergom Larsson, M. (1995). Efter 2000 år. Verbum.

‘Fichte, Johann Gottlieb (1762–1814)’. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Encyclopedia.com. (here)

Hillman, J. (1992). Re-Visioning Psychology. Harper Collins.

  --------     (1996). The Soul’s Code. Random House.

  --------     (1997). Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account. Spring Publications.

Jacobi, J. (1973). The Psychology of C.G. Jung. Yale University Press.

Jung, C.G. (1993). The Practice of Psychotherapy. Princeton/Bollingen. (CW 16)

Nagy, M. (1991). Philosophical Issues in the Psychology of C.G. Jung. State University of New York.

Pauson, M.L. (1988). Jung the Philosopher. Peter Lang Publishing, New York.

Winther, M. (1999). ‘Critique of Archetypal Psychology’. (here)

See also:

Winther, M. (2001). ‘The Limits of Science’. (here)

  ----------    (2001). ‘The Morphic Deception’. (here)