Critique of idealistic phenomenologism

The philosophy of idealistic phenomenology has, very regrettably, been adopted by post-Jungian psychologists James Hillman, Wolfgang Giegerich, Robert Romanyshyn, et al. This article concentrates on Romanyshyn’s phenomenological Weltanschauung conveyed in an interview around his book “On Technology as Symptom & Dream” (here). R. argues that the spirit of modern times, its science and technology, has created a psychological breach in the human soul. However, the underlying problem and the way to healing are both incorrectly rendered by R.

Firstly, Romanyshyn’s proposal of restituting the notion of “spirit” or “mind” as resident in matter, is to mistake the unconscious as “matter” — the collective unconscious is projected onto matter. According to Carl Jung, such a frame of mind is characteristic of medieval alchemy. Thus, what R. proposes represents a regression to an outdated frame of mind. It is a misconception to portray the problem of modern man as our being split off from material nature.

In fact, humanity is very captivated by matter and material values. This occurred as a consequence of the declination of the spiritual conception, when libido sank into physis (the demise of the gods). The correct description of man’s onerous condition is that the collective unconscious has become split off, not that outside “nature” has become split off. It seems that Jung’s persistent harping on the notion of the collective unconscious has still not penetrated. In order to heal the psychic split in modern man the archetypal notion needs to be elevated into public consciousness. In exchange for the world of gods and spirits man has to become aware of the facts underlying these notions, namely the archetypes. This would serve to heal the current rift in man’s psyche. When, during medieval times, the unconscious factors were still hypostatized as metaphysical entities, people retained a form of relation to the collective unconscious and were not engulfed by materialism as is the case today. The ascent of science and technology meant the declination of the gods, which caused a disruption in the relation to the collective unconscious. However, Jung has presented a remedy in the archetypes of the collective unconscious — a truth must not be hidden from people. It is, however, unavailing to revive the pagan notion of a soul-substance in matter. It’s an inefficacious conceptual tool that cannot possibly come to grips with the problems of modern man.

Furthermore, Romanyshyn has got it wrong when he claims that Jung and the scientific community subscribe to Cartesian dualism, i.e. that the mind is a ‘thing’ and that the mind (or soul) exists independently alongside the body as a kind of observer which mysteriously steers the brain and the body. This standpoint is today not very popular with the scientific community. Although there may be better alternatives than physicalism I will in the following refer to this branch of metaphysics, due to its topicality. A notion of a highly autonomous psyche may be defensible also in this branch of metaphysics, because the mental world may be understood as a holistic system belonging to a different category than the body. In other words, the psyche belongs to another level of nature than the body whereas the concept of the independent soul is a misconception due to level-confusion. Jung says:

The life of the body or of a man is posited as something different from the man himself. This led to the ‘ka’ or immortal soul, able to detach itself from the body and not dependent on it for its existence […] The juxtaposition of a person and his “life” has its psychological basis in the fact that a mind which is not very well differentiated cannot think abstractly and is incapable of putting things into categories. It can only take the qualities it perceives and place them side by side: man and his life, or his sickness (visualized as a sort of demon), or his health or prestige (mana, etc.). This is obviously the case with the Egyptian ‘ka’. (C.G. Jung, “Ps. and Religion”, CW 11, para.198).

From the early seventies onwards the holistic conception has been under strong development and so has come to affirm Jung’s notion of the objective reality of the psyche, i.e., the notion of a holistic level comprising independent processes. Keep in mind that, although holism combines with physicalism, Jung himself may have subscribed to another monistic alternative. Yet, his metaphysic may also go along with holistic notions. In holism, the psyche is conceived as an ‘emergent system’, that is, an orderly system that emerges at a collective level of structure. It means that it is meaningless at the component level, e.g., neuron level. Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine has carried out extensive researches of such systems and is aiming at providing a mathematical description of the emergence of simple self-organizing systems.

Nobel prize winner Roger W. Sperry describes mental events as holistic configurational properties both different from and “over and above” the neural events of which they are composed of. These higher-level entities possess laws and principles in their own right that cannot be reduced to lower-level laws. All this is in good accordance with Jung (vid. Sperry et al., “Consciousness and the Brain”, Plenum 1976).

What’s more, the notion of ‘downward causation’ has improved the understanding of how the feedback to the underlying level occurs, i.e., how the mind influences the brain. Earlier we had a hard time understanding termite colonies and how they manage to build advanced structures comprising an air-condition system in helical form, water drainage, et cetera. Today the social insects are regarded as performing a simple set of operations, having no mental conception of the overall design. However, at the level of the colony as a whole a holistic pattern appears, comprising so called emergent qualities. The colony as a whole is, in a sense, an organism entertaining a helical air-conditioner, et cetera. In like manner, the brain is a colony of brain cells providing the hardware for the holistic software level of the psyche, which carries the objective archetypal entities. The modern software-hardware conception should be carefully studied by all those “post-Jungians” who challenge Jung’s archetypal notion and call it implausible. The drawback is, of course, that it’s a physicalist interpretation — but it’s not implausible.

The fact that theorists still today descend to level-confusion is curious. One cannot, like Romanyshyn claim that the soul has its ‘location’ in the outer objects of nature. Neither can we, like Descartes, claim that it is contained in the pineal gland. ‘Soul’ may not necessarily have any location at all. Confusedly, R. alleges that the “interiorization of the soul still haunts Jung’s psychology.” Thus, R. still looks upon the soul as a ‘thing’ existing at the same conceptual level as the body. However, on a holistic view, the soul and the mental world may be envisaged as an objectively existing holistic level of existence which has neither location nor weight or extension. Comparatively, a person’s ‘nationality’ has no location either. Yet it is an objectively existing item at a separate conceptual level. Romanyshyn’s concern that the mind has tragically been “split off from nature” is, in fact, due to the ascension of ego consciousness and the withdrawal of projections. The problem of alienation cannot be doctored by restoring some kind of ‘soul-substance’ to nature again. The victory of consciousness is an immense success that cannot be undone. The adaptation of the individual to the surrounding ought not first and foremost be projective, but ought to build on an objective appreciation.

As R. is a ‘phenomenologist’ he is not happy with the Cartesian dualism. He deems it necessary to resolve this by removing the mind altogether and calling it “flesh,”, just like the average materialist reductionist. It contests the findings of holistic science which looks upon the psyche as an objectively existing holistic layer. R., however, pursues to amend his reduction by painting the material world with the previously removed ‘mind,’ claiming that mind must be regarded as having its location within the natural objects. Thereby, he argues, we may realize that matter is animate again, and the anorexic girl will become happy and start eating. However, this must be regarded a naive conception. Also, R. must be criticized for having overlooked the development of the holistic conception. Holism is today looked upon as complementary to reductionism, neither of which we can do without when probing reality. The multi-level description of mind and body has surpassed both Cartesian dualism and deterministic materialism. So Romanyshyn’s belief, that Cartesian dualism must be overcome, is like battering at an open door. His own solution, however, represents a regression to archaic animism or pantheism. If such a regression would come about it would undo the promising findings of holism, chaos theory and the phenomenon of emergence.

Romanyshyn’s perception of alchemy is erroneous. It’s not correct to say that an alchemical scheme would be to reanimate matter and situate mind ‘within’ nature and cosmos. As a matter of fact, the archaic language of alchemy really speaks about thoroughly extracting the spirit ‘from’ matter, effecting a categorical separation. Only at this stage the process goes on to ‘coagulate’ spirit and matter again. This is the process of circular distillation (‘solve et coagula’). One cannot claim that the alchemical perception means the reversion to an archaic animistic mentality. On the contrary, the alchemists’ aim was to free the personality from its infantile dependence on the unconscious, in the end arriving at a higher form of adaptation to nature. In modern psychological language it implies freeing the ego system from its unconscious identifications by development of consciousness. The emancipated ego will no longer be naively chained to nature and the archetypes of the unconscious, but will instead subordinate to the wholeness, i.e., the self. The form of adaptation gradually accomplished, symbolized by the ‘philosopher’s stone’ is a supreme mystery, pertaining to Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment.

Thus, Romanyshyn’s proposal of treatment of the anorexic, i.e. “realizing” matter as animate, cannot be correct. Arguably, the anorexic, with his/her unbounded self-contempt, suffers from fixation on a body (and on food) which is deemed inferior. The overvaluation of the bodily is connected to the absence of a living spirituality in our time, which is largely due to the declination and degeneration of Christianity. Especially, the feminine spirit has been enclosed in matter, money, bodily beauty, et cetera. The remedy, then, would be the opposite of Romanyshyn’s proposal, namely becoming aware of a spirit unbound by matter, which is the old-fashioned spiritual or transcendental remedy. The clergyperson would convey to the anorexic that there exist invisible spiritual values other than the bodily and that there is an “otherworldly reality where supreme truth and beauty abide.” The point is that when the materialistic individual turns to invisible and spiritual values, the fixation on matter and body is reduced. Today’s scientific worldview has, however, impeded the spiritual interpretation, effectively hampered the clergyman’s rehabilitating work.

Jungian psychotherapy comes to the rescue as it understands the act of becoming conscious as the equivalent of “freeing the spirit from matter.” The bodily fixation will be reduced when the patient, as an initial step, becomes aware of the complex underlying it. This is the prime way of treatment of neurosis. Jung repudiates the methods of treatment based upon suggestion, effectively advocated by Romanyshyn and New Age therapists. Instead, the patient should enhance his/her conscious horizon to involve a new kind of spirituality which pertains to the emancipation of the ego. The efficacious tool of analytical psychology can generate a spiritual passion. Sometimes it’s enough for a person to read the easily digestible “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” to acquire a new outlook on the world. The anorexic would benefit from digesting such views since it reveals mankind’s spiritual problem underlying the neurosis. In consequence, the “spirit is freed from matter,” i.e., the bodily fixation is relieved and supplanted with conscious judgement and decision — an attitude of mind ready to face the problems of the soul.

In conclusion, Romanyshyn’s notion of a convergence of phenomenology and analytical psychology does not hold water. R. removes the ‘objective psyche’ which is the foundation of analytical psychology. His notion of a metaphorical consciousness which looks upon reality as a dream or a myth, continually creating new dreams, cannot be combined with responsibility, which R. claims. In fact, a responsible attitude is to dare to face objective reality. Romanyshyn’s proposal for redemption of an alienated world only begets a temporary relief due to suggestion.


© Mats Winther, 2000