Notes on Imagination and James Hillman

Here’s my dilemma:  it’s impossible for me to write about imagination without mentioning James Hillman.  Yet every time I’ve started a post on Hillman, I’ve given it up because the scope of his thought and writing, over almost 50 years, is just too vast.  Hillman died last October at 85 and a two volume work on his life and thought is underway.  Two volumes might not be enough.  So what can a blog post accomplish?  We are about to find out.

James Hillman

Three days after Hillman’s funeral, his friend, Thomas Moore, wrote, “James’s many books and essays, in my view, represent the best and most original thought of our times. I expect that it will take many decades before he is truly discovered and appreciated.  He changed my life by being more than a mentor and a steady, caring friend. If I had to sum up his life, I would say that he lived in the lofty realm of thought and yet also like one of the animals he loved so much. He was always close to his passions and appetites and lived with a fullness of vitality I have never seen elsewhere. To me, he taught more in his lifestyle and in his conversation than in his writing, and yet his books and articles are the most precious objects I have around me.”

Hillman, who served as Director of Studies at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, will be remembered with Freud and Jung as one of the most original psychological thinkers of the 20th century, yet his appeal may be greater outside that discipline than it is with traditionalists in it.  He never pulled his punches.  In 1992 he co-authored, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse.  In an interview published a year earlier, he said:

“By removing the soul from the world and not recognizing that the soul is also in the world, psychotherapy can’t do its job anymore. The buildings are sick, the institutions are sick, the banking system’s sick, the schools, the streets – the sickness is out there. … The world has become toxic. … There is a decline in political sense. No sensitivity to the real issues. Why are the intelligent people – at least among the white middle class – so passive now? Why? Because the sensitive, intelligent people are in therapy! …Every time we try to deal with our outrage … by going to therapy with our rage and fear, we’re depriving the political world of something. And therapy, in its crazy way, by emphasizing the inner soul and ignoring the outer soul, supports the decline of the actual world.”

Let me say it again:  those statements were made in 1991.

During the late 80’s, Hillman joined Robert Bly and Michael Meade in presenting a series of conferences exploring the myths and archetypes of the male psyche.  Bly’s, Iron John came out of that work, as did Hillman’s and  Meade’s concern with the genius within, (see my previous post).  This was the subject of Hillman’s, The Soul’s Code, 1997, the first and only one of his books to become a bestseller.  In it, he suggested we come into the world with a calling or destiny, the way an acorn carries the pattern of a mature oak.  Our mission in life is to realize this deeper purpose.


An editor once rejected an articles of Hillman’s, saying it would set psychology back three-hundred years.  Hillman said that was exactly what he was trying to do.  Soul and soul-making were his constant concerns, but not as the words are used in modern terms.  He often quoted Keats who said, “Call the world if you please, ‘The vale of Soul-making.’  Then you will find out the use of the world…”  He also repeated a fragment of Heraclitus, “You could not discover the limits of the soul, even if you traveled every road to do so; such is the depth of it’s meaning.”

Hillman did more than offer poetic metaphor; his goal was nothing less than a return to an earlier, three part formulation  of the human person, embraced by the ancients but lost to modernity.  People in earlier times conceived of soul as an intermediate faculty that inhabits an imaginal realm between the physical world of body and the disembodied heights of pure spirit.  Imaginal not imaginary, a disparaging term which suggests that soul, vision, dream, and myth are not real.  In his key work, Revisioning Psychology, 1975, he said:

“First, ‘soul’ refers to the deepening of events into experiences; second, the significance soul makes possible, whether in love or in religious concern, derives from its special relation with death.  And third, by ‘soul’ I mean 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.”    

Another key point Hillman makes is the primacy of image in the life of the psyche:  Speaking of Jung he says:

“He considered the fantasy images that run through our daydreams and night dreams, which are present unconsciously in all our consciousness, to be the primary data of the psyche.  Everything we know and feel and every statement we make are all fantasy-based, that is, they derive from psychic images….Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to ‘happen’ at all.  Every single feeling or observation occurs as a psychic event by first forming a fantasy-image.” 


At the start of this post, I wondered what I could say in a brief article about a prolific and protean thinker like James Hillman.  Inspire someone to learn more, I hope.  A good place to begin is A Blue Fire, a collection of key writings, edited by his friend, Thomas Moore.

Here are some noteworthy links:

The New York Times obituary:

“On Soul, Character, and Calling” by Scott Landon, published in The Sun, July, 2012:

A tribute by his friend, Michael Ventura, a journalist, who asks, “What do you say about an intellectual genius who learned to tap dance in his 60s?”

A remembrance by Thomas Moore:

I have more to say, but this is enough for now.  I’ll end with a message Hillman sent to his friends during the last few weeks of his life, when he finally became too ill to work:   

“I am dying, yet in fact, I could not be more engaged in living. One thing I’m learning is how impossible it is to lay out a border between so-called ‘living’ and ‘dying’.” 

I think Moore is right – it will take decades to fully appreciate the scope of Hillman’s life and work, but there’s no reason not to begin right now.

6 thoughts on “Notes on Imagination and James Hillman

  1. I also didn’t know of Hillman. Wow. Quite impressive work. I’ll be sending this link to my daughter. I’m sure she will also find it interesting. Thanks.


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