What Is Archetypal Psychology?

What is archetypal psychology?

Human beings took their first steps by believing in the gods. Supernatural entities who personified universal attributes, forces and values ​​(Night, Justice, Time, Seas, etc.). They allowed us to conceive of the cosmos as a theater in which these forces interacted, giving meaning to reality and to life itself. Read this article, and find out what archetypal psychology is.

The theoretical proposition of  archetypal psychology starts from the fact that our affinity for these personifications did not disappear  when polytheism gave way, in most of the world, to monotheistic worship.

“From this propensity to glimpse a universal light in the chaos of life”, explains cultural historian Richard Tarnas, “Plato builds his metaphysics and his theory of knowledge”. Plato, like his teacher Socrates, considers that “the greatest certainty is found in the greatest abstraction”. He  calls these universals “archetypes” ( first form  ). However, it would be his own disciple, Aristotle, who would initiate the turn towards the concrete. A change of course that shaped scientific thought.

socrates and arhetypal psychology

It was  Sigmund Freud who rediscovered centuries later that, when he dreams,  our unconscious is expressed by interpretable symbols, having a meaning for us. Carl Gustav Jung, his disciple, discovered the parallel between these symbolic images and those excreted from ancient myths (the Hero, the Shadow, the Old Wise, etc.). The “primitive fables” that modern thought had despised continued to live in our psyche.

Jung and archetypal psychology

Jung also theorized about the existence of a “collective unconscious” and not just an individual one  since the symbols appeared even in patients who knew nothing about ancient mythology. The Jungian School of Analytical Psychology therefore undertook a study work on how archetypal figures of myths have, even today, an influence in our lives.

Archetypal psychology, against ego and materialism

Two years before Jung’s death in 1961,  a young psychologist named James Hillman became director of studies at the CG Jung Institute in Zurich. A small community of researchers was formed around him in the following years. They ended up breaking with the analytical school (not with the roots of Jungian thought) to found archetypal psychology.

The latter moves away from the priorities of analytical psychology to focus on the illusory control exerted by the ego over our lives and on the way in which our psyche is constructed – basically – through a “plurality of archetypes”. The source of knowledge is no longer the Cartesian “I”. Rather, it is about this world full of images that this “I” inhabits.

Archetypal psychology maintained a critical discourse towards major schools of psychological thought  (such as behavioralism and cognitive psychology). She accused them of reductionism by adopting the philosophy and praxis of the natural sciences, making them “psychologies without a psyche” (“soul”, in Greek).

For Hillman, the psyche manifests itself in the imagination and the metaphor:  “my work is oriented towards a psychology of the soul based on a psychology of the image. I suggest a poetic basis of the mind and a psychology which does not start from the physiology of the brain nor from the structure of language nor from the organization of society nor from the analysis of behavior, but from the processes of the imagination ” .

The way is in the gods and the fictions

“A psychology that wants to faithfully represent the true diversity of the soul cannot take the unity of the personality for granted from the start, emphasizing it with a monotheistic bias,” proclaims Hillman. Archetypal psychology therefore has a polytheistic facet.  Some authors speak, symbolically, of “gods” to designate the “plurality of archetypes”.

In his book  Puer Papers , Hillman states that “the gods are in us… and are in our actions, our ideas and our feelings. We don’t have to venture into starry spaces, the brains of the heavens, or bring them out of hiding with hallucinogenic drugs. They are there in the precise way that each one feels and thinks and experiences their moods and their symptoms ”.

Patrick Harpur, in his work  The Secret Fire of Philosophers , also uses these ideas / gods identifications: “It is wrong to say that we have ideas. It is fairer to say that ideas own us. We must know which ideas, which gods govern us  to manage their influence on our points of view and our lives ”.

The therapeutic approach of archetypal psychology is based on the exploration of images rather than their explanation.  About being aware of these images and paying attention to them until they gain all the clarity possible. To contemplate them carefully until our observation gives them meaning. This is what sets in motion a therapeutic process that Hillman called the “creation of the soul”.

Cover image by William Blake


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There are countless and sometimes tumultuous controversies that have taken place around the figures of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. In fgeneral,…

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