Psyche or Soul?

DEPTH PSYCHOLOGY, the modern field whose interest is in the unconscious levels of the psyche – that is, the deeper meanings of the soul – is itself no modern term. According to James Hillman, Jung is:

“…the immediate ancestor in a long line that stretches back through Freud, Dilthy, Coleridge, Schelling, Vico, Ficino, Plotinus, and Plato to Heraclitus – and with even more branches which have yet to be traced. Heraclitus lies near the roots of this ancestral tree of thought, since he was the earliest to take psyche as his ancestral first principle, to imagine the soul in terms of flux and to speak of its depth without measure.”[i]

Depth psychology is fundamentally an archetypal psychology of image. The Imagination is crucial to the psyche or soul. Hillman argues that in working towards a psychology of soul that is based in a psychology of image, suggests “both a poetic basis of mind and a psychology that starts neither in the physiology of the brain, the structure of language, the organisation of society, nor the analysis of behaviour, but in the processes of the imagination.”[ii] Ever since Heraclitus said “You could not discover the limits of the soul (psyche), even if you travelled every road to do so; such is the depth (bathun) of its meaning (logos)”[iii] – the dimension of soul has been depth, not breadth or height. Soul is not on the surface or in superficialities but reaches down into hidden depths. For Hillman:

“The terms psyche and soul can be used interchangeably, although there is a tendency to escape the ambiguity of the word soul by recourse to the more biological, more modern psyche. Psyche is used more as a natural concomitant to physical life, perhaps reducible to it. Soul, on the other hand, has metaphysical and romantic overtones. It shares frontiers with religion.”[iv]

Hillman has a preference for ‘soul’ over ‘psyche’; however Jung, after wavering between describing the object of psychology as ‘seele’ (soul) and ‘psyche’, eventually after 1933 settled for ‘psyche’.[v] If it is accepted that there is an equivalence between ‘psyche’ and ‘soul’, the problem of how to define such a limitless concept remains. Hillman concludes that it resists all definition, as do all ultimate symbols, root metaphors for systems of human thought.[vi] Jung himself never claimed to know what the psyche is. This was despite the fact that he “traced the origin of all religious traditions to the extraordinary creativity found in the human psyche”.[vii]

While it may not be possible to define ‘psyche’, an attempt can be made at a descriptive model. Jung proposed a model of the psyche based upon clinical psychiatric evidence and his very extensive study of cultures past and present. His model is that of a three-tiered structure correlated to different life-stages or ages – (1) an individual conscious ego (younger than our physical age); (2) a personal unconscious (going back to birth and prenatal experiences); (3) a collective unconscious (continuing the whole spiritual heritage of humankind’s evolution born anew in the brain structure of every individual). Unlike the personal unconscious, which is made up of memories, the collective unconscious is made up of propensities or originating patterns which Jung called archetypes.

[i] James Hillman, ReVisioning Psychology (New York:Harper & Row Publishers, 1975), xi.

[ii] Ibid, xi.

[iii] Ibid, xi. & 231 notes. See reference to Philip Wheelwright, Heraclitus (Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press, 1959), Fragment 42.

[iv] Thomas Moore(ed.) & James Hillman, The Essential James Hillman – A Blue Fire (London: Routledge, 1990), 20. Note: Hillman’s books tend to use ‘soul’ rather than ‘psyche’. ‘Soul’ is the dominant theme in his entire work.

[v] James W. Heisig, Imago Dei – A Study of C.G. Jung’s Psychology of Religion (London: Associated University Presses, 1979), 159-160.

[vi] James Hillman, Archetypal Psychology – A Brief Account (Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc. 1993), 16.

[vii] Lloyd Geering (1992) Religious Trailblazers, 30.

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