The differences between Corbin, Jung and Hillman in their understanding of the active imagination

  • July 28 2019
  • Tag: Islam
Corbin, Jung, Hillman and Active Imagination

The differences between Corbin, Jung and Hillman in their understanding of the active imagination

This essay will examine the differences in understanding relating to active imagination in the work of Carl Jung, James Hillman and Henry Corbin. My approach will focus less on the actual practice of active imagination itself but will rather be an assessment of the underlying themes behind each of these three author’s understanding of the concept and an evaluation of how active imagination is placed in relation to each of these writer’s work. I will examine the views of each writer in turn before giving a brief overview of my own understanding.

Active imagination as a practice is essentially a meditative technique (Jung terms it a ‘dialectical procedure’) which, in Jung’s formulation, serves as a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious. Although Jung’s usage of the term is perhaps the best known today, active imagination as a method does not originate with Jung - Swedenborg and Rudolph Steiner are known to have worked with similar techniques and Jung’s rendering may owe something to Freud’s idea of ‘Free Association’ – although it should not be confused with the latter as Jung notes in a description of the method in his essay on the Transcendent Function:

[The patient] must make himself as conscious as possible of the mood he is in, sinking himself in it without reserve and noting down on paper all the fantasies and other associations that come up. Fantasy must be allowed the freest possible play, yet not in such a manner that it leaves the orbit of its object, namely the affect, by setting off a kind of ‘chain-reaction’ association process. (Jung, cited in Miller 2004, p. 164).

The process as described seems simple enough and may indeed be regarded as a constant, but the purpose, aims and meaning assigned to the practice (as well as the images evoked) vary according to the context or framework in which it is situated. In the light of this we will begin our consideration with the work of Carl Jung.

Carl Jung and Active Imagination

Painted in very broad strokes, it is possible to see Hillman as proceeding from a position of pure psychology, Corbin from a religious perspective and Jung as operating in the modality of healing and medicine. Naturally Jung ventures into the areas of religion and psychology too, but his over-arching expression is that of the healer, the wise counsellor, the Doctor of Medicine. His vision sees the human being as necessarily incomplete, lacking wholeness, and therefore in need of a process of reintegration, in need of healing. Jung frames this healing process as a journey facilitated by means of increased self-knowledge – a journey to completion, the goal of which he terms ‘Individuation’ – and positions active imagination as one of the key tools with which one may initiate this process.

Active imagination is essentially a means of interacting with the unconscious via images or motifs produced by the imagination. It is not to be confused with fantasy or daydreaming as Jung implicitly touches on in his description of the technique in a letter to a patient, ‘Mr O’ in May 1947, where Jung advises to start with an image, perhaps from a dream or a daytime reverie, and to develop from there into active imagination itself:

Contemplate it and carefully observe how the picture begins to unfold or to change. Don’t try to make into something, just do nothing but observe what its spontaneous changes are. Any mental picture you contemplate in this way will sooner or later change through a spontaneous association that causes a slight alteration of the picture… Hold fast to one image you have chosen and wait until it changes by itself. Note all these changes and eventually step into the picture yourself, and if it is a speaking figure at all then say what you have to say and listen to what he or she has to say. (Chodorow, 1997, p. 164).

Jung discovered the application of this technique while he himself was suffering from a form of mental disequilibrium and had himself been in search of inner healing. In the aftermath of his break with Freud in the years running up to the first World War Jung had been beset by severe depression and an enervating lethargy to the extent that the condition was threatening his ability to function in his work. Seeking a resolution to the state which threatened to overwhelm him, Jung desperately sought a solution but all to no avail until he reached a crisis point; “I was sitting at my desk once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged into the dark depths.” (Jung, 1961, p. 179). The ‘dark depths’ Jung describes here are synonymous with what Corbin would later term the ‘mundus imaginalis’ or, more commonly, the imaginal realm (a term coined by Corbin to mark it as distinct from ‘imaginary’). Jung terms this intermediate area the psychic. And frames this imaginal world as existing between the conscious and the unconscious realms. Active imagination is thus a bridging interaction between the unconscious and the conscious domain of the personal ego.

Jung sees the images and motifs arising from the practice of active imagination as having their source of arising in the unconscious – which is, for him, a type of delimited psychic locale which circumscribes these images and essentially contains them. They have their existence ‘there’ and can be evoked to partake of our reality ‘here’ and when they do they form the basis of our shared mythologies and religions. That is to say Jung’s position is essentially “that the autonomous activity of the psyche (collective unconscious) is the source of myths, fairy tales and specific forms of religious beliefs and rituals” (Avens, 1980, p. 41). The unconscious for Jung, at least at the early stages of his work, is divided into two; the personal unconscious and the collective. The first of these equates to Freud’s concept of the subconscious; that is to say it contains repressed elements of the conscious mind, while the second - the collective - contains elements which are ‘archetypal’ and which cannot be known in themselves and can only be apprehended in their manifestation as images, mythic patterns or folkloric structures. They are not unique to the individual in the manner that the repressed elements of the personal unconscious are and they are a shared property of humanity which again, unlike the personal, have not been conscious and thus cannot have been repressed.

Jungian thought has a tendency to frame things in binary pairs and the conscious/unconscious pairing (albeit with active imagination as a transcendent unifying force) is seen as having a counterpart in a self/ego duality where the self is the seat of both the personality and the unconscious while the ego is the equivalent centre in relation to the conscious realm. From this perspective individuation is seen as the shifting of one’s personal centre of gravity from the ego to the self. The technique of active imagination, in the Jungian context, is therefore a method of allowing these archetypes to express themselves, to be brought into the light of the conscious arena and facilitate the subjugation of the ego to the previously unconscious self by attaining deeper knowledge of one’s own real self and being.

Henry Corbin and the Mundus Imaginalis

The Islamic scholar Henry Corbin was clearly aware of Jung’s work on the imagination and references him on several occasions. However, despite numerous interesting parallels, it’s doubtful Jung was a direct influence on Corbin who draws almost exclusively on Islamic thought and the Sufi mystical tradition, specifically the philosophy of Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240 C.E.) and the Iranian founder of the Illuminist school Suhrawardī (d. 1191 C.E.). Corbin in fact uses the term ‘active imagination’ derived from his own translation of the Arabic takhayyul (meaning a sense of imagination related to the soul).

While Jung can be seen as viewing active imagination from a psychological perspective and frames the practice within the context of a search for personal integration, Corbin takes an approach that is radically more spiritual (that is to say mystical) and essentially views the personal journey not as leading to a reintegration of the self but as a journey to God – and, moreover, to a God situated firmly with the context of the Abrahamic tradition. Corbin, following on from Sufi thought as exemplified by Ibn ‘Arabī and others, rejects the apparent ego as being in need of any reintegration or ‘healing’ as, in the Sufi model, this self is necessarily false and stands in the way of true apprehension of the divine. The task from this perspective would not be one of integration but rather an undermining or sublimation of the false self, a transforming the self from what the Sufis call the base ‘commanding’ or ‘inciting’ self (an-nafs al-‘ammārah) through stages to the ‘completed’ self (an-nafs aṣ-ṣāfīyyah). Corbin departs somewhat from Classical Sufi thought here in focusing on, and amplifying, the theme that every created being has an associated angel (as well as a personal djinn – although Corbin accords little importance to this aspect). The angel is essentially the intermediary between humans and God in as much as they are a created existent thing – whereas as God is not a created being (being no-thing) and therefore cannot be known. The angel is therefore the bridge between humanity and the divine and has its arising in the space which also occupies this intermediary niche; the imaginal realm, the mundus imaginalis or, as Corbin sometimes terms it, the barzakh (1)). In this sense the angel is God’s emissary and the only possibility of God’s communication with humankind. In the Islamic paradigm God does not communicate directly but (as in the case of Gabriel bring the Qur’anic Revelation to Muhammad) through the medium of angelic messengers. Given that every being has an angel, it follows that the specific messages to the individual are personalized. Corbin takes this a step further and amplifies the theme, turning it ‘inside out’ in Cheetham’s memorable phrase, and:

teaches that it is not your individuation that is at stake, but that of the Angel. He wrote: “The active subject is in reality not you, your autonomy is a fiction In reality, you are the subject of a verb in the passive (you are the ego of a cogitor)”… the challenge is to cooperate with the angel of your being – your celestial twin – without whom you are lost in “vagabondage and perdition” but who, equally, needs you in order to be whole, to attain the full reality due to a person. (Cheetham, 2015, p. 32).

The angel then inhabits and has its being in the imaginal realm, – the barzakh – and serves as the initiator into hidden knowledge. Here again Corbin diverges from Jung, Corbin’s reading of the imaginal is thoroughly Platonic whereas Jung’s proceeds more from a Kantian, rationalist perspective. For Corbin:

knowledge always comes from above by means of a vision of, or union with, the archetypes, the Platonic forms. Knowledge is a result of illumination granted from above, not the culmination of a process of abstraction, deduction or induction from the “data” of the sense perception here below. And the “giver of forms” is the Angel. (Cheetham, 2012, p. 165).

Corbin thus does not see active imagination as a tool for personal individuation but rather a means of essentially accessing the divine. Likewise, the motif of the personal angel that speaks individually leads inevitably away from Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious; the divine messages are messages to the individual on an individual level, they are specific and tailored. They concern personal issues of destiny and fate. Corbin is ever suspicious of forms of collectivism – particularly in the religious sphere where it manifests as a rigid hierarchical orthodoxy, for him – and in Islam as a whole – there is no need for any intermediary between the self and God in the form of Church, dogma or priest… in a sense every being is, or can be, priest to themselves. Certainly Corbin does not see the motif of the angel fulfilling this function – the angel is a messenger, a guide perhaps but never an authority figure or lawgiver. Following the same line of reasoning Corbin also rejects Jung’s idea of the Shadow; “the Dark is not a complement to the Light – it is contradictory and cannot, must not, be integrated” (Cheetham, 2012, p. 158). That is not to say there is no concept of ‘the Dark’ in Corbin’s paradigm, but it is the dark that the mystic must pass through on the journey to the light, it is not an existent thing in itself, something to be assimilated, or an ‘evil’ (for how an evil exist when everything is existent in the imagination of God?) but rather it is a face or aspect of the angel which appears to us to be negative when we inhabit a corresponding level of perception and falsely see it so. It can be transcended by purifying the organ of perception. It is in itself an image as “all things are images, and an image can be viewed as an icon if only we ourselves are transformed into imaginal persons – persons who can see imaginal realities.” (Cheetham, 2012, p. 186).

As Cheetham observes, Corbin’s use of the term active imagination “has remarkably little overlap with Jung’s quite different conception” (Cheetham, 2012, p. 165), and in many ways the contrasting philosophical positions of Jung and Corbin make such a mapping impossible; Corbin is at heart a theologian with a mystic’s sensibility whose path leads ultimately to a connection with the transcendent, while Jung is a grounded scientist following the call of rationalism – a path which all too often leads to scepticism. Jung so often seems to back off from encounters with the numinous while Corbin actively seeks them out. The differing understandings of active imagination between Jung and Corbin seem to mirror their personal narratives: Jung, seeing things in terms of opposing pairs, frames active imagination as a means of bridging this duality whereas, for Corbin, the duality does not exist: “the imagination itself erases that divide, and the only thing we ever have is an Image. We exist in and have our being within the Divine Imagination, wholly immersed in, forever filled with, and ourselves constituted by, the images, the theophanies of Creation.” (Cheetham, 2012, p. 166)


  1. Barzakh is a Persian word signifying ‘barrier’ or ‘separation of two things’. Orthodox Islamic theology has traditionally seen it as a place between heaven and hell which is analogous to the Christian purgatory but Sufis regard it as alam al-araf (i.e. the place visited in dreams and soul’s destination at death) which Corbin equates to alam al-mithal i.e. his mundus imaginalis
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