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

James Hillman and Archetypal Psychology

The psychologist James Hillman, founder of Archetypal Psychology, acknowledged the debt he owed to Jung and Corbin who he regarded as, respectively, the first and second fathers of the movement. The choice of name is a deliberate distancing from Jung’s ‘analytical’ psychology and signals an intention to bring psychology ‘out of the consulting room’ and reframe it as “a cultural movement part of whose task is the re-visioning of psychology, psychopathology, and psychotherapy in terms of the Western cultural imagination” (Hillman, 2004, p. 14). In this Hillman can be seen to be consciously departing both from Jung and from the eastern/religious perspective of Corbin.

Archetypal Psychology repositions Jung’s approach by restoring image as starting point of psychological method. For Hillman, the image is primary. That is to say, images are foundational and the only place from where it is possible to proceed. “Image is the embodiment of metaphor; it is not only both form and content at the same time, but also, the means by which we catch sight of the connection that exists between them.” (Olson, 2014, p. 72). From an Archetypalist perspective, “images constitute the very capacity to assert a reality” (Daniels, 2014, p. 159). Hence, the image is a ‘thing in itself’ and not a projection which represents some underlying truth which must be uncovered – the image is the truth. Speaking of images in relation to dreams, Hillman emphasises this point by stating that the dream figures encountered are “neither representations (simulacra) of their living selves nor parts of myself. They are shadow images that fill archetypal roles; they are personae, masks, in the hollow of which is a numen.” (Hillman, 1979, pp. 60-61). Hillman here underlines another key point of departure from the Jungian view; images occupy an archetypal role – they are not, as in Jung’s schemata, archetypes themselves. Hillman rejects Jung’s distinction between archetypes and archetypal images as, for the archetypal school, “there are no archetypes as such – no Kantian categories, or noumena. There are only phenomena, or images, that may be archetypal”. (Young-Eisendrath & Dawson, 2008, p. 109). This breaking down of phenomena into distinct categories Hillman terms ‘oppositionalism’ - for example the Jungian tendency to approach the self in terms of opposites (active/passive, male/female, conscious/unconscious etc) - which are in need of being reconciled. His rejection of these binary pairings is sympathetic with Corbin’s view but, unlike Corbin, Hillman sees the tendency to break down phenomena in this way as something so rooted in the culture “from the pre-Socratics, Aristotle and Neoplatonism, through Scholasticism, to Kant, Hegel, and information theory, that we will not be able to escape its underlying influence” (Hillman, 1979, pp. 74-75). In this Hillman is only correct to the degree that he’s considering the Western Canon. Corbin, drawing on an older non-Western tradition with its own distinct lineage manages to sidestep this issue.

Hillman’s departure from Jung’s Cartesian dualism is echoed in his criticism of the idea of the unconscious which, in the Jungian sense, is essentially a restatement of the mind as separate from the world it perceives. Hillman (as, to an extent, does Corbin as seen above) rejects the idea of the unconscious as a delineated location which ‘contains’ images and takes the further step of repositioning the imagination by equating it to a concept of soul. By this he does not mean the term as known from traditional usage - as in Corbin - but rather, in Hillman’s redefined sense, soul is imagination, it’s a way of seeing… of apprehending the imaginal. In this reading Hillman downgrades the concept of spirituality because the spiritual approach “tends to turn soul into a thing, a hypostatis – the soul, whereas Hillman does not want to reify it, but rather to think of soul as a way of experiencing”. (Cheetham, 2012, p. 195). This clearly goes against Corbin for whom the imagination is not equated to the soul but rather is sublimated to it, in effect the soul possesses imagination whereas for Hillman the soul is essentially just another fantasy image (Avens, 1980, p. 34).

Hillman’s radical re-rendering is further extended to the idea of the Self which is demoted from the seat of personality and reconstituted as a repressive “moralistic superego… an influence to be undermined inasmuch as it does not allow for the free expression of the archetypal dynamic… there is no one centre of personality, but a multiplicity of ever present interacting centres” (Johnston, 2010, pp. 4-5). Curiously, although this is directly contradictory to Corbin’s evolutionary vision of the Self ascending through a series of stages of purification, Hillman’s view does find an echo in some elements of Sufi philosophy (which Corbin does not explore in any depth) that perceive the personality as an illusion and see it instead a series of shifting multiple personalities mistaken for a singularity(1). Thus, in certain Sufi formulations, this false ‘Self’ is illegitimate and must therefore be supplanted or undermined(2). Corbin does not go this far - for him the Soul is to be transformed rather than subverted and the method of transformation is the Soul’s own imaginative faculty. It is a view rooted firmly in Sufi/Neoplatonic ideas of the great chain of Being, the hierarchical ladder of descent from God through the angelic realms to mankind, but Hillman, ever the heretic, has no use for such a view, for him the imaginal becomes everything – we exist in the imaginal as a fish in water, everything is a mode and expression of psyche. That is not to say that Hillman opposed the views of Jung or Corbin, particularly in relation to the active imagination, indeed his stance was to approach something of a rapprochement by means of a synthesis:

“the difference between Jung and Corbin can be resolved by practicing Jung’s technique with Corbin’s vision, that is, active imagination is not for the sake of the doer and our actions in the sensible world of literal realities, but for the sake of the images and where they can take us - their realisation” (Hillman, 1980, p. 33).

Such a view is not one that Corbin could readily accept, removing as it does the practice from the over-arching framework of the Islamic conception in which Corbin first encountered it. Towards the end of his life Corbin felt impelled to speak out against what he saw as secularizing renditions of the concept of the imaginal and the inherent misuse of the term: “If this term is used to apply to anything other than the mundus imaginalis and the imaginal Forms as they are located in the schema of the worlds which necessitate them and legitimise them, there is a great danger that the term will be degraded and its meaning be lost.” (Corbin, 1977, p. xviii) and again, speaking of spirituality and self-empowerment in the abstract: “the very idea of associating such concepts as ‘power’ and the ‘spiritual’ implies an initial secularization (Corbin, 1969, p. 16). The differences between Hillman and Corbin and Jung are clearly marked and not so easily surmountable: Jung tends to a monotheistic sensibility which runs directly counter to Hillman’s main revisionist thrust and Corbin’s vision is not so easily extricated from the religious framework it arose in.


In conclusion I will give a brief overview of my own position regarding these three varying interpretations of active imagination. In my own personal outlook I incline naturally to Corbin as, like him, my theological perspective would essentially be an Islamic one, specifically Shi’i and Sufi, although, again with Corbin, I see no contradiction in holding such a view and simultaneously holding a Christian belief. Despite my natural sympathy for Corbin though I see his approach to active imagination - and indeed his approach to Sufism in general - as a reframing from the original impetus, much in the way that Hillman reframed Jung and Corbin himself, adapting it for his own particular use. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact I would argue that it is something we must do in terms of personal development, but I mean to convey in the first instance that Corbin’s reframing would not be one I can relate to (primarily, because, as it seems, to me, it repositions the eastern Sufi impulse into a Protestant context where it does not fit) and, more importantly, he opens himself to the charge he himself lays against Hillman regarding adapting a motif out of its original context.

In relation to active imagination, it is surprising to me that I favour Hillman’s understanding over that of Corbin. In many ways I see Hillman as more exemplifying a Sufi spirit than Corbin does (Corbin, for example, downplays the ecstatic side of Sufism and sees it as a corruption rather than an essential counterpoint – I sometimes suspect that Corbin himself was less a student of Sufism than a student of Ibn ‘Arabī and Suhrawardī) both in his fearless iconoclastic approach and in his childlike sense of enquiry. Cheetham seems to sense something of this aspect too when he identifies Hillman’s Trickster qualities and makes the contrast between Jung/Corbin being so rooted in the Germanic thought of Kant, Nietzsche and Goethe:

To get a sense of how Hillman reads both Jung and Corbin, we must realize that Jung and Corbin are both heavily invested in Germanic and northern European thought and sensibilities. Like Freud they are men of northern Europe… Hillman likes to locate his own sensibilities south of the alps, more Mediterranean: Italian, Spanish, Greek. (Cheetham, 2012, p. 192).

In many ways Hillman in his writing seems freer to be himself than either Corbin or Jung (at least in relation to Jung’s published work, it is perhaps noteworthy that he did not present his ‘Red Book’ for publication during his lifetime), less encumbered and more in touch with a sensuous current, more humorous and more sensual in style too(3). It is hard not to agree with Hillman’s contention regarding ways of seeing – “an image is not what one sees but the way in which one sees” (Hillman, 2004, p. 19) - and one need not be committed to any given spiritual path to apprehend this, indeed this mode of seeing may be a precursor to deeper awareness, a form of ‘natural’ seeing as evinced in the poetry of William Blake:

What to others a trifle appears

Fills me full of smiles or tears,

For double the vision my eyes do see,

And a double vision is always with me.

With my inward eye ‘tis an old man grey,

With my outward a thistle across the way(4).

Surely this attitude more closely evokes that of Hillman; everything is imaginal in one sense but it is all too often taken literally (here Corbin and Jung would surely agree) - deliteralization is the embracing and opening to the imaginal and this is a possibility for all of us, over and above any spiritual path or religious perspective. It is part of being human… or perhaps becoming human.


  1. The Georgian philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff had a similar concept of the personality being multiple and made up of a series of interchanging ‘I’s which he undoubtedly derived from Sufi sources.
  2. The quoted passage from Johnston (2010, pp. 4-5) goes on to cite an opinion that one of the goals of archetypal psychology might be the ultimate abandonment of ego as an aim in itself.
  3. A similar point is made by Avens (Avens, 1980, p. 9) where he describes the contrast between repressive Northern Protestantism and Mediterranean polytheistic conceptions of soul.
  4. William Blake, Letter to Thomas Butts, 1802

Reference List

  • Avens, R. (1980) Imagination is Reality – Western Nirvana in Jung, Hillman, Barfield and Cassirer. Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications.
  • Cheetham T.(2015) Imaginal Love. Putnam, Connecticut: Spring Publications.
  • Cheetham T. (2012) All the World an Icon. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books
  • Chodorow, J. (ed.) (1997) Jung on Active Imagination. Routledge.
  • Chodorow, J. (1991) Dance Therapy and Depth Psychology: The Moving Imagination. Routledge.
  • Corbin, H. (1969) Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Corbin, H. (1977) Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Daniels, A. B. (2014) Jungian Crime Scene Analysis: An Imaginal Investigation. London: Karnac Books
  • Hillman, J. (1979) The Dream and the Underworld. Harper and Row.
  • Hillman, J. (1980) ‘On the Necessity of Abnormal Psychology’, Facing the Gods. Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications
  • Hillman, J. (2004) Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman.em> Vol 1: Archetypal Psychology. Putnam, Connecticut: Spring Publications Inc.
  • Johnston, D. (2010) The Archetypal Psychology of James Hillman and the Integral Psychology of C G. Jung: Comparisons and Contrasts. Available at David Bear
  • Jung, C. G. (1961) Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Recorded and edited by A. Jaffe. Translated by R. & C. Winston. New York: Pantheon.
  • Miller, J. (2004) The Transcendent Function. New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Olson, R. (2014) ‘Psyche as Postmodern Condition: The Situation of Metaphor in James Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology’, Janus Head, 13(2), Available at Janus Head
  • Young-Eisendrath, P. and Dawson, T. (eds.) (2008) The Cambridge Companion to Jung. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Read on - This is Page 2 of 2 |  < 1 2