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A Psyche the Size of the Earth

by James Hillman

Earth from the Apollo 11 spacecraft after the Moon landing. Courtesy NASA

There is only one core issue for all of psychology. Where is the "me"? Where does the "me" begin? Where does the "me" stop? Where does the "other" begin? For most of its history, psychology took for granted an intentional subject: the biographical "me" that was the agent and sufferer of all "doings". For most of its history, psychology located this "me" within human persons defined by their physical skin and their immediate behaviour. The subject was simply "me in my body and in my relations with other subjects". The familiar term that covered this entire philosophical system was "ego", and what the ego registered were called "experiences".

Over the past three decades, all this has been scrutinized, dismantled and even junked. Postmodernism has deconstructed continuity, self, intention, identity, centrality, gender, individuality. The integrity of memory for establishing biographical continuity has been challenged. The unity of the self has fallen before the onslaught of multiple personalities. Moments called "projective identification" can attach distant objects to "me" so fiercely that I believe I cannot live without them. Conversely, parts of even my personal physical body can become so dissociated that my fragmented body image regards them as autonomous and without sensory feeling, as if quite "other". How far away is the "other"? If we can no longer be sure that we remember who we are, where do we make the cut between "me" and "not-me"?

So long as we cannot ascertain where the "me" ends (is it with my skin? with my behaviour? with my personal interfacing connections and their influences and traces?) how can we establish the limits of psychology? How do we define the borders of this field--as we must, since the first task of psychology is to explore and give an account of subjectivity? By "psychology" I mean what the word says: the study or order (logos) of the soul (psyche). This implies that all psychology is by definition a depth psycholgy, because the soul, ever since Heraclitus, 2500 years ago, has been defined as immeasurably deep and unlocatable. I therefore see all psychologies as ultimately therapies by definition because of their involvement with soul.

French rationalist psychology following Descartes, Malebranche and La Mettrie declared animals to have no consciousness, not even the sensation of pain. A radical cut separated them from humans. But Darwin's work on the expression of emotion demonstrated deep similarities between humans and animals. Today more and more "human"-like attributes, some even superior to human consciousness, are being teased out of animals, so that the cut itself has come into question. 

The question of establishing the limits to the psyche, and to psychology, is further complicated by the notion of the unconscious. Since the "discovery of the unconscious", every sophisticated theory of personality has to admit that whatever I claim to be "me" has at least a portion of its roots beyond my agency and my awareness. For the pioneers of psychology as therapy, the deepest levels of the psyche merge with the physical body (Freud) and the physical stuff of the world (Jung). I am reviewing these well-known basics of psychological theory to show that the human subject has all along been implicated in the wider world of nature. How could it be otherwise, since the human subject is composed of the same nature as the world? Yet psychological practice tends to bypass the consequences of such facts.

In The Voice of the Earth, an exploration of ecopsychology, Theodore Roszak does face those facts. He extends Jung's collective unconscious and Freuds id and draws the rational conclusion that what these terms imply is "the world". Adaptation of the deep self to the collective unconscious and to the id is simply adaptation to the natural world, organic and inorganic. Moreover, an individual's harmony with his or her "own deep self" requires not merely a journey to the interior but a harmonizing with the environmental world. The deepest self cannot be confined to "in here" because we cant be sure it is not also or even entirely "out there"! 

If the most profoundly collective and unconscious self is the natural material world, the cut between self and natural world is arbitrary and there must be uncertainty about making any cut at all. This uncertainty opens the mind to wonder again, allowing fresh considerations to enter the therapeutic equation. Perhaps working on my feelings is not more "subjective" than working on the neighbourhood air quality. Perhaps killing weeds on my lawn with herbicides may be as repressive as what I am doing with my childhood memories. Perhaps the abuses I have sufferred in my deep interior subjectivity pale in comparison with the abuses going on around me every minute in my ecological surroundings, abuse that I myself commit or comply with. It may be easier to discover yourself a victim than admit yourself a perpetrator.

One could accuse therapeutic psychology's exaggeration of the personal interior, and aggrandizing of its importance, of being a systematic denial of the world out there, a kind of compensation for the true grandness its theory has refused to include and has defended against. In brief, if psychology is the study of the subject, and if the limits of this subject cannot be set, then psychology merges willy-nilly with ecology. This merger implies that alterations in the "external" world may be as therapeutic as alterations in my subjective feelings. The "bad place" I am "in" may refer not only to a depressed mood or anxious state of mind; it may refer to a sealed-up office tower where I work, a set-apart suburban subdivision where I sleep, or the jammed freeway on which I commute between the two.

Californians flee a fast-moving wildfire in Los Angeles (2008)

When some cancers are hypothesized to begin in people suffering recent loss, what loss? Is it only personal? Or does a personal loss open the gates to that less conscious but overwhelming loss--the slow disappearance of the natural world, a loss endemic to our entire civilization? In that case, the idea that depth psychology merges with ecology translates to mean that to understand the ills of the soul today we turn to the world, to its suffering. The most radical deconstruction of subjectivity, called "displacing the subject", today would be re-placing the subject back into the world, or re-placing the subject altogether with the world. 

The traditional argument of psychology says: maintain the closed vessel of the consulting room, of the behavioural lab, of the field itself, for this tradition is born of 19th century science, which continues to define psycholgy as the "scientific" study of subjectivity--in controllable situations, in vitro, under the bell jar where it can carefully observe, predict and thereby perhaps alter the minutiae of the subject.

Psychology may take the wider road, however, extending its horizon, venturing to the interior in a less literal manner: no cuts. The interior would be anywhere: anywhere we can look with a psycholgical eye and ear. The whole world becomes our consulting room, our petri dish. The wider road is also a two-way street. Besides entering the world with its psychological eye, it would let the world enter its province, admitting that Hippocrates' airs, waters and places play as large a role in the problems psychology faces as do moods, relationships and memories.

Sometimes I wonder less how to shift the paradigm than how psychology ever got so off-base. How did it so cut itself off from reality? Where else in the world would a human soul be so divorced from the spirits of the surroundings? Even the high intellectualism of the Renaissance, to say nothing of the modes of mind in ancient Greece or contemporary Japan, allowed for the animation of things, recognizing a subjectivity in animals, plants, wells, springs, trees and rocks. Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: we cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet.

The way out of specialization and professionalism, the isolation they breed, and the unreality that eventually follows upon self-enclosure is to entertain fresh ideas. Today such ideas are blowing in from the world, the ecological psyche, the soul of the world by which the human soul is afflicted, to which the human soul is commencing to turn with fresh interest, because in this world the human soul has always had its home. 

◊ James Hillman (1926-2011) was an American Jungian psychologist. His Archetypal Psychology relativizes & deliteralizes the ego, focussing on the psyche & archai, the deepest patterns of psychic functioning. He saw the ego as but one within an assemblage of psychological fantasies. The above is a synopsis of introduction to Ecopsychology (1995).

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