Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Where is the Soul 27?

Ideas versus Practicality

The following letter which Hillman sends to Ventura is thankfully quite simple and not at all like his previous one. Once again he raises interesting questions for us. In any group or committee on which I have worked over the years it is great to have a few idea generators in the group as well as the more practically-minded people. Interestingly Hillman follows de Tocqueville from the early nineteenth century in proclaiming that the USA is not a land of ideas. Rather it is a land of action, doing, practicality and pragmatism. This contention is of course an exaggeration, yet the tendency to pragmatics and practicality is very much an American inclination while Europe is more a centre of thinking and ideas rather than action and pragmatics.

A view of Caulonia from the lungomare
 What Hillman is about in this letter is attempting to find the soul in things as well as in actions and not just in people. He maintains that the main psychological ideas that Americans practise come from Europe, especially in child psychology and depth psychology. Therapy is literally choc a bloc with what Hillman terms “furriners” or what we in Ireland would call foreigners. He lists the likes of Laing, Bateson, Erikson, Frankl, Minuchin, Alice Miller, Kubler-Ross, Watzlawick, Gendlin and Szasz.  William James is probably the one exception but he spent many years in Europe as did James Hillman himself. He spent many years in Geneva, Switzerland, learning and training in Jungian therapy and so he admits that he is essentially idea-driven. Therefore he readily admits that he has never quite made a comfortable connection with the American way of doing psychology.

Burning up Ideas:

America is the greatest consumer of things in the world, and in ideas she is no different, Hillman argues. No sooner do ideas come to the fore in the USA than people wish to try them out in practice. He claims that there is in fact a rush to consume ideas as quickly as there is a rush to consume things in American society. Now this, I believe, is a very interesting observation. It would seem that we in Europe allow our ideas to incubate for longer and so these ideas have a greater generative power. He then uses a brilliant Greek phrase which I really like, that is “logos spermatikos” literally a “spermy idea” or more correctly a generating word or “seminal thought.” The plural of this wonderful term would be “logoi spermatikoi” if my Biblical Greek serves me well after a gap of nearly 30 years. Hillman readily admits that his take on psychology is largely ideational as he is essentially a generator of ideas and only secondarily a therapist. Interesting, too, is his contention that a rush into practice with an idea, or even to explain the idea in too speedily a time frame is to risk destroying the idea’s generative power by explaining it away. Too much logos applied to a creative idea can kill it stone dead, I believe.

Me on the lungomare of Caulonia
Then, I also find myself in agreement with Hillman where he argues that those who rush to put ideas into action or who rush to explain them away are really lazy thinkers. Good thinkers and good ideas need time in one another’s company if I may use a rather tortuous metaphor here. We need to have fun with ideas, to play with them, to allow them bump into and influence one another before leaping too hastily into action. Another metaphor he uses with respect to generating ideas is that we need to entertain them – which literally means that we must hold them in a space between us and them where they can begin to incubate. Hence, we must learn to value ideas as ideas, not just as precursors to action or practicality. Once again, because Hillman is such a true scholar, he readily proclaims that ideas can never belong only to scholars. They are the rightful property of all. I have long felt that any real education must teach our children to think and to question. At this juncture our psychologist friend describes his focus in thinking, his real intellectual gift as that of ideation or the generation of ideas, rather than practical and useful invention.

Our archetypal psychologist ends his letter with a peon to the beauty and truth of ideas:

Viable ideas have their own innate heat, their own vitality. They are living things too. But first they have to move your furniture, else it is the same old you, with your same old habits, trying to apply a new idea in the same old way. Then, nothing happens at all except the loss of the idea as “impractical” because of your haste to make it “practical.”   (Op. cit., p. 146)

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