This is the second in a series of blogs exploring, comparing and contrasting the writings and ideas set forth by the iconoclastic pioneer of archetypal psychology, James Hillman, with those of Bill Plotkin, a visionary leader in the endeavors of depth ecopsychology. The intention of the series is to deepen understanding of how the human being might contact and embody the imaginal realms whose formless forms connect each to all, breathing life into the communal dreaming of the Earth. The reader is assumed to at least have some familiarity with the general body of ideas, if not these particular thinkers. This link will take you to the first post of the series.

James Hillman sets forth a psychology of perspective, situating the base of consciousness in the soul, which for Hillman is exemplified by multiple viewpoints. The multiplicity of the mysterious phenomenon of soul requires us to track it by theme, by mood, by a varying cast of shadow and light emanating from someplace outside of quotidian time, penetrating the world in numinous, paradoxical rhyme. Hillman’s psychology of perspective bears a sharp contrast to a more commonplace psychology of structure, which organizes itself around the concept of the ego. The ego can be described as that small complex in the psyche which possesses the capacity for self-reflection, constellating a sense of individual identity. Accordingly, a psychology of structure locates the foundation of consciousness in the ego. Where soul speaks in symbol, metaphor and poetic voice, ego tends to organize experience in terms of a single narrative focused upon itself as the heroic actor bound by ordinary space and time. As Hillman explains,

The ‘relativization of the ego,’ that work and that goal of the fantasy of individuation, is made possible, however, from the beginning if we shift our conception of the base of consciousness from ego to anima archetype, from I to soul. Then one realizes from the very beginning (a priori and by definition) that the ego and all its developmental fantasies were never, even at the start, the fundament of consciousness, because consciousness refers to a process more to do with images than will, with reflection rather than control, with reflective insight into, rather than manipulation of, objective reality. We would no longer be equating consciousness with one phase of it, the developmental period of youth and its questing heroic mythology.[i]

Hillman’s critique of egoic developmental fantasies points to the “structure” proposed by psychologies of structure, which seek to pour the profoundly paradoxical contents of intrapsychic and interpsychic realities into categorizing, normalizing frameworks which are thought to promote the health, growth and maturation of the individual’s egoic sense of self. In this view, psychologies which emerge from an ego-centered psychic reality are inadequate to address the human condition.

Bill Plotkin’s nature-based model and practice perhaps problematizes Hillman’s critique of the concept of a developmental trajectory by suggesting that it is possible to track the development of ego and simultaneously serve the multiplicity of soul. Plotkin’s book Nature and the Human Soul proposes a developmental model, which he calls the Soulcentric Developmental Wheel that serves as a navigational device for the ego’s heroic journey towards maturation. But does this automatically mean that the Wheel embodies a psychology of structure, as previously defined?

Soulcentric Developmental Wheel, Nature and the Human Soul

Soulcentric Developmental Wheel, from “Nature and the Human Soul”

One clue which might suggest that Plotkin’s Wheel is rooted in perspective rather than structure is found in the Wheel’s orientation to the passage of time versus the process of maturation. The Wheel is not chronologically oriented, as Plotkin explains: “[T]he stages of life portrayed here are essentially independent of chronological age, biological development, cognitive ability, and social role” and maturation is seen as following on the completion of specific psychological and spiritual responsibilities which emerge in each of the Wheel’s stages.[ii]

Another clue that the Wheel is not confined to egoic notions of structure is in the author’s orientation to “progress” through developmental stages. We never fully leave behind previous stages of development, and rather experience a shift in our “psychospiritual center of gravity,” which “identifies the hub of a person’s life, what her day-to-day existence revolves around.”[iii] Though there are always responsibilities or tasks remaining to fulfill from previous stages, and sustained access to the capacities cultivated in those stages, primary foci emerge along the arc of maturation. For example, a person in psychological if not chronological late adolescence is drawn to the mysteries of psyche and nature, while someone in middle childhood is oriented to family and nature. Plotkin proposes that there is archetypal patterning in human development and that it is useful not only to ego development, but ultimately to cultivating a deep, reflective relationship with soul and with the greater-than-human community of life.

While the very concept of completing specific “tasks” in order to progress on life’s journey seems rather ego-oriented, the ends which these tasks or responsibilities serve are far from selfish. Plotkin envisions a maturation process rooted in the capacity to belong to the world in particular, archetypal ways throughout one’s psychospiritual development, where “the journey is soul-defined rather than self-defined, and service focused rather than conquest obsessed.”[iv] For example, the responsibility of middle childhood is to cultivate the gift of wonder through discovering the natural world and learning cultural ways, while the responsibility of early adulthood is to learn how to embody soul in culture, and give soul’s gifts of visionary action and generative inspiration.

The completion of these developmental tasks does not necessarily involve a heroic inflation of the ego or building an island of individuation, but rather recognizes that service to the community of life is what makes possible a wholeness inclusive of the ego, or a personal sense of self. The Soulcentric Developmental Wheel thus seems to take seriously Hillman’s idea that ego ought become “nothing more grandiose than a trusty janitor of the planetary houses, a servant of soul-making.”[v] While ego is fundamentally relativized in Plotkin’s schematic, it is not negated but rather respected as the means by which the human soul may enter the world at all and given a fitting role to play amidst the cast of characters animating psyche.

[i] James Hillman, ed. Thomas Moore, A Blue Fire (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 32.

[ii] Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 3.

[iii] Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 64.

[iv] Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 56.

[v] James Hillman, ed. Thomas Moore, A Blue Fire (New York: HarperCollins, 1989, 32.