A Comparison and Application of Imaginal Psychology and Deconstruction: Theory and Praxis

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As I read more on Imaginal Psychology and seek to relate it to my own personal growth and practical therapeutic interventions, I am drawn to my past. I have always been a word person, somewhat on the literal side, and guilty of the charge of calcifying the “meaning” of words. During college and graduate school, I explored these long-held patterns.

I read post-structuralist theorists such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Their ideas caused me to question the foundations of linguistics and truth. This groundwork has helped me to understand the underpinnings of Imaginal Psychology. One way that I relate to Imaginal Psychology is through its similarities with one of these theorists: Jacques Derrida. Derrida has fascinated me for many years and his Deconstruction method has interesting parallels to Imaginal Psychology.

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One basic description of Deconstruction is that it attempts to demonstrate that any text is not a discrete whole but contains several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings; that any text therefore has more than one interpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably; that the incompatibility of these interpretations is irreducible; and thus that an interpretative reading cannot go beyond a certain point. (“Deconstruction”, n. d. )

Compare this to Imaginal Psychology, with its emphasis on the polymorphous/polytheistic appreciation of images The many-sidedness of human nature, the variety of viewpoints even within a single individual, requires the broadest possible spectrum of basic structures. If a psychology wants to represent faithfully the soul’s actual diversity, then it may not beg the question from a beginning by insisting, with monotheistic prejudgment, upon unity of personality. (Hillman, 1975, p. xx) While Hillman is a psychologist and Derrida a philosopher, they both are primarily concerned with the idea of language as meaning-making.

Michael V. Adams claims “Derrida and Hillman would reverse the logic of oppositions and the order of priorities that have privileged the signified over the signifier, the concept over the image” (Adams, 1992, p. 248). This stance, that of signifier over signified, is a core tenet of post-structuralism, and one that both Hillman and Derrida share.

Although the primary medium differs for each (images for Hillman, literary texts for Derrida), both express similar concepts— multiplicity (Hillman’s polytheistic perspective, differance for Derrida),  the lack of a coherent structural “wholeness” to texts and psyche; and the endless ability for new images and meanings to be created. Understanding these similarities is a useful distinction, as it converges with my background in literary theory and provides me with amplification of Imaginal Psychology.

In this, one common point is that there is value in de-literalizing dreams or images as “things-unto-themselves. ” Instead of fitting a preconceived notion, as evidence for some Truth, or showing how a dream or image shows something like “Progress,” looking at images with equal value encourages curiosity.

With this frame, I understand Imaginal Psychology’s value in fostering “beginner’s mind,” especially in the realm of free association. The critique of free association as practiced is that it is not “free. ” Instead, some have followed a “bread crumb” method, where each image builds upon the next, imposing some “path” wherein there is a near-deterministic quality to the exploration (“a leads to b, which leads to c, which must mean that d is next”). As part of Imaginal Psychology’s critique, this is a misguided ethic of giving primacy to the notion of individuation or Self, which intrudes upon the process of image-making.

This critique does not deny the process of individuation, but objects to the positing of a Self instead of remaining in curiosity, bewilderment, and relationship to the image. When a goal or rigid hypothesis is introduced, the effects can be detrimental to an image and the flow of psychic energy. I understand the dangers of losing psychic energy by way of literalization. I have had a personal compulsion, which speaks to this point. In my past, whenever I heard an unfamiliar song that spoke to me, I would use any method to find that song and buy it. Almost without exception, this resulted in the energy dissipating from that song.

The song then sat in a library of other dead songs, collected like fallen leaves waiting to be swept away. In essence, this fetish, as well as the process Robert Johnson (1986) describes as “chain associations” (p. 54), are similar facets of the same tendency, to chase a fading ghost instead of shining a light and looking for the next appearance. The danger is in literalizing curiosity. This obscures and dishonors the original image in exchange for a need to interpret. Two personal examples illustrate this. In my traineeship, I have seen both the problem and a possible solution on a small scale.

I had been working for several months with a 14-year-old boy, Noah, who was having serious anger management issues. After a number of sessions, he discussed how angry he was because his father would not fix a boat, which Noah loved. We started to explore what the boat represented for him. We talked about songs, movies, and even clothing and I tried to amplify the image of the boat. I presumed that the boat must have represented a form of escape that Noah could take, and that his anger towards his father was partially due to the restriction of not being able to escape. As we continued, I operated from that stance: the boat represented escape.

I did not suggest this hypothesis to Noah, but still, I held the idea that it must mean something related to Noah’s frustration, desire for freedom, and anger at his family situation. Then Noah told me curtly “the boat is like everything else; he doesn’t fix stuff. He says all this stuff that he’s gonna do, and he doesn’t do it. ” It was true that Noah was frustrated, but my theory was misplaced. In essence I interfered with his process.

Instead of “granting consciousness and autonomy at the imaginal level to the emotions and behaviors of the adolescent” (Frankel, 1998, p. ), my desire to concretize the boat as representing freedom removed some of my own curiosity and perhaps limited its use for Noah’s gain. But this was only a step in my process.

Later, I felt more aligned and productive in my own active imagination explorations. One night I had a dream I am on a massive yacht that is owned by Sigourney Weaver. I ask someone if it can go underwater and they say yes. “50…100 feet? ” I ask but no answer. I lay down and Sigourney lays like a cat behind me. I guess she wants me to be her “boytoy. ” She sort of strokes my back, laying behind me.

She tells me and everyone else that she doesn’t want to talk and is that okay… (Author’s dream, December 13, 2009) I began the next day with an active imagination exercise with the Sigourney Weaver figure from the dream. I began a dialogue What are you? /What am I? /What do you have to say? /Do we have to talk? </What do I have to know? /That you are ignorant/How do I use that? /Know it/How do I know it? /Be ignorant. (Author’s personal journal, December 14, 2009) What I took from this encounter was simply that: to be ignorant, to be a beginner.

I did not try to analyze what was meant, what the figures represented, or calculate at what stage of anima development I had reached. I just started to appreciate the simplicity of being ignorant, which freed me from some anxiety. It was meaning unto itself. While these examples are perhaps a subtle progression, they move me towards a path of de-emphasizing the need to interpret towards a goal. This recalls my own progression in college and graduate school, and is something that is important to me personally as well as therapeutically. Interestingly, both Derrida and Hillman emphasize this point in their writings.

Although few critics yet realize it, there is a remarkable affinity between imaginal psychology and deconstructive philosophy, between Hillman and Derrida…Derrida and Hillman have reached similar conclusions by different and independent means…Hillman even says that he infers that “destructuralizing” (by which he evidently means “deconstructing”) is an activity similar in purpose to what he means by “revisioning”: an effort to counteract the pervasive tendency to interpret the image, that is, to reduce it to a concept—to what it “means” in hermenuetic terms. In semiotic or deconstructive jargon, the image is, of course, the signifier, and the concept, the signified. ) (Adams, 1992, p. 239-40)

In thinking of how to counteract this tendency in myself, I am drawn to the image of the mandala. Regardless of the culture from which it originates, a mandala expresses different aspects upon new viewings. While a mandala contains a center, it can be approached from a multitude of points and no one path is indicated.

Also, following a single path in a mandala does not exhaust its potential, and it can be said that while a certain space (theme, mood, idea) is entertained by viewing it through a certain side (angle, ray), it only changes the “center” of the mandala temporarily and does not imply its totality. Derrida would say, meaning is always deferred when viewing a mandala. Or in Hillman’s language, a mandala contains multiplicity. The process for de-literalization is similar to that of viewing a mandala, pondering a koan, or adopting a meditative stance.

This is reflected in Jung’s notions on active imagination In his discussion of the first step, Jung speaks of the need for systematic exercises to eliminate critical attention and produce a vacuum in consciousness. This part of the experience is familiar to many psychological approaches and forms of meditation. It involves a suspension of our rational, critical faculties in order to give free rein to fantasy. The special way of looking that brings things alive (betrachten) would be related to this phase of active imagination.

In his ‘Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower’ (1929) Jung speaks of the first step of wu wei, that is, the Taoist idea of letting things happen. (Chodorow, 1997, p. 10)  Chodorow also states how Jung’s second stage of active imagination has “consciousness [taking] the lead” (p. 10).

I resonate with this last point, and this is my difficulty with Hillman and Imaginal Psychology. How does one work with images without falling into an endless metonymy of images, de-literalized, equal in value, stretching out into perpetuity? When does go or a discernment faculty enter this process and how does the therapist help the client in this process? It is a challenge, for I do agree with an ethic of forestalling and delaying some rational impulse to make sense of images.

To me, this is the “vacuum of consciousness” that Chodorow finds in Jung. It also echoes Derrida’s arguments on delaying gratification when asserting meaning, “Whatever precautions you take so the photograph will look like this or that, there comes a moment when the photograph surprises you” (“Jacques Derrida Quotes”, n. d. ).

Yet while this feels like an interesting way to approach images from theoretical perspective, it is hard to see how this can be applied in a therapy session. One possibility is to consider a linguistic way of working with clients. Applying Derrida, Hillman, and a depth perspective to popular representative art, William Drake (2001) discusses focusing not on the literal text, but to be drawn into the ‘gap’ opened by the transition of the ‘showing and telling,’ to self. By the gap I mean the encrypted human condition of often-missed metaphors which slips by us on the tip of the tongue; in the blink of an eye. Drake, 2001, p. xi)

When I originally wrote down this quotation for this paper, and perhaps synchronistically, I wrote it as “tip of the dialogue” and not “tip of the tongue. ” The value to me of my unconscious substitution of dialogue is to avoid marginalizing the actual dialogue, to not settle on meaning too early, and to look out for gaps in meaning, to follow the “tip of the dialogue. ” In this, my slip was decidedly un-Freudian, and cannot be reduced to some one-to-one correspondence or meaning.

A later example from my traineeship illustrates how I am coming to terms with the imaginal method. One client, a young man named Cody, came in because of a violent, vicious attack that he had perpetuated. On his behalf, and not with probation, he wanted to explore what this incident revealed about him. He was scared, but wanted to explore the incident in therapy. Instead of approaching the sessions as I had done in the case of Noah, this time I started to develop a more fluid, less analytical approach, in a way to resist meaning and to continue to appreciate the symbolic importance of the case.

In this, I tried to work as Matthew Green suggests, not to determine the solution, but simply to hear what suffering is trying to say Green attempts to enact Hillman’s methodology of “seeing through” the way the “problem” is initially posed. Following Hillman in giving attention to the pathologized, Green carefully works to listen into the boys’ desires and hopes, rather than imposing the desire of the state agency on them. (“On Returning to the Soul of the World”, n. d. )

Therefore, although I was tempted to interpret what the violence meant, we instead looked at images of death, killing, and revenge and explored them by themselves. At times, this has been in the form of short active imagination sessions, at other times I have simply suggested to him that he compose music with the incident in mind. I did not suggest any literalization or meaning to the violence, and Cody has been freed up and enjoys working with the images, even when they are painful reminders of his past. Working this way has presented two additional challenges to me.

One challenge for me personally is to stay curious and allow myself the permission of non-directive listening. As Mary Watkins says, “would we be presumptuous enough with our friend to think he had an experience he wishes to tell us about in order to remind us of our experiences” (Watkins, 1984, p. 129). In all my sessions where I have used Imaginal techniques, the idea of being non-directive has been a challenge. It has not so much about the content, but more about the process of engaging clients Imaginally.

At times, I have felt manipulative to get a client on the ground and working in a sand tray. To a couple, I have repeatedly said “you can bring a dream in if you like” when it was obvious I was craving the work. Recently, I have just decided to be more relaxed and allow psyche to take hold, and the results have been favorable. As I have dropped the need to work imaginally, more material (Cody’s for example) has entered the room. My second challenge has been with the Imaginal notion of the Self.

In the spirit of Imaginal Psychology, I can agree with Soul being “like the Knight Errant whose home is the ceaselessly blowing spirit, the soul cannot settle or conform because it is driven to reform, reformulate and unsettle all forms” (Avens, 1980, p. 32). However, I see Self as something that fragments and coalesces with some intelligence and I see Self as something tantamount to a Platonic form, a reflection of the Soul. I do see a telos in the Soul’s progression when Hillman (1990) argues that “even in symptomatic behavior there are signs of the soul’s telos, the directions it wants to take” (p. 2).

But in this, I tend to follow a more traditional Jungian view as I allow for the existence of an archetype of the Self. I view individuation as progress towards an unknown goal and something not as essential in every client, but to be encouraged when apparent. Without trying to side with a more traditional Jungian approach or a strictly Imaginal one, perhaps there is a mediating force that operates between the Hillman Soul and the Jung conception of the Archetype of the Self, something resembling centrifugal and centripetal forces.

It does not seem a satisfying conclusion, and for now, I will play with the ideal of Soul having form and purpose, but not fixate on it. It is clear that there are deeper levels for me to understand as to the ontology of the soul, linguistic and philosophic challenges as to where the soul resides, and the division of the Jungian archetype of the Self as compared to Hillman’s notion of the Soul. But I do not want to become theoretical posturing to overshadow my work with clients.

What will become essential for me is the method in which I explore images in personal work and in the therapeutic relationship. Also, I will be meditating on how images have value by themselves prior to analysis, it is useful to delay meaning and allow images to be explored from a number of tangents or rays. Approaching images from a reverence to me is much like approaching the Oracle of Delphi, asking questions with humility and an open mind. I look forward to approaching the Imaginal with this humility.


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  5. Introduction. In Chodorow, J. (Ed. ), Jung on active imagination (pp. 1-20). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Deconstruction (n. . ) Retrieved January 3, 2010 from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Deconstruction
  6. Drake, William. (2001). Representation: Re-collecting Mythology in an Age of Showing and Telling. Pacifica Graduate Institute:
  7. Johnson, Robert A. (1986). Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth. New York, N. Y. : Harper Collins. On Returning to the Soul of the World (n. d. ) Retrieved December 31, 2009 from http://www. terrapsych. com/Watkins. pdf
  8. Watkins, M. (1984). Movements from and towards the imaginal. In Waking Dreams (pp. 126-142). Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, Inc.

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A Comparison and Application of Imaginal Psychology and Deconstruction: Theory and Praxis. (2018, Jun 27). Retrieved from


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