A Beautiful Practice

A Beautiful Practice

Chandler Stevens


Each psychology is a confession, and the worth of a psychology for another person lies not in the places where he can identify with it because it satisfies his psychic needs, but where it provokes him to work out his own psychology in response. (Hillman, 1975, p. xviii)


James Hillman was a provocative thinker, and the application of his ideas necessarily leads not only to a change in clinical practice but also in political involvement as a citizen. In this essay I will take up Hillman’s (2021) call for “a depth psychology of extraversion” (p. 136). I will do so by exploring the subject-object dichotomy and claiming that an essential link between self and world is found in Hillman’s conception of the aesthetic response.

In doing so I will attempt to demonstrate meaningful connections between Hillman’s work and the fields of ecological psychology and existential phenomenology, referencing both J.J. Gibson and Martin Heidegger. I will explore the implications of beauty and ugliness and  conclude by considering what constitutes a beautiful practice, linking aesthetics with ethics in order to establish a meaningful connection with the world.

The Subject-Object Dichotomy

A significant problem in psychology is the definition of what actually constitutes the subject. Reed (1996) makes the claim that psychology is the only science “that has never tried to clearly state what its subject matter is” (p. 4). This position is taken further in Hillman’s (2021) work when he states that the fundamental question of  psychology is “where is the subject, not what is the subject, but where does the subject stop” (p. 154). Is the subject bounded by the skin? Is it bounded by relationships? Does it extend outward into the world? For most of its history psychology  “bore the ancestral curse of Cartesian rationalism, which divided the world into subjects and objects” (Hillman, 2021, p. 199). As a result of the split between subject and object the external world was reduced to simply soulless matter, and this confined psychological inquiry to the human subject, res cogitans, defined by its interiority.

Hillman (2021) states that “the self is still imagined like a pineal gland, a self-enclosed atomistic unit, neither inherently nor necessarily communal” (p. 200), and he is very clear that this division results in disastrous consequences not only for the human subject but also for the world in which that subject lives. He argues that it is no longer possible to “distinguish clearly between neurosis of self and neurosis of world, psychopathology of self and psychopathology of world” (Hillman, 2021, p. 26). This sets the stage for a reconsideration of the subject-object dichotomy which has plagued psychology.

Two thinkers who attempted to resolve the problems inherent in the subject-object dichotomy were Martin Heidegger and J.J. Gibson. Kadar & Effken (2010) demonstrate a number of compelling similarities in concepts proposed by these two thinkers, noting that “phenomenology is a key methodology for both Heidegger and Gibson” (p. 302). This allegiance to “letting things become manifest as what they are, without forcing our own categories on them” (Palmer, 1969, p. 128) necessitates a significant shift in the concept of self and world. Phenomenology is a means of recognizing a meaningful link between these entities, a fact reflected in Heidegger’s conception of Dasein, the constitutive structure of a human being. Describing Dasein, he writes, “[s]elf and world are not two entities, like subject and object…but self and world are the basic determination of Dasein itself in the unity of structure of being in the world” (Heidegger, 1988, p. 297). This indicates a fundamental inseparability of self and world, which erases the hard division between subject and object.

This notion finds a parallel in Gibson’s conception of affordance, which is “something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment” (Gibson, 1986, p. 172). Elsewhere affordances are described as “opportunities for action” (Reed, 1996, p. 18). Therefore affordances are considered to be features of the environment, but what they are depends on the nature of the individual. For example, a hole in a tree trunk may afford a bird a place to nest, or it may afford a person a place to hide a note. What it “is” is always in relation to some animate agent. Affordances are the conditions in which individuals may be involved in the world, and this involvement ties closely with another Heideggerian description of Dasein as “nothing but…concerned absorption in the world” (Heidegger, 1985, p. 197). This absorption is a relationship of care; indeed Kadar & Effken (2010) highlight that “ caring [is] the basic characteristic of Dasein” (p. 318).

These ideas produced by Gibson and Heidegger give the impression of a caring being whose being is necessarily in relation to a world which provides opportunities for responsive action. This appears to have an intimate link with Hillman’s extraverted depth psychology. Hillman shares the belief that something other than subject-object dichotomy is needed, and he turns toward the notion of beauty as one of the fundamental ways to link self and world. Regarding beauty, he writes, “I’m not either a subjectivist, saying it’s just personal taste, nor an objectivist, saying it’s inherent in the form. In-between is something more psychologically instinctual, which is the soul’s reaction” (p. 142). This reaction, what Hillman calls the aesthetic response, will be considered below.

Aesthetics in Depth Psychology

For Hillman (2021) “depth is afforded by the surface, that is: the world is aesthetic presentation” (p. 136). This points psychology outward, toward the world – not merely inward. It is interesting to note that Gibson also makes frequent use of the terms “afford” and “surface.” However, Hillman’s psychology finds its base on a different foundation. Hillman (1975) cautions that:

Naturalism soon declines into materialism, a view which regards the way things are in the perceptual world of things, facts and sense-realities to be the primary mode. It insists that material reality is first and psychic reality must conform with it: psyche must obey the laws of physis and imagination follow perception. (p. 84)

Whereas in Gibson’s realist psychology – based on optics – the psychological subject sees surfaces in the environment, in Hillman’s archetypal psychology – based on poetics – the psychologizing subject sees through the surfaces of things. In this way Hillman deliteralizes without losing concreteness. He writes, “though body life is always concrete, it is not necessarily literal. We perform concrete acts of all sorts, eating and dancing, fighting and loving, which signify beyond their literalism” (Hillman, 1975, p. 137).

Hillman’s (2021) approach to ecological psychology is based on the primacy of imagination. When Hillman (2021) formulates his psychology, he is “not seeking principles of explanation, but of value” (p. 200). As responsive and responsible beings, humans are affected by the world around them. They are subject to aesthetic responses, which “are evidence of the soul’s active participation in the world” (p. 136). This is a theme to which Hillman returns again and again, making clear his belief that “the world is primarily and always an aesthetic phenomenon with which our animal senses and innate reactions are attuned” (p. 195). It is through these animal senses that individuals encounter the world – or are perhaps claimed by the world. Hillman writes that the word “aesthetic” itself derives from the Greek aisthesis, meaning sense perception. This is “how our animal nose and ears and eyes read the world” (p. 142). Hillman (2021) argues that people have become anesthetized to the world, numb to its influence on them, and this, he says, is fundamentally detrimental to human nature:

To walk right by an ill-designed building, be served and accept poorly prepared food, put on your body a badly cut and badly sewn jacket, to say nothing of not hearing the birds, not noticing the twilight, is to ignore the world. Yet this state of ignorance, this anesthesia is largely the modern human condition. (p. 137)

The aesthetic response has become repressed, a process that is supported by economic interests, and as a result people no longer experience themselves as alive in relation to a concrete world. It is inevitable that this results in widespread pathology. “By repressing our reactions to the basic ugliness of simple details, like ceilings, by denying our annoyance and outrage, we actually encourage an unconsciousness that estranges and disorients the interior soul” (Hillman, 2021, p. 187). Pervasive numbness allows people to work but not to live, to consume but not to be satisfied. This ignorance of the world is evidence of the unconscious, and the unconscious makes itself known through symptoms. This, however, leads to soul. Hillman (2021) writes, “To become conscious now means more specifically – not of our feelings and our memories – but of our personal responses to beauty and ugliness” (p. 136). The aesthetic response organizes activity relative to these two poles, the beautiful and the ugly, and the reactions to these are of incredible importance.

What are the reactions? On the one hand “the ugly makes us withdraw, shrink into ourselves, turn away” (Hillman, 2021, p. 142). Ugliness turns us inward, away from the world. The result of ugliness, Hillman writes, is repression. On the other hand  “beauty…returns our longing to this world” (Hillman, 2021, p. 192). Beauty invites love, and love invites participation. Hillman writes, “when you find something beautiful, love pulls you towards it” (p. 192). It is evident that the aesthetic response organizes movement toward or away, in relation to beauty or to ugliness. Because the aesthetic response is so significant for how individuals relate to – and move through – the world, Hillman (2021) makes clear that “the beautiful and the ugly is a thoroughly practical topic” (p. 185). Too often, Hillman argues, aesthetics is reduced to the merely superficial. Aesthetics becomes a matter of prettiness. However, this attitude fails to see through the phenomena of beauty and ugliness for what they are – cosmological in nature.

Hillman (2021) claims that “your aesthetic responses are cosmological, not merely personal” (p. 145), and as such they signify far more than individual preference. Kosmos, Hillman (2021) writes “is originally an aesthetic term…it meant the right placement of things, fittingly, becomingly, nicely” (p. 145). This is not a matter of substance, but of form. There is no way to quantify the right placement of things; this is a qualitative matter. In formulating the aesthetic response this way, Hillman is founding psychology not on human matters like theology, philosophy or science but on principles at work in the broader world. The aesthetic response is cosmological, reaching beyond societal conventions, and this relates to the fact that “all things are on display, show themselves, and are presented to the senses, which respond to them with feelings of like and dislike, approval and disapproval, and with a varied and differentiated judgment of their value” (Hillman, 2021, p. 145). This differentiated response to things speaks to something fundamental about the human sort of being. Elsewhere Hillman (1975) describes “the profound sense that human being is essentially ‘differing’ being” (p. 88). The ability to distinguish beauty and ugliness puts the individual into an intimate – or perhaps an extimate – relationship with the world, implying that much of what an individual is and does is relative to this aesthetic perception.

The Nature of a Beautiful Practice

Hillman makes a strong argument for the connection of ethics and aesthetics, the pairing of which I will call a beautiful practice. Ethics and aesthetics rely on each other in Hillman’s psychology. He writes, “For love to return to the world, beauty must first return, else we love the world only as a moral duty: clean it up, preserve its nature, and exploit it less…separated from beauty, love becomes a duty” (Hillman, 2021, p. 166). This appears to be closely related to Heidegger’s notion of caring as the basic characteristic of Dasein. How can care exist in the absence of something beautiful to care for? Hillman (2021) writes, “Beauty astounds and pulls the heart’s focus toward the object, out of ourselves, out of this human-centered insanity, toward wanting to keep the cosmos there for another spring and another morning” (p. 146). In order for this ethics to be sustainable it cannot be based on obligation. Such an attitude merely reduces work to toil. He is equally clear that aesthetics cannot be relied upon in the absence of ethics: “aesthetics does not replace the ethical” (Hillman, 2021, p. 145). Together the two result in both a beautiful vision and the diligence required to realize it.

Thus a beautiful practice depends first and foremost on an aesthetic image, something that occasions love and care. This is inherently an idealistic approach, a fact that Hillman does not overlook. “For any practice that is not at the same time idealistic, that does not have a further vision, that does not attempt to realize some image of beauty, loses its practical goodness” (Hillman, 2021, p. 144). This, it seems, relates to what might be called prospective control in ecological psychology. Here too both Heidegger and Gibson recognize the forward-looking nature of the individual. In reference to Heidegger’s work, Kadar & Effken (2010) write, “Dasein is always ahead; that is, it projects itself into the future” (p. 318). Into what future? No doubt one that reveals itself as beautiful. Gibson agrees on the forward-looking nature, writing:

To see at a distance what the object affords on contact is necessary for the preservation of an animal. Unlike a plant, the animal can go to the beneficial and stay away from the injurious. But it must be able to perceive the affordances from afar. A rule for the visual control of locomotion might be this: so move as to obtain beneficial encounters with objects and places and to prevent injurious encounters. (Gibson, 1986, p. 232)

Gibson’s focus on perception at a distance is interesting. The senses most often associated with perception of beauty – sight, smell, hearing –  are those that allow us to perceive the world at a distance. If Gibson’s notion is put in terms of Hillman’s psychology, it could be said that the world presents itself as beautiful or ugly, and the individual responds by turning away from the ugly and moving toward the beautiful. The ugly repels, and the beautiful attracts. This is what Hillman (2021) calls “our primary way of being in the world” (p. 195).

The first guideline for a beautiful practice then is that it must give itself to “sensate images that direct our longings toward ideals, a vision to contemplate, and seduce towards it” (Hillman, 2021, p. 145). The means of perceiving this aesthetic response are available in each moment. Hillman (2021) says that the aesthetic response is found in the animal senses, offering a direct recommendation: “Therapy says ‘connect, only connect,’ I’m saying sense, see, notice, react, only react” (p. 142). This is not to be mistaken for naive response. Hillman is well aware that beauty can be deceptive and that time and time again tyrants have used beauty in order to quell unrest in the oppressed.

With this caveat in mind, however, he makes clear that “the road to beauty means for the ego to enter conditions like those of beauty. The first of these is pleasure” (Hillman, 2021, p. 173). Pleasure means following the cues of the body, allowing responses to move through the flesh. This is incredibly counter-cultural considering the country’s roots in Puritanical thinking. The denial of pleasure has such a longstanding history that lifting the repression of the aesthetic response is a radical act. As such, it may bring up all manner of defenses, which are “defenses against the fear of its power, and these defenses are some we saw: wit and parody, appeal to the mind before the senses, sentimental literalism, sweetness, slickness without complexity, surface without depth” (p. 174). Reading such a list seems perfectly to encapsulate Western modernity.

Although Hillman (2021) at times places an emphasis on beauty, it is interesting to consider that elsewhere he appears to contradict this when he writes, “Our task is less with beauty than with ugliness. For us today, who are psychically anesthetized and encouraged to be literally numbed by the pharmaceutical industry, our aesthetic response to ugliness restores our responsibility as citizens” (p. 195). This speaks to what is asked of the individual who might engage in a beautiful practice, namely the clear-eyed perception of the ugly as ugly. This is a painful experience, but “this pain to our senses may be the entrance fee, the cost required for attaching ourselves to the world, re-finding our love for its beauty” (Hillman, 2021, p. 193). The unrepressed aesthetic response recognizes both the beautiful and the ugly. The pain of perceiving the ugly as such makes itself known through symptoms, and Hillman (1975) is quite clear that “symptoms, not therapists, led this century to soul” (p. 71). In lifting the repression of the aesthetic response, it is possible to realize the gain of beauty but not without paying the cost of ugliness. This speaks to the courage necessary in the practice, “the courage of the heart to stand for its perceptions” (p. 137). As the beautiful elicits love, the heart is central to a beautiful practice. Hillman (2021) sums up the attitude nicely: “In the thought of the heart lies the key to the practice of beauty and the end of repression…let the heart be stirred [italics added]” (p. 176).


Psychology has suffered from a significant distortion from the outset, turning people inwards toward the interior in hopes of finding the cure. This contributes to subject-object dualism in separating the world “out there” from the world “in here.” Hillman and others recognize the problem and propose related concepts that attempt to erase the subject-object distinction. Heidegger developed the concept of Dasein, being-in-the-world that fundamentally characterized by care. This mirrors Gibson’s concept of affordances, the opportunities for action that the environment makes available in relation to the nature of the organism. Both establish an inseparable connection between self and world, which is taken up from poetic perspective in Hillman’s archetypal psychology.

In this approach the aesthetic response plays a central role in connecting the individual to the cosmos, organizing a movement inward in response to ugliness and outward in response to beauty. It is in relation to beauty that love comes into being, and love makes care possible. A beautiful practice can be established in linking ethics and aesthetics, putting oneself to work in service of an aesthetic ideal. In contrast to psychology’s long history of directing the individual backward and inward, this is a movement forward and outward in greater involvement with the world.


Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Kadar, A. & Effken, J. (1994) Heideggerian Meditations on an Alternative Ontology for Ecological Psychology: A Response to Turvey’s (1992) Proposal, Ecological Psychology, 6:4, 297-341, DOI: 10.1207/s15326969eco0604_4

Heidegger, M. (1985). History of the concept of time: Prolegomena. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1988). The basic problems of phenomenology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hillman, J. (1975). Revisioning Psychology. Harper & Row, Publishers.

Hillman, J. (2021). City & Soul: Uniform edition (Vol. 2). Spring Publications, Inc

Reed, E.S. (1996). Encountering the World: Toward an ecological psychology. Oxford University Press, Inc.

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