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Expanding the boundaries of knowledge

Lopa Mukherjee


Scientific methodology plays an important role in mainstream thought-systems all over the world. It started during the Enlightenment in Europe, was codified by the scientist, René Descartes and applied in Newton’s laws of mechanics. This mindset or worldview, called Cartesian or Cartesian-Newtonian, spread to the rest of the world through colonisation. The indigenous methods were abandoned, since this scientific methodology provided a surer ground. Lesser mistakes were made in practical life when the source of knowledge did not rely on human subjectivity. But practical life is just one aspect of life, and a small one at that. Now, this surer footing seems wanting, because it leaves out many questions of life, particularly the big ones. Psychology tries to tackle the big questions that are asked by a human subject. How can it then ignore the lived experiences of this human being? This article shows how the limits of the Cartesian worldview are overcome by new knowledge-systems.

The solution set

Suppose someone were to ask you, “What came first: light or sound?” How would you answer? Since we hear the thunder after we see the lightning, you may be tempted to say “Light came first.” Let’s say you want to step back in time and think of the origins of light and sound. Science says nothing could be seen before the Big Bang. Even light could not escape from the gravitational pull of the dense ball of matter. And the Big Bang, did it make a ‘bang’ sound? If so, then sound and light came at the same time — at time zero. In a pitch-dark room, you hear the scratch of the matchstick before you see the flame. So, sound came first here. Or think of the movie industry. The pictures came before the talkies. So, light came first. In all the answers above, we are assuming the question implies that the source of light and sound are the same. If the sources are different, the answers will be different too. We are also assuming the measurer of light and sound is the same — an instrument or a person who can see and hear. For a deaf person, sound never came.

We may also wonder if it is light with a capital L, and sound with a capital S? In other words, is it asking about the origins of Light and Sound? John’s Gospel starts this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (1)”; and the fourth verse is “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind (2).” So, Sound precedes Light from the Christian perspective. Other cultures have other genesis myths. Several Egyptian creation myths say the first incident was the rising of the sun out of the infinite, lifeless sea of chaos. But another Egyptian myth says it was Ptah, the god of craftsmen, who created everything by uttering their names one by one. He would have uttered the word for light to produce light, making sound the primary creation and everything else secondary.

Orders of theories

Given these possible solutions, you may be tempted to ask the questioner to re-define the question. The rationalistic mindset does not like an open-ended solution set. It likes one-to-one relationships, such as: one cause produces the same effects every time. It is the domain of linear equations. The other problems are outside its consideration, such as free-will, life, consciousness. As science has progressed, its method has admitted orders of theories, as a series of larger and larger sets. Quantum mechanics has embraced unpredictability. It says there is a chance an electron will exist in a certain place at a certain time. Its probability can be calculated, but not its precise location. But quantum mechanics assures us that in the macro level you will not fall off your chair because of the whim of electrons. The probabilities will be so close to one, you will be able to predict the motion of large objects. The theory of Relativity explains Newtonian laws — not the other way around, because Relativity is a superset of Newtonian mechanics. You kick a ball and its trajectory can be predicted. You kick a dog, and anything could happen. When there are too many parameters in an equation, too many interactions and unknowns, then the mind cannot conceive of a neat solution. It is then called the realm of non-linear dynamics and the solutions come out of complexity theory. The solution set is a geometric pattern of possible solutions (3). Systems thinkers trying to expand the boundaries of science have allowed for such solution sets, and have even re-defined life and consciousness to fit their paradigm.

Orders of knowledge-systems

But the theories are still bound to the scientific methodology. In psychology we are talking about orders of knowledge-systems, not just orders of scientific theories. The physical world is a subset of the psychological, which is a subset of the mythological, which is a subset of the spiritual. To prove to the man who is within the bubble of the physical sciences that free-will and culture shape his solution space, means asking him to burst his bubble. And this process is arduous, as Galileo will vouch for. So James Hillman (1926-2011) comes out clean. Hillman started as a Jungian psychotherapist; then he developed his own methods, called Archetypal Psychology. He does not even attempt to take the rationalist on his journey. He does not debate, nor does he provide any logical explanations.He states what he feels is true. The proof of his theory is in its practicability. If his sort of therapy helps people who are suffering from psychological disturbances, or if it enhances the quality of life, enabling people to live to the fullest, then this theory has created well-being.

Before Hillman, Carl Jung had intuited the limits of the ‘science’ of psychology. He pushed the envelope of material science, arguing that if empirical methods were the foundation of its methodology, why wouldn’t human experiences be considered empirical? We trust our senses and ascribe a reality to the rainbow. We trust our measuring instruments and believe Jupiter exists. Similarly, our pain is real when we are ill-treated, our joy is real when we see a happy dream. Feelings are as real as sensations because they have an effect on us. They follow the cause and effect model of Newtonian science. In psychology we trust someone else’s experiences, just as we trust an instrument to measure far objects, small objects, entities invisible to our limited vision. Statistics — legitimised by science with the advent of quantum mechanics — would then be used to categorise experiences of human subjects. Modern psychology research relies heavily on collecting first-hand experiences of people in large numbers — both for quantitative and qualitative research.

Jung tried hard to remain within the scientific boundary, which was also necessary for his livelihood, since his times were what they were in the mid-1990’s. It took him decades to open up the field of psychology, gradually winning the confidence of the community with his empirical studies and their positive results. Hillman could venture further out in the field because he came of age as a psychiatrist after the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. The orthodoxies in education systems were falling apart, especially in America, Hillman’s native country. Jung, a Swiss man, worked in the heart of Europe, within a more conservative establishment. Hillman’s proof of the pudding was in the eating. If a method works, it is legitimate. If his flavour of psychotherapy brought well-being to his clients, then it was legitimate — for his clients. He had no interest in establishing a new science or convincing the entire scientific community of the veracity of his techniques.

Well-being itself is an open-ended state of being. It has equivalents in different people’s worldviews. In Carl Jung’s language it is individuation, in Abraham Maslow’s language it is self-actualisation, in Martin Seligman’s it is happiness, in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s it is Flow, in Zen: Satori. Each religion has its shade of difference — some will not define it, some will leave it open to each individual to define. A person who is operating from a higher order of knowledge, should not misbalance a person in a lower order, because the latter may not be ready to burst his bubble. On the other hand, if someone is struggling against the boundaries of the bubble, which is compromising his well-being, then he should be led to see a higher order of knowledge. This is what Hillman wants therapists to do with their patients, understanding deep-seated struggles, and not the lesser struggles that show up as symptoms.

A new psychotherapy

Hillman is opening up the field of psychology to a new order in the knowledge-system. He is inviting in the magical, the mythical, the vast realm of the unconscious, the undefinable world of dreams, the unending fields of soul-space. This new psychology may be resisted by those who have found a sure footing with the past body of experimental psychology. They may say, “We know Prozac works for depression, why question it? If you waste time pondering, the patient may die”. A Hillmanian would answer, “What you diagnose as depression, is not depression. It is a malaise of the spirit that the patient is unable to articulate. Help her explore her inner world. Look at clues in her dreams, in the literature she reads, in the people that make her happy, in the encounters she fears, in the images of her life. Don’t name the disease, because it may not have a name at all. Each person has a unique calling, and therefore distinct maladies of the psyche. Also, be humble to realise there may not be a cure. Healing is a journey — not a destination. You are walking with the patient today, yesterday others were walking with her; tomorrow she may walk elsewhere. Your task is to make her walk, no matter where and with whom. This walk is life, whether with friends to the magical kingdom of Oz, or uphill rolling up the stone, like Sisyphus. If you respect the patient’s calling, the seed within her that wants to grow into a beautiful tree, give it sunlight and water, not pesticides and growth hormones. Then stand back and watch it thrive.”


1. John. New International version/ Biblica. [Online] Available from: Accessed16th November 2019.

2. Ibid.

3. Capra F, Luisi PL. The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2014, pp. 11-12.

Lopa Mukherjee is a writer and documentary maker of educational and spiritual topics, and is a psychology student in San Francisco, California.

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René Descartes




James Hillman