"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Archetypal Psychology and Henry Corbin

Outside of the relatively small community of scholars and students of Islamic mysticism, the influence of Corbin's vision has been felt most profoundly among those who know of him through his Eranos Lectures and his friendships with C.G. Jung and the wide array of scholars who participated in the Eranos Conferences. Corbin gave his first lectures at Ascona, the home of the Eranos Foundation in 1949, and he lectured there annually until shortly before his death. Among the Eranos participants influenced by Corbin the most widely known to the general public is no doubt the American psychologist James Hillman, (Facebook Page) the central figure in the post-Jungian school of archetypal psychology and best-selling author of The Soul's Code and The Force of Character. In his account of the origins and the orientation of archetypal psychology Hillman writes as follows:

"The second immediate father of archetypal psychology [after C.G. Jung] is Henry Corbin (1903-1978), the French scholar, philosopher and mystic, principally known for his interpretation of Islamic thought. From Corbin comes the idea that the mundus archetypalis (‘alam al-mithal) is also the mundus imaginalis. It is a distinct field of imaginal realities requiring methods and perceptual faculties different from the spiritual world beyond it or the empirical world of usual sense perception and naïve formulation. The mundus imaginalis offers an ontological mode of locating the archetypes of the psyche, as the fundamental structures of the imagination or as fundamentally imaginative phenomena that are transcendent of the world of sense in their value if not in their appearance. Their value lies in their theophanic nature and in their virtuality or potentiality which is always ontologically more than actuality and its limits. (As phenomena they must appear, though this appearance is to the imagination or in the imagination.) The mundus imaginalis provides for archetype a valuative and cosmological grounding, when this is needed, different from such bases as: biological instinct, eternal forms, numbers, linguistic and social transmission, biochemical reactions, genetic coding, etc.

But more important than the ontological placing of archetypal realities is the double move of Corbin: (a) that the fundamental nature of the archetype is accessible to the imagination first and first presents itself as image, so that (b) the entire procedure of archetypal psychology as a method is imaginative. Its exposition must be rhetorical and poetic, its reasoning not logical, and its therapeutic aim neither social adaptation nor personalistic individualizing but rather a work in service of restoration of the patient to imaginal realities. The aim of therapy is the development of a sense of soul, the middle ground of psychic realities, and the method of therapy is the cultivation of imagination. (p. 15)

Corbin attributes [the recognition of the reality and independence of images] to the awakened heart as the locus of imagining, a locus also familiar in the Western tradition from Michaelangelo’s immagine del cuor. This interdependence of heart and image intimately ties the very basis of archetypal psychology with the phenomena of love (eros). Corbin’s theory of creative imagination of the heart further implies for psychology that, when it bases itself on the image, it must at the same time recognize that imagination is not merely a human faculty but is an activity of the soul to which the human imagination bears witness. It is not we who imagine but we who are imagined." (p. 19)

From: James Hillman, Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account. (with a Bibliography of Archetypal Psychology compiled by Tom Cheetham), Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman, Volume 1. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, 2004. The best introductions to Hillman's work remain A Blue Fire, edited by Thomas Moore, and Re-Visioning Psychology.


  1. Thank you, this connection is helpful. I have a question related to this. I am in process of writing a paper that brings Sufism into conversation with Transhumanism. I am relying greatly on Corbin’s discussion of alam al-mithal and his interpretations of Sohravardi and ibn Arabi. The ontological status of the imaginal world, between intellect and sense is similar, I believe, to the status of those products of scientific imagination, which are constructed as a blend of empirical findings and theoretical models. I would think of the technofetishist imagination of some transhumanists (e.g., Kurzweil) as pure fantasy (in the sense Corbin distinguishes this from true imagination) were it not for the fact that some transhumanist projects are extrapolations of semi-empirical scientific products.

    In short, while I agree with Hillman statements above regarding number as not imaginal (since it belongs to the intellectual world), I take issue with his exclusion of biochemical reactions (which could refer ether to the empirical reaction, or to our understanding and manipulation of the reaction) and the genetic code (which is an unambiguously metaphorical entity, blended of empirical and theoretical constructs).

    I believe I understand the motivation for excluding these items-- and the long wishlist of transhumanist products that promise to extend life, intelligence and maturity—from alam al-mithal. For Sohravardi and ibn Arabi, alam al-mithal has a moral-spiritual tone that is incongruent with the command-and-control approach of most of western science and technology (and transhumanism). However, on purely ontological grounds, I cannot exclude these and certain other (blended) products of scientific imagination from alam al-mithal.

    Your thoughts on this would be appreciated.

    Farzad Mahootian
    Arizona State University

  2. Hi, thanks for sharing your blog