Origins of Ambiguity
by Maggie Hippman


Ambiguity: the condition of admitting of two or more meanings, of being understood in more than one way, or of referring to two or more things at the same time[1]


There is a way to move in the world that honors the invisible inside of things: the immaterial reality that haunts the matrix of matter. Modern language does not facilitate this enigmatic approach to life. But a thoughtful study of the evolution of language reveals that until relatively recently, human consciousness was anything but literal. It would not allow our ancestors to see the material and immaterial as separate phenomena, and so they danced with an animate earth whose every form was filled with spirit.

This is significant for the field of psychology as well as environmental studies, considering that “When we study long-term changes in consciousness, we are studying changes in the world itself”[2] Efforts to tend to the health of the planet and the individual psychologies that exist within it might benefit from a brief foray into the evolution of language as it displays a gradual shift from engagement with outer phenomena to fixation on the inner phenomenon of thoughts, emotions and concepts.

The natural philosophy of alchemy is an interesting case study of the interaction between language, material and psychology as they interact and transform one another. The writings of the early alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) are notoriously dense and difficult to interpret. True to the alchemical mode of imagining the world, his texts are “constructed to reveal as many depths of meaning as possible—their words are intended to reverberate in the imagination with meanings.”[3] His intelligent use of language had the ability to bring the material to life, just as a master poet can today. The early experiments of Paracelsus paved the way for some of the modern methods and ideas in science and psychotherapy. He founded the field of toxicology, pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine, and is said to have made the first clinical mention of the “unconscious” as it relates to the disease process.

C.G. Jung, following Paracelsus, fundamentally altered the field of psychology when he discovered the astounding parallels between unconscious psychological processes and the quest for the alchemical opus.[4] Here a connection was re-established between substance and psyche; human and nature. It is as if psyche went out in search of nature, and discovered it in the hidden realm of the unconscious.

Depth psychologist James Hillman (1926-2011) drew deeply from Jung’s work to develop and re-envision Archetypal Psychology. Hillman wished to revivify what he saw as the deflated modern therapeutic practice through work in imagination, fantasy, myth and metaphor.[5] He was concerned particularly with the insubstantiality of modern therapeutic language as it reflects a growing cultural neurosis: a one-sidedness of thinking that shows up in a way of communicating that is alarmingly abstract and deeply literalized.

In Alchemical Psychology, Hillman writes, “Conceptual language…is the chronic locus of our collective neurosis as it appears in language.”[6] This claim is directed in particular at a Western culture that seems to be at the forefront of conceptual imperialism, and at a profession that is concerned primarily with healing the human mind. To heal is to make whole, which is a difficult task to achieve when the instrument being used (language, in the case of therapy) is already fractured.

Hillman defines literalism as “that one-sidedness of mind that experiences only singleness of language.” It is that same unilateral literalism that can make it difficult for the western mind to wade through an alchemical text or poetry, and which can cause the devout to read a single truth into their holy book, or bow to science as their only God. But even the faithful are not truly served by this habit of thinking, for their symbols which were once sacred images in the human imagination (known to be conduits for the holy, and not the holy itself) have sunk to be mere things, or “idols,” as Barfield calls them. The presence behind, or inside, of the material has been forgotten.

The apparent opposite to the literal use of language is figurative, in which words are used in ways that deviate from singular interpretations to represent more fully the reality they attempt to describe. Metaphors are one example of figurative language. The first definition of metaphor that pops up in an online search is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”[7] This definition succinctly reflects the popular approach to language, in which metaphors are ideas that exist in the mind, to be analyzed and interpreted but never to be experienced. To allow metaphor to push us outside of thought and into perception would be to rehydrate its desiccated meaning.

For oral indigenous peoples (who had not yet been exposed to the written word) metaphor was not a concept. It was the culture’s living reality, woven in to their layered understanding of the nature of things. We will soon see that if the history of human consciousness is traced back far enough through language we reach a point where perception is completely figurative, and thought takes a back-seat to direct experience. This type of consciousness cannot perceive matter without also perceiving the immaterial reality which it contains.[8] We have traded the sweetness of substance for the safety of assurance, and now the dark, hidden, mysterious and unknowable things are vanishing, like a bright flame squished between two fingers, one after another.

While linguistic analysts and academic abstractions may attempt to create a language that would make misunderstanding impossible and meaning singular by demythologizing and disinfecting language, they would certainly fail. Language, like consciousness, is a living organism which is dead once it is petrified.” The etymology of language reaches back to a time when words were used to describe physical processes; a time when gods and goddesses pervaded all natural phenomena; when the genus loci (the indwelling spirit or voice of things and places) was alive and well.

In early Sanskrit, Greek and Teutonic, words for “sky” were used also to mean “God.” This suggests that at one time the human mind could not conceive of these two phenomena as being separate. The twilight-torn horizon was not a metaphor for the heavenly realm, but was it. There was something in the felt presence of natural forces that inspired early humans to experience them as divine entities.[9]

Somewhere along the way, the quality of sky became divorced from its divine ancestry, and the two entities became separate in the human mind with different names to mark their divergence. A similar fate haunted the classical gods and goddesses, which “faded so slowly into the thin air of abstract thought that the process was hardly perceived.”[10] Chance was once a Roman deity (Sors) which developed into a purely abstract idea. The Roman goddesses called Fata (Fates) turned eventually into our idea of destiny.[11]

Process words developed in a parallel fashion to describe internal states. The worddelirious” is derived from a Latin verb that originally meant “to go out of the furrow” or “to plow in crooked lines.” In modern English we instead move askew inwardly in what is now defined as “an acutely disturbed state of mind.”[12] Words such as this (and there are nearly infinite examples) are evidence that “all knowledge which has been conveyed by means of speech to the reason has traveled in metaphors taken from man’s own activities and from the solid things which he handles.”[13]

As those processes which birthed a need for words to define them transformed into different technologies (from hunting and gathering, to agriculture, to industry, to advanced technology, etc.) the words once rooted in the soil of direct physical experience came to describe less concrete phenomena: states of mind, philosophies, concepts and emotions. It is as if the ground beneath us is disintegrating. The entire English language comes to acquire a weightlessness. And yet words carry the gravity of human history. Barfield maintains that language reveals the evolution of consciousness.

Entire cultures of thought can be traced along the lines of language, which, like consciousness “arises from an interpenetration of thinking and perceiving.”[14] It can be seen from the transformations in language that as time progresses from the earliest evidence of language to our present day vocabulary, intellectual thought (what Alan Watts calls “chatter in the skull”) begins to eclipse direct perception. And thus begins our modern neurosis.



Every modern language, with its thousands of abstract terms and its nuances of meaning association, is apparently, from beginning to end, but an unconscionable tissue of dead, or petrified, metaphors.[15]


For a culture with amnesia such as our own (having forgotten the practices that once anchored us to a rich relationship with the earth) words may be a branch we can follow back toward its root and the beginnings of human consciousness. We might learn something there, at the animate origins of our modern mind. There might be hints of how we arrived at this place of profound disillusionment.

We can see, for example, from the things that were named and not named in different civilizations that Romans were interested in outward achievement, while Greek’s fascination lay in the interior realm of human feeling. Both civilizations used the familiar aspects of life to tread into the territory of the unknown. The Romans knew well agriculture and war. In order to express a new idea, they balanced on these foundations as they attempted to reach into the vaporous realm of abstract thought. The word “spoil,” for example, is a Latin term which at one time meant only to “strip a conquered foe of his arms.” As the Roman consciousness grew and changed, the singular definition grew to accommodate minds which had enough distance in their relationship to the land to extrapolate the purely physical into the mental, emotional and even metaphysical. This is how humans began “realizing the unknown in terms of the known.”[16]

If we consider the effort required to turn “a vague feeling into a clear thought” we may gain a new respect for the language that is so casually used, and how necessary it must have been for the mind to shift its engagement from the outer phenomena of the living world to the inner realm of reflexive thought in order to have something to say about it.

Here it may be important to understand exactly what we are turning away from when we begin to give precedence to the human world of thoughts, ideas and emotions. How did humans, in the first place, come to define their world through words? Unlikely as it may seem, an ecologist has something to say on the matter.

David Abram asserts in Spell of the Sensuous that spoken language evolved from our relationship with the “more-than-human-world.” It was our physical interaction with the terrain that sustained us which generated the first human sounds that became words with meaning. “For meaning…remains rooted in the sensory life of the body—it cannot be completely cut off from the soil of direct, perceptual experience without withering and dying.”[17] And so, at a certain point in history, the human voice began to echo and amplify the sounds of their animate environment in a way that must have been entirely participatory with the terrain.

A friend in India once told me that his grandmother can tell him what time it is down to the minute based on the quality of sunlight. As we become more removed from the sensate realities of the earth we are funneled into the void of abstraction. It is here that we are lost, for our greatest compass lies in our senses: the threshold between inner and outer. A living language requires a continuously renewed relationship with the physical. One need only glance at the morning newspaper to see what happens to a materialistic culture with no conscious relationship to the matter it is using to build its empire.

The history of language, described by British philosopher and poet, Owen Barfield, is a painful process of introversion.[18] Before the advent of written language, the word psyche was understood to mean something akin to breath or wind. After the written word created the possibility of a timeless, independent self that can exist outside of the context in which words were generated, psyche was torn from that larger presence and squeezed inside the human skull. It was only after the psyche migrated from the all-pervasive power of wind to the interiors of “mind” as we know it that mental illness began to be seen as an individual pathology instead of a collective issue.

Indigenous cultures seem to recognize an individual’s sickness as a symptom of a larger problem that the entire culture plays a part in. The traditional medicine man or woman negotiated the space between human sickness and nature’s woes, since the sickness was thought to be brought on by a trespass of the people with the land. To heal an individual was to repair the damaged bond with the earth itself. And so, I wonder if personal healing can be expected without addressing the broken bond with the wild, given that one’s individual health is helplessly contingent on the health of the place one inhabits.

It may be hard for us to imagine what life felt like for people whose language did not contain distinctions between physical forms, internal states and celestial beings. Most of us are nested deeply inside the comfort of our protected homes where air temperature is regulated, water is mechanically funneled in and out without any thought on our part, and walls block out sound to create an isolated container. We are allowed to choose to what extent we interact with the forces of nature. If we were exposed to the full ferocity of every dense thunderstorm, a winter full of frigid nights, and the blistering mid-summer sun then we might begin to feel the presence of something larger than ourselves inside these phenomena. If our water needs were completely dependent on the frequency of rain, we might even begin to pray when we felt the desert drought in our own dry throat. We might feel the reality of our life’s contingency on nature’s beneficence.

For a culture whose conceptions of mind and matter were split centuries ago (most ostensibly by Descartes in the seventeenth century) and which reserves the qualities of awareness for our species alone, the muscle of imagination must be exercised like an under-developed bicep. Imagination is the connective tissue between “self” and “other,” between “inside” and “out.” Abram writes that imagination is “the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly.”[19] Imagination can be the counter-pose to introversion, and the antidote to our neurosis.

Paracelsus used ambiguity in his texts to stoke the starved imagination of his students. The layers in his language force the literal mind into metaphor, creating a linguistic bridge between mind and material. He exploded the perceptual field this way, continually forcing thought outside of polarization and into the vibrant space of vitalized chaos where the senses had space to breathe.

We are collectively in a space of cultural chaos. It is a fertile place of necessary re-organization. The collective psychological portrait of this moment in history would look something like a finger-painting made by an artist whose body was in flame at the time of rendering. One in ten Americans is on an antidepressant.[20] Suicide rates have increased thirty percent over the last ten years making it the tenth leading cause of death in the United States (this equates to an alarming one hundred and seventeen suicides per day).[21] If those statistics don’t adequately capture the collective desperation, then one need only look at the ongoing instances of mass shootings to see that the American psyche is struggling.

I often wonder what the indigenous shamans would have to say about the current state of health in America and the Western World in general, given their beliefs about disease being caused by impingement on the local spirits living in the land. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the evolution of language, as it traces the veins of a living consciousness—once shared with the animate terrain. Cultures grew, minds changed and language morphed by scaffolding off of the physical (“the known”) into the abstract (“the unknown”). Perhaps we now know too much, and must tip-toe our way down off of this skyscraper built in paper-scraps, back down onto solid ground.



What if a property of the Earth itself?[22]


Emerson predicted that the human race would eventually die of civilization. Seeing this prophesy beginning to be realized, how might we go about realizing the known in terms of unknown?

“To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks[23] French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty is calling for a reawakening of the very basic experience of the world through sense perception.

This way of being is alive in us all in the form of a memory, engraved in the DNA from long ago. The process of unknowing might, then, look a lot like remembering. Beneath the scarring of preconceptions built up over lifetimes lies the innocence of permeable perception, which is in touch with the land.

J.R.R. Tolkien has written that “Faërie,” by which I take him to mean all things enchanted, “cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.”[24] One can be enchanted (defined as “filled with delight”)[25] by earthly phenomena only if they are willing to see that every elemental being has its own subjectivity; its own interiority. Human language began as an amplification of the inner world of plants, animals and minerals. If we are careful, we can follow words back to the mind of the world, and our own sanity.



[1] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Vol 1, p. 66

[2] Owen Barield, History, Guilt and Habit (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), p.11

[3] O. Hannaway, The chemists and the word: The didactic origins of chemistry

[4] Paracelsus contributions to psychotherapy:

[5] About Archetypal Psychology:

[6] James Hillman. Alchemical Psychology (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, 2013), Location 94 (Kindle)

[7] Defnition of “metaphor”:

[8] Owen Barfield (1979), p. 31

[9] Owen Barfield, History in English Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdams, 1967), Location 1050 (Kindle)

[10] Barfield (1967) 1149

[11] Barfield (1967) 1118

[12] Barfield (1967) 427

[13] Barfield (1967) 2379

[14] Owen Barfield (1979), p. 16

[15] Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973) p. 63

[16] Barfield (1967) 433

[17] David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1996), p. 80

[18] Barfield (1967)

[19] Abram, p. 58

[20] Look Around: 1 In 10 Americans Takes Antidepressants, NPR:

[21] American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Suicide Statistics – AFSP:

[22] David Abram, Becoming Animal (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), p.123

[23] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), pp. viii-ix

[24] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories (, p.2

[25] Definition of “enchanted”:


Maggie Hippman, M.A. began her formal education in psychology, which then extended into an MA in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah. Her work has been primarily with adolescents in Wilderness and Horticulture therapy, which has taken her into the Sierra Nevadas, the deserts of Utah, and the Big Island of Hawaii. Through placed-based therapeutic work (and education that focused on Ecopsychology and Terrapsychology) she developed a sensitivity to the healing potential and rooted intelligence that seems to reside in different locales.

Her extensive work in mindfulness (she is a certified yoga teacher, has led meditation courses and sat many ten-day silent meditation retreats) has deeply informed her work and become an integral tool in helping others orient themselves inside the larger story of place.