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Swedenborg's Psychology


By Howard Davis Spoerl,
Director Psychology Department, American International College, Springfield, Mass.

Of Emanuel Swedenborg's many contributions to science, none is more significant than his work in psychology. Today, when large numbers of people are following the long road of psychology, in an effort to trace its turnings to some final understanding of human nature, the ideas of this famous philosopher and seer seem surprisingly fresh and modern. Though Swedenborg lived and died before the American Revolution, his psychology has helped many people to find inspiration in life, and his outlook is still vital though little known. In his day his thinking was far in advance of the world's not only by virtue of a few rare flashes of insight that we associate with genius, but also in its wholesale comprehension of the innumerable questions that modern psychologists, because, of specialization, answer in a fragmentary way. Swedenborg's psychology was a complete psychology.

Two centuries ago most of the work in psychology was being done by philosophers who produced abstract and inert systems of mind by merely reflecting upon its apparent nature. There was little interest in relating the mind in all its aspects to the brain and the rest of the body. But Swedenborg began his study of the mind by studying the body. As a result, his psychology was a physiological psychology, in which he described many relationships between mind and brain. Present-day psychologists believe as a matter of course in some sort of physiological approach.

Through his earlier work in psychology, Swedenborg treated the topic of the actions of the body in their bearing on states of mind. Here his problem was that of the "regulation of the soul's domain"-for he soon came to regard the body as the region in which mind and spirit functioned, and as the implement of the higher and deeper side of human nature. The Swedish thinker also wrote a book on "rational psychology" in which he dealt with the interaction of the various mental states. A modern note in this research is sounded by his insistence upon real forces and impulses within the mind, which were not simply actions resulting from outside influences nor yet vague and shadowy "instincts." During the last twenty years Freud and other psychologists have taken a similar position by refusing to look upon mind as a mere passive entity that is buffeted about by events occurring in the outside world.

Swedenborg and Freud

Freud's great gift to modern psychology was the Unconscious. The forces within the mind are often hidden from consciousness as to their nature and mode of operation. Central to Swedenborg's psychology is the principle that the mind functions on different levels, and that we are usually unconscious of most of its activities. Here, then, is another leading thought which Swedenborg held in common with modern psychology.

But while Freud ends his search for the springs of action on uncovering the "libido" and while most psychologists do not go beyond the constitution of the individual in looking for causes, Swedenborg went much further, penetrating into the midst of life and nature, unsatisfied with anything short of the ultimate origin of thought and feeling. Where modern psychology leaves off, fearing to venture into the forbidden fields of "metaphysics" and "mysticism," Swedenborg's psychology really began. The warring schools of psychology in the world today represent so many fragmentary theories of the mechanisms of mental life. The practical psychologist is pleased when he is able to show that lack of confidence may be traced to a childhood fear, or that the false testimony of a witness is due to inaccurate perception of an event, or that habits are the result of accidental conditioning. In such expositions the machinery of mental activity is often emphasized to the exclusion of its reason for occurring in the first place. But what has all this to do with the question of what our lives are for and what we are doing with them? One reason for the clash of opinions among psychologists and their frequent failure to achieve conclusive solutions of life problems is unquestionably their ignoring of the larger context of mental growth and functioning.

Swedenborg discovered many things about the mechanisms of mental life, but he also went on to deal with the larger context. In his search for meaning he left no stone unturned. Convinced of the futility of finding ultimate causes in purely biological activity, he ventured into higher philosophical realms, and his persistence in this direction led to the completion of his psychological structure. It is his later contributions that are of greatest interest today. While his earlier work was highly original by reason of the unification into one system of a great many lines of approach, physiological as well as philosophical, it bore many similarities to other schemes of psychology. Had Swedenborg's labours ceased at this point, the knowledge of the Soul would have remained where his illustrious predecessors in these investigations, from Plato down, had left it. But Swedenborg pushed on into the center of things, and developed the larger context.

Most people are vaguely aware that Swedenborg had something to do with religion. The second of the two periods of his life, beginning in 1746, has been referred to as the period of theological interest. Yet it may with equal justification be considered as a period of psychological interest. As we have already seen, Swedenborg discovered, as others have done before and since, that the mind functions on different levels. In other words, there are different ways of living. Living and thinking on the "natural" level may be distinguished from living and thinking on the "spiritual" level. Or to put it in still another way, we may regard life from the point of view of its external form and also from the point of view of its inner meaning. In any case we are dealing with different aspects of the same thing. From the external point of view, Swedenborg's ideas constitute, a theological system; from the inner point of view, an amplified psychology. The search for truth about life finally led Swedenborg to the conclusion that mind, as well as all of life, is divine in its origin and nature. Rather than serving as the source of mental forces and strivings, the natural world and man's physical constitution are simply the means by which we become aware of them, and the theatre in which our thoughts and actions are expressed.

His Problem Was Psychological

At this point the reader is likely to conclude that Swedenborg was merely one more idealistic philosopher who denied tangible realities; yet such is far from being the case. The reason for coming to such a conclusion is that the preceding paragraph states nothing that has not often been asserted by philosophers and theologians. But it does not tell the whole story. In the first place, Swedenborg's problem was psychological rather than purely philosophical. His great aim, as he himself says, was to discover the basis of the "soul's" activity. In the second place, he did not belittle or regard as inconsequential or non-existent the natural level of living as distinguished from the spiritual. Christians have sometimes regarded the flesh as an evil to be mortified, while Christian Science denies that matter has real existence. Instead of reflecting such views as these, Swedenborg emphasized the importance of the natural aspect of life, and held that every feature of it has some proper and necessary use. At the same time, he went on to develop the deeper significance and harmony of the spiritual level of living.

His demonstration of the relationship between the two ways of life is a triumph of psychological analysis. Every item on the natural or external level of life has its counterpart in some item on the spiritual or internal level. Because the relation is active, spiritual events cause their natural counterparts, but in terms of our experience the relationship is simply one of correspondence. In other words, if we look beneath the surface of natural events, we can often discern corresponding spiritual events of deeper significance. This does not mean that the natural events are to be dismissed as having no importance in themselves. Since we live in natural bodies, we must live largely in terms of events belonging to this level.

To a physical scientist such a view might seem fantastic and absurd. Yet similar approaches are being used by modern psychologists in their endeavor to unlock the mystery of mind and bring adjustment out of frustration and despair. Psychoanalytical demonstrations make ceaseless use of "symbols" by means of which "unconscious strivings" are brought to light. The laboratory psychologist has tried for nearly a century to understand why the motorist sees and interprets as a green light a disk of certain physical proportions that emits emanations of a certain wave length. Those who are conducting physiological researches into the newly discovered "brain waves" hope they can solve the problem of the translation of physical events into conscious states. Swedenborg's theory of "correspondences" contains the germ of all these attempts to interpret mental life. A "law" of correspondence, derived from one of the founders of experimental psychology who in turn derived it from a total system strikingly similar to Swedenborg's, is actually in use as an indispensable instrument of psychological research. This principle, known as the "psychophysical law," was worked out in its mathematical form by G. T. Fechner a century after Swedenborg, but in ignorance of his ideas.

Principle of Correspondences

In psychology the principle of correspondences means that a continuous series of events in one realm is related in a regular way to another series of events in some other context. Such relationships have been described between stimuli and perceptions, between stimuli and nervous reactions, between nervous reactions and conscious states, etc. Just as it was in one sense the backbone of Swedenborg's psychology, so does it furnish modern psychologists with a necessary frame of reference for organizing and classifying their data.

While Swedenborg thus devised a method of explaining mental life that shares even its details with more recent methods, it remains true in more ways than one he began to be a psychologist only where others leave off. For Swedenborg approached the whole question of correspondence between the natural and the spiritual in a far more profound way than is current in present-day psychology. The distinction between these classes is indeed not generally recognized, despite the similarity of method. Only the "natural" sphere is investigated by most psychologists. In setting up principles of correspondence they have therefore confined themselves to mathematical statements of relationship, all within the natural sphere, while Swedenborg gave a full account of the forces which bring such relationships to life. He placed all possible emphasis upon the idea that the natural side of life differs not only in degree but also in kind from the spiritual side. He therefore taught that all events originate in some form on the spiritual level and are manifested in appropriate ways on the natural. The active force which brings about this expression is spiritual force, of a piece with the divine order of the universe.

Yet the two sides or levels of consciousness, of life, of reality, are not separate realms of being that exclude each other. Rather do they exist at the same time and in the. same beings. A natural interpretation of experience does not exhaust its meanings; likewise a spiritual interpretation does not discard or supersede the natural. Love is not exclusively a matter of sensuality; nevertheless its higher meaning does not deny expression to the physical side. A speaker trying earnestly to persuade his audience is expressing more than is contained in the obvious meaning of his words. A given idea is, in addition to what it purports to be, a summing up of the whole nature and attitude of the mind that holds it. Hence, at all points of thought and action we lead double lives-a fact which many modern psychologists are never weary of demonstrating in their own way. That their way is often fragmentary and ultimately ineffectual could be explained by their refusal to accept any order of reality but the material or "natural" order, or to venture upon the deeper stratum of life as envisaged by Swedenborg, where mind must be understood as the effect of harmony between all minds.

If we enter upon this stratum with Swedenborg, we learn that the practical problem of life which confronts all men sooner or later is the problem of realizing this harmony and achieving an awareness of the divine action in the world. Among other things, this means what psychologists now call the making of proper adjustments to life. In religious terms, this has always been the problem of "salvation." In this area, Swedenborg again discovered a means of adjustment that belongs in the most recently developed of all fields of psychology. To become adjusted, the personality must be reorganized. The harmony of correspondences between the natural and the spiritual sides of life must be brought into view, and the precedence of the spiritual side must be acknowledged. Although Swedenborg's language was very different from current psychological terminology, it is evident that his solution to life's practical problems included the bulk of the psychoanalyst's considerations plus a great deal more of a profounder nature. In any event, it included no less than this.

More and more are modern psychologists stressing the significance of the total organization that we call personality. As we grow up, our personalities are reorganized many different times. This process of reorganization has no end in Swedenborg's view. If the person's outlook is to be adequate and his life successful he must at least achieve a reorganization that permits divine action to become effective. This is accomplished by recognizing the divine nature of life, and by submitting to divine guidance.

Such are the outlines of a psychology that, while it has been reechoed in part here and there by independent investigators during the last two centuries, Swedenborg was permitted to elaborate and announce in its complete and harmonious arrangement. The physiological accent, the dynamic emphasis, the recognition of the Unconscious, the principle of correspondences, the stressing of personality, and the vindication of the supreme worth of the spirit-these are but some of the leading ideas in a conception that is not fully understood even now by the average student.

"Swedenborg was in many respects the most remarkable man of his own or any age."
Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1911 edit.


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