Occultism and Philosophy in the Seventeenth-Century

George MacDonald Ross

George MacDonald Ross

It is well known that the heroes of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution were themselves by no means free of the occultist modes of thought from which they were supposed to be rescuing the human mind. Far less attention has been paid to occult tendencies in the philosophy of the time. Since there was no sharp distinction between philosopher and scientist in the seventeenth-century, it would be most surprising if the savant wearing his philosophical thinking-cap were somehow immune from occult influences to which he was prone as a scientist. The main purpose of this article will be to suggest a few such influences. A secondary purpose will be to draw some more general conclusions about the definability of occultism, and its demarcation from philosophy and science.

One of the reasons why historians of philosophy have tended to overlook occult influences is that there is much greater indeterminacy of interpretation in philosophy than in science. In the history of science, there used to be considerable ideological prejudice against the very idea that occultism could co-exist with rational science in one and the same mind, let alone be inextricably bound up with it. The prejudice eventually receded in the face of overwhelming, unambiguous empirical evidence, such as the Portsmouth collection of Newtonian manuscripts on alchemy and on the prisca sapientia. Philosophy, on the other hand, is too abstract for it to be generally possible to pin down a philosopher’s meaning as unambiguously occultist. And the area of potential contamination with occultism is precisely the area of greatest indeterminacy in interpretation.

A further complication is that many non-philosophical beliefs intruding into a philosopher’s writings can be interpreted as religious. For certain positivists, anthropologists, and others, this makes no difference, granted that metaphysics, religion, and occultism are all equally meaningless superstitions anyway. For them, the only demarcation which matters is that of all three from genuine science. Of course, such an attitude cannot be shared by a religious historian of philosophy. Surprisingly, perhaps, even atheist philosophers tend to treat religious beliefs with special respect. They take off their hats when entering churches, and they allow religion to be intellectually respectable when occult superstition is not. By piously labelling extraneous beliefs as religious, historians of philosophy side-step the awkward issue of demarcating metaphysics from superstition.

I shall, therefore, start by considering certain problems over the demarcation between philosophy and occultism which are subject to contamination by a religious dimension. I shall discuss three topics in particular: disembodied spirits embodied spirits and causality. First, that of disembodied spirits.

It is difficult enough to draw a line between religious and non-religious spirit beliefs in twentieth-century England. Presumably, angels belong to a religion, fairies not. But what of ghosts? And even among religious people, an active belief in angels might seem odder than a belief in the possibility of communicating with the souls of the departed. In the seventeenth-century, the categorisation of beliefs was very different. All philosophers believed in angels, if only on Biblical authority.

Conversely, on the same authority, any attempt to communicate with the dead constituted the dreadful sin of necromancy. It was in any case generally considered impossible for the spirits of the dead to return, or to communicate with us in any way. The single exception was the miracle of Christ’s return after the resurrection. The Biblical report of the success of the Pythoness of Endor in summoning the soul of Samuel for King Saul was frequently dismissed as a delusion. Similarly, ghosts were variously explained away as melancholic delusions, as evil demons taking on the shapes of the dead, or as detached “astral bodies” (the semi-material vehicles of the now departed immortal souls).

As for séances, the modern fashion is for summoning the spirits of the dead. In the seventeenth-century, mediums avoided such overt necromancy and communicated instead with angels, or with good fairies. The distinction between the two was far less significant than we might expect. The essential religious belief was that there were all sorts of spiritual beings in Heaven and on Earth. It hardly mattered if one added various ranks not explicitly mentioned in the Bible — the spirits and genii of Graeco-Roman mythology, the celestial hierarchies of Cabalism and of Neoplatonism, or the fairies and gnomes of folklore. Thus, Robert William Boyle approved the project of the Reverend Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle to provide empirical confirmation of Christian spiritualism by assembling reported sightings of fairies, elves, and fauns in the Highlands of Scotland.

If we now turn to theories of embodied spirits, we find it no easier to put a finger on what makes a belief superstitious rather than religious or philosophical. René Descartes’ account of the soul is an excellent example of the conflicting ways in which a single theory can be classified and evaluated. Most of his critics have accused him of superstition but on a variety of incompatible grounds. Gilbert Ryle’s catch-phrase “the ghost in the machine” catches the spirit all right. However, Gilbert Ryle himself was only interested in the logical mistake which led René Descartes to postulate mental events and entities underlying dispositional properties. He did not expand on the locus of the ghost in the Cartesian ontology.

Most twentieth-century dualists would approve of René Descartes’ insistence on the absolute immateriality of the soul, precisely because it raised dualism above the primitive superstition of the soul as a quasi-material ghost trapped within the spatial confines of the human body. If René Descartes was superstitious, it was because he was not wholly successful in escaping from the old modes of thought. In particular, he retained the traditional belief in a tenuous spirit mediating between mind and body. And though he insisted on its strict materiality, this did not distinguish him from the majority of occultists, who also treated spirits as consisting of a highly rarefied, and ghostly form of matter. As for his mechanical explanations of mental events, they owed as much to analogy and sheer invention as rival spiritualist accounts, such as those of the Paracelsians.

Materialists, on the other hand, commend René Descartes for his attempt, however half-baked, to explain mental functions in terms of the motions of small particles of matter obeying the same mechanical laws as gross bodies. For them, his superstitiousness consists in the pious retention of an occult, immaterial soul, which could have no intelligible function in explaining the behaviour of the whole person. Although René Descartes himself probably saw the unity of thought and extension in Man as a religious mystery, he is often accused of inconsistently treating the soul as if it were a little ghost sitting in the pineal gland, watching what was going on in the head, and magically moving the gland from time to time. Commentators like Kenny and Rée emphasise the naivety of this position by labelling it the “homunculus concept”.

Somewhere between the two extremes of dualist and materialist critics, Henry More (1614–1687) complained, not about his belief in a spatially extended ghost inhabiting the body, but precisely about the lack of it. For Henry More, René Descartes’ immaterial substance existing nowhere was the ultimate occult entity. He insisted that spirits must occupy space, and ridiculed René Descartes’ version of immaterialism as nullibism, or “nowhereism”.

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