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The Science of Esotericism and Occult Discourses

The Science of Esotericism and Occult Discourses
© Photograph by Danilo Costa

That the rise of scientific naturalism in the nineteenth-century profoundly influenced the direction in which esoteric and occult ideas and movements later evolved has been pointed out several times1. A subset of this line of research is the study of magic’s relation to modern science and society; how did magic “survive” the Enlightenment, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, secularisation, disenchantment and so on, and continues to have appeal in occult communities even in the twentieth-first-century2?

In a quite recent article, Wouter Hanegraaff propounds the idea that modern ritual magic, as a part of esotericism in general, presents a dominant tendency towards psychologisation when confronted with modern secular and scientific thought3. It should be noted that this tendency of psychologisation could take on several meanings. Broadly considered, it represents the increasing tendency to incorporate terminology and theories borrowed from the new psychological discourses so prevalent from the beginning of the twentieth-century and to use these in the interpretation of occult theories and practices. However, this terminological psychologisation can still take numerous directions, depending on the kind of psychological theory adopted, the intentions of the occultist in adopting it, and so on.

It is to be noted that psychology was, and still is today, far from being a unified discipline. In Wouter James Hanegraaff’s version of the psychologisation thesis of magic, however, it seems that a more specific type of psychologised interpretation is implied. According to this view, modern magicians feel a strain of “cognitive dissonance” when their magical practices are faced with the “rational and scientific ideology” of the modern world, which they consequently feel the need to deal with. As a result, a certain type of psychologisation of the techniques, ontology and efficacy of magic takes place, whereby magic, in the end, is thought to operate in a “separate-but-connected ‘magical plane,’” existing on a different level of reality, accessible with the cultivation and use of the imagination. The function and effect of this psychological interpretation is to insulate magical practice from rational critique, thereby legitimising it. Wouter James Hanegraaff writes that “[t]he dissipation of mystery in this world is compensated for by a separate magical world of the reified imagination, where the everyday rules of science and rationality do not apply.” The psychologisation of magic is seen as a way for magicians to suspend their disbelief by confining magic to a place outside the empirical realm of verification, evidence and rational criticism. This version can be said to propose a kind of psychological escapism: psychologisation is a way for the magician to hide his or her beliefs and practices from the threatening natural scientific tribunal of truth.

I do not dispute that this tendency exists, and perhaps especially prevalent in the particular sources examined by Wouter James Hanegraaff4. In my view, however, psychologisation in this escapist sense is only one possible way of negotiating magic with a modern scientific worldview, among several others. I furthermore suspect that the focus of this study, Aleister Crowley’s ‘Scientific Illuminism,’ represents a different strategy altogether5. Whereas the psychological escapist attempts to withdraw magic from a critical inquiry by confining its validity to a realm of merely subjective experience, Aleister Crowley is seen to embrace natural scientific inquiry and tirelessly pursue such critical assessment of magical techniques, practices and results, reclaiming the subjective experiences for intersubjective scrutiny6. As I will try to demonstrate as we go along, whenever Aleister Crowley psychologises it is not as a means to escape scientific inquiry, but rather as an instrument of his broader naturalistic approach.

It has become commonplace to see the Victorian interest in heterodox religious currents such as spiritualism, Theosophy and occultism in general as a response to the struggle between religion and natural science in the Victorian era. One could perhaps say that the dominant position conquered by naturalism in the nineteenth-century changed the habitat of the religious ecology. The religious uncertainty spurred by science that increasingly challenged fundamental beliefs prompted a reaction where the strategies for legitimising one’s religious views had changed.

In his study of strategies of legitimating esoteric positions in modernity, Olav Hammer observes three basic features: appeal to (constructed) tradition, appeal to science and appeal to experience. For the present purpose, the latter two are of primary importance. In spiritualism for instance, which took the Western world largely by surprise in the 1850s, after the Fox sisters had made contact with “the other side,” the appeal to experience became the main strategy to validate one’s belief in the afterlife. Anybody could attend a séance and judge from the “proof” offered by the mediumistic phenomena displayed there. Indeed, the idea was widespread among spiritualists that the “unholy alliance of atheism and materialism” was to be battled with what was perceived as the methods of science itself: demonstration by proof. Spiritualism saw itself as capable of providing this proof of the supernatural through the rock of experience, thus also providing a “scientific” basis to combat the crisis of faith that naturalistic science had brought about.

The appeal to science in a crusade against science is also clearly present in the two magna opera of Theosophy. The subtitle of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s first major work, ‘Isis Unveiled’ (1877), was “A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology,” and that of her later ‘Secret Doctrine’ (1888), “The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy.” These very titles signify the expressed motive of her occult writings to find a “middle ground” between science and religion, and her ultimate, great campaign to reconcile the two. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky seemed less interested in the methods provided by naturalistic science than with their results, however. Both books mentioned above are full of references to discoveries and concepts that had quite recently appeared and acquired value in the scientific literature, such as “evolution,” “energy,” “atom,” and so forth7. The appeal to science is still clearly present as a way of legitimising one’s religious claims.

1.
See for instance Wouter Jacobus Hanegraaff, ‘New Age Religion and Western Culture;’ idem, ‘The New Age Movement and the Esoteric Tradition’; Hammer, Claiming Knowledge.
2.
A particularly indispensable study from an anthropological perspective is Tanya Marie Luhrmann, ‘Persuasions of The Witch’s Craft.’ See also Wouter Hanegraaff, ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world.”.
3.
Wouter James Hanegraaff, ‘How magic survived,’ especially pp. 366, 368-71.
4.
Especially Francis Israel Regardie, whom himself practised as a psychiatrist influenced by the Reichian and Jungian schools.
5.
Perhaps surprisingly, academic studies of Aleister Crowley’s magick are scarce. The most notable studies are Pasi’s as of yet unpublished PhD dissertation, ‘La notion de magie dans le courant occultiste en Angleterre’ (1875-1947), and his ‘Lo Yoga in Aleister Crowley.’ Another recent work that includes a discussion of Aleister Crowley’s occult and magical ideas is Owen, ‘Place of Enchantment.’
6.
The title of this paper should be read as a reference also to Willard van Orman Quine’s famous article ‘Epistemology Naturalized,’ which argued that the philosophical discipline of epistemology has more to learn from the naturalistic scientific method than science has to learn from traditional epistemology. My thesis is that Crowley develops a parallel attitude towards the relationship between magic and science: magic has more to learn from science than vice versa. Thus magic should be naturalised.
7.
In Olav Hammer’s terms, this can be seen as the rhetorical strategy of “terminological scientism.” See Olav Hammer, ‘Claiming Knowledge,’ 226ff.



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