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SomeRemarksontheStudyofWesternEsotericism

SomeRemarkson
theStudyofWesternEsotericism
WouterJ.Hanegraaff
UniversityofUtrecht
Theacademicstudyofwesternesotericismisone
of those new developments in the study of
religionswhichmaystrikethecasualobserveras
havingappearedalmostovernight,duetothefact
thatitsgradualdevelopmentoverthepastdecades
is easily overlooked.[1] Like any newcomer, the
discipline tends to evoke curiosity as well as
suspicion and such reactions are all the more
natural because the very term "esotericism" (like
the related term "occultism") is a particularly
ThefirstillustrationfromSpiegelder
loaded one. In this article, I intend to provide a Philosophen,afamousseriesofalchemical
images.Forthefullseries,clickhere.
briefintroductiontothecurrentstateof"thestudy
of esotericism" and to give special attention to
whyitisimportantforstudentsinthisfieldeven
those
whose
approach
is
strictly
historical/descriptive to consider issues of a
methodologicalandtheoreticalnature.
What
is
understood
Esotericism"?

by

"Western

The substantive "esotericism", like the adjective


"esoteric", carries different meanings in different
contexts, and this is a major cause of confusion
(not only among outsiders, but even among
specialists)aboutthenatureofthediscipline.No
less than five meanings may be distinguished in
currentusage,onlythelastofwhichreferstothe
subject of the present article.[2]First:
"Esotericism" is commonly used by booksellers
and publishers as a synonym of "the occult" in
this case, it functions as a generic term for a
diffuse collection of writings concerned with the
paranormal, the occult sciences, various exotic
wisdom traditions, contemporary New Age
spiritualities,andsoon.[3]Second:Theadjective
"esoteric" (perhaps somewhat more frequently
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than the substantive) may be understood as


referringtosecretteachingsandthe"disciplineof
thearcane"withitsdistinction

4
between initiates and noninitiates.[4]Third:
Within the discourse of the "perennialist" or
"Traditionalist" school of religious studies, the
esotericisametaphysicalconceptreferringtothe
"transcendent unity" of exoteric religions.[5]
Fourth: In "religionist" approaches to religious
studies, esotericism tends to be used as a near
synonymofgnosis in the universalizing sense of
the word (i.e., covering various religious
phenomena which emphasize experiential rather
than rational and dogmatic modes of knowing,
and which favour mythical/symbolic over
discursive forms of expression).[6] Fifth: From a
strictlyhistoricalperspective,westernesotericism
is used as a container concept encompassing a
complex of interrelated currents and traditions
from the early modern period up to the present
day,thehistoricaloriginandfoundationofwhich
lies in the syncretistic phenomenon of
Renaissance "hermeticism" (in the broad and
inclusive sense of the word).[7] Western
esotericismthusunderstoodincludesthesocalled
"occult philosophy" of the Renaissance and its
laterdevelopmentsAlchemy,Paracelsianismand
Rosicrucianism Christian and postChristian
Kabbalah Theosophical and Illuminist currents
and various occultist and related developments
duringthe19thand20thcentury.[8]

BoundaryDisputes
Theacademicstudyofwesternesotericismweare
discussing here is based upon the fifth and final
meaning: it investigates a series of specific
interrelated historical currents in modern and
contemporarywesternculture,whichhavelargely
been neglected or disregarded by earlier
generations. However, the relationship of the
discipline to approaches linked to the four other
meaningsofesotericismisacomplicatedone.
1.Althoughthepopularandcommercialmeaning
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oftheterm"esotericism"isclearlynotsuitedfor
scholarlyends,ithasinfactalargeimpactupon
theinitialperceptionofthestudyofwestern

5
esotericism among academics no less than
laymen: again and again, scholars of western
esotericismareforcedtoexplainthatthestudyof
popularNewAgespiritualitiesconcernsnomore
than a small subarea of their domain[9],andthat
those who wish to study subjects such as the
paranormal or altered states of consciousness
should turn to other disciplines (such as
parapsychologyortranspersonalpsychology).[10]
2.Asfortheassociationof"esoteric"withsecrecy
andconcealment,itisimportanttopointoutthat,
although there is obviously a significant area of
overlapbetweenthestudyofsecrecyinreligious
traditionsandthestudyofwesternesotericismin
the historical sense of the word, these two
domains of study are by no means equivalent.
Secret traditions and initiations are not restricted
to western esoteric traditions and, reversely,
manyaspectsofthelatterhaveneverbeensecret Thisisthesecondimageintheseries
andarenotlinkedtoinitiatoryorganizations.The SpiegelderPhilosophen.Forthefullseries,
clickhere.
relationbetweenthetwodomainsisinfactaquite
subtle one, partly because the meanings and
connotationsof"secrecy"withinwesternesoteric
traditions are much more diverse than is usually
realized.[11]
3. The relationship between the study of western
esotericismandthetypeof"comparativereligion"
known as perennialism or traditionalism is
problematicforpracticalandorganizationalrather
than scholarly reasons. The frequent assumption
thatthetwoshareacommondomainofinterestis
mistaken: there is hardly any demonstrable
connection between the perennialist concept of
esotericism as the metaphysical point of unity
where exoteric religions are believe to converge,
and the historical concept of western esotericism
as a specific series of currents in modern and
contemporarywesternculture.[12]Perennialismis
a mode of interpreting not esotericism, but the
phenomenon of religion as such and whereas
perennialist literature shows a marked preference
for such religions as Hinduism and Islam,
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historical currents typical of western esotericism


playamarginalroleinit.[13]

6
Nevertheless, due largely to the existing lack of
clarity about the meaning(s) of the term
esotericism, scholars of western esoteric currents
frequently find themselves scheduled in seminar
programs or publication series together with
perennialists. Experience shows that such
artificialmarriagesdonotlast.
4. The relation of the historical study of western
esotericism to "religionist" approaches of
esotericism is probably the most problematic of
all,andneedstobediscussedatsomewhatgreater
length. It roughly reflects a division within the
study of religion generally, between those for
whom the study of religion means the empirico
historical and comparative study of specific
historicalreligions,andthoseforwhomitmeans
the study of a domain frequently referred to as
"thesacred."[14] Scholars belonging to the latter
category tend to be motivated by a latent or
explicitdissatisfactionwithcontemporarywestern
culture, and particularly with patterns of
desacralization and "the disenchantment of the
world."[15] To them, studying the sacred means
calling attention to a vital and important
dimension of reality which they feel is being
threatened
by
onesided
rationalization,
secularization, and the mechanization of the
world. Now, certain scholars of this persuasion
present the sacred in western culture as closely
associated,ifnotsynonymous,withits"esoteric"
dimensionandaswesaw,theyperceivethelatter
as characterized by experiential rather than
rational and dogmatic modes of knowing, and
mythical/symbolicratherthandiscursivemodesof
expression.[16]] By calling attention to
"esotericism"inthissenseofthewordtheyhope
to contribute to a "new Renaissance" under the
signofa"reenchantmentoftheworld".
Of course, scholars studying western esoteric
traditionsinthehistoricalsenseofthewordmay
personally share such hopes for cultural renewal
and a "rebirth of the sacred", and may hope that
theirworkwillcontributesomethingtoit[17]but
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thedifferenceisthatwhetherornottheydosois
irrelevanttotheirunderstandingofwhat

7
is meant by "western esotericism". When they
refer to their domain of study by the term
"esotericism" they do not mean some kind of
universal and transhistorical sui generis
phenomenon (analogous to "the sacred" in
religious studies), but a certain number of
historical currents and traditions in western
culture that are available for study regardless of
how they are evaluated. As a domain of inquiry,
westernesotericisminthishistoricalsenseofthe
wordlieswideopentoscholarsofallpersuasions:
they may or may not happen to believe in the
existence of "the sacred", they may personally
regardspecificesotericbeliefsasprofoundtruths
orasinterestingsuperstitions,ortheymaysimply
seenoreasontoexpressopinionsproorcontra.
The primary problem in the relation between the
historical study of western esotericism and
"religionist" approaches to esotericism therefore
has to do with different ways of defining and
demarcatingthefieldofinquiry,ratherthanwith
the methodologies used in studying that field.
Thispointisfrequentlymisunderstoodandneeds
to be strongly emphasized. Understanding
"western esotericism" in a historical sense (i.e.,
according to the fifth meaning discussed above)
imposes clear limits upon the range of historical
phenomenawhichareunderstoodasfallingwithin
thepurviewofthefieldbutitdoesnotimplyby
any means that only one particular method is
consideredvalidinstudyingthem.Thereisample
roomforvariousapproachestocomplementeach
other as well as compete with each other in a
constructive manner, within a general context of
methodologicalpluralism.[18]

Towards Methodological
InterdisciplinaryResearch

Pluralism

and

I would suggest that two dimensions may be


distinguished in the current emergence of the
academic study of western esotericism: the first
one may be called "organizational", the second
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one"constructive".
1. Research into western esoteric currents has
beengoingonfora

8
long time but scholars in the field have either
been working in relative isolation, or have done
theirresearchinthecontextofanotherdiscipline
than"westernesotericism".Forexample,onemay
find historians of medicine specializing in
Paracelsian traditions, art historians specializing
in the occultist backgrounds of modern painting,
and so on. Such scholars are de facto working,
among other things, in the field of western
esotericism but in practice most of their
professional contacts (including participation in
conferencesorpublicationseries)arelikelytobe
withtheircolleaguesinthehistoryofmedicineor
art history rather than with fellow specialists of
western
esoteric
currents.
The
first,
"organizational" aspect of the emerging study of
western esotericism consists in creating
institutional frameworks for bringing such
scholarsintocontactwitheachotherandstimulate
constructive exchange between them this results
in "making visible" the remarkably large amount
of research that is already being done in a wide
variety of academic settings, and making the
results more readily available across disciplines.
Organizational frameworks may take the form of
interdisciplinary
conferences,
professional
academic journals, monograph series, and so on.
Variousinitiativesinthesedirectionsarecurrently
being developed, based upon the creation of a
internationalnetworkofscholarscombinedwitha
computerized database which keeps track of new
research.[19]
One major problem facing those who take such
initiatives is the seemingly trivial one of
terminology. I already referred to the fact that
terms such as "esotericism" and "occultism" are
particularly loaded ones, which tend to arouse
suspicion and misunderstanding. Indeed,
experience shows that it is practically impossible
tousetheterm"esotericism"(evenifqualifiedby
the adjective "western") in standard academic
discussions, if one is not prepared to take the
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trouble of explaining it over and over again at


eachandeveryoccasion.Giventhisnecessity,one
might prefer a more neutral term, but experience
shows that such a one is extremely difficult to
find.If,bywantofabetteralternative,onesticks
to"western

9
esotericism" as the label for new institutional
frameworks, one may find that some excellent
specialists hesitate or flatly refuse to participate,
simply because being associated with
"esotericism" may cause them to lose academic
credibility. I see only two ways of dealing with
this unfortunate problem. One might choose to
avoid the term "esotericism", and opt for neutral
and nonoffensive but inevitably somewhat
clumsy descriptions (for example, "hermetic and
related currents in modern and contemporary
westernhistory").Or,alternatively,onemayhope
thatcontinuedusageoftheword"esotericism"in
seriousacademicdiscussionwilleventuallycause
it to shed its questionable associations and
become broadly accepted as a neutral term.
Obviously,thisarticleisbaseduponachoicefor
thesecondoption.
2.Whereasthe"organizational"dimensionmerely
makes visible the amount of research that is
already being done in the field of western
esotericism,the"constructive"dimensionaimsat
developingthatfieldintoagenuinediscipline.An
academic discipline is characterized by the
existence of general questions and problem areas
of a comparative or systematic nature, which are
proper to the field in question by the very fact
that such questions and problem areas are of a
more general nature, they may prove to be
relevanttospecialistsworkinginwidelydifferent
subdomains of the field and can therefore serve
to bring them together for collaborating in
commonresearchprojects.Thismakesitpossible
forthestudyofwesternesotericismnottorestrict
itself to empiricohistorical description of
narrowlycircumscribed
currents
and
personalities, but also to develop interpretive
theories pertaining to various dimensions of
westernesotericismingeneralor,atleast,large
and significant subareas of it. Of course, many
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scholars working on aspects of western


esotericism from the perspective of traditional
academic discipines are already using a wide
variety of existing theoretical tools and
interpretive frameworks, sometimes with highly
interesting results.[20] In addition to these, it is
possibletodevelopa

10
theoretical dimension proper to the field of
westernesotericismassuch.[21]
Let me emphasize that the development of such
projects is not by any means incompatible with
precise historical and philological study of
primarysources,basedstrictlyupontheadfontes
principle. Not a few specialists working on
specifichistoricalcurrentsorpersonalitiesfeelno
needatallforinterpretivetheories[22],butprefer
to"letthesourcesspeakforthemselves"asmuch
as possible. In my opinion, such predominantly
descriptive historical research based upon solid
text editions is and remains the indispensable
foundation of any serious study of religious
traditions[23], including western esoteric ones,
and no research of a comparative or systematic
naturewouldbeconceivablewithoutit.Mypoint
here is merely that in order for the study of
western esotericism to develop into a genuine
academicdiscipline,thistypeofresearchmustnot ThisisthethirdimageintheseriesSpiegel
derPhilosophen.Forthefullseriesof
be the only one questions of a comparative and
alchemicalillustrations,clickhere.
systematic nature deserve serious attention (at
least by part of the scholars) in addition to the
basic groundwork of historical and philological
research.
Such a combination of historical and systematic
typesofresearchnotonlystimulatescollaboration
between scholars whose research is focused on
different periods and subdomains of the field it
alsoopensthewaytomutuallyfruitfulexchange
with entirely different disciplines in the
humanities and the social sciences. The writings
of Frances A. Yates are an excellent example of
this possibility: although they were intended as
contributions to Renaissance historiography and
are not overtly theoretical, their phenomenal
success and influence is due largely to the fact
that they broached general issues which were
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recognized as highly relevant to problems which


occupied scholars in other disciplines.[24] This
question of relevance is important, not least with
respect to the tension, just alluded to, between
historical and systematic approaches. Everybody
knows examples of excellent historical research
which remains devoid of interest to anybody
outside a very small and narrow circle of
specialistsandsotoo,thereisthenolessfamiliar

11
phenomenonofgrandspectaculartheorieswhich,
atcloserexamination,appeartolackanybasisin
historical fact.[25] The former is a case of high
quality at the expense of relevance the latter a
case of (seeming) "relevance" at the expense of
quality. Undoubtedly the former type is to be
muchpreferredoverthelatter,foritdoesproduce
real and lasting contributions to scholarly
knowledge which may be picked up and put to
further use by others the latter, in contrast,
merely produces errors and confusion.
Nevertheless, the ideal should obviously be a
combination of what is best in both: research of
the highest possible quality, which is not only
based upon solid and precise historical research
butalsospeakstoissuesofmoregeneralinterest
inawaysuchastomakeitsrelevanceevidentto
thereader.
Conclusion

Thisisthefourthimageintheseries
SpiegelderPhilosophen.Forthefull
seriesofalchemicalillustrations,click
here.

The realization that there may in fact be a


relevancetothestudyofwesternesotericismhas
recentlybeengaininggroundinacademiccircles.
The very idea of studying esotericism seriously
and from a neutral perspective would have
soundedbizarreandpotentiallydangeroustomost
academics no more than a few decades ago,[26]]
andsuchreactionsarestillnotuncommontoday.
Ithasbecomemoreandmoreapparent,however,
thatthetraditionalneglectofwesternesotericism
asadomainofhistoricalinquiryhasledtoserious
gapsinourknowledge,withpredictablynegative
effectsupontheunderstandingofourowncultural
heritage. The same point may obviously be
formulated in a positive manner as well: it has
become clear that serious research into western
esoteric currents may often throw a fresh new
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lightonoldquestions,andmayoccasionallyturn
out to be the "missing link" which makes a
solutionpossibleatlast.[27]
That the present academic climate is more
friendly to the study of western esotericism than
everbeforemaybeexplainedbyacombinationof
cultural factors. One of these is the continuing
(although diminishing) influence of the 1960s
counterculture upon the development of
mainstreamacademiclife:aninfluence,

12
however, which I feel is very much a mixed
blessing for the future development of the
discipline.[28]Abroadly"postmodern"Zeitgeist,
instinctively critical of the "grand narratives" of
modernity and therefore sympathetic towards the
recovery of "suppressed alterities" is most
certainly another.[29] But although the study of
western esotericism is now indeed in the process
of coming into its own, the discipline still has a
long way to go. As I have argued elsewhere, its
emancipation will be accomplished when the
studyofwesternesotericismnolongerrepresents
something resembling an academic "counter
'Counterculture'culture" but will have been
assimilated as a normal part of the academic
mainstream.[30] The necessary conditions for
such a development are now in existence but to
usetheopportunitiestotheirfullestpotentialisa
task awaiting contemporary as well as future
generationsofresearchers.

This article will be published in Theosophical History in


spring,1999.

Notes
1Onthehistoryofthediscipline:AntoineFaivre

& KarenClaire Voss, "Western Esotericism and


theScienceofReligions,"Numen 42 (1995), 48
77 Wouter J. Hanegraaff, "Introduction: The
Birth of a Discipline," in: Antoine Faivre &
Wouter J. Hanegraaff, eds., Western Esotericism
and the Science of Religion: Selected Papers
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presented at the 17th Congress of the


International Association for the History of
Religions, Mexico City 1995 (Gnostica: Texts &
Interpretations2),(Peeters:Louvain,1998).
2Cf.AntoineFaivre,"QuestionsofTerminology

proper to the Study of Esoteric Currents in


Modern and Contemporary Europe," in Faivre &
Hanegraaff,WesternEsotericismandtheScience
of Religion. Whereas Faivre distinguishes four
meanings,Iproposetosplituphisthirdone.
3

Faivre, "Questions of Terminology," 1. Cf.


Christoph Bochinger, "New Age" und moderne
Religion: Religionswissenschaftliche Analysen,
(Gtersloh: 1994), ch. 8.1 and Wouter J.
Hanegraaff,

13
New Age Religion and Western Culture:
Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought,
(Leiden:1996/Albany:1998),385388.
4 Antoine Faivre, "The Notions of Concealment

and Secrecy in Modern Esoteric Currents since


the Renaissance (A Methodological Approach),"
paper read at the conference Rending the Veil:
ConcealmentandSecrecyinReligions,NewYork
University,April,1997seeAntoineFaivre,''The
Notions of Concealment and Secrecy in Modern
Esoteric Currents since the Renaissance (A
Methodological Approach)," in: Elliott R.
Wolfson (ed.), Rending the Veil: Concealment
and Secrecy in the History of Religions, Seven
Bridges Press: New York & London 1999, pp.
155176.
5

See for example Frithjof Schuon, The


Transcendent Unity of Religions, revised edition
(Wheaton/Madras/London: 1984) and William
W. Quinn, The Only Tradition, (Albany: 1997).
Cf. the discussion in Wouter J. Hanegraaff,
"Empirical Method in the Study of Esotericism,"
Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 7:2
(1995), 110 and id., "On the Construction of
'Esoteric Traditions'" in: Faivre & Hanegraaff,
WesternEsotericismandtheScienceofReligions,
2628.
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6 See the examples of Gilles Quispel and Pierre

A. Riffard, discussed in Hanegraaff, "On the


Construction,"pars.3.1.1.and3.1.2.IntheUnited
States, this fourth type is linked in particular to
approachesinfluencedbyMirceaEliadeandCarl
GustavJung.
7 The best introduction and overview of western

esotericism in this sense of the word is Antoine


Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, (Albany:
1994). As an innovative syncretism of various
older traditions, the origins of Renaissance
"hermeticism"reachbacktoantiquity.Seeforthe
continuities between ancient, medieval and
modern traditions: Antoine Faivre, "Ancient and
Medieval Sources of Modern Esoteric
Movements," in: Antoine Faivre & Jacob
Needleman (eds.), Modern Esoteric Spirituality,
(New York: 1992) and the collective volume by
Roelof van den Broek & Wouter J. Hanegraaff
(eds.),GnosisandHermeticismfromAntiquityto
ModernTimes,(Albany:1998).
8Itwillbenotedthatwesternesotericisminthis

senseremainslimitedessentiallytothecontextof
Christian culture (but extending to its post
Christian development since the Enlightenment).
ElsewhereIhavesuggestedthattheconceptmay
bebroadenedsoastoinclude

14
parallelphenomenainJewishandIslamicculture,
so that "western esotericism" might be perceived
as a broad domain of study common to the
Religions of the Book (Hanegraaff, 'Empirical
Method', 121124). Such an extended usage
would constitute a further, sixth meaning of
"esotericism".
9Seemyobservationsonthispoint,inWouterJ.

Hanegraaff, "The New Age Movement and the


Esoteric Tradition," in: Van den Broek &
Hanegraaff,GnosisandHermeticism,359361.
10

Obviously I do not intend to suggest that


scholarsofwesternesotericismcannot,incertain
cases at least, make use of the results of such
disciplines in interpreting esoteric currents. See
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forexampletheworkofDanMerkur,Gnosis:An
Esoteric Traditions of Mystical Visions and
Unions,(Albany:1993).
11Foradiscussionofthesevariousmeanings,see

Faivre, "The Notions of Concealment and


Secrecy."
12

Obviously I do not mean to deny that the


"concordance"ofdifferenttraditions(intheform
ofdiscoursesonaphilosophiaperennisorprisca
theologia) has been a major concern in many
historical forms of western esotericism, nor that
someofthelatterhavehadaninfluenceoncertain
important perennialist authors. These points of
contactbetweenthetwomeaningsofesotericism
would constitute a highly interesting subject of
investigation.Mypointismerelythatperennialist
authors study (what they consider to be)
metaphysical Truth, whereas students of western
esotericism study a certain number of historical
currents(regardlessofwhethertheirteachingsare
consideredtrueorfalse).
13

Ren Gunon considered his beliefs to be


embodied most clearly in Hinduism, and
converted to Islam. He showed little interest in
hermetic traditions, and positive mention of such
a central westernesoteric currents as Christian
theosophy is limited to only a few lines in his
whole voluminous oeuvre (Antoine Faivre, "Le
courant thosophique (fin XVIXXe sicles):
Essai de priodisation," in: Accs de l'sotrisme
occidentalII,Paris1996,9394).Similarly,

15
Frithjof Schuon almost completely neglects
western esoteric currents in the historical sense
(cf. S.H. Nasr, ed,, The Essential Writings of
FrithjofSchuon,(Shaftesbury&Rockport:1986),
1920,233261).
14HereandinwhatfollowsIamneverreferring

to the sacred in the Durkheimian sense of the


word(onthedifference,seeW.E.Paden,"Before
'The Sacred' became Theological: Rereading the
Durkheimian Legacy: Method & Theory in the
StudyofReligion3:1(1991)cf.thediscussionsof
Durkheim and Eliade in Hanegraaff, "Defining
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Religion").
15

On this point, see Wouter J. Hanegraaff,


"DefiningReligioninSpiteofHistory,"in:JanG.
Platvoet & Arie L. Molendijk (eds.), The
Definition of Religion: Concepts, Contexts &
Conflicts,Royal(Leiden:Brill,1998).
16

An excellent example is the French scholar


Pierre A. Riffard. See esp. his L'sotrisme,
(Paris:1990).
17

For example, no less than three thoroughly


historicalarticlesinFaivre&Hanegraaff,Western
Esotericism and the Science of Religion
significantly end with expressing hopes for
cultural renewal: Arthur Versluis, "Alchemy and
Christian Theosophic Literature," 141144 Jane
WilliamsHogan, "The Place of Emanuel
Swedenborg in Modern Western Esotericism,"
250 Garry W. Trompf, "Macrohistory in
Blavatsky,SteinerandGunon,"294.
18ContraKarenClaireVoss,"TheUniversityas

a
Space
of
Possibility,"
Rencontres
transdisciplinaires 12 (1998), 100101. This
article is a particularly clear example of the
misunderstanding referred to here. Defending the
merits of an empiricohistorical methodology
against "religionist" methodologies (see my
"Empirical Method" and "On the Construction")
must not be confused with dogmatic attempts to
imposesuchamethodologyastheonlyscholarly
validone.
19

For further information on this


network/database project, contact Wouter
Hanegraaff (address: Dept. of the Study of
Religions, Faculty of Theology, P.O.Box 80105,
3508
TC
Utrecht
email:
whanegraaff@theo.uu.nl).Asforconferences,see
especiallythe

16
innovative section on western esotericism
organized in the context of the fiveyearly
congressesoftheInternationalAssociationforthe
HistoryofReligions(IAHR)thefirsteditionwas
organized at the 17th IAHR congress (Mexico
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City 1995 see the proceedings: Faivre &


Hanegraaff,WesternEsotericismandtheScience
of Religion) and will be continued at the 18th
congress (Durban, South Africa, 2000). A new
monograph series called Gnostica, concentrating
on text editions, has been started by Garry W.
Trompf, the late John Cooper, and Wouter J.
Hanegraaff(publ.:Louvain:Peeters).Atrilingual
journal ARIES has circulated on a limited scale
since 1985 preparations for a new formula and
format, to be published by a major academic
publisher,arenowinanadvancedstage.
20 Some recent examples: contemporary literary

theory applied to the study of kabbala (Andreas


Kilcher, Die Sprachtheorie der Kabbala als
sthetisches Paradigma: Die Konstruktion einer
sthetischen Kabbala seit der frhen Neuzeit,
(Stuttgart & Weimar: 1998)) Michel Foucault's
archologie du savoir applied to Renaissance
magic (Gary Tomlinson, Music in Renaissance
Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others,
(Chicago & London: 1993)) psychoanalysis and
alteredstatesofconsciousnessresearchappliedto
varioustraditionsofwesternesotericism(Merkur,
Gnosis, op.cit.) anthropological theories of
"magic" applied to ritual magic in contemporary
occultism (T.M. Luhrmann, Persuasions of the
Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary
England,(CambridgeMass.:1989)).
21 Such projects should be sensitive to the ever

presentdangerofuniversalizingattheexpenseof
historical uniqueness. Any attempt to make
statements about esotericism "as such" is indeed
vulnerabletothesametypeofcriticismwhichis
very legitimately addressed by historians at
grand theories of religion "as such" (Antoine
Faivre, L'sotrisme, Paris 1992, 4 cf.
Hanegraaff, "Defining Religion," Introduction).
Someparticularlyrelevantexamplesofhownon
essentialist theoretical approaches may affect the
interpretationofhistoricalmaterialsmaybefound
inthemodernstudyofJewish

17
"mysticism",adisciplinefromwhichthestudyof
westernesotericismhasmuchtolearn.SeeMoshe
Idel's plea for what he refers to as a
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"phenomenological"approachasanalternativeto
Gershom Scholem's "philologicalhistorical" one
(Kabbalah: New Perspectives, (New Haven &
London: 1988), esp. ch. 2), and Joseph Dan's
"contingental"approach('InQuestofaHistorical
Definition of Mysticism: The Contingental
Approach', Studies in Spirituality 3 (1993), 58
90)andcf.mydiscussionofScholemandDanin
"On the Construction," par. 3.3.2. Antoine
Faivre's muchquoted definition of western
esotericism in terms of four intrinsic and two
extrinsic characteristics (Access, 1014) has far
reaching implications for the conception of the
discipline I have myself used it, in slightly
modifiedform,fordevelopingageneralandnon
essentialist theory pertaining to the specific
problem of the secularization of western
esotericism (New Age Religion, Part III). These
areonlyafewexamples.
22Ontheinevitabletension(but,inmyopinion,a

creative one) between the systematic and the


historicaldimensionofthestudyofreligions,see
my observation in "Defining Religion,"
Introduction.
23 In the case of contemporary currents this may

obviously be combined with sociological and


anthropological research techniques (participant
researchetc.).
24

The Wirkungsgeschichte of Yates' oeuvre


would be an interesting research topic. Most
obviousisitsrelevancetotheinterpretationofthe
scientific revolution (for the debate on the
controversial "Yates thesis", see H. Floris
Cohen,The
Scientific
Revolution:
A
Historiographical Inquiry, (Chicago & London:
1994),169183)butithasalsoservedasan"eye
opener"tospecialistsinsuchdivergentdisciplines
as the study of Romanticism (M.H. Abrams,
Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and
RevolutioninRomanticLiterature,(NewYork&
London:1971),154163)andtheanthropologyof
religion and magic (Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah,
Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of
Rationality, (Cambridge UP: 1990), 2429). The
studyofwesternesotericismwillalwaysbe

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18
indebted to Yates, even if her work is now
criticizedonmanypoints.
25 The former type refers to a phenomenon so

wellknownastoneednofurtherillustrationone
characteristicexampleofthelattertypewouldbe
Eric Voegelin's theory of "modern gnosticism"
(cf. Hanegraaff, "On the Construction," par.
3.2.1.).
26

See the pertinent remarks made as early as


1976byPaulOskarKristeller,whoadmitsthatin
1953 he had still felt somewhat embarrassed at
havingtoreporttwocasesofexorcismdescribed
by Marsilio Ficino: '... grce l'oeuvre de
Thorndike, de Miss Yates et d'autres, nous ne
sommes plus pouvants quand nousrencontrons
desidesscientifiquesbizarresoudesconceptions
astrologiques, alchimiques ou magiques chez les
penseurs des sicles passs. Si nous dcouvrons
desidesdecegenredansl'oeuvredeFicin,nous
ne lui en faisons pas le reproche, mais nous le
plaons simplement dans une vaste tradition
intellectuelle qui avait t nglige et vite trop
longtempsparleshistoriens,etquiestreprsente
parunelittraturetendueetdifficilequiaencore
besoin ... d'un grand effort d'tude et
d'exploration' ('L'tat prsent des tudes sur
Marsile Ficin', in: Platon et Aristote la
Renaissance,(Paris:1976),63).
27OnthischangewithrespecttotheRenaissance,

seeKristellerasquotedinnote26cf.alsoBrian
Copenhaver, "Hermes Trismegistus, Proclus, and
the Question of a Philosophy of Magic in the
Renaissancem," in: Ingrid Merkel & Allen G.
Debus, eds., Hermeticism and the Renaissance:
Intellectual History and the Occult in Early
Modern Europe, (Washington: 1988), 79.
Although the "Yates thesis" (cf. note 24) is no
longer accepted in its original strong form,
Renaissance magic is now generally taken
seriously as an important dimension in the
development of the scientific revolution. To give
an example from another historical period, see
how the factor of western esotericism, and its
"hermetic" component in particular, affects the
interpretationofRomanticism(foranoverviewof
thedevelopmentinAngloSaxonresearch,seemy
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"Romanticism and the Esoteric Connection," in


Van den Broek & Hanegraaff, Gnosis and
Hermeticism).

19

28

Cf. my observations with respect to the


popularity of Frances Yates's oeuvre, beginning
with her book on Giordano Bruno published in
1964 (Hanegraaff,"Introduction,"ixxv),andthe
needforthestudyofwesternesotericismtomove
beyondthe"Yatesparadigm."
29 Cf. my review of Gary Tomlinson, Music in

Renaissance Magic, forthcoming in ARIES 22


(1999).
30Hanegraaff,"Introduction,"xv.

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