Occult Trajectories towards Science: the conclusion of a course

Last semester I taught an MA course on the troubled relationship between science and esotericism in the post-Enlightenment era. I blogged about some of the classes earlier, particularly on mesmerism (here and here), spiritualism, the interactions with the ideological superstructures of naturalism and positivism (here and here), Frederic Myers, William James and psychical research, and the encounter between Jung and Pauli. It’s a diverse subject, which can go in very different directions. To show a bit of the diversity, I will briefly present some of the papers that were submitted.

Throughout the course, we emphasised the many and varied ways in which scientific and esoteric discourse have interacted since the late 18th century. We find polemical encounters, strategic appropriations of science by esoteric spokespersons, scientific investigations of esoteric claims (whether sympathetic or dismissive), as well as real influence of esoteric ideas on men of science.

Émile Coué

The paper by Anouk van Deursen is a good illustration of the divided career or reception of a certain scientific, or in this case rather clinical, theory. Her paper, “Emile Coué between Theosophical and Psychological Circles: A Comparison of Reception”, looks at the French psychologist’s theories about hypnotism and positive auto-suggestion. The emergence of the Coué method is placed in the context of the development since Mesmer and Puységur, through the invention of hypnotism by Braid, into the late-nineteenth century psychological and clinical practices associated with Liébeault, Bernheim and Charcot.

This genealogy already invokes  the thesis associated with Henri Ellenberger, and later Adam Crabtree and Alan Gauld (cf. this post), that modern psychodynamic theories emerged out of esoteric practices connected with mesmerism, particularly in its reception through German romanticism, which is again traceable back to earlier discourses on possession, exorcism, and alterations of self in that context. But the focus of Anouk’s paper was rather on the specific reception of Coué’s method, after it had been enunciated, by psychological and theosophical circles in Amsterdam. It is an interesting questing, for more than one reason: in the Dutch context of the early 20th century, there were certain intriguing overlaps, particularly through the author and early psychologist Frederik van Eeden (1860-1932). Furthermore, the empirical investigation which was undertaken for this paper shows that the theosophists played a central role in publicising Coué’s method in the Netherlands. However, while theosophists would see the method as theosophical knowledge put into clinical practice, and applaud it, psychologists, notably A.W. van Renterghem (1845 1939), kept a certain distance, and particularly towards the more spectacular claims associated with the method. The Coué Instituut associated with Mia Kloek-Pirée took the method increasingly towards the field of “religious healing”, and also advocated it as a substitute for other treatments, also for physical ailments, rather than a supplement. This problematic is of course well-known today in the field of alternative and complimentary medicine (CAM).

Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid" - an educative humbug.

With that comment we have a natural bridge to Natalie Dollar’s paper, which dealt with one of the heroes of the modern skeptic’s movement: P. T. Barnum. The paper “Bah, Humbug: P.T.  Barnum and the curious education of the American public”  explores this famous showman’s role as an educator, through the clever use of “humbugs”. While Barnum was well known as a debunker of other people’s humbugs, notably the claims of spiritualists and swindlers, he also created hoaxes of his own which were put on show in the American Museum in New York, which he owned. Natalie shows in her paper how this strategy became a way to educate a people who now experienced more leisure time through wonder and self-reflection sparked off by entertainment. One case in point is the “Feejee Mermaid“, which was on display in the mid 19th century. The case of Barnum is a reminder of how skeptics and debunkers of fantastic and paranormal claims are not necessarily “closed minded”, as their opponents would have it, but rather get their kicks out of genuine wonder and a spirit of inquiry, in stead of dogmatic supernatural solutions to phenomena that at first seem surprising and unexplainable.

Finally, and going back to the cultural heritage of mesmerism, an example of the use of esoteric ideas in the creation of scientific theories was provided by Dominik Hasler’s paper. The prospective science in question here is sociology, and the relevant figure  is Gabriel Tarde, the long forgotten competitor of Durkheim who has enjoyed a renaissance in certain post-structuralist sociological milieus during the last few years. In

Gabriel Tarde

“The Society of Somnambulists: Hypnosis and the Contested Origins of the Social Sciences”, Dominik Hasler pays closer attention to a recurring metaphor in Tarde’s work, the one about society as somnambulistic. More than a mere metaphor, the paper explores how Tarde employed this image as part of an explanatory framework of the social life which based itself on empirical and experimental knowledge, stemming from the field of hypnosis. In fact, in fleshing out his theories on imitation and desire, Tarde comes up with a picture of agency which rests on somnambulism as being the essential social state of affairs. In a “magnetic”, “hypnotic” or “somnambulic” state, Tarde held that the disturbances of the physical world – through sight, sound, touch, smell – became bracketed, and the purely social emerged. Thus, studying the phenomena of suggestion in hypnosis was the ultimate way of studying the mechanisms behind imitation and action in the social world at large. In fact, Tarde imagined that we are all hypnotsised, all the time, by every one we meet – and we are all hypnotisers also. Any act is the result of such influences and suggestions, and our dispositions for actions in the social world follow a hierarchy of suggestions. This line of thinking naturally had repercussions for the popular field of crowd psychology; the last chapter of the paper explores the links between Tarde and the theories of Gustave Le Bon, and looks at some aspects of his reception more generally.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] up: Of a course Last semester I taught an MA course on the troubled relationship between science and esotericism in […]

  2. […] There is really a lot to check out from there this time. (Heterodoxology is represented with this post on some papers received for last semester’s class on esotericism and science). […]


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