More esotericism at the Religious Studies Project: reflections on discursive (and other) methodologies

“Esotericism” – strange shapes and sights.

Just a couple of days after the Religious Studies Project posted a podcast interview with Wouter Hanegraaff on the academic study of esotericism, there is a follow-up in the form of a short-length essay, debating the possibilities and challenges of esotericism research. Its author, Damon Lycourinos, a current PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh,  brings up a number of concerns – related to questions of European cultural identities (e.g. “reason” vs. “faith”), “the West”, definitional problems related to emic self-designations and typological constructs, etc.

The piece is worth a read as a spontaneous reaction to important debates in the field. However, I think Lycourinos moves a bit too hastily and conflates a number of quite different positions and assumptions that have existed about “esotericism” in the literature. For example, one must distinguish much more  clearly between  “typological” strategies of definition, whether emphasising “secrecy” in a social sense, or claims to “gnosis” in an epistemoloigcal and discursive sense, and the various “historical” definitions of “currents” and “traditions”, the Faivrean “form of thought”-model, the “rejected knowledge” models, and the essentially constructionist understanding one might draw from Hanegraaff’s later work on esotericism as a category constructed through centuries of theological and philosophical polemics and apologetics with an influence on Western “mnemohistory”. As long as it is not stated clearly which type of position and assumption one is responding to,  moving instead between a number of different ones, it is difficult to do much with the critical points that are raised.

Commenting in any detail on these problems would take way too long, so I will refrain from going there. Instead, let’s just say that I find Lycourinos’ suggestions for the future to be  more interesting – not necessarily because I fully agree, but because they address relevant current debates:

“The next step for the unfolding of a more inclusive approach to a multi-dimensional study of esotericism would be to represent it as a social practice with innovative methodological applications. This would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only esotericists, but all who participate in its articulation.”

The latter point can be stated in a less convoluted manner: it implies that “esotericism research” is not about seeking stable “definitions” or descriptions, of a typological or a historical character, but  about investigating everyone who talks about “esotericism” and thus create an esoteric field of discourse: whether they define it, contest it, enforce or challenge its boundaries. In practice, this means studying self-designations in the context of polemical discourses as well as academic practices to define, explain, and understand “it”.

Various approaches along these lines have been formulated in recent years by scholars such as Kocku von Stuckrad (who first started talking about “esoteric discourse”, and now advocates a thoroughly discursive approach to religion more broadly), Michael Bergunder (who talks about esotericism as an “empty signifier”), and Kennet Granholm (who is currently developing the notion of “esoteric currents as discursive complexes“).  It does, however, have problems and challenges of its own. The price of sticking strictly to a discursive focus, which must be clear about the signifiers it choses to examine, is that one might lose sight of the conceptual (as opposed to terminological) aspects, as well as non-/pre-discursive aspects (if one even believes such to exist at all) of material, biological, cognitive,  infrastructural, non-human, environmental, etc., natures.

This is not in itself a criticism against discursive approaches, but a reminder of their  limitations – we might want to do something else also. Take, for example, Bernd-Christian Otto’s brilliant  discursive study of “magic” and its related terms in Western history from antiquity to the present. Otto is admirably consistent in his methodology, and clearly states that he can say nothing whatsoever about the concept(s) of magic, but only about differences in labelling-practices across the span of a couple of millennia. In this perspective, sports journalists writing about “Magic Johnson” are just as important as the authors of the magical papyri.

What happens if we consistently (and exclusively) apply this methodology to “esotericism”? First of all we have to start in about the 1790s, when the word is first used (in German). From then on our sources are foremost a collective of certain historians, mythographers, and a few occultists (far from all) who sometimes used the term – among many other terms – to refer to selves and others. By the time we reach the 1990s, our colleagues and academic predecessors will form a significant portion of our source material, and the field will start appearing rather self-obsessed. Conversely, unless we also add a conceptual component we will not have much interest in such things as spiritualism, psychical research, parapsychology, (neo)paganism, or indeed much of the contemporary “alternative spirituality” landscape – except, perhaps, when such topics are included by scholars as “esotericism”, or they are put on shelves labeled “esotericism” in the bookshop. But it is these processes of attributing terminology that would form our field of study – not, for example, the conceptual relations that may or may not be underlying such practices.

The pros and cons of a discursive approach to “esotericism”, along the lines implied by Lycourinos, is in other words a methodological and theoretical debate that is still very much alive. It includes a (cluster of) position(s) that may either challenge or complement the approach that is emerging from Hanegraaff’s more recent work, and also help bury older approaches in terms of “currents” and “traditions”. But there is much work still to be done.

References mentioned:

Bergunder, Michael, ‘What is Esotericism? Cultural Studies Approach and the Problems of Definition in Religious Studies’. In Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22, 2010

Granholm, Kennet. “Esoteric Currents as Discursive Complexes.” Religion – Special issue on discourse analysis in the study of religion. Forthcoming (2013).

Otto, Bernd-Christian. Magie: Rezeptions- und diskursgeschichtliche Analysen von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Inc., 2011

von, Stuckrad, Kocku. “Discursive Study of Religion: Approaches, Definitions, Implications.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. Forthcoming, 25.1 (2013).

von Stuckrad, Kocku. Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Esoteric Discourse and Western Identities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

(A few important publications are in the pipeline, and will no doubt be discussed here in due time. Be especially on the look-out for a thematic issue of Religion that will likely appear early next year – featuring a number of review articles discussing Hanegraaff’s Esotericism and the Academy, as well as an important review article on the many introductions that have been written to the field.)
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This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] then Egil Asprem responds. […]

  2. […] later, with the publication of his Locations of Knowledge (2010), where the implications of the discursive approach to esotericism that he suggests, embedded in a broader Europäische Religionsgeschichte, are taken to their full […]

  3. […] too contemporary, but it adds a discussion that should be quite interesting to anyone involved in the definition debate and the broader history of the academic study of esotericism. Francesco Baroni’s paper […]


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