Comparison and the Study of Esotericism

Gordan Djurdjevic, India and the Occult (Palgrave, 2014)

Gordan Djurdjevic, India and the Occult (Palgrave, 2014)

A few weeks ago, Correspondences 2.1 appeared, featuring my article  “Beyond the West: Towards a New Comparativism in the Study of Esotericism”. I focus on the role of comparative methods in the field of esotericism, a subject that has been fraught with controversy due to excessive misuses of such methods in the past. The core of my argument is that we need to lift the more general ban on comparativism that has largely been in effect, and start developing new and responsible ways of opening up the field to both cross-cultural and other sorts of comparative research. I analyse the scholarly background, the current situation, and offer concrete suggestions – including a typology of different sorts of comparative research that might be undertaken, and for what reasons.

The reason for writing this post is not just to pique your interest in this article, however, but rather to point out that there is a broader discussion mounting at the moment. In religious studies generally, the debate is opened up again now with Jeffrey Kripal’s recent text  book, Comparing Religions (Wiley, 2013), and in my article I cite a growing literature in esotericism studies that move in this direction. It was however nice to receive another addition in the mail last week, Gordan Djurdjevic’s India and the Occult: The Influence of South Asian Spirituality on Modern Western Occultism (Palgrave, 2014). Leafing through it this afternoon inspired this post, because I realize that Djurdjevic makes a sort of contribution that should have been included in my discussion had it been available half a year ago. So here are some quick thoughts, relating our comparativist projects.

Gordan’s book is not only about “influences”, as the title suggests, but equally about comparison. This point is made clear in the introduction and chapter one especially. In fact, chapter one of this book shares its origins with my own article: they were both articulated first as conference papers in a panel on “Western esotericism and its boundaries” at the IAHR conference in Toronto in 2010.

The core argument that Djurdjevic makes is similar to my own: the study of esotericism has much to gain by opening  up to a broader comparative field in the study of religion and culture. Where we differ, albeit in a way that is probably going to appear quite subtle, is in how we should go about doing this. Addressing the distinction between “historical” and “typological” constructs of esotericism, Djurdjevic explicitly argues that we ought to conceive of esotericsm as “a second-order scholarly construct that could usefully be applied beyond Western geographic and cultural boundaries” (17). Doing this, he argues that “the major aspects of esotericism, such as analogical thinking and the religious practices built upon it, secrecy, the discourse of absolute knowledge and powers, as well as the presence of specific disciplines such as alchemy, astrology, and magic in India”  justify looking at “Indian spiritual traditions from the perspective of esoteric studies”. The view that emerges is one of different “local” variations (i.e. eastern or western) of a general, second-order esotericism.

There is nothing conceptually wrong with this move, as I also argue in “Beyond the West” (esp. pp. 7-11). The historicists do not have monopoly on defining the term, and in fact, there appears to be more precedence for typological constructs than historicist ones. Nevertheless, on purely pragmatic grounds I think it is wise to find a vocabulary that makes it easier to incorporate the historicist research programmes around which the field is currently professionalized with other comparativist programmes that might have conceptualized esotericism in other terms. Thus, in order to avoid conceptual confusion, I would prefer to set up a comparative space not by inflating the term “esotericism” into a general category in which we can fit various things we want to relate, in a polythetic, family-resemblance type way as Djurdjevic does, but rather by stipulating more precise and basic points of analogy to work as tertium comparationis. We will always be comparing particulars with regard to some x. We do not have to pick this x from some general class we call “esotericism” (e.g., one that includes things such disparate elements as “analogical thinking”, “secrecy”, “discourse on higher knowledge”). I would advocate a comparative framework that does not need to pre-arrange its material in terms of “esotericism”, “religion”, “magic”, “occult” or any other such term. These terms are what I have now (under the influence of Ann Taves and the the work we are doing at UCSB at the moment) come to see as “complex cultural concepts” (CCCs) that are contingent on specific socio-cultural formations, and which tend to create cacophony and confusion when their meaning is assumed to be transparent and obvious. To operationalize  such CCCs for work in comparisons may only contribute to this confusion. A better strategy, it seems to me, is to seek more basic concepts to ground the comparative work. In fact, this does not have to be difficult: Much of Djurdjevic’s comparisons of ritual magicians, yogis and tantrikas in terms of preoccupation with “power”, practice of secrecy, uses of imagination, etc., would be acceptable in terms of what I am proposing. As long as these are not seen as pointing to a shared “esotericism”, “magic”, or “occultism” that these traits “belong to”.

There are other considerations as well that make me think that getting rid of CCCs and discussing more basic features is the way to go. This especially has to do with invigorating the explanatory potential of what we are doing, by  framing he basic concepts within a dialogue with “lower-level” disciplines. I discuss some thoughts on this in the article, for those who are interested. Since developing this sort of approach further is what I am up to in my postdoctoral work at the moment, I am sure further ideas will trickle down here in the future.



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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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