The scholastic imagination

The human cognitive system according to a late-medieval scribe. Illustration to a manuscript copy of Aristotle's De Anima (1472-1474), courtesy of Wellcome Collection (MS 55).

The human sensory and cognitive system, according to the German scholar Johan Lindner of Mönchenburg. Illustration to a manuscript copy of Aristotle’s De Anima (1472-1474), courtesy of the Wellcome Collection (MS 55).

I’ve recently been reading up on medieval theories of cognition. The background is a paper I’m writing on esotericism and “kataphatic practices” – contemplative techniques where the practitioner uses mental imagery, sensory stimuli, and emotions to try and achieve some religious goal: Prayer, piety, divine knowledge, salvation, etc. Kataphatic practices may be distinguished from “apophatic” ones, which, although they may be pursuing the same goals, use very different techniques to achieve them: withdrawing from sensory input and attempting to empty the mind of any content, whether affective, linguistic, or imagery-related (note that the kataphatic-apophatic distinction is more commonly used as synonymous with positive vs. negative theology – that’s a related but separate issue to the one I talk about here). My argument is that esoteric practices are typically oriented toward kataphatic  rather than apophatic techniques. The cultivation of mental imagery is usually key – which means that the notion of “imagination” needs to be investigated more thoroughly.

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Review symposium on “The Problem of Disenchantment”

The Journal of Religion in Europe has just published a review symposium on my book, The Problem of Disenchantment (2014). I’m excited to say that it contains critical reflections from three world-class scholars of religion, along with my own response. Hans Kippenberg, a well-known expert on Weberian approaches to the history of religion, evaluates some of the book’s claims in light of a broader reading of Weber’s oeuvre. Willem Drees, one of the leading figures in the “religion and science” field, takes a closer look at some of the points I made about the new natural theologies that emerged in the early twentieth century – specifically their relation to esotericism and “heterodoxy”. Finally, Ann Taves, a leading American scholar of religion working with (among other things) the cognitive science of religion and the notion of experience, continues a discussion that she and I have been having over the past few years regarding the perception, explanation and interpretation of “events” (for more on this, check out our forthcomming co-authored target article in Religion, Brain, & Behavior) . If you’ve got access, go ahead and read them!

While you are at it, you may also be interested in checking out my response, which I called  “The Disenchantment of Problems: Musings on a Cognitive Turn in Intellectual History” (non-final version uploaded here, and added to my Academia page for easy access).

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Why fear the history of science? A brief response to Don Wiebe

The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900-1939 (Brill, 2014)I am more used to being labelled a “scientistic reductionist” than an “anti-science relativist”. While neither is particularly accurate, I was certainly surprised to see Don Wiebe review my book, The Problem of Disenchantment, as a “full-scale attack on modern Western science” (p. 1). Ironically, the review (published online in the journal Religion) appears side by side with an article of mine [free postprint here] that argues for consilience between the humanities and the sciences, so readers are likely to walk away a bit puzzled.

Since the charge of anti-science is a serious one, however, and since it comes from a well-respected scholar whose ardent support for a scientific and secular study of religion I have, in fact, admired since my undergraduate days, it seems necessary to take a moment to clarify some crucial issues that appear to get mixed up in the review.

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New ESSWE website – and conference program available

New website, new look and feel.

New website, new look and feel. Breathing new fire into the field.

The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism has just launched its new website. The old one dated from the foundation of the society ten years ago, and a new, cleaner, more functional website was certainly long overdue. Hopefully this does the trick!

We are also now only a few days away from the biannual ESSWE conference, which this year takes place in Riga, Latvia. The program has now been available, and can be downloaded from the website. The topic is “Western Esotericism and the East”, which should be an excellent opportunity for continuing the discussion on the “Western” in esotericism, and issues of comparison. In addition to keynotes by Wouter Hanegraaff, Charles Burnett, and Alison Caudert, it is a program packed full with a lot of interesting talks and topics, which should make for a stimulating (if exhausting) few days in the Baltic.

Finally, I’ll put on my membership secretary hat and take the opportunity to bring a message to members: you will need to reset your passwords to be able to use it. Luckily, this is a very easy automatic process now (before, I had to do this manually for every single person, so at least there is one person who is quite happy with this new arrangement!): simply follow this link, enter your email address, and take it from there.

 

New blog at Occult Minds

When I launched the website of my current postdoctoral research project (“Occult Minds: Esotericism as Cognition and Culture”) last August, it was with the intention of keeping a research blog that would be updated fairly regularly. Not much has happened on the blog front the past six months (let’s just say that I needed to prioritize my writing tasks), but now I have updated it with a post that looks at some precursors for the aim of the project: which is to bring together the study of esotericism and the cognitive science of religion. Spoiler: There really isn’t much to find – but esotericism scholars can learn from some of their colleagues studying Gnosticism.

I hope to update the Occult Minds blog more frequently in the coming months, so stay tuned for further updates.

Want to host an ESSWE conference in 2017?

This post is in the category “doing my duty as board member of ESSWE”, but it might also be of some interest to general readers. The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism is, as you should know by now, holding it’s fifth biannual conference this spring, in Riga, Latvia. You can read about how to sign up for it here; and, of course, ESSWE members get a discount, so this is also a great opportunity to renew your membership or become a member.

There is no rest for the wicked, however, and we already need to look ahead to ESSWE6 in 2017. Therefore, the Society is currently calling for applications from scholars who might be interested in hosting the next conference at their institution. As we wish to discuss these proposals at the Board meeting in Riga, it’s strongly advised that those who may wish to do so contact the Secretary, Mark Sedgwick, as soon as possible (preferably by the end of January).

End of semi-official communication.

Published in: on January 21, 2015 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Occult World – a new reference work for heterodoxologists

Occult World coverWith publication date set to December 24, 2014, this massive volume was a nice Christmas present for scholars of esotericism. Edited by Christopher Partridge and published on Routledge, The Occult World is a reference work for esotericism and the occult that should be useful to students as well as scholars and other readers interested in the topic. It consists of 73 chapters that are arranged both according to historical periods and thematic considerations, with a clear prevalence of modern and contemporary material.

One of the admirable feats (more…)

Correspondences third issue and statement on publishing strategy

Game of Thrones addict? No new series yet, but you can read about its representation of paganism in the latest Correspondences.

Game of Thrones addict? No new series yet, but you can read about its representation of paganism in the latest Correspondences.

Those who follow esotericism scholarship online will already know that Correspondences Vol. 2.2 has now been published, and is available for download at the journal’s website. It’s a healthy third issue from the young journal, with three research articles on topics ranging from representations of European paganism in the popular TV shows Game of Thrones and Vikings (Robert A. Saunders), to the question of how modern “modern ritual magic” really is (Christopher Plaisance), to a look at esoteric ideas forged in the context of Fascist Italy (Roberto Bacci). This selection makes it the most distinctly “modern and contemporary” issue to date – although there is certainly stuff in there for those interested in the broad historical lines as well, especially in Plaisance’s article on the continuities in European magical ritual practice.

Besides, there are five substantial book reviews this time, on some important recent volumes that span topics from Gnosticism and Theurgy to Aleister Crowley, Anthroposophy, and modern Satanism.  For a couple of these books, this may even be their first published review.

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Max Weber Prize for “The Problem of Disenchantment”

Prof. Hans Kippenberg delivering his laudatio.

Prof. Hans Kippenberg delivering his laudatio.

On December 1, I was awarded the Max-Weber-Preis für Nachwuchsforschung from the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt for The Problem of Disenchantment. It was given in absentia, but upon receiving the manuscript of Prof. Hans Kippenberg’s laudatio, I was pleased to see that finally someone picked up on my namesake from the sagas, a certain “wayward Icelandic seafarer”. Kippenberg’s concluding words:

Es ist eine herausragende Arbeit eines Nachwuchswissenschaftlers in dem Feld zwischen Religionswissenschaft und Naturwissenschaft, ist bezogen auf Webers Forschungsprogramm, interdisziplinär angelegt und mit historischer Tiefe und langem Atem, wie man ihn von einem Seefahrer erwarten darf.

I guess Egil Skallagrimsson was actually more of a farmer than a sailor (incidentally that fits better with my own family background, too), but perhaps our shared warrior-poet mentality and ruthless brutality make the link stick nevertheless.

In any case, this is now the fourth prize for The Problem of Disenchantment, and perhaps the one that means the most to me. With Weber towering over the work for so long, and the book arguing for some serious revisions to Weberian approaches, it does mean a lot to get the recognition of an institution that, so to speak, carries Weber’s “routinized authority” in the present day.

 

Rosicrucian quadricentennary at the BPH

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“Divine Wisdom – Divine Nature” (BPH; van Heertum & Bouman eds., 2014)

This spring marked four hundred years since the publication of the first Rosicrucian manifesto, and as I have noted earlier, this has been an opportunity for scholars to publish new editions of primary sources and new reports on scholarship into the Rosicrucian heritage. But even the briefest review of how scholarly and cultural institutions are marking the anniversary year would be incomplete without mention of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam – which still houses one of the largest and most significant collections of Rosicrucian and related material in the world. What makes BPH special is that it’s not only a repository of material, an archive, but also an institution that seeks to embody the Rosicrucian heritage today and spread its philosophical, religious, visual and material culture. This dual agenda of the scholarly, curatorial and the evangelizing, missionary, has its roots in the vision of the collection’s founder, Joost Ritman, who was taken by these traditions at a young age and has been dedicated to promoting them ever since.

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