ESSWE Thesis Workshop at the Warburg Institute (July 7, 2016)

Thesis Workshop Program 2016This summer, ESSWE organizes its fourth biannual Thesis Workshop – a one-day event where MA and PhD candidates get together with established scholars to discuss papers on a given topic as well as research strategies and career advice. (For a basic idea, check out what I’ve said about the 2010, 2012, and 2014 workshops) This year’s topic is “Magical Traditions and Medieval Religions of the Book”. Unlike earlier years, when this event took place in Amsterdam, this year’s workshop will be hosted by the Warburg Institute in London, on July 7.

As in previous years, the day has two main sessions: an “oratory” (lectures by specialists), and a “laboratory” (group-based discussions of MA/PhD research related issues, divided by period and/or thematic focus based on what people are working on). In addition, this year there will be a round table discussion following the oratory, and an “early career advice” session (which will be lead by Liana Saif and myself).

The oratory will feature papers by Siam Bhayro, Liana Saif, and Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov, with a keynote by Jean-Patrice Boudet. These scholars will be available to participants in the laboratory session, as will the chairs Yuri Stoyanov, Charles Burnett, organizer Sophie Page, and most of the board members of ESSWE.

Check out all the details in the programme. And, please note that this is a free event with a limited number of places. Questions and reservations should be addressed to the organizer Sophie Page (see the programme).

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.


Books from the Esoteric Brat Pack

As a member of what’s been called the “brat pack” of esotericism scholars I am proud to note that a considerable number of us are appearing on the scene this year with monographs based on PhD dissertations. The brat pack presumably consists of a group of (then) students and emerging scholars who were around at the time of ESSWE 1 in 2007, and who have frequently been seen together at conferences since. While some of us have teamed up for joint gigs in the past (think The Devil’s Party or Contemporary Esotericism, and the conferences that went with both of these),  it looks like 2014 is the big year for solo work. I know of at least four titles either published or forthcoming in 2014 by (for the most part) recent PhDs working in the field of Western esotericism. There may be other publication plans I am not aware of (please leave a note!). Here’s a chronological list of the knowns.


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.


Gnosis & Alterations of Consciousness: ESSWE Thesis Workshop

Flammarion woodcut altered

Time for Thesis Workshop in Amsterdam: “Gnosis & Alterations of Consciousness”

It’s an odd-numbered year, and it’s spring (sort of, some places). And it’s soon time for a new ESSWE Thesis Workshop in Amsterdam, the third one in the line (after this and this). In years when there is no ESSWE conference, these open workshops designed for MA and PhD candidates who are involved with some independent research and thesis writing in the field of esotericism, are organised in conjunction with the annual ESSWE board meeting. We’ve had one on alchemy in 2010, and one on magic in 2012. This year’s workshop has just been announced: the topic is “Gnosis and Alterations of Consciousness”, the date is May 10 (a Saturday), and the place, as previous years, is Amsterdam. It is also completely free (although you should contact the HHP secretary to book a place – see the official call for details). A great excuse for spending a May weekend in Amsterdam!



Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 3

[The third and final part of my review of Otto and Stausberg’s Defining Magic. This part discusses the five final essays of the book, all of which are new contributions written by contemporary scholars of “magic”. Follow hyperlinks to read part one (focusing on the selection of texts) and part two (focusing on the editors’ introduction) of the review.]

Defining Magic cover Stausberg Otto

3. Contemporary voices

That we need a systematic approach along the lines of what Stausberg and Otto suggest (or alternatively along the lines of building blocks) is confirmed by looking at the five contemporary pieces representing the current state of the debate. The five authors represent anything but a consensus. Through a broader framework of “patterns of magicity” we might nevertheless be able to put them in a fruitful dialogue.


Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 2

[This is the second part of my longish review of Otto and Stausberg’s Defining Magic: A Reader. This part focuses on the introductory chapter. For part one of the review, focusing on the selection of texts, please go here.]



Patterns of Magicity: A Review of Defining Magic (part 2)


Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 1

Defining Magic cover Stausberg Otto[This blog post is a little milestone: it is the first official review of a book sent to me by the publisher for being reviewed directly at Heterodoxology. (Yes, publishers, I am open to suggestions like that!) Since the book was of great interest to me, and touches on issues that occupy me at the moment – and since the blog format allows me to say whatever I want and as much of it as I’d like – it has ended up more like a review article than a book review. Hence I will publish it here in three parts. The full pdf version (only slightly modified) is available from my Academia page. For convenience and ease of sharing. So on we go!]

Review: Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg (eds.) Defining Magic: A Reader. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2013. 281 pages.

[Part 1 of 3]


Satan in the academy (again)

I ended 2013 with a retrospective on some personal favourites from the wealth of publications on esotericism last year. Of course there were many omissions, some of which I’ve payed tribute to on Twitter. Julian Strube’s (German) book on Vril is notable, and has attracted some attention in the German press lately. Also from Germany, Monika Neugebauer-Wölk’s massive collected volume on Aufklärung und Esoterik: Wege in die Moderne is a milestone that will take time to digest and assess (I admit that I forgot about this one because the prohibitive price has made it inaccessible to me until now). Then in the antiquities section, there’s the English edition of Roelof van den Broek’s book on Gnosticism, Gnostic Religion in Antiquity. And still there’s much more that could’ve been mentioned (such as this milestone of a source work: Andrew Weeks’ new translation of Böhme’s Aurora).



Welcome to the Greenhouse

The Greenhouse at night.

This weekend I have relocated to my old home town, Trondheim. In the coming few months I’m going to fill an associate professor position, temporarily, due to a set of complicated circumstances that I’ll not go into here. Having left the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents in Amsterdam behind, I’ll now be found at the newly restructured Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). My office and all teaching happens at campus Dragvoll, which looks pretty much like a giant greenhouse, in a rural and woodlands area on the outskirts of town. Certainly a change of scenery from Amsterdam’s overcrowded streets!