The Socialist Roots of Occultism

Marx satan

Caution: This illustration is highly misleading. (Image by Ross Wolfe, The Charnel-House blog)

We’ve grown accustomed to exciting titles that announce “the occult roots” of anything from Nazism to electronic music. While there’s certainly a lot of attention-grabbing hyperbole in such claims, it is true that much of the vaguely deviant, oppositional, and radical segments of Western culture has a touch of the occult – for reasons we are starting to understand quite well (tag: cultic milieu, occulture, rejected/stigmatized knowledge).

But what about the roots of modern occultism itself? In the (educated) popular imagination, occultism is generally considered an atavistic phenomenon, an anomalous and anachronistic flowering of irrationalism belonging to a bygone age. Some scholarship has continued in this vein, whether we think of the brand of intellectual historians that get embarrassed by its rational and scientific deficiency, or left-leaning, progressive academics who, like Adorno, see only a reactionary tendency that must eventually lead to a mysticized political irrationalism of the kind erupting in Germany in the 1930s.


Blind Spots of Disenchantment (1/3)

Max Weber (1864-1920)

The way things have turned out, the content of my PhD dissertation will revolve around a concept which Max Weber somewhat unsystematically formulated almost 100 years ago: the disenchantment of the world. Disenchantment has usually been described as a socio-cultural process, driven by rationalisation and intellectualisation processes which Weber traced back to the invention of monotheism, and the development of monotheistic theology. It has been embraced by sociologists and historians of religion in particular, who have seen in it (as did Weber) certain consequences for the condition of religion, magic, and their relation to intellectual life (and particularly science) in the modern world. My dissertation is increasingly becoming a criticism of the concept of disenchantment, and an exploration of a more nuanced approach to it as it relates to interfaces between religion, science, and that vast unsystematic and poorly defined set of “the occult”, “esoteric”, and “magical”. In April I had two opportunities to discuss these ideas in workshop settings, first with a commentary from the social historian of knowledge Peter Burke, and later in a research workshop for cultural history PhDs in the Netherlands called the Barchem symposium. In this post, and in two following installments, I will share the text of my lecture(s), intended to give an overview of my general approach, illustrated with snapshots of relevant cases from early 20th century history of science and culture. This first post discusses, historicises and criticises Weber’s concept of disenchantment in what is a brief theoretical introduction proposing that we take a different approach to it. Part two will concern the place of this revised notion in early 20th century scientific discourses, particularly in their broader cultural reception and context. The third part discusses briefly the attempt to create a “new natural theology” in this period.


Peter Burke, the social history of knowledge, and “agnotology” – notes on a lecture

It’s been a busy spring so far, and unfortunately not much time for keeping this blog running. In an attempt to get started again I will give a brief report on Professor Peter Burke’s visit to Amsterdam last week, and particularly one lecture (out of two) he gave on that occasion.


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. (more…)

William McDougall and the Professionalization of Parapsychology

William McDougall (1871-1938): British psychologist, eugenical agitator, and professionalizer of parapsychology.

It is admittedly with some pride I notice that my very first history of science article has now been published. Since I am essentially an autodidact when it comes to history of science/science studies it was important for me to get through the peer review process of the Journal for the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Additionally, a scholarly discourse on psychical research and parapsychology has been developing on the pages of JHBS over the last few years, especially with articles by Heather Wolffram, Courtenay Grean Raia, and Sofie Lachapelle. I hope to make a modestly contribute to this developing discourse with “A nice arrangement of heterodoxies: William McDougall and the professionalization of psychical research”.


Eugenics and Progressive Social Policies in Norway

Jon Alfred Mjøen explaining Mendel's law in Oslo, ca. 1920. (American Philosophical Society, Eugenic Archives)

While I was researching something completely different I came across a note in Science from 1917 that caught my attention. It informed readers about the launching of a state sponsored race hygiene program in Norway, under the leadership of biologist Jon Alfred Mjøen (1860-1939). After reading up a little I started wondering about the relation between Mjøen’s politically quite active laboratory, Vindern Biologisk Laboratorium (VBL; established 1906), and the heritage of Norway’s progressive legislation in areas such as healthcare, public loans, targeted taxation policies, etc, which are still deeply felt today. Could there be a discernible eugenic motivation behind them?


Positivism and the Religion of Humanity

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) formulated some very influential ideas, and some ideas that were plain weird. The “father of sociology” argued for a full science of society, and invented the progressivist “Law of Three Stages”.  By the 1840s Comte had founded the highly influential philosophy and ideology of Positivism. What next? He founded a Church and proclaimed himself High Priest.