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.



Hermetic feminism revisited

Yesterday I recommended Joyce Pijnenburg’s excellent discussion of Cornelius Agrippa and the Hermetic/Platonic/Kabbalistic influence on Renaissance feminism. Today, Sarah Veale of Invocatio added some reflections on what the ancient hermetic sources actually have to say about women. The argument is that the Hermetica had to be read rather selectively for Agrippa to find support for his proto-feminist project. In other words: here, as elsewhere, we must clearly separate the Hermetica from the hermeticists of the Renaissance. This point, of course, is always valid when we are dealing with reception, particularly in the case of normative projects in religion or philosophy. It’s little use  reading the gospels alone if one wants to  find out what various Christian denominations of today actually preach. And it’s foolish to expect contemporary ethicists who (sometimes) identify as neo-Aristotelians (say, Martha Nussbaum) to buy every detail of Aristotle’s doctrines of the soul, or indeed his views on women.

At any rate – nice to see a discussion taking shape online on esoterica and feminism, which is generally a very little studied topic.