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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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.

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