Julian Strube on the Debate Over Dropping the ‘Western’ in ‘Western Esotericism’

Download Strube on Dropping the ‘Western’

A debate is currently ongoing among scholars of western esotericism: should we drop the term ‘western’ altogether? There are many reasons why one would wish to do away with the term, and also many reasons to keep it. Attendees to the 2019 ESSWE conference in Amsterdam saw the debate in full flower, as a panel of distinguished scholars thrashed out some of these reasons on stage; this public discussion was very productive, raising awareness of this debate to hundreds of scholars from various realms of esotericism studies who may not have been aware of it at all, and putting into dialogue a rich diversity of methodological perspectives from both ‘sides’ of the issue.

In this interview we talk to Julian Strube, one of those scholars on stage at ESSWE 7, and the man responsible for convening the panel in question. As such, this interview must not be taken as an authoritative account of the debate as a whole; it gives the perspective of one scholar, and one, moreover, very much on the ‘drop the “western”’ side of the question. Nevertheless, Dr Strube’s clear exposition  gives, we hope, a fair introduction to the debate for listeners who are coming across it for the first time. Just keep in mind that there is a lot more that might be said for keeping the ‘western’ than we hear about in this interview!

In the interests of better documenting this important, ongoing debate, the bibliography to this interview is arranged chronologically, in an attempt to give a picture of some of the key publications in which the debate has taken place up to the present. Most of the publications referred to in the interview are to be found in this chronological section, but a few other works, more peripheral to the debate, are listed separately in the more usual ‘works cited’ section below.

Interview Bio:

Julian Strube was, at the time of recording, working on a postdoc project at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, on “Tantra Within the Context of a Global Religious History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” focusing on the exchanges between Bengali and Western intellectuals in colonial Bengal. He has now taken up a new position in the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” at the University of Münster,  examining exchanges between Unitarians and Bengali intellectuals in the nineteenth century. The leading themes of his research are the relationship between religion and politics, as well as the debates about the meaning of religion, science, and philosophy since the nineteenth century. He has published widely on many fascinating topics, and is currently co-editing the volume Theosophy Across Boundaries with Hans-Martin Krämer for the State University of New York Press.

A Chronological Bibliography of ‘Western Esotericism’ and the Debate Around its Scholarly Usefulness:

The original series of the journal Aries (1985-1999 – now available online through the ESSWE) was devoted to ‘l’ésotérisme’. With the new series (2001, ongoing), the title has become ‘Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism’.

  •  Pasi, Marco, ‘Oriental Kabbalah and the Parting of East and West in the Early Theosophical Society’, in Boaz Huss, Marco Pasi, and Kocku von Stuckrad, ed., Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 151-66.
  • Generally the papers collected in Henrik Bogdan and Gordan Djurdjevic, ed., Occultism in a Global Perspective (Durham: Acumen, 2013), and in particular Granholm, K., ‘Locating the West: Problematizing the Western in Western Esotericism and Occultism’, in ibid., pp. 17-36.
  • Asprem, Egil (2014) 3–33, ‘Beyond the West: Towards a New Comparativism in the Study of Esotericism’, Correspondences 2.1 (2014), pp. 3-33.
  • Hanegraaff, W.J., ‘The Globalization of Esotericism’, Correspondences 3 (2015), pp. 55–91.
  • Bergunder, Michael. ‘‘Religion’ and ‘Science’ within a Global Religious History.’ Aries 16, no. 1 (2016): 86–141.
  • Strube, Julian. ‘Transgressing Boundaries. Social Reform, Theology, and the Demarcations between Science and Religion.’ Aries 16, no. 1 (2016): 1–11.
  • 2018: The online Journal Correspondences drops the ‘Western’ from its title, becoming ‘Journal for the Study of Esotericism’. The editorial to that issue by Roukema and Kilner-Johnson explains this move.
  • Crockford, Susannah and Asprem, Egil , ‘Ethnographies of the Esoteric: Introducing Anthropological Methods and Theories to the Study of Contemporary Esotericism’, Correspondences 6, no. 1 (2018), pp. 1-23.
  • Hanegraaff, W.J., ‘Rejected Knowledge … So you mean that esotericists are the losers of history?’, in Hermes Explains: Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press 2019). 145-152.
  • Asprem, Egil, and Julian Strube, eds. New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism (Leiden: Brill, 2021).

Further Works Cited in the Interview:

  • Baier, Karl, Meditation und Moderne: Zur Genese eines kernbereichs moderner Spiritualität in der Wechselwirkung zwischen Westeuropa, Nordamerica und Asien. 2 vols. (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2009).
  • Bayly, Christopher Alan, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
  • Godwin, Joscelyn, The Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994).
  • Osterhammel, Jürgen, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).
  • Strube, Julian, Sozialismus, Katholizismus und Okkultismus im Frankreich des 19. Jahrhunderts: Die Genealogie der Schriften von Eliphas Lévi (De Gruyter, 2016).
  • Urban, Hugh, ‘The Torment of Secrecy: Ethical and Epistemological Problems in the Study of Esoteric Traditions’, History of Religions (1998), pp. 209-248.
  • von Stuckrad, Kocku, Was ist Esoterik? kleine Geschichte des geheime Wissens (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2004).

Recommended Reading:

  • Baier, Karl. ‘Theosophical Orientalism and the Structures of Intercultural Transfer. Annotations on the Appropriation of the Cakras in Early Theosophy.’ In Theosophical Appropriations. Esotericism, Kabbalah, and the Transformation of Traditions, edited by Julie Chajes and Boaz Huss (Beer Sheva: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2016), pp. 309–54.
  • Conrad, Sebastian. What is Global History? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Moyn, Samuel & Sartori, Andrew. Global Intellectual History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
  • Strube, Julian. ‘Occultist Identity Formations Between Theosophy and Socialism in fin-de-siècle France,’ in: Numen 64/5-6, 2017, pp. 568-595.
  • Idem. ‘Socialist Religion and the Emergence of Occultism: A Genealogical Approach to Socialism and Secularization in 19th-Century France,’ in: Religion 46/3, 2016, pp. 359-388.