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Kocku von Stuckrad on Western Esotericism
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Professor Kocku von Stuckrad has been working in the field of history of culture for many years, with some of that time spent within the context of ‘the study of western esotericism’ as a field of its own (he was a founding board member of the ESSWE), and some spent in religious studies more broadly. He has written extensively on methodological issues in the study of religions, and so is well-placed to reflect on the particular problems which cluster around the concept of esotericism or ‘the esoteric’ in an academic context. His long experience as an academic also gives him important insights into the field of western esotericism studies, including into the benefits and the drawbacks which the existence of the field brings.
In a long and wide-ranging conversation, Kocku reflects on a number of important themes for anyone studying western esotericism (or even wondering what it might mean, or whether it ever existed as an ‘historical object’ in the first place), including the secret and the hidden, the mainstream and the marginalised, discourse and the sociology of knowledge, and the problem of self-marginalisation for scholars who define themselves or find themselves defined in terms of ‘rejected knowledge’.
This interview is a great addition to the methodological introduction to the podcast as a whole, raising important questions about western esotericism as an object of study and as a contemporary ‘order of knowledge’
Kocku von Stuckrad has been very active in the field of Religious Studies for decades; rather than trying to list his many publications and the organisations he is/has been a part of, we’ll direct you to his website. Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, a new project organised by Kocku and Whitney A. Bauman, hosts a many events, discussions, and postings of interest to scholars of western esotericism, especially as our work overlaps with the current ecological situation we find ourselves in.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Carlos Castaneda. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1968 [Castaneda wrote other books; this is the first, and maybe the most influential, and also the one which poses most determinedly as non-fiction].
- Umberto Eco. Foucault’s Pendulum. Secker and Warburg, London, 1989.
- Mircea Eliade. Le Chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l’extase. Payot, 1951.
- Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Routledge, London/New York, NY, 2002 [This work is Foucault’s most overtly methodological, and is perhaps the best introduction to his ideas of ‘orders of knowledge’, ‘discourse’, and so forth].
- Burkhard Gladigow. ‘Europäische Religionsgeschichte’. In Hans G. Kippenberg & Brigitte Luchesi, editors: Lokale Religionsgeschichte, pages 21-42. Marburg, 1995.
- M. Harner. The Way of the Shaman. Harper, 1980.
- Richard Powers. The Overstory: A Novel. W. W. Norton, New York, NY, 2018.
- ‘Scientific Revolution’: The scholar that coined, or at least popularized, this term for the 17th century was Alexandre Koyré. See particularly his influential book From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, MD, 1957), which summarizes his ideas that go back to the 1920s.
- Georg Simmel. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. The Free Press, New York, 1950. Translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff [Simmel’s famous essay on secrecy can be found pp. 330–344 of this collection].
- Corinna Treitel. A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2004.
- Hugh Urban. ‘The Torment of Secrecy: Ethical and Epistemological Problems in the Study of Esoteric Traditions’. History of Religions, (37/3):209–248, 1998.
- Erich von Däniken. Chariots of the Gods? Putnam, 1968.
- Kocku von Stuckrad. Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. Equinox, London, 2003. Translated by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. The new book referred to is Die Seele im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert: Eine Kulturgeschichte. Wilhelm Fink, Paderborn, 2019; look for it in English as The Soul in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History in 2020. The (very long) list of Kocku’s other publications can be found on his website, including many to download.
- Elliot R. Wolfson. Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination. Fordham University Press, New York, NY, 2005 [This book may serve as representative of the ‘Wolfsonian style’ we refer to in the interview].
November 13, 2019
Recently joined. Great interview.
One standard narrative of Western Culture suggests a progression of thought from the Presocratics to Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, followed by towering Roman rhetoricians, Medieval theologians (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas), then perhaps with a dark gap of sorts, culminating later with the great movements of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment.
But there is more to Western Culture — much more. These ‘other’ narratives, rich and deeply textured, are not often taught in academic centers, but exist, and I am so glad you are offering this podcast series.
I have a few questions/comments:
1. Quite some time during the interview is spent on something (perhaps the deep impulse towards the divine) that can be experienced but not fully described, despite the presence of long Neoplatonic tracts attempting to in some way verbally animate the experience. What are some accessible (online) writings in English (translations of these works)?
2. I didn’t quite understand the distinction between ‘hidden’ and ‘secret’. Is it that hidden is available with some effort, but secret is not available?
3. A distinction is made during a discussion of ‘perfect philosophy’ between the analytic/rational tradition and the neo-Platonic tradition more religious/spiritual tradition. I wondered if this has analogies to the so-called analytic/continental divide in current philosophy?
4. The ‘orders of knowledge’ concept from Foucault was very interesting, and made me think of why facts don’t seem to matter in today’s polarized politics. Any thoughts on this?
November 15, 2019
Saeeduddin, thanks for the comments. I can’t do your questions justice, as each one invites an essay, but here are a few brief remarks off the cuff:
1: Accessible online translations of Neoplatonic apophatic writing? Good luck! But seriously, go to Info>Resources>Antiquity, and there are some useful links.
2: Hidden vs. secret: You’ve basically got it. The point about secrets is that you really don’t want anyone to know them, or even know of their existence (think the nuclear codes or the secret bio-weapons facility). With what Kocku calls ‘the hidden’ (what I would call the esoteric, actually) you are dealing with something being advertised as a secret, which seems like a contradiction in terms until you realise that what we are dealing with are ‘discourses of hidden knowledge’ rather than literal secrecy.
3: Maybe. I think the ‘rationalist/spiritual’ divide in the history of philosophy sort of dissolves if your really question it.
4: That’s a big subject. I think ‘facts’ have never mattered to a lot of people and in a lot of situations. Despite the best efforts of the echo chamber, I’m not totally convinced that people are more divided now than in the past. But Kocku’s point, and he’s right, is that what constitutes a ‘fact’ depends on who’s speaking, in what context. Of course, Donald Trump has set a new gold standard in falsification, being able to stand in a room with an actual, physical elephant and say ‘There is no elephant’, and get thousands of people to shout ‘All elephants are fake news!’ But politicians have always contradicted themselves egregiously, and we’ve always let them get away with it, so what’s new?
November 24, 2019
Thanks for your reply Earl. Had a f/u question. You said: “3: Maybe. I think the ‘rationalist/spiritual’ divide in the history of philosophy sort of dissolves if your really question it.”
……..this is really interesting. Could you elaborate?
November 26, 2019
With pleasure. First off, no one seems to bother to define what they mean by ‘rationalist’ and ‘spiritual’. But let’s say for the sake of argument someone went ahead and did so; the argument will then proceed according to their definitions (so first point: ‘rational’ and ‘spiritual’ are not really-existing categories ‘out there’ in reality waiting to be discovered; they are fluid constructs of human thought about human thought, and so only describe reality with a certain degree of accuracy). So, for example, there are some people who think it is utterly irrational to believe in anything which goes against ‘common sense’ understanding of cause and effect. Great; this common-sense understanding, after all, is what allows us to avoid getting run over by trams and stuff like that. It works. So anyone who goes against this understanding is irrational – out go the Late Platonists, with their invisible, but rationally-inducible (!!) causes, oh, but wait, the whole of modern physics needs chucking out as well, as it’s completely counterintuitive based on common sense logic.
Okay, so we back up and redefine ‘rational’ so as to include quantum physics. Maybe we put in a clause about experiment, verification, probabilistic accounts of reality. Good. We have now abandoned all truth-claims except on a kind of percentage-scale. We have saved physics for rationalism! But our definition of rationalism now accepts statements like ‘a real object can both exist and not exist’. Ay ay ay.
Fine! But it’s falsifiable! Nope, much of modern experimental science isn’t based on repeatable experimental data, nor need it be falsifiable, falsifiability being a kind of Platonic Form of scientific method (!!!).
So where is ‘the rational’?
Okay, you say, but if we think of the ‘rational’ as a kind of ‘flavour’, you know it when you taste it. Like, if I read some modern materialist scientist, it just ‘feels’ rational, you know what I mean? But if I read these ancient ‘spiritual’ thinkers like, I don’t know, Plotinus or something … oh, wait, I just read some Plotinus and he seems way more ‘rational’ than the materialist guy. In fact, he can argue the materialist guy into oblivion with hardly any effort … oh dear.
You see where I’m going with this?
November 28, 2019
I do see(!)………you destroyed ‘rationality’…. 😉
I recently heard other arguments about this too from Richard Pettigrew (Professor of Philosophy, University of Bristol)….1) William James: limiting oneself to rationality may make certain experiences inaccessible, 2) ‘rationality’ means different things to different people, and 3) claims of rationality can be used to suppress certain discourses and narratives.
November 28, 2019
Also, this is interesting….Quantum Mechanics –> ‘re-ignited people’s religous and mystical imaginations’ (Mitch Horowitz). So your point (given QM, what is rationality), is completely consistent with this (given QM, let’s expand our thinking a bit)
November 28, 2019
Last thing today on this….a plug for psychoanalysis (from R. Minsky’s Preface in ‘Psychoanalysis and Culture’)
‘In spite of the cultural dominance of science and reason, the end of the millennium sees an increasingly fragmented, disordered world which, particularly in the contexts of globalization, the electronics revolution, the environment and poverty, often appears to be already running out of our control. Perhaps, in this context, a desire to feel in control explains our need, sometimes, to ally ourselves too exclusively with perspectives which offer us the greatest sense of mastery of what we may find painful or disturbing even if they leave out crucial and valuable dimensions of our existence. Psychoanalytic insights cannot offer us any precise solutions but they can enable us to see some problems more clearly because they take account of the irrational as well as rational elements that are inherent in them.’
November 28, 2019
RE William James on rationality…..Pettigrew specifically mentioned this debate between WK Clifford and James, with the respective positions being: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence,” (WKC) vs. “our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.”
February 25, 2022
Earl: You are a great guy. I listened to this episode again after a couple of years. It is interesting that last time, we had a bit of discussion on this.
This time, as I am starting over in a sense, I am getting much more of an appreciation of your project, and its importance, and the way you started it with interviews with several experts to set the tone for future podcasts.
These first few interviews are so complex, so detailed, and expose a world of knowledge that has been…. well …..’hidden’….. in our usual academic discourses, and yet represents the greater part of the philosophic conversation that has occurred over the last twenty five centuries.
That’s kind of crazy. What we learn in the academies now is only a small part of the conversation, a twig off a branch, quite a ways from the trunk. In this podcast series, you take us back to the trunk.
April 28, 2022