The debate initiated by Segal's "defense of reductionism"
has produced a polarization between the theoretical positions
of reductionism and religionism, suggesting that no alternative
exists. This is unfortunate, for empirical research is neither
reductionist nor religionist. The article discusses this
neglected empirical option. Empirical research must be based
on methodological agnosticism with regard to religious and
philosophical "first principles ", and must fully
recognise the historicity of religious phenomena. This empirical
perspective is applied to the newly emerging academic field
of esotericism. Antoine Faivre's definition of esotericism
as a historically recognisable "form of thought"
leads to a discussion of the empirical status of the history
of (religious) ideas, especially in the tradition of Arthur
O. Lovejoy. This is followed by a discussion of the implications
of empirical method for the diachronic and the synchronic
study of esotericism. It is argued that the latter pursuit
entails a fundamental questioning of conventional distinctions,
particularly between "gnosticism" and "mysticism".
Full text in pdf
Other articles of related interest
related to the subject matter of the above article is Hanegraaff's
Remarks on the
Study of Western Esotericism"
published in Theosophical History VII/6 (April 1999):223-232
[also in Esoterica I (1999): pp. 3-19]. Its publisher,
James Santucci, thinks that both articles would give "the
most complete explanation of the academic approach to this
area of study" and should be read by anyone venturing
into this discipline. An article reflecting on these methodological
issues, and taking its cue from Hanegraaff, is K. Paul Johnson's
as Heretic: Conflicting Perspectives on Theosophical History,"
which is a thoughtful assesment of his own experiences in
Wouter Hanegraaff (CV)
received his Ph.D. from the University of Utrecht. He is
trained as a historian of religions and specialized in the
history of western esoteric currents. He now heads the subdepartment
History of Hermetic
Philosophy and Related Currents at the Universiteit
van Amsterdam. His thesis was published as New Age Religion
and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular
Thought. His forthcoming book will be Swedenborg,
Oetinger, Kant: Three Perspectives on the Secrets of Heaven.
Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents is a subdepartment
of Art, Religion, and Cultural Studies,
Faculty of Humanities, of the Universiteit van Amsterdam,
Oude Turfmarkt 147, 1012 GC Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
e-mail address: W.J.Hanegraaff@uva.nl
"Empirical method in the study of esotericism"
was originally published in Method
& Theory in the Study of Religion, ISSN 0943-3058,
Volume 7 (1995) no. 2, pp. 99-129, and is reproduced here
with the permission of the author and the publisher (Koninklijke
Brill NV). Brill also publishes Aries:
Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism with Roland
Edighoffer, Antoine Faivre and Wouter J. Hanegraaff as editors.
Footnotes in the original were changed into endnotes. Original
pagination in square brackets.