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Empirical method in the study of esotericism

Wouter J. Hanegraaff


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".


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Other articles of related interest

Closely related to the subject matter of the above article is Hanegraaff's "Some 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 "Historian as Heretic: Conflicting Perspectives on Theosophical History," which is a thoughtful assesment of his own experiences in investigating theosophy.

Biographical Note

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.

Contact Information

History of 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.



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