The Occult Philosophy

29 October 2010

Our topic this week is the Occult Philosophy.  These days, we tend to think of those who believe in the occult as soft-minded, superstitious, new-age hippie-types who would rather commune with imaginary mystical forces than face cold, hard scientific facts.     But it wasn’t always so.  During the Renaissance, for example, things like Alchemy, Astrology, White Magic, Hermeticism,  Cabala, Numerology were intensely studied by some of the best minds in Europe.   Literature from that period is often rife with references to the occult.  The works of Shakespeare are a prime example.    You might even say that   the study of the occult was once culturally dominant in parts of Europe.  And although the occult is surely culturally marginalized as anti-scientific gobbledygook today, many historians of science believe that the study of the occult played a crucial role in the development of modern science itself.  Alchemy begat chemistry and astrology begat astronomy.

            That’s not entirely surprising if you think about the meaning of the word ‘occult.’    On one meaning – no doubt the most common meaning, the word ‘occult’ means   “Of, relating to, or dealing with supernatural influences, agencies, or phenomena.”  That, of course, is the very opposite of what science deals with.     But the word  ‘occult’ has another meaning  --- “secret, concealed or hidden from view” as in “occult causes.”  That’s a more old fashioned use of the word ‘occult’.    You find it used that way in 16th and 17th century philosophy texts.  Not many people use ‘occult’ to mean secret or hidden very much today.  But during the Renaissance,  students of the occult were  very much in the business of trying to discover, understand and manipulate the hidden causes of everything in the universe.  To that extent, their goals were very much in line with modern science.

            Of course, their heir methods were quite weird, by our contemporary lights -- a veritable witches brew of religious mysticism, metaphysical speculation and magic.   Or to put it differently, Renaissance thinkers thought that that the occult in the sense of the hidden causes of everything included agencies and phenomena that were occult in the sense of supernatural.  So although the Occult Sciences and Philosophy of the Renaissance may have been forerunners of modern science, they were not scientific by today’s standards.  Modern science has no truck with the supernatural.    

            Eventually occult practices and philosophy were driven into the shadows of  Western Culture.  That was no doubt partly due to the consolidation of the scientific revolution.  But it wasn’t just that.  There was also an intense religious backlash against the occult, especially after the protestant reformation. The Occult philosophy drew liberally not just from Christian theology, but also from pagan and eastern beliefs.   Occult practice seems to have been both unorthodox and, apparently, threatening to the Church.   So the occult became identified with dark and sinister forces.  Its practitioners were subject to intense religious persecution.  They were often tortured and executed. Some historians even refer to the numerous witch-crazes of the period as a kind of holocaust.

            But let’s jump ahead to today.  Despite the dismissive attitude of people who may be overly awed by science, some apparently sane people still believe in the occult.  And thankfully, we don’t burn people at the stake for practicing a little witchcraft anymore.   And to top it off, we’re recording this episode on a Halloween Sunday.     For those reasons and more there couldn’t, I think, be a better thing for us at Philosophy Talk to be doing today than asking where our ideas of the occult came from and examining how those ideas got driven from the center of Western culture to its margins.  It should be a fun and fascinating hour.  But since neither John nor I is adept at either occult theory or occult practices, we’ve  used the white magic of radio to conjure ourselves up some help.   We’ll be joined by one the world leading experts on the history of occult theory and practice – that would be  Christopher Lehrich,  author of, The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice. It should be a fun and informative hour.  So why don’t you join us too? 


Comments (6)

Guest's picture


Saturday, October 30, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Nevermind the occult, some folks today think of ph

Nevermind the occult, some folks today think of philosophy as soft-headed, hippie-type, new-age superstition. Be this as it may, philosophy has achieved a measure of evolutionary respect in academic circles and among others of us who think and who think about that activity (thinking). It also makes for interesting conversation and exchange of ideas for those of us who tire quickly of college football; social networking;political campaigning and other cultural brouhaha.
But, all that said,fascination with the occult has stood the test of time. Why is this? Hard to determine with certainty, but I'll offer the simplest and perhaps most compelling opinion: maybe it is because we are soft-headed, new-age, superstitious hippie-types. Perhaps we still value mystery, intrigue and a sense of wonder about things we cannot rationally explain? Is this another example of historionic effect? Maybe so. Or maybe we have just gotten used to it---because that is one of the outcomes of historionic effect and one reason for its propensity to affect our will, cloud our minds and shape our cultures. It ties into and alters every aspect of who we are and what we do. More later...if the spirit moves me.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, November 1, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Occult philoso?hy? What? The stuff of black death,

Occult philoso?hy? What? The stuff of black death, superstition and general mayhem. This nonsense reminds us of our unenlightened primitivity and the unevolved state which we somehow revere as essential to that state in which we now reside. I think Heisenberg is right, somehow, with his theorem concerning what he calls historionic effect. I don't know what it is, but might know it if I saw it---or was that pornography?
You be the judge.

Guest's picture


Friday, November 12, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

On the statement concerning the relationship of th

On the statement concerning the relationship of the occult to modern science: Hitler lost and Yogi Berra said: when you come to a fork in the road, take it. The discovery and control of fire enabled us to survive the elements and cook our food, which enabled us to live better, longer and more comfortably. Thinking caused us to invent the occult; the inability to think clearly caused our superstitions. For every fork in the road we have taken, we have prospered and suffered, and this is how it is, has been and will be. Prove me wrong if you will. It won't matter, because we will all be dead by then. My garage is looking better with new paint and all.
Philosophers will remain social anomalies, as they have always been. Don't you hate when that happens? I know I do.

Guest's picture


Saturday, October 22, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Yesterday before the Colorado

Yesterday before the Colorado Buffaloes Oregon Ducks football game I asked people I encountered if when they got home they would try to find a stuffed duck or rubber duck and stick a pin in it for me. For personel reasons I dearly wished for a CO win. Alas either no one found a duck to stick or black magic doesn't work because the Ducks killed the Buffs in what some call a game.
Maybe you have to say a chant or something too, does anyone know?

Guest's picture


Wednesday, November 2, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

By chance I tuned in to the

By chance I tuned in to the latter part of your program discussing science and the occult with Christopher Lehrich. I thought he was very well informed and well spoken.
A point that is often overlooked in such discussions is that the most basic forces of nature that are studied by science, such as gravity and magnetism, are themselves magical and miraculous. The only difference between these forces and levitation, for example, is that the former are commonplace and seemingly inevitable, while the latter is either uncommon or nonexistenent, depending on whether or not you seem to have experienced it. If you play with the similar poles of two magnets and feel that uncanny, elastic, repulsive force, it is as magical and occult as anything you can imagine. It is clearly impossible, yet there it is! Scientists can describe it and measure the "force field" mathematically, but they cannot actually explain it. It just IS. The same with gravity. We experience it every moment, we take it for granted and call it WEIGHT. Only the experience of astronauts in orbit can pierce that illusion of "normalcy." There is no reason at all why bodies floating in space should attract each other. They just DO.
Even matter, that most solid and "normal" basis of everyday life, evaporates into incomprehensible entities that are more like "force fields" or "packets of energy" the deeper you investigate and dissect it. "Energy" itself is incomprehensible and inexplicable. It is just a word we use to denote something that is elusive and phantasmal, yet commonplace and inevitable.
In this very real sense, then, science is just the investigation, description, and measurement of everyday occult and magical reality.

Guest's picture


Saturday, November 19, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I have been more than ten

I have been more than ten years investigating on Abderrahman Ibn Khaldun's ideas and theories about supernatural perceptions, which come from the occult (al ghayb). It is in him a field very rich, with remarkable notes on methodology, reasoning, and philosophy of mind. Even if the perspective of him who approaches these themes in that author is not merely historical, it has something very interesting to say about the experiences in that field of a really strange reality. Among many things I have been struck with as curious on what he says about the supernatural, what is most astonishing is when he describes the behaviour and symptoms of people who will have supernatural revelations. Though he is talking about islamic people, and writes in the XIV century, many of the things he says could be acknowledged and approved by mystics and saints of many religions in the past and nowadays. The book in which he writes about these themes (in an incidental way, because he writes mainly about theory of history) is his famous Al-Muqaddima, at the end of the introduction, the 6th prefatory discussion.