The Occult Philosophy

Sunday, October 31, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, October 31, 2010

What Is It

The occult is routinely dismissed in our times as the province of quacks, the irrational, and the superstitious.  But during the Renaissance, many of the best minds in Europe studied the philosophy and science of the occult.  The period witnessed an outpouring of systematic philosophical and scientific treatises on the occult.  References to the occult pervade the works of Shakespeare and other literary writers of the time.  Many scholars believe that The Occult Philosophy and the Occult Sciences, with their search for hidden causes, played a decisive role in the rise of modern science.  In this special Halloween week episode, John and Ken delve into the Occult Philosophy with Christopher Lehrich from Boston University, author of The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice.

Listening Notes

Jon and Ken begin the show by pointing out that alchemy and astrology were actively studied during the Renaissance by some of the brightest thinkers in Europe. In fact, some historians consider the study of the occult to have had a profound influence on the development of modern science as we know it, with both pursuits sharing the goal of illuminating hidden causal connections between objects of experience. Despite this similarity, the two endeavors differ in their methods of inquiry. The hosts ponder modern science’s attitudes toward its mystical predecessor and whether these attitudes are justified. 

Christopher Lehrich joins the discussion, suggesting that the distinction between the study of nature and the study of God is a relatively recent development in the history of Western thought, beginning only in the eighteenth century. Accordingly, reading works now considered to be historically significant occult texts requires careful examination of the contexts in which they were created. Lehrich argues that, although the quest for occult wisdom was common, it was never the dominant strand of thought. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, Luther and Calvin denounced heterodox practices, initiating the steady decline of the practice of occult philosophy. 

Jon and Ken consider the importance of language in various spiritual systems of belief. One caller suggests that philosophers’ creation of technical vocabularies for describing the world around them is akin to a form of magic, drawing new concepts from thin air. Lehrich concludes with the assertion that thinkers like Newton would take issue with modern science’s obsessive focus on material facts and its deliberate ignorance of the spiritual realm.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:03): Angela Kilduff talks with Glenn Turner, owner of Ancient Ways, a pagan and metaphysical store in Oakland, California, about people’s growing interest in the occult. Turner discusses and the compatibility between spiritual and scientific beliefs, noting that many topics of investigation once considered mystical in nature have since been given scientific explanations. Science may even eventually be able to offer explanations of seemingly supernatural phenomena, from ghosts to telepathy.
  • Philosophy Talk Goes to the Movies (seek to 42:02): Jon and Ken discuss Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the numerous philosophical issues it raises, from the dream argument for skepticism to the nature of the unconscious.


Comments (4)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, September 17, 2021 -- 7:14 AM

So, if study of the occult

So, if study of the occult DOES lead to advance in the sciences, that might also suggest that metaphysics does likewise? I don't know. Just been jootsing it a little. There are cases where 'wild-ass guessing' has led to amazing discovery. All this could also lead to a notion that interrelatedness is essential for things to work in an optimal way. And, as stated by my now-retired DO, it is all connected---all are parts of the same piece: take one segment away, the whole thing grinds downward.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, October 7, 2021 -- 6:49 PM

Occultism is a holist

Occultism is a holist philosophy, putatively tied to ancient wisdom and sourced in mystic experience. Christopher Lehrich presents the occult as a style (I'm not sure if that qualifies thought or appeals to an aesthetic, or both – Ken and John didn't follow.) That is a radical rethink as previously I had thought of mystic philosophy as canons that would rise and fall but ultimately transmuted as science found footing; Astrology to Astronomy, Alchemy to Chemistry. That waves of the occult canon persisted to modern-day implied science hadn't broached (maybe can never broach) our ultimate origins and human experience. But if occultism is a style. Hmm. I don't know.

Science can never disprove a style, but occult style can quickly diffuse human thought. Fiction, computer, and role-playing games infuse our modern childhoods. Harry Potter is required reading to understand our children (and fun in a muggle sort of way.) Philosophy will never be rid of occultism when the study of magic, mysticism, and esoterica has to force an academic approach to what was an authentic and unquestioned style in the middle ages and before.

I wonder if the remains of our engineered world will cast the same spell as Hermes Trismegistus and the pyramids did to the ancient and middle age worlds.

As a child, I did a fair bit of fantasy role play and read 'The Sword and the Stone' (my favorite childhood book next to 'Stuart Little'). I also didn't realize the history of the Tarot, the Masonic and New Age movements. There is a call to occultism that is appealing and satisfying in its completeness. There will likely be more and other forms of it going forward, even in the best scientific case.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 31, 2022 -- 4:55 AM

One meaning assigned to

One meaning assigned to occult is: hidden. Humans are an inquisitive lot. Insofar as this has been the case, I think it characteristic that early people, wishing to examine all possibilities, also considered occult practice and thinking, when thinking about philosophy. They, too, questioned many things...not wishing to leave possibilities untapped; stones, unturned. It is not so surprising then.

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Daniel's picture


Sunday, July 10, 2022 -- 11:39 AM

Hobbes' nominalist mechanism

Hobbes' nominalist mechanism constitutes a direct attack against occult causes and action at a distance. In this view, a token reference extended over all members of a set is equivalent to the claim that a miracle has occurred, so that many different things are brought into contact with the mind, which must also be ala Hobbes a kind of material thing, by reaching towards only a single one. Identification of set-membership is understood as proximate use of identical terms for different significations, so that different objects are signified by identical names and become practical bundles rather than theoretical sets analogous to those in mathematics. So there are universals, but not beyond the name itself which, only when put to use in signification, can really be said to exist; while that which it brings into distinct notice is a radical individual. The peril in such a view is that the truth of something comes to depend on what you call it, so that even the truths of mathematics would seem to be optional. The defense here would seem to be that the things themselves determine what they ought to be called, even if mistakes can be made in choosing their names. How is this so different from the alchemy of Paracelsus? Couldn't lead be called "gold" with equal accuracy under conditions of strict ostensive definition?

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