The Occult Philosophy

Sunday, October 30, 2011
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.

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Christopher Lehrich, Professor of Religion, Boston University


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