Philosophy of the Occult?
April 4, 2013 4:00 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for books investigating the occult as a phenomenon, its history, and its possibilities. Maybe that sounds simple, but I'm also picky.

What I mean is that I'm looking for something that is not surgically analytical, but philosophical & open to moving outside of/beyond established Western "sociological" and pseudo-scientific ways of discussing these things, perhaps even rationalist frameworks altogether. A meditation, with history of course, on its meaning moreso than a journal article, let's say (thou that stuff can be helpful).

The closest I could possibly think of, which is a powerful read even with its flaws, would be George Bataille's Erotism. A kind of text I am not looking for but which definitely is a step in the right direction would be the Beyond Rationalism collection. Perhaps like a verison of Talal Asad's sweeping Genealogies of Religion, an ambitious but fiercely intelligent text...and political insofar as anything else would be delusional, but not artless, perhaps like Rancière or better yet, Barthes.

I am less interested in texts trying to "disprove" this or that aspect of occultism and moreso in those that let its inherent contradictions rise to the surface as they delve into the historical role of these practices and how they've served to craft different kinds of subjective experiences over the ages.

I feel like my dream text is out there, and if I close my eyes and wish it three times it'll appear...oh, say it's so!
posted by parkbench to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not 100% sure I understand your description, but some keywords led me to think of these books:

1) A short book that explores the Salem Witch Hunts relative to the social and political changes happening in the area. It's philosophical in that it looks at the greater context of the events, rather than addressing whether they were "true" or not.
Boyer, P., and S. Nissenbaum. Salem Posessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974. ISBN: 9780674785328

2) A much heavier book that considers events of visions and trances and stigmata and other supernatural events during particular periods in Spanish history (mostly the mid-20th century). The author explores different kinds of visions and how they affect the community around them. There is some discussion about how/if/whether certain events were known to be hoaxes, but not in a manner of "disproving" so much as that information (hoax or not) also affects the "audience" (community).
Christian, William. Visionaries: The Spanish Republic in the Reign of Christ. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999, pp. 13-40, 243-254, and 287-301. ISBN: 9780520219489.

Both of them are books that came from a craft on Witchcraft, the occult, and society, which is on Open Courseware. The book on Sand Mountain is very enjoyable but perhaps too popular-press for your interests. Some others may also fit your interests but I cannot distinguish them well enough now to remember which ones to point out.
posted by whatzit at 4:17 AM on April 4, 2013

Have you looked at Agrippa von Nettesheim and his books?
posted by MansRiot at 4:19 AM on April 4, 2013

You might get something out of Colin Wilson's The Occult. Bit of a potted history, but it's a readable and personal response to some of the people and ideas.
posted by crocomancer at 4:37 AM on April 4, 2013

I think you would really get a lot of what you're looking for in the work of Jeffrey Kripal of Duke University, who has an unusual combination of scholarly erudition and deep openness towards his topic. See especially his book Authors of the Impossible: THe Paranormal and the Sacred. ALso you might be interested in his book Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal. Sorry I can't link, but it's very available and has reviews on amazon, etc.
posted by third rail at 4:41 AM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Check out Gary Lachman's new biography of Helena Blavatsky.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 5:03 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

SUNY Press has a long-running series, Studies in Western Esoteric Traditions, which might have some titles of interest. For instance, there's Antoine Fevre's Western Esotericism: A Concise History (2010) and Wouter J. Hannegraff's New Age Religion and Western Culture (1998). I never had too much luck getting through the latter, but it's worth a try, anyway: it's an extremely comprehensive historical survey that attempts to identify and systematise categories of belief. Good luck!
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:09 AM on April 4, 2013

Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation by Mitch Horowitz.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:08 AM on April 4, 2013

Are you in London? Is there any chance you could get to London? Because your best chance of researching something like this properly is to go to Treadwell's bookshop in London and speak to Christina Oakley-Harrington, who will recommend a stack of books as long as your arm and tell you how to get hold of them.
posted by Acheman at 6:27 AM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not really sure what you're describing, necessarily, but have you read Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti? She was a 20th-century avant-garde filmmaker who went to Haiti to make an ethnographic film about sacred dance, and ended up participating in a lot of the rituals. It's not a Western esoteric tradition, but she walks an interesting line between new convert, ethnographer, and philosopher discussing the need for experiences such as religious possession.

I haven't read Peter Levenda's Sinister Forces series, but I've heard it's super-ridiculous entertaining and full of things that are obviously actual coincidences rather than "evidence of occult threads in American history", but it will make you think very long and very hard about the human brain and culture's ability to find evidence of magic where there is none. Maybe try either of those?
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:06 AM on April 4, 2013

Look up "Advanced Magick for Beginners," by Alan Chapman. More than just a guidebook, a personal history, or an academic text, but somehow contains the most useful parts of all those things.
posted by BE ADEQUITE at 8:23 AM on April 4, 2013

The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers by James Webb fits as a "meditation, with history of course, on its meaning" for that particular corner of occult philosophy. It's a well referenced and readable book by a historian whose conflicted feelings about the figure of Gurdjieff and his work enchances rather than detracts from the quality of the text. The introduction would probably be enough to gauge whether it's worth your time.
posted by Lorin at 8:26 AM on April 4, 2013

I would suggest tracking down Alfred Vitale's article Method of Science, Aim of Religion.

I can't find a link, but it is referenced in this article

In part, it is a critique of the Fevre's and Hannegraff's perspectives.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:38 AM on April 4, 2013

You can also find Alfred Vitale discussing occultism in the podcast archives if Thelema Coast to Coast

And I suggest The Occult Mind:Magic in Theory and Practice by Christopher Lehrich which has been described as a "serious text for occult scholars."
posted by vitabellosi at 8:50 AM on April 4, 2013

The current free ebook of the month from the Univ. of Chicago Press seems like it be on point:

The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations by STEPHEN E. BRAUDE (Prof. of Philosophy at Univ. of Maryland)

Download link here:
posted by woodman at 9:31 AM on April 4, 2013

Everything by Frances Yates
posted by mumimor at 1:29 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was coming in to suggest Frances Yates; the books about witchcraft by Carlo Ginzburg are also worth looking into.
posted by rjs at 1:41 PM on April 4, 2013

If you're open to fiction, you might also want to read Foucault's pendulum.
posted by rjs at 1:45 PM on April 4, 2013

I believe the one book which most closely fits is Manyl Hall The Secret Teachings of All Ages. It has a little of everything in 750 packed pages. You can get a used copy dirt cheap and it's online for free at sacred texts .com.
posted by bukvich at 3:40 PM on April 4, 2013

The Library of Congress catalog is your best friend. I just did a quick search using 'occult philosophy' as keywords and chose the first entry which is Index to Agrippa's Occult philosophy or magic. Book 1, Natural magic / by Fraer Zaratrhustra. Under Full Record tab you will see Subject heading links (also in the MARC records tab but not active links). Using a few suggestions above, or your own, you can then leapfrog around and find some of interest: Look at this previous Agrippa book for example. Subject heading links are Magic --Early works to 1800 --Indexes which will take you here and the other is Occultism --Early works to 1900 --Indexes, which will take you here. So, just using one book, you then have some options. I hope this helps. I'm a librarian geek so I find it useful and fun. Depending on your local public or university libary, they can try to find some of the books (unless rare) via interlibrary loan or digitally, depending. I would go into databases you could access but this is probably enough, I hope. I used this to find out how many JFK assassination books were written and...well that is a very large number, bukvich. The answer is TOO MANY. Feel free to memail the books you like. It is an interest I have wanted to pursue.
posted by snap_dragon at 5:40 PM on April 14, 2013

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