Faculty of Humanities
University of Amsterdam

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Faculty of Humanities
University of Amsterdam

Esotericism in the Academy

Western esotericism | Between science, religion, and philosophy.

What is Esotericism?

From ancient gnosis to contemporary occulture

The term “esotericism” covers a wide spectrum of currents in Mediterranean, Eurasian, and now global cultural history. As an umbrella term that intends to highlight connections and developments over a long period, from antiquity to the present day, Esotericism includes phenomena as varied as Gnosticism, Hermetism, Neoplatonism, theurgy, astrology, alchemy, natural magic, Christian Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, Christian Theosophy and Illuminism, the currents of modern Occultism, Spiritualism, Traditionalism, the New Age movement, Neopaganism, ritual magical groups, and a host of contemporary alternative spiritualities and forms of popular “occulture.” In short, esotericism cuts through established boundaries of religion, science, art, and philosophy. As an academic field of study, esotericism is therefore a highly interdisciplinary enterprise.

Between, betwixt, and beyond religion and science

One of the objectives of the academic study of esotericism is to rid it of the biases that have attached negative even pejorative connotations to all things esoteric and occult, emerging from the Age of Enlightenment’s paradigms of rationality that privilege Kantian intellectual individualism, Cartesian notions of natural sciences, empiricism, industrialization, and imperial incentives. The works of our staff have shown that much of what we now study under the rubrics of medieval and early modern esotericism and the occult sciences (alchemy, astrology, magic, and divination)—was challenged by the dominant intellectual canons and curricula in the wake of the “Scientific Revolution.” As a result, the focus had been given to esoteric currents active in the so-called West as encapsulated by the foundational works of Antoine Faivre and Wouter Hanegraaff who currently holds the chair of the department.
The founding of the Centre for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, and the establishment of active scholarly networks—especially ESSWE—cemented a field under the name “Western esotericism,” generating a field-defining discourse. The success of the department and the field overall has opened the door for more historical and theoretical perspectives that are diversifying and globalising the study of Esotericism with exciting results. This has been most recently reflected in the addition of two positions for the medieval and ancient periods, including an emphasis on Islam. Organically, thus, HHP now expands to engage with esoteric and occult currents beyond the boundaries of “The West” and study esotericism and the occult sciences in terms of culturally divergent entanglements.

The quest for higher knowledge

Esotericism is typically associated with special forms of revelatory knowledge. Esoteric practitioners are found searching for personal and transformative higher knowledge in the form of revelations, spiritual insights, or what some scholars refer to as gnōsis (Greek for “knowledge”). The attainment of revelatory knowledge has been associated with exalted visionary experiences, sometimes resulting in symbolic and mythical representations that have inspired provocative artistic and literary expressions. The quest for revelation can (and does!) take countless forms, from contemplative practices and intense textual study, to elaborate rituals and the sacramental ingestion of hallucinogenic substances in contemporary neoshamanic practices.
History of Hermetic Philosophy Amsterdam

Secrecy, initiation, ritual

Esotericism often involves practices of secrecy. Any history of esotericism deals in part with initiatory societies that seek to conceal their inner doctrines and rituals from the gaze of profane outsiders. Contrary to popular belief, such groups are not usually driven by a desire to form secret social bonds and engage in conspiracies. Rather, in many cases the practice of secrecy tends to be concerned with the pedagogical function of initiation and establishing reading and practice communities. Esoteric initiation rituals are aimed at inducing life-altering and transformative experiences in the practitioner and are typically connected to the quest for higher knowledge about the divine, the self, and the world.

The occult sciences

Central to the study of esotericism are the occult sciences which typically include astrology, magic (natural, astral, and ceremonial), alchemy, and divination (geomancy, physiognomy, dream interpretation, etc.). To many esoteric currents the occult sciences are considered to be the application of esoteric wisdom. Hermes Trismegistus in particular has come to symbolize the intersection of the esoteric and the occult in the pursuit of self-divinization.
Some Neoplatonic philosophers associated magic with the practice of “theurgy” and its aspiration of bringing the soul in communion with the divine. We emphasize in the department that within scientific, philosophical, and religious discourses, the occult sciences co-produce knowledge on nature (terrestrial and celestial), the divine, and the human and the application of such knowledge.

A unique opportunity

Esotericism is a highly complex and intellectually challenging area of study. Scholars and students are asked to reconsider categories and narratives that are largely taken for granted in the established disciplines of the humanities. Studying the history of Esotericism leads us to question and deconstruct intellectual and religious canons by focusing on a wide range of figures, philosophies, movements and practices that occupy the contested margins of Mediterranean, Eurasian, and global culture. Plunging into the unknown depths of esoteric discourses throughout history provides a unique opportunity to gain new perspectives on our common history and culture.

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