Approach: Reverse-Engineering Complex Cultural Concepts

Reverse-Engineering “Esotericism”

“Esotericism” is identified as a “Complex Cultural Concept” (CCC). It does not have a stable referent across historical periods, discourse communities, or academic research programs, but instead takes on a number of different meanings (cf. Bergunder 2010; Asprem 2014). The first stage of the project employs a method of reverse-engineering CCCs (cf. Taves 2014) in order to break down the concept and identify basic building-blocks that can be studied with greater precision. An extensive literature review of definitions and conceptualizations of “esotericism” makes it possible to distinguish a number of nuclear families of approaches that share an interest in the same clusters of building blocks. This enables a building block approach (Taves 2010) to esotericism, which, essentially, disentangles the building blocks from their presumed overarching category (“esotericism”) and explores them in relation to other disciplinary formations (religious studies, cognitive science, psychology of religion). The exercise of reverse-engineering esotericism, then, gives us a clearer view of the different sorts of intellectual questions that the study of esotericism allows us to ask, and an opportunity to formulate those questions in an interdisciplinary language. By identifying more basic categories, it also sets the stage for robust comparative approaches.

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Asprem, Egil. 2014. “Beyond the West: Towards a New Comparativism in the Study of Esotericism.Correspondences: Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism 2.1: 3-33.

Bergunder, Michael. 2010. “What Is Esotericism? Cultural Studies Approaches and the Problems of Definition in Religious Studies.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22: 9-36.

Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taves, Ann. 2015 (in press). “Reverse Engineering Complex Cultural Concepts: Identifying Building Blocks of ‘Religion.’Journal of Cognition and Culture 14.3-4.