Introduction: Esotericism as Cognition and Culture

Introduction to the Project

The Occult Minds project brings together the academic study of Western esotericism and the cognitive science of religion (CSR). The literature on esotericism is riddled with exceptional experiential claims and apparently anomalous cognitive processes, and the concept itself has even been defined as a “form of thought”. Yet, researchers have seldom attempted to bring these aspects into coherence with relevant theoretical work in the study of religion at large. This project analyses the cognitive and psychological “building blocks” of esotericism and “the occult”, relating these to current cognitive theories of religion and to ongoing discussions about relating cognitive and cultural levels of explanation. By doing this, the project seeks not only to develop a more refined and up to date framework for defining and analysing “esotericism”; it also aims to provide intriguing test cases for current CSR theories. While CSR focuses on how “normal” and assumed universal cognitive structures constrain the production, recall, and dissemination of religious representations, a close study of esoteric experiential practices must also focus on individual, non-universal elements as part of the generative mechanisms. As a field whose central theoretical and methodological debates have focused on issues of historiography and discourse theory, putting esotericism in dialogue with the cognitive science of religion provides a promising opportunity to explore robust and reflective cognitive-cultural models of explanation and interpretation.

(See project description on the NWO website.)

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