Research Stages

Esotericism as Cognition and Culture: Three Definitional Clusters

We can tease apart three major definitional traditions or clusters in the literature on esotericism: those that see esotericism as a special “form of thought”, mobilizing specific mental faculties in particular ways; those that see esotericism primarily as heterodox, “rejected knowledge”, produced through discursive struggles to define and authorize “proper knowledge”; those that see esotericism as relying on claims to higher knowledge, gnosis, or revelatory experiential events. In addition, there is also a strong definitional tradition that sees esotericism as connected to secrecy (e.g. Urban 1997; Urban 1998; cf. Hammer 2004). This approach has been less important in the historical literature that forms the basis of the present project. For this reason the “esotericism as secrecy” cluster is not afforded a separate research phase.

Phase One: Forms of Thought

The notion that esotericism denotes a historically grounded “form of thought” is associated with the influential work of the French historian Antoine Faivre (1994; 1996; 2010). According to this view, Western esotericism can be circumscribed as a corpus of religious, philosophical, and artistic works and their accompanying practices, springing from a common “form of thought”: a way of relating to the world that (1) relies on thinking in terms of correspondences, (2) affords special epistemic powers to the imagination and intermediary worlds and beings, (3) assumes the cosmos to be intrinsically alive, and (4) expects both the world and the self to undergo processes of profound transmutation. According to Faivre, these four characteristics are not points of doctrine, but rather a sort of mental habits that are, nevertheless, firmly embedded in the Weltanschauung of the Renaissance and the Early Modern period. Although heavily criticized (e.g. Hanegraaff 1995; von Stuckrad 2005; Bergunder 2010), the Faivrean model points towards intriguing links between the cognitive and the cultural that deserve further attention. More specifically, the Occult Minds project proposes that we can see the separate characteristics of the form of thought as building blocks rather than necessary and sufficient criteria for something to be “esoteric”. On this basis Phase One seeks to reframe the practices that have been considered “esoteric” by proposing a series of comparative exercises, and to theorize about both the broadly distributed cognitive mechanisms and the individual psychological and personality factors that may be involved in the generation of “esoteric” and “occult” representations.

Phase Two: Heterodox Knowledge

Through his recent work on the discursive genealogy of “esotericism” as a cultural category, Wouter J. Hanegraaff (2012) has renewed interest in the notion that esotericism is primarily a waste basket category for heterodox, rejected knowledge. On this view, the apparent unity of the field stems from historical processes during the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment through which certain religious practices, theological systems, philosophical views, and scientific approaches were extirpated from the authorized discourses of churches, states, and emerging scientific societies. Esotericism, then, is mostly about “the losers of history”. This perspective has its predecessors in older work on the occult (e.g. Webb 1971, 1976) and in some of the sociological work on alternative spirituality (i.e. Campbell 1972; Partridge 2004, 2005). A key challenge that this approach faces is to reconcile the “negative” structural definition that it essentially provides (esotericism as “the Other”) with “positive” substantive definitions. If there are, after all, substantive themes that dominate over others, why is that? Tools and theories from the cognitive science of religion can help answer these questions. The Occult Minds project seeks to place the rejected knowledge model in dialogue with the epidemilogy of representations (Sperber 1996), the modes of religiosity theory (Whitehouse 2004), and work on the salience and memorability of counter-schematic knowledge (Johnson, Kelly, and Bishop 2010).

Phase Three: Claims to Gnosis and Higher Knowledge

Another common element in definitions of esotericism, sometimes appearing in combination with the two above, is a focus on claims to higher or perfect knowledge of an experiential character – or claims that such knowledge is in principle obtainable through certain techniques. The element of “gnosis” or higher knowledge has been explored on a number of different theoretical grounds (compare Versluis 2002, 2007; von Stuckrad 2005; Hanegraaff 2008), indicating that epistemic practices involving “exceptional experiences” is a fundamental cluster of building blocks for esotericism. Phase Three of the project delves into the thorny issues of categorizing, explaining, and comparing “esoteric” experience events. Taking the building block approach seriously, we must situate the esoteric narratives in a broader context of experiences deemed “special” (Taves 2009), essentially destabilizing the analytic difference between categories such as “prophecy”, “revelation”, “mystical experience”, “Gnosis”, “trance”, “astral projection”, “artificial somnambulism”, or “dissociation”.

Expected Results

The research project on the whole is expected to result in a monograph. In addition, individual projects and related investigations should result in independent research articles and conference papers. Publication of results are tracked here, and other developments of the project are recorded in the blog.



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.

Campbell, Colin. 1972. “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularisation.” A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5: 119-136.

Faivre, Antoine. 1994. Access to Western Esotericism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Faivre, Antoine. 2010. Western Esotericism: A Concise History. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hammer, Olav. 2004. “Esotericism in New Religious Movements.” In The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, edited by James R. Lewis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 1995. “Empirical Method in the Study of Esotericism.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 7.2: 99-129.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2008. “Reason, Faith, and Gnosis: Potentials and Problematics of a Typological Construct.” In Peter Meusbuger Michael Welker, Edgar Wunder (eds.), Clashes of Knowledge: Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in Science and Religion, 133-144. Klaus Tschira Stiftung / Springer.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, Claire V. M., Steve W. Kelly, and Paul Bishop. 2010. “Measuring the Mnemonic Advantage of Counter-Intuitive and Counter-Schematic Concepts.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 10: 109-121.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford and Malden: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Stuckrad, Kocku von. 2005. “Western Esotericism: Towards an Integrative Model of Interpretation.” Religion 34: 78-97.

Stuckrad, Kocku von.2008. “Esoteric Discourse and the European History of Religion: In Search of a New Interpretational Framework.” In Western Esotericism: Based on Papers Read at the Symposium on Western Esotericism, held at Åbo, Finland on 15-17 August 2007, edited by Tore Ahlbäck. Åbo: Donne Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History.

Stuckrad, Kocku von. 2010. Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Esoteric Discourse and Western Identities. Leiden: Brill.

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

Urban, Hugh. 1997. “Elitism and Esotericism: Strategies of Secrecy and Power in South Indian Tantra and French Freemasonry.” Numen 44: 1-38.

Urban, Hugh. 1998. “The Torment of Secrecy: Ethical and Epistemological Problems in the Study of Esoteric Traditions.” History of Religions 37.3 (1998): 209-248.

Versluis, Arthur. 2002. “What is Esoteric? Methods in the Study of Western Esotericism.” Esoterica 4 (2002): 1-15.

Versluis, Arthur. 2007. Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esoteric Traditions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Webb, James. 1971. The Flight from Reason. London: Macdonald.

Webb, James. 1976. The Occult Establishment. La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company.

Whitehouse, Harvey. 2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.