Western Esotericism and Methodology

Whew, I wrote eight and a half pages (about 2,800 words) of a draft of my final paper for my independent study in Western Esotericism today. If I can get this done this weekend, I can spend the next two weeks focusing on my research paper for the Greek class on the changing nature of the Soul from Homer to Plato. The paper today is on methodological discussions within the discipline focusing primarily on the work of Wouter Hanegraaff in defining an empirical approach to studying esotericism.

He uses an emic and etic distinction between practitioner and scholar viewpoints but argues for a certain amount of tolerance for subjectivitiy in the etic point of view. His big rationale for distinguishing between the two is that if scholars distinguish between emic source material and insider views and the etic theories or models construed on these emic views, other scholars can examine and criticize either the etic conclusions and models or the quality and nature of the emic source material separately. He sees the openness to criticism as necessary for the growth and improvement of the study of Western Esotericism as a discipline. Hanegraaff also distinguishes between three different motivations in scholars: pro-esoteric, anti-esoteric, and historical.

Some work that I have by Arthur Versluis builds on Hanegraaff’s work here (and Faivre’s definition of Western Esotericism) and adds a middle viewpoint between emic and etic which he calls the “sympathetic empiricist” viewpoint. He strongly discusses the dangers in reductionist etic viewpoints which he identifies with the anti-esoteric motivation (which is the motivation that studies esotericism to show how ignorant, wrong, or even evil it is).

I’m still considering altering my thesis topic from its original focus on whether Golden Dawn-derived groups in the 20th century qualify as a distinct religious entity unto themselves. I’m thinking that a focus on the methods and training of a 20th century Hermetic magician (as done by both Golden Dawn derived groups and the A.’.A.’.) might be more interesting. I cannot find a lot of literature (well…ok…any) that deals with the training program that most neophytes are required to progress through as magical practitioners. It seems a fruitful area of study and relatively untapped. My existing library would cover much of the source material.

I was considering work on the Cipher Manuscripts until I found out that an acquaintance on the Society for the Academic Study of Magic e-mail list had done her Master’s thesis in Australia on the topic already… I would like to get a copy of it though. The only other Master’s thesis that I’ve seen on the Golden Dawn is Christoper Chases’ on the Adeptus Minor ceremony which also covers the mapping of the Tree of Life onto the degrees, etc.