How to speak of demons?

IMG_2221[1]Demons. Not a common subject for a philosopher. Derrida wrote of ghosts, but that is not exactly the same. Ghosts haunt, and it is a matter of moral and psychic health to deal with them. If we do not deal with them, if we ignore them or try to conjure them by declaring they don’t exist, we might lose something, we might bring ourselves into danger, but that is not immediately certain. It is a matter of dispute or doubt. Not so with demons. They do more than haunt – they harass, and sometimes very violently. They represent spirits of a still more active and agressive kind. So why are they no subject in philosophy? Is it because they are so intimately connected to ancient (not modern!) theological discourse? A discourse that is commonly viewed to have meaning solely as a part of our cultural history.They are no longer considered a topic of belief, neither from a scientific, nor from a religious viewpoint. When they appear, it is only in the experience of some individual who suffers from them, and an individual who feels he or she should use this ancient name to address what or who harasses.

Having enjoyed, some weeks ago, Felicitas Goodman’s book on spirits, I thought I might try this other title of her, an older book, on the Anneliese Michel case. Even I, who has written several articles and a book on ghosts, felt some hesitation toward the subject – that of a young woman who suffered from demonic possession, and who after a long and difficult search for a cure, through medicine and through exorcism, died, exhausted, it seemed, at the age of twenty-four. I must have heard from the case, perhaps even when it happened, in 1976, as it resulted in juridical procedure against the Roman-catholic priests who conducted the exorcism, and against the parents. All four were convicted of having caused her death by neglect of her physical well-being. More, it resulted in a difficult process of reflection in the Roman-catholic church on the centuries old ritual of exorcism, and a formal change in its approach toward it. My hesitation might have stemmed from that time, when ‘everyone’ shared the view that exorcism was outdated, and that to believe in demons was superstitious (although large crowds went to see the movie The Exorcist) – while I myself would have never wanted to declare someone’s genuine experience away like that. For that I respected experience too much.

I enjoyed this book by Goodman, as I did the other one. She has written down her research in the case almost in the style of a detective novel, and with much respect for the people, dead and alive, who played their role in the drama. As a philosopher, I was curious what her book might contribute to extending reflective discourse to include such phenomena as possession by evil spirits. There are some positive and some negative points to be made in this respect. Positive is her stance that all experience is natural, and connected to observable and potentially understandable phenomena. We do not need mystery, nor talk about the ‘supernatural’ to speak about demons. In her 1981 book, she precedes a development that has gained much in attention as well as in technical possibilities of observation – that of researching the brain processes that go along with these experiences. Although in her book much is still hypothetical in this respect, there is a good chance that the newest measuring techniques could corroborate her view that negative religious experiences, as well as positive ones, are related to certain brain processes. Processes that, in the case of demonic possession, have gone out of control.

Very positive is also how she connects the brain hypothesis with her knowledge of cultural anthropology. Ancient rituals, she argues, comprise not only potent instruments to induce positive possession experiences, used to heal afflictions, but also those that can halt and transform situations of negative possession. They do so by altering the brain processes through means of repetitive sounds and movements (drumming, praying, dancing), by addressing the afflicted psyche in it’s possessed aspect (speaking to the demons, finding out their names, summoning them to leave). Although the rituals may vary widely as to their belief system and practices, they share common features that do real work on the afflicted brain. According to Goodman. Finally she preceded another development, that of a growing hesitancy to think that all psychic afflictions can simply be cured by medication. Revolutionary is her attempt to even describe the effects of medication that messes with the brain in the terminology of possession – where she puts forward the hypothesis that the demons that harass Anneliese in the final stage of her life, the ones who are silent, are the individualized forms of the effects of her medication.

While I find Goodman’s approach interesting for bridging modern and ancient approaches, promising the possibility to combine brain research and cultural anthropological observations – I see some serious lacunae in her approach too. She makes only short references to the psychological aspects in Anneliese’s affliction, like the possible influence of the early death of an older sibling. She doesn’t analyse the possibility that the grief of the parents might have summoned up, in their southern German catholic life world, experiences of evil forces, of a curse, or of something that should be atoned for – that were taken upon herself by the second oldest daughter, Anneliese. Neither does she probe into that political-historical aspect of the case (even while Adolf Hitler is one of the demons said to harass Anneliese) – that of the collective need for atonement among young Germans of the post-war generations. The same need that made some turn to protest and even violence, like the members and sympathethizers of the Rote Armee Fraktion.

When demons appear in some individual’s life, this should not just be a problem for that person, or his close relatives. As it is likely that there is some social and political wrong, searching it’s expression and demanding a ritualistic handling by appearing in an extreme fashion in a highly sensitive individual, like Anneliese apparently was. In this individual the horrors of (recent) history ask for attention – in order for society to go through a process of reconciliation and healing. But when one leaves the social and political aspect out of the analysis, one leaves the individual alone in her suffering, as was the case, I think, with Anneliese, who in the end bore with her suffering by interpreting herself as having to sacrifice her happiness and even her life to save others. This of course was a mental way out for her, as it is for some others (nowadays there are those who make pilgrimage to her grave just because of this supposed sacrifice she made). To my view there are more promising ways to deal with the horrors of war and genocide – ways that look the psychological and political aspects in the eye. They are more difficult to imply, as they ask for collective involvement of the wider society. But they might expell the demons that brought normal human beings to kill, torture, or look the other way, in a more lasting way.


The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas Goodman, Resource Publications, Eugene, 1981, inspired two movies, Requiem, from 2007 (in German) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2006)

  1. onesis said:

    Angela, first up, may I say, I like how you develop a friendship with your readers, by making philosophy accessible.

    I am currently engaged with a group of “traditional” Aboriginal people in far northern Australia. I use the word “traditional” in inverted commas to signify that they live in houses these days, whereas their ancestors lived in bark and fibre dwellings in a rainforest. I am in the process (a lengthy one, it turns out) of trying to be friends with them. The forest that still remains, for them, is the location of their ancestral spirits. We are talking about something real here, because what the ancestral spirits “say” is real for them, and something I really have to come to terms with. One of the “spiritual” powers that traditional Aboriginal people have, is to be able to project very strong thought formations at people they wish to influence. And typically what they project, is what the ancestral spirits are saying to them.

    I haven’t come across philosophers discussing ancestral spirits, but you are not alone in discussing demons, and this provides me with an entry point to raise some more of the ethical dilemmas posed by this whole spiritual dimension.

    There is an interesting discussion by Terence Blake about Deleuze’s thoughts on gods and demons: See

    Blake notes that: “Deleuze prefers to speak of demons rather than gods, as gods are too often used in a way that is too codified and too territorialised: “Demons are different from gods, because gods have fixed attributes, properties and functions, territories and codes…What demons do is jump across intervals, and from one interval to another.”

    My contact with traditional Aboriginals posed me with something of a dilemma. The critical question was whether I should treat their ancestral spirits as gods or demons. I resolved the dilemma by treating them as gods, indeed as being codified and territorialised. It gave me a way of being able to bar their access to my house (it is no longer their territory) and to not place me under the sway of their code (Law and Lore). Doing this was a matter of not allowing them access to my mind whilst I am living in my own home. Being able to control one’s thoughts is one of the practical achievements of becoming a philosopher. This enables me to go about my work, as someone who works more broadly in ethics, rather than either as an ally or an enemy of a particular group of people with actual political aspirations to regain control of their former territories. Of course, once we are in conversation, the situation becomes complex very quickly, and we need to take considerable time out to consider our next moves.

    I wish to remain friends without having a political affiliation, or a spiritual one, with them. The only way to do this is declare a space for ethics, that is about dialogue between two entirely different cultures, without privileging one side or the other. We much each be able to claim certain territorial rights, in order to go on living. Just what these rights are, beyond that, is up for negotiation.

    My point, in this lengthy response, is that the philosophical interest in the realm of gods and demons, has many real life applications, and as interesting as that all is, it goes way beyond matters to do with exorcism. So thank you for opening up the topic!

  2. Thanks, very much, David, for your lengthy response, and your kind words about my blog (you, my readers are the ones who I am thankful toward every time I write a post – the reactions and, yes, friendships, create a real space for dialogue and development of thought – a bit like the negotiation space you speak about in your answer, perhaps 🙂 ).

    I am very interested in your experimental friendship with a people that has been chased and wounded very badly – and I would like to write you more of my questions and thoughts about this in an email.

    As for the spiritual beings – after having written my book on ghosts/spirits (2011) – which is actually about the relationship of modern western philosophy with spiritual beings – I realised that if ‘we’ (those raised in the modern western web of texts and thoughts) want to start to think again about spiritual beings – after having declared them to be non-existent for about three centuries – the first thing is to learn to distinguish again. We have so many words from different cultures (ancestors, spirits, djinns, angels, demons, gods, etc.), and then colonial, ugly, words too (magic, primitive, occult) – and finding out how one wants to use these words in the first place is going through a lot of confusion.

    My hunch is that ‘we’ (the post-modern newcomers in the globalizing web of discourses on spiritual beings) should not try to reduce our subject matter too quickly – like deciding whether some beings are demons or gods (although what you did in your actual circumstances to protect your house seems to have worked very well, so to be pragmatically true). My hunch, again, is that there are very different phenomena, who should get different names. Benevolent ancestors are, to my view, something very different from anonymous develish figures who disturb sleep, and ‘God’ (the one who monotheists believe in) is something different from local ‘deities’, ‘sanctified local heroes’. Then there are holy places, heavenly journeys, pits of despair, and all kinds of psychic spatial phenomena. In several religions phenomena can be described very differently – what to do with that?

    After having written this post, and rereading it with an imaginery reader in mind, I though one might describe my position as post-Enlightenment, or post-modernist – in the sense, that I make use of what Enlightenment and modernism brought: the attempt to describe experiences in some sort of universal, or at least non-local, language, but all the same take traditionalist descriptions of phenomena (that are more local and particularistic) serious in what they have to offer to a dialogue (and for providing a critical viewpoint) with the non-local discourse.

    And, yes, I follow Terence Blake’s work, as he researches into questions very much related to the ones I research, and then partly from a different background of reading.

    And finally: I realized that in Plato’s description of Socrates’ conversations with his ‘daimoon’, the demon had nothing evil in him, but was more like what we would now call conscience…

  3. onesis said:

    Angela, I’m responding here to your writing: “My hunch is that ‘we’ (the post-modern newcomers in the globalizing web of discourses on spiritual beings) should not try to reduce our subject matter too quickly – like deciding whether some beings are demons or gods (although what you did in your actual circumstances to protect your house seems to have worked very well, so to be pragmatically true). My hunch, again, is that there are very different phenomena, who should get different names.”

    Yes! What actually is going on behind the scenes of my writing is the coming together of several very different modes of understanding. In the brief space available to me I was attempting a synthesis of these modes to get an intelligible message across to a wide and variable audience. This inevitably violates my subject matter, of which I’m acutely and painfully aware.

    I thought what Deleuze (via Blake) had to say about the difference between gods and demons was a useful place to start (but not to finish of course). And might I say the pragmatic option can too often signify an end to philosophical inquiry, when actually, it is only a beginning. I am no big fan of pragmatism, particularly when used as a shut down on philosophical inquiry.

    The issue for me was whether the psychic energy (for want of a better term) was an actual invasion of my space, or a message from afar, by way of a disturbance in my thoughts and dreams. I did not know at the time. It turns out that it was a message from a territorial agency (a “god”) rather than an actual invasion, something leaping across boundaries (a “demon”).

    Since then I’ve been engaged in more rationally manageable techniques of sending and receiving messages, such as phone and email conversations with the people involved. This is sorted out where we stand vis-a-vis each other, and in so doing has contributed to opening a space for further face to face dialogue.

    Sorting out the ontological questions on my home turf was of course just part and parcel of an ethical engagement with traditional Aboriginal people (who have their own names, methods and rationales, for what we are discussing here) which in turn is part of a bigger political issue, one that goes far beyond any local engagements I might have.

  4. Thanks for your elaboration, David. Trying to dialogue with ‘traditional’ ontologies is a vast field yet to explore. ‘We’ have hardly begun to listen to these ‘names, methods and rationales’ you mention, and in that sense those trained in modern ways of knowing and doing (I am speaking of myself especially) are like toddlers over against ‘them’, I think.

    What all humans share are ways to open conversations with strangers, and that is where you apparently are – in a dialogue. Something to handle with care.

    Just one more remark: when saying that you are no fan of pragmatism, you can not refer to good old William James, I hope, as he was the most important philosopher when we want to make a beginning to understand the spiritual realm once more… see this older post:

  5. onesis said:

    Angela, Having read your post about what James had to say just before his death, this can hardly be “representative” of what passes for pragmatism, which is, in my experience, is a crass refusal to investigate any further than what a consensus of intelligent “men” have agreed to be true (my poor rendition of a statement attributed to Pierce).

    I have said several times to people who tell me that they are pragmatists, that pragmatism is the end of philosophy. Not one of them has ever asked me: why do you think that?

    I’ll tell you why I think that. There is no questioning, by pragmatists, or any that I have come across, of the word “we”. Who are we?

    Not, I wish to maintain, those educated in pragmatism. We are those who have no idea of who “we” are.

    • Thanks. Your answer gives me new enthusiasm to write more on James in English (I just handed in an article on his thoughts on spirits in German – I might put some energy in rewriting and translating it)!

  6. onesis said:

    In your James post, you quote: ‘the philosophy of the future’ must take ‘the actual peculiarities of the world […] more and more elaborately into account.’

    One might suppose that philosophies take three forms: traditionalist, modernist, and futurist. Perhaps pragmatism takes these forms also; or else those who call themselves pragmatic are implicitly thinking (interpreting each other) in one these ways predominantly.

    So, for example, where you described my decision re ‘gods or demons?’ in the protection of my house as ‘pragmatic’, your interpretation (perhaps?) was of one who lacks the appropriate language to describe the actual peculiarities of the world, and settles for a traditionalist ontology, as drawn from European culture. And of course without further elaboration, you would be forgiven for doing so.

    Interesting, the label ‘pragmatic’. What is its signification? I wonder if the term ‘pragmatic’ could be used (not just by yourself but by anyone), quite variably, to describe one who (a) settles for a traditional ontology, just to get along, or (b) avoids traditional ontologies altogether, seeking a scientific analysis, just to get along, or (c) seeks a more elaborate account of the world, just to get along.

    The commonality is getting along, or as you write “strung along”. But then, look what’s happened. Everyone is being pragmatic, and no one has any sense of being who they are in themselves, and we know nothing of each other apart from the very brief encounters we allow ourselves in the effort to get along. (Yes, the term “in themselves” is problematic, but not impossible to give an account.)

    Perhaps one of the virtues that traditional Aboriginal people demonstrate is that they want to stick to what they have known for the past 40 thousand years. Some of them are simply refusing to ‘get along’ with outsiders any longer. Perhaps this is post-pragmatism, and I think in some ways, it is admirable. But then it leaves others with the problem of how to get along with them. Well, if we too have a post-pragmatic option, of not getting along, without at the same time picking a fight, it must just be to let them be.

    It is the practical implications of letting be that interests me. My attention, at that point, critically turns towards the residual colonialist worldview that will not give enough space for letting them be.

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