A new colleague doing research into spirituality asked me about my research on ghosts. The book that was its outcome is about how modern Western thinkers (from the seventeenth century up till now) have taken position on ghosts, apparitions, spirits and related phenomena. Trying to give her the shortest description of the results of that research, I said: ‘it feels like I just stuck my toe into the ocean.’ We have no adequate framework to describe, categorize, or understand what’s going on here. Concepts stem from widely divergent discourses, and there is no common opinion yet what disciplines, if any, have the instruments to study the field.
Terms we have, a lot. Demons, angels, forebodings, synchronistic experiences, spirits. And related terms: magic, witchcraft, spirituality, voodoo, supernatural, shamanism, psi, haunting, even hauntology. They come from everywhere: from spiritual traditions all over the world, from cultural anthropology, pre-modern theology, modern psychology, and postmodern philosophy. Because any serious knowledge starts out with some decent conceptualizations (which then can be scrutinized, tried out, criticized, refined), we are still nearly nowhere.
The seventeenth century Dutch theologian Balthasar Bekker, who was one of the first to take a modern stance toward the belief in ghosts and magic, set out in his famous book ‘the enchanted world’ (De betoverde weereld) a plan and outline to gather as much ‘anthropological’ knowledge about human traditions in this field – with the aim to better understand what is really at stake. His goal was to rid people of superstitious fears, but also to put a solid moral responsibility in the human individual. No one should be taken seriously, he held, who claimed to have committed a sin due to being possessed by a demon or bad spirit.
A few centuries later there is a large body of research on these matters, carried out by anthropologists. The problem I put above has not been solved however – due to the history of anthropology. Whereas it has moved from distanced research of exotic ‘others’ to sympathetic attempts to give those others a voice, there is still a gulf where ‘moderns’ throw belief in ghosts far from themselves – and put themselves thus in the position of those who should be allowed to make ‘rational’ decisions about the fate of the world. Thinkers of today are wrestling with this gulf. Bruno Latour, conducting his ‘anthropology of the moderns’. Before him, William James was, trying to tap into the positive resources of the spirit realm. And Jacques Derrida was, pointing out how repressed awareness of injustice comes back to haunt. Not just in the form of apparitions, but also in the form of ‘ghostlike’, faceless, anonymous rebellions.
My research up till now consisted in outlining the problem of modernity’s relation to ghosts and neighbouring phenomena. The second step is to dive into interdisciplinary discussions – an article to that intent is underway. Then we need an outline of a common discourse, contributing some more to closing the gulf. Here a critical, cross-cultural hermeneutics should come in. In the meantime the face of philosophy will be changing too – for it can no longer work to conceptualize without awareness of what haunts itself, without analyzing its own painful complicities, without undergoing some sort of liberation – that is.