Ghosts and neighbouring phenomena – a toe in the ocean

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.

  1. Pi Polytroop said:

    A very interesting subject. One who ‘believes’ in magical powers could even propose that the modern ‘disbelief’ in ghosts and related phenomena works as a powerful spell against them. In other words, the fact that most moderns fail to see ghosts is proof of the power of the magical force in modernity, not proof against the existence of magical forces. The only real argument against that is Occam’s law of parsimony.

    One of the real problems involved in the study of paranormal phenomena is that some people have good reasons to fake them. Or, as George P. Hansen puts it, paranormal phenomena attract the archetype of the Trickster. And beware: he also says that serious study of these phenomena is associated with loss of social status. If you have not read it, you’re in for a treat: “The Trickster and the Paranormal”, George P. Hansen,

  2. Hi Pi Polytroop, thanks for your comment. Actually you put into words something I am convinced of: that disbelief ia a powerful spell. Thanks too for the reading tip – I will look it up. Did you read ‘Ghost Hunters’ by Deborah Blum? It relates how famous psychologist and philosopher William James and friends researched mediums for long years. They debunked some, and had to deal with the same problem you indicate.

  3. Harald Weidmann said:

    Hoi Angela, intrigerend onderwerp waarmee je volgens mij al heel lang bezig bent. Ik was met name getroffen door je opmerking over Derrida; waar kan ik deze notie terugvinden?
    Hoe verhoudt jouw toenadering tot de wereld van geesten zich met het volgende vermoeden van Benjamin: “Die Vergangenheit führt einen heimlichen Index mit, durch den sie auf die Erlösung verwiesen wird.”?

    Groeten en het beste, Harald

  4. Ha, Harald, gegroet! Dank voor je reactie. De verbinding tussen het ‘spoken’ en gerechtigheid legt Derrida in zijn boek ‘Specters of Marx’ (of de oorspronkelijke Franse versie natuurlijk), daarover schreef ik ook een blogje: In mijn boek over geesten een hoofdstuk over Derrida dat uitgebreider is. Het is inderdaad een inzicht dat je kan raken. Ja, het citaat van Benjamin sluit hier volgens mij ook nauw bij aan – Derrida zou zeggen, alles wat onderdrukt, weggestopt, bezworen wordt, keert onherroepelijk terug. Maar Benjamin’s werk ken ik niet goed, helaas. Ik wil zoveel nog lezen… Goeds, Angela.

  5. Reblogged this on angelaroothaan and commented:

    It is always something of a miracle to me, to see that something that I am working on was announced by me years before. What was announced in this post – the interdisciplinary discussions, and the cross-cultural hermeneutics, is taking shape right now, in a new book project with the working title ‘Animals, humans, spirits – A philosophy of spirit ontologies’. Take note: I shifted from ‘ghosts’ to ‘spirits’ – not in an attempt to deny what haunts, but in an effort to understand what animates whatever appears. The life force, so to speak. The agency in the spiritual. To be continued when new questions arise during the writing process!

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