Esoteric Philosophies

The research I did for my PhD thesis on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, in the late eighties and the early nineties, left me with an aversion for the idea of an esoteric philosophy. I had set myself to reading the works that were seen as authoritative studies on the TTP in those days, and among them were those that made a lot of work of discovering the esoteric philosophy that would be hidden in the so called exoteric texts of Spinoza. I could understand that the deep and difficult roads travelled by Spinoza inspired readers to imagine that there would be something even deeper and more mysterious between the lines – hidden kabbalism for instance. The problem was, however, that those same interpretators ignored some very obvious and explicit things Spinoza said about religion. It didn’t make sense, as he had risked a lot to be so open about what was important to him.

Just the other day, however, the idea of an esoteric philosophy came up in another context. I was attending a lecture of a Dutch colleague, who was speaking about studies he had done which were somewhat outside the field of ‘official’ academic philosophy. He said that he would not write the insights they had given him down until he was more certain about what he wanted to claim, and he joked this to be (for now) his esoteric philosophy. The idea not to write on things before one can give more than just an opinion on them is close to my heart, so I could relate to his statement very well. It reminded me of the ten, fifteen years that I worked to say something well-founded on what I have called here anim(al)ism, a concept I am still exploring further. It is a broad term for relating with the world while recognizing ourselves to be among animals as among relatives, and even among other non-human souls, and to be able to communicate with them in other ways than the rationalist and empiricist epistemologies recognize.

I thought that I had come far in this respect. Until just yesterday, when I had an unexpected experience. I was with academic friends, the theologians with whom I have been sharing research on ethics over the past 15 or more years, in our research group on theological ethics. Being, I think, the only non-theologian by training in the group, I am always very careful not to claim anything ill-founded on religion, and because of that I try to stay very close to my personal discoveries in the field. One of the nice colleagues asked my views on ‘revelation’ – which made me quite uncertain. As a philosopher one tends to think of Heidegger and Husserl on hearing that word, but I was certain that he was hinting in another direction – and he was, more in the direction of Karl Barth. I could not position myself in the academic theological debate on the matter, but still wanted to answer him meaningfully. I tried to word very carefully how my intuitions on ‘anim(al)ism’, on shamanism, and my encounters with the different ‘Abrahamic’ and some Asian religions had formed my views, and how this all made me see the Christian idea of ‘revelation’. I confessed that I had thought about this for quite some time, and would love to write more extensively on it, but wouldn’t know how to ‘sell’ the plan – being an academic philosopher and not a theologian of Christianity.

Then, slowly, it dawned on me… there was some esoteric part in my own philosophical existence too… but I don’t like that. Speaking and writing have a different format, and academic writing has quite a few demands which sometimes forces one to let some part of one’s thinking remain ‘esoteric’ for now. The aim is to study, however, just as long as necessary to be able to write one’s insights down properly, in a discussion with the relevant and knowledgeable authors. So much still to be done!


  1. ellen said:

    Hallo Angela,

    blijf onverminderd doorgaan op je pad. Al ben ik er van overtuigd dat sommige inzichten niet academisch/filosofisch te benoemen zijn. Dan ontneem je die inzichten juist hun kracht.
    de westerse filosofie is met name een rationale aangelegenheid. Je kunt wel nadenken over concepten als intuitive e.d. en deze in een filosofische context plaatsen maar je zult nooit de ervaring an sich kunnen kaderen zonder deze geweld aan te doen.

    dus blijf op je pad, daar bedoel ik mee, blijf jezelf trouw (jouw ervaringen serieus nemen), en schrijf als filosoof over de dingen waar over te schrijven valt.

  2. Beste Ellen, dank voor je aanmoediging en commentaar. Kan je het eten van een tomaat, of de ervaring van het hebben van een sluitend argument, benoemen? Elke ervaring en elk inzicht die/dat je in een filosofische context plaatst, wordt ‘veranderd’ daardoor. En ja, je kan dat een vorm van geweld noemen. Maar het heeft ook een functie – de ervaringen en inzichten worden binnen de intermenselijke communicatie gebracht, en daardoor onderwerp van beraad en overleg. Ik zie dat als het noodzakelijk tegenwicht tegen het gegeven dat ze ook worden opgenomen in andere (bijvoorbeeld partijpolitieke of kerkelijke) structuren, die zo’n overleg minder tot doel hebben. Ik maak me overigens niet zo druk over de grens tussen wat filosofisch zou zijn en wat niet. Woorden hebben een kracht en een werking, net als inzichten en ervaringen, ook de filosofische. Filosoferen is daarom ook een hele verantwoordelijkheid!

  3. Uchenna Osigwe said:

    I was expecting to hear more about Spinoza’ take on religion. Now’ it’s clear that he didn’t give much thought to revelation. I don’t think much of revelation either. The best one can say about revelation is that it’s simply a subject opinion.

    • Thanks, Uchenna, for your reaction. I take your remark about Spinoza as an instigation to take up his views on religion in another blogpost! Did I say I didn’t think much of revelation? That was not my intention. For me the interesting thing would be to create a dialogue at the intersecton of theology and philosophy on this matter. Phenomenology has used the word ‘Offenbarung’, revelation as disclosure, unveiling, making itself known of objects – appearing, happening as an appearance/phenomenon can apply to all kinds of things, the ones that we call religious and the ones that we call secular or commonplace. It interests me to try to understand what philosophers meant by using that word and investigating how we might develop their reflections in the present situation of the ‘wars of religion’ Derrida wrote about.

      • Uchenna Osigwe said:

        A typo: I meant to say that revelation is a subjective opinion.

        My point though is that Spinoza didn’t think much of supernatural revelation. In fact, from what I know from his writings, he thought it was nonsensical.

      • Thanks, you are right. He thought the idea of the ‘supernatural’ nonsensical. Any revelation should be natural according to him.

      • onesis said:

        Angela, I often wonder what it would be like to be so knowledgeable about a given topic, that one thought one could only communicate with those who were equally knowledgeable. It would have the same effect as that of philosophy being confined to specialist academies. This is one meaning of ‘esoteric’. The other way is that one communicates with an audience despite the probability of being misunderstood, particularly at the beginning. One reveals one’s struggles to understand and be understood.

        This brings me to the topic of revelation. It is orthodox religion that posits that revelation is complete, or is about completed acts. This suffers from the fault that no one knows how it got to be completed. We are strangers to the process, which always remains esoteric, and as such, distant and alienating. A different approach to revelation is that we are part of the process in which whatever is coming into disclosure has not been hidden from us, not even from the very beginning.

        One has to be able to look for such processes. One such, is the process of coming to understand that the basic questions of existence are not already answered, because we are the answer on its way, such that we are always ourselves in a way of coming to be an answer to the situation(s) into which we have been thrust.

      • Thanks, David, for a wonderful & very helpful comment. That is an interesting manner to think about revelation. I will take it along in my own thinking process…

  4. Dear Angela, what you say about revelation reminds me of Derrida in La religion. There, he comments on Kant. It seems that you as well have set yourself to the task of rethinking rationally the content of religious or esoteric traditions. Following Derrida, this project, the project of rational philosophy, springs itself from a religious source, an unconditional affirmation. Thus, we are always bound up with a secret, the secret.
    Reading Agamben (who reflects on Spinoza), it seems that there is a way out. He takes up the idea of ‘to lekteon’ of the stoa, il dicibile, ‘the sayable’. Perhaps, language not only bears witness to the secret (by betraying it or by keeping it), but also to being. Agamben therefore modifies ontology into a ‘modular ontology’ (ontologia modale). At once, he escapes the great divide between analytical and continental philosophy. Probably, you don’t have time for Agamben. But if so, read again Spinoza. Give special attention to the word ‘sive’.

  5. Thanks, Anton, for food for thought. I have always thought most Spinoza scholars haven’t paid enough attention to the ‘sive’. I don’t understand however how this shows ‘a way out?’ Can you explain further?

    • Spinoza only seems to fit in the Kantian project of rationally reflecting the divine and religion. But then, you read the ‘sive’ in his formula ‘Deus sive natura’ as an identification mark, Deus = natura. Philisophical thought then will – sooner or later – become imprisoned in the difference between substance and accidentals. Agamben sees a way out in Spinoza’s definition of ‘modes’: ‘praeter substantias et modos nihil existit – Etica, I, prop. XV, dim. From this perspective, it becomes possible to read the ‘sive’ not in terms of identity, but as a ‘modulation’. Divine then means not the ‘being in itself’, but being its (His) sive, its becoming nature as a mode, modifying itself. The mode can be considered as a neutralization of difference that still is more a difference than an identity. A mode is not a secret, it can be said, language is in final instance a mode of being. Read Agamben, L’uso dei corpi, p.208 vv.

  6. This is great the three concepts have naturally arisen before our eyes – revelation – process – and the esoteric. There is duplication here. The concept of revelation, for something to be revealed, that was once evidently esoteric, must be unknown necessarily for it to arise and be revealed – this whole movement being an eternal process of the revelation of nature through experience. What is thinking if not the very same process duplicated within minds? Thinking would not be the thinking that it is without an esoteric aspect, a deep part that is opaque to ourselves – the unknown unknown that is the engine of our thoughts. Lack is to mind as need is to organism. Becoming knowledgeable is firstly a process of revealing, to ourselves, the esoteric in our own minds. Revealing this before others is a most challenging task. I would claim then, that a writer does not intend to be obscure and esoteric, but that their philosophical existence contains within it esoteric and exoteric aspects that are revealed in equal measure – what do you think?

    • onesis said:

      It would be nice if it were that simple Jools. We would have no need for criticism. Everything that is, would be revealed, as per nature, through our minds. A bit like sitting back in the lap of luxury, sipping champagne, waiting for the next luscious babe to appear out of the forest of the imagination. Philosophers, the most esoteric of all, would be universally adored.

      • Very good! No answer is contained in the question – each problem is a groping in the darkness; each solution something brought to light – that was not there before. It is not that I shine a light on the cavern that is my brain and reveal what was there already, but rather, all that is revealed outside of me swells up inside me, overflowing into consciousness, revealing only the essential, only bits at a time – but only ever the new and there is eternally something in reserve – something yet to be revealed. To me the concept of revelation contains no aspect of recollection, what has passed and what will come to be are irreconcilable. Simplicity is hypostatisation of what has been revealed. Simplicity should not be desired if one revels in philosophising, don’t you think?

  7. onesis said:

    I do like the idea that there is a kind of thinking that is not about shining a light on something that is already there. Recollection would of course be like that, and recollection is not a good model for thought (it is only a possibility, to be recognised as recollection, after the fact of thinking has occurred).

    So let’s consider the sort of thinking in which ‘something’ (requiring use of the verb ‘to be’) is not already there. In short, thinking where ‘being’ is not presupposed. This is not the sort of thinking that occurs in the Cartesian “I think, therefore, I am”. Here the ‘think’ is a reflexive verb, in which the ‘I’ is presupposed as both subject and object. Yet, here is no subject/object distinction. So better put, there is neither subject nor object, since that distinction has not yet been established, and so the ‘I’ is transcendent. And yet, the ‘I am’, for Descartes, is an object (or a subject, or both) that appears in the world, of whose existence he is assured. So how is it possible for Descartes to get by pure deduction from neither subject nor object, to one or the other or both? It is logically impossible.

    So then, the kind of thinking we are now investigating is without subjects or objects. Such thinking is transcendental beyond even the transcendence presupposed in saying “I think”. It is doubly transcendent. The question then is how this is possible? One answer is that the double transcendent is a double negation of what already exists. It is it not a subject or object, yet it is a thought, since that is required, so that it is thinking that only occurs in the absence of subjects and objects. So to get to the double negation, it can only occur through the negation of the very possibility of subjects and objects. It is a negation both, of actuality, and possibility, in relation to subjects and objects.

    To think, then, the impossible. But is this not the very essence of revelation? Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart… Under what conditions of possibility then would this revelation of the impossible occur? For a start there has to be possible impossibilities, or impossible possibilities.

    Then comes this intriguing suggestion: “all that is revealed outside of me swells up inside me, overflowing into consciousness, revealing only the essential, only bits at a time – but only ever the new and there is eternally something in reserve – something yet to be revealed.”

    But here it is necessary to negate the word “me”. So now it is: all that is revealed outside swells up inside, overflowing into consciousness, revealing only the essential, only bits at a time – but only ever the new and there is eternally something in reserve – something yet to be revealed.

    A second negation is necessary: the distinction between outside and inside (which also is the condition of the possibility for the object/subject distinction). So now it is: all that is revealed swells up, overflowing into consciousness, revealing only the essential, only bits at a time – but only ever the new and there is eternally something in reserve – something yet to be revealed.

    Not such a bad definition of revelation at all!

  8. Reaver said:

    If you are actually interested in esoteric themes beyond mere academical interest which is usually way off base and understands nothing on the matter then I recommend you check the Gnosis Series by Boris Mouravieff (who used to teach at Geneva University), Belzebub’s Tales to His Grandson by George Gurdjieff, The Rosicrucian Cosmo Conception by Max Heindel. Those 3 are the ones on top of my head as far as Christian Esoteric traditions are concerned.

    For a solid reference into esoterism check out Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages.

    Solid bases are Plato, Socrates and Pythagoras the three of them were esoteric philosophers, although the way into which they explained things was aimed at the Hellenistic human, at a time when mathematics and science was no where near the level it is today.

    For a decent basis to understand esoteric philosophies get acquainted with Carl Jung’s work and Schelling. Existential philosophy in general is a good complement.

    To further strengthen your base foundation on esoteric themes then read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes.

    As far as Esoteric Christianity is concerned, you don’t need to be a theologian, most of which are only concerned at keeping the stories alive in their heads. Remember that every esoteric system worth the time of day is pointing towards sublime principles on Nature.

    Of note: Saints, Apostles, Angels have nothing to do with nobler than thou paupers as organised religion would have people believe. These are merely designations in Christian Esoteric Traditions for humans who have achieved higher levels of consciousness regardless of their financial means.

    With all that people should have pretty good keys for Revelations.

    • Thanks Reaver, for your addendum.

      You are probably right about the ‘usually’ and the ‘most of which’ concerning academics and theologians. I am very happy to know a few academics and theologians who are seriously studying esoteric traditions. Academic study of esoteric traditions helps to get more understanding of the historical and the contextual dimensions and the influence of discourse on the articulation of spiritual insights.

      I doubt whether, as you suggest, ‘keeping stories alive in their heads’ is of minor importance. It might as well be a very sincere, important, humble act and of great spiritual importance.

      Thanks also for your reading suggestions. There is a vast sea of literature on the subject. You would possibly love to visit this interesting library in the Netherlands:

      • Reaver said:

        Oh sure they come in handy when one wants to have historical and cultural points of reference as well as archaeological backup, makes it easier to spot parallels between different esoteric philosophies as well, but most of them come short when conveying any meaning, their so called understanding stops at fact gathering.

        Thanks for the link, it sure does look interesting so far.

        Oh forgot to add: Reading “Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece” ( helps a lot since a lot of schools which came after are heavily influenced by Hermeticism, Sufism and Esoteric Christianity included. Then again you may be familiar with the book already.

        For further reference a dive into Perennial Philosophy comes in handy, do check out this website:

        As for the “stories in their head” bit: Good intentions and humbleness are irrelevant as we commonly perceive them and have no place in esoteric philosophy since they stem from an over-identification with what Mouravieff would term the “I” of the body and the “I” of the personality or what a psychologist like Jung would equal to the Ego and the denial of the Shadow.

        An excellent academic could be full of good intentions and be the nicest person, but that bears no weight as to the extent of their intellectual capacity as it is commonly perceived, they could be full of malice and it wouldn’t be a limitation either.

        Esoteric teachers worth the time of day (avoid New Age babble like the plague I say) would always point this out. In esoteric christian terminology you could say the devil appeals to the most noble of intentions to lead the faithful astray.

  9. Reaver said:

    Addendum: Spinoza was not religious, not in the exoteric sense anyway.

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