Tag Archives: Esotericism

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!


I feel I owe to my readers, and especially to those who are engaged with anthroposophy, a more personal note, adding to my latest post. Let me explain how I came into contact with Steiner’s heritage, and got interested in his work. I first heard of anthroposophy when I was a student. My first encounter was with a reading group of believers, which I visited on the invitation of a friend. They discussed Steiner’s cosmic views on Christ. The people over there were very confidant on their beliefs, which struck me as odd, for their emphasis that they were based on real knowledge, a thing which I could not make sense of, back then, being immersed in the scientific worldview through my studies (that was sociology, back then). Later, when I studied philosophy, I got a friend who had been raised and schooled anthroposophically, and who told about Steiner’s epistemology. I tried to read some of it then, but didn’t succeed. I left it at that, and although I was sympathetic to my friend’s approach of the things of life, I didn’t research their foundation further.

My next encounter with anthroposophy resulted from some horrific experiences, while raising my children, with mainstream schooling in my country. It seemed, despite all the advertising of the mainstream schools – that they would put the child central, that they had methods to go against bullying, and that the best of the child would be addressed by their approach – that they completely missed what they should do: let children enjoy learning, and develop themselves in a safe atmosphere. Bullying was addressed by fruitless talks in which the aggressor should ‘see’ what he did, and the victim should see what he contributed to becoming a victim. Ridiculous psychologizing which might be well for rational adults who are in a conflict (with the emphasis on rational), but completely useless, and even harmful for children’s relationships. Learning was entirely focused on intellectual goals, which were again narrowed down to measurable steps of attaining ready made knowledge, which was endlessly tested to get quantifiable results on the schools performance. Safety was absent, and the development of children was practically overlooked.

When in the end I turned to a Steiner school (also called Waldorf school in the English speaking countries), it seemed I met for the first time some educators who seemed to know what education was about, on the basis of a sound insight in how children behave and develop. I must admit, though, that this was a ‘liberal’ Steiner school, attended by a lot of children whose parents are no anthroposophists, and also manned by a lot of teachers who are neither. It is open to new developments, accepting the importance of computer knowledge, for instance, next to the traditional importance given in such schools to handicraft.

In the book I discussed last time, Lachman highlights that Steiner’s main goal was to initiate a movement that could counter the prevailing materialism of western culture, by turning to its own spiritual tradition (think Eckhart, Paracelsus, Bruno). The materialism (it is not only that, to my view, it is also, perhaps even more, a stress on quantification and statisticalization, although that word does not exist – organizing humanity in categories, forgetting it’s ‘organical’ potential to grow in ‘natural’ and unpredicted ways) is a factor that makes humans dumb, and even endangers their potential to be moral agents (I agree with that).

I think Steiner’s work to be of great importance for having left behind at least places where there is openness in western culture (which is not only western, however, about that another time) for a different view of humanity, and especially for having tried out practical ways to investigate and develop human potential that is left to lie waste otherwise.

Having said that, I am for openminded, creative, experimentation with the essentials of his heritage, and in order to make this possible, it is important to criticize what is wrong or distorted in his ideas. Every great spiritual movement deserves such criticism. Here is where philosophy comes in, as well as taking serious original experiences of people (instead of living off second-hand spirituality as James called orthodoxy). I aim to study further on these things, but for now some of the things that I think wrong in Steiner’s views are a) his emphasis on Western culture (although rediscovering it’s spiritual tradition is important, I did something of that when graduating, it is false to see it out of the context of it’s relations and being influenced by other traditions, wrong historically and morally), and, b) what goes along with this, his lack of distinction between the spiritual experiences he had, and his uncritical expression of them in the language of the christian and esoteric traditions which he thought best to describe them in.

Whereas original spiritual experiences can inspire to do great deeds (as were his experimental development of environmental, agricultural and educational awareness), the choice of the language in which to express them is not an innocent one. It has to be scrutinized thoroughly, and discussed publicly. Again, here is where the instruments of philosophy can fulfill their task. They are different jobs, to develop, for instance, good methods of education, and to reflect on the ideas they are based upon. But equally important. Complementary. My job it is to contribute to the reflection part.