Beyond the West

Towards a New Comparativism in the Study of Esotericism

Egil Asprem

This article has two main objectives: 1) to account for the relation between definitions, boundaries and comparison in the study of “esotericism” in a systematic manner; 2) to argue for an expansion of comparative research methods in this field. The argument proceeds in three steps. First it is argued that a process of academic boundary-work has been instrumental in delimiting esotericism as a historical category. Second, a Lakatosian “rational reconstruction” of competing “research programmes” is provided to clarify the relationship between views on definition, boundaries and comparison. Third, a typology of different comparative methods is constructed along two axes: a homological-analogical axis distinguishes between comparison based on shared genealogy (homology) versus purely structural or functional comparisons (analogy), while a synchronic-diachronic axis picks out a temporal dimension.

Historical research programmes have typically endorsed homological comparison, while analogical comparison has remained suspect. This limitation is shown to be entirely arbitrary from a methodological point of view. It is argued that a reconsideration of analogical comparison has the promise of shedding new light on fundamental problems and must be a part of the ongoing theoretical reorientations in the field.

comparative method; homology and analogy; Imre Lakatos; research programmes; boundary-work