The Globalization of Esotericism

Wouter J. Hanegraaff

In recent discussions about the study of esotericism, the adjective “Western” has come under critical scrutiny. Shouldn’t “esotericism” be understood as a global rather than just a Western field of research? Doesn’t the very concept of a “Western esotericism” logically imply that there must be an “Eastern esotericism” as well? If so, what would that be? And in what respects would this “esotericism” common to Eastern and Western cultures be different from non-esoteric cultural formations? Or is the terminology supposed to imply, to the contrary, that esotericism is something unique to Western culture, with no parallels elsewhere? But if so, what is it that makes it unique, and how are we supposed to define and demarcate “the West” from “the Rest”? Are we supposed to think in terms of a geographical space or of a cultural domain? In either case, doesn’t the very term “Western” imply an essentialist discourse with troubling political connotations and implications? The author of this article argues that these problems are best approached from a historical rather than a strictly theoretical perspective. Reviewing the most important stages in the conceptualization of “esotericism” as a distinct field of study since the early modern period, he argues that it has always been theorized as a global rather than just Western phenomenon. Nevertheless, he concludes, it is advisable to maintain the concept of “Western esotericism,” not for reasons of conceptual theory but for reasons of historical method.

esotericism; western esotericism; orientalism; globalization; rejected knowledge; paganism; occultism; Edward Burnett Tylor; Lucien Lévy-Bruhl; participation; Carl Gustav Jung; Antoine Faivre