The Theosophical Imagination

Wouter J. Hanegraaff

It is well known that the worldviews of modern Theosophy are based largely on ­authoritative claims of superior clairvoyance. But what did clairvoyance really mean for ­Theosophists in the decades before and after 1900? How did it work? And where did the practice come from? I will be arguing that the specific type of clairvoyance claimed by Theosophists should not be ­confused – as is usually done in the literature – with its Spiritualist counterpart: while ­Spiritualists relied on somnambulist trance states induced by Mesmeric techniques, ­Theosophists relied on the human faculty of the imagination, understood as a superior ­cognitive power operating in a fully conscious state. As will be seen, this Theosophical understanding of the clairvoyant ­imagination can be traced very precisely to a forgotten nineteenth-­century author, Joseph Rodes Buchanan, whose work was subsequently popularized by William and Elizabeth Denton. Buchanan’s theory and practice of “psychometry” is fundamental to the clairvoyant claims of all the major Theosophists, from Helena P. Blavatsky herself to later authors such as Annie Besant, Charles Webster Leadbeater and Rudolf Steiner.


Theosophy; Imagination; Clairvoyance; Somnambulism; Psychometry; Helena P. Blavatsky; Joseph Rodes Buchanan; William Denton; Elizabeth Denton; Charles Webster Leadbeater