HomeUncategorizedTheology, Semiotics, Philosophy: the Occult and the future of thought

Theology, Semiotics, Philosophy: the Occult and the future of thought

(extracted from a conversation with Gregory Desilet):

People are funny.  They seem to evaluate more on surface language than what is actually being communicated.  Deleuze gives a bunch of fancy materialist terms to his mysticism and all the atheistic academics thinks it is great.  Well not everyone.  But everyone has their own metaphysics and the game now seems to be make it look or sound really scientific or “materialist” and that will signal that you are being grounded and empirical or politically progressive.  I was impressed by Harman’s deliberate bucking of that trend in his book “Immaterialism”.

Word choice does matter; it is more than just style. Your (Gregory Desilet’s) work is a strong argument for the importance of style choices in media and communication.  But word choice demands a close reading for any deep critique.  Too often we dismiss people’s work because it seems one way or another.  Lately I have been trying to state clearly why I have avoided reading too deeply in one area or another without assuming my impressions are true evaluations.  And anything I read enough to actually critique must have some value.  There is only so much time.  I can’t talk with or read everyone, but polemics are a strange genre; there is always something sad and funny about passionate negation or dialectics in general.  I love Deleuze and Derrida’s ability to critique so creatively and productively.  I would never imagine them writing a book just to dismiss someone like Badiou or Baudrillard did. 

As much as I have a distaste for much of Analytic philosophy, I like the impulse to formalization and the quest for a science of thought; I think that philosophy was destined to become a science of sorts (Laruelle seems to be gesturing towards this as well).  Not to leave art behind, but semiotics puts the meaning of art on a more “objective” basis (objective in the semiotic sense, not in the sense of being tied to some authoritatively objective discourse).

In “What is Philosophy”, Deleuze and Guattari make interesting distinctions between science, art, and philosophy, and those distinctions are important lines to draw so as not to reduce the truly “mystical” role of philosophy and art’s confrontation with the infinite down to the functional role of science (which also creatively confronts the infinite in its own way).  But I think philosophy as a distinct academic discipline and tradition, while no doubt continuing in its cultural mode within the humanities indefinitely, will become increasingly backwards looking as the avant garde of thought will be in the evolution of Theory in its interdisciplinary mode developing closely with science and an aesthetic world vastly different from the one philosophy came of age in. 

I find Spengler’s culture/civilization distinction helpful.  Dane Rudhyar in his “Culture, Crises and Creativity” takes off from Spengler and while admitting all the problems with “civilization” makes the case that it is a process, like you say of philosophy, that is just getting started.  Spengler, taking off from Nietzsche’s early antiphilosophical rants against the Socratic man killing the cultural Dionysian, of course puts much of philosophy on the civilization side of his binary.  And that makes more sense than as a specific cultural product of the West, though I do think that is what it started out as.  The East had something similar but it still was based on reference to “revealed” texts.  Vedanta was a critical reevaluation of  the Vedas but still deferred to them as the fountainhead of knowledge even as the vedantic sages shifted to a more rational and scientific emphasis on individual method and verification of truth, as was happening in many places across the world in the Axial Age. 

The Buddha was more extreme in his break with theological tradition and one might make a case for it being a philosophy proper.  But within the Indian matrix, it was more of a practical and psychological distillation of vedantic/yogic method than any radical break with received vedic wisdom.
So philosophy has always been a process of breaking out of the revealed wisdom of religion, but now the challenge is also keeping it from falling into simple justifications for the science religion.  The occult is not “revealed religion” however much its results became the source of religion.  In “Occult Science”, Steiner makes the point that the word occult is used just because the truths of spiritual science are normally hidden, but they need not be so. 

Philosophy emerged out of the occult as an attempt to make the symbols of the traditional occult science less dependent on the cultural symbols of regionally entrenched mystery schools and tie them to more universal symbolism and concepts—mathematics for Pythagoras, earthly elements in other Presocratics (though of course some Greek thinkers broke more radically with esoteric tradition).

In China they never progressed beyond the level of “elemental” analogy because they early on tied their occult science to relatively universal earthly symbolism.  Without the alphabet and the horizontal pressure from the meshwork of commercial assemblages of diverse regional powers as we got in Greece, there was no consciousness of or need for further development into abstract conceptualization.  They got locked into a formalization of their analogical version of occult science. But their medicine and martial arts which at the more advanced levels are both based on the occult, and both still superior to ours in the West.  The only thing that makes them occult is that they take intense long development to experience it from the inside, but anyone can experience its results as patient—or victim if you happen to be lucky enough to spar with a Chen family Tai Chi Master as I have.

Again, occult just means something normally hidden.  In China, not everyone knew the secrets because they take time to learn and most occultists, East or West, were, at least until the era of Theosophy, very careful about divulging too much to people not ready or willing to learn properly.  It is the same with science; no one has seen an electron, only interpreted it through the lens of experimental and theoretical apparatus only accessible to our PHD high priests.

So to reiterate, it is important to distinguish between the occult and normal religion.  The whole point of the esoteric tradition is that one can experience the reality of the symbol not just take it as revealed truth.  This has the same epistemological problems as any science, but both have routes to experience things for one’s self and decide.  This doesn’t mean everyone will have the same interpretation of the experience.  No science is any different in that respect.  But like science, there is immense pressure within certain institutions to follow the consensus interpretation.  In fact consensus knowledge is always the the least true knowledge.  Just as religion was watered down conformist metaphysics for the masses, consensus science is politically correct manufactured lies.  This was a huge part of Deleuze’s project and is the inspiration for my hope to help rescue the “Nomad” sciences that I believe are key to current political issues and are future.     

The occult, like any aspect of thought that deals with the abstract, is going to have a lot of complexity and difference of opinion, especially as it moves outside of regionally–tied cultural traditions and becomes more philosophical, as in Theosophy.  But unlike most scientists who love to claim no one has a right to criticize their truth unless they go through the proper training, Steiner was fond of pointing out how even someone without training or experience but able to think through the train of thought he gives for the results of spiritual science, has every right to critique those results.  He critiques other occultists often with logical arguments, not authoritative spiritual vision. 

If you get into the literature, spiritual vision is a kind of sublimated thinking.  Weak thinkers make muddled visionaries, not “clairvoyants” who think clearly and move through the abstract in methodical fashion, without losing themselves in random visions.  Steiner recommends mathematics for preparation for occult experience.  It is the same process at different levels of abstraction from sense experience.  

To get a deeper semiotic perspective of why occult and mathematical abstraction are similar, let’s look at this passe from Rocco Gangle’s Diagrammatic Immanence:

“By giving name to the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’, Whitehead diagnosed one of the most profound, because most frequently overlooked, pitfalls of philosophy. Anachronistically, the prognosis for this disorder – which from an immanent standpoint amounts to an irrational fear of thinking as such – is to be found with Peirce and his unique conjunction of
semiotics, metaphysics and pragmatic epistemology.

Indeed, in a different text Peirce reflects on the Molièrean canard
of the learned doctor who ascribes ‘dormitive virtue’ to opium,
thereby ‘explaining’ why it produces the effects it does. Yet rather
than sharing Molière’s contempt for such empty and pretentious
talk, Peirce finds in it – or rather in the tactic of explanation it illustrates
– a kernel of insight worthy of serious philosophical consideration.
Peirce writes:
“[E]verybody is supposed to know well enough that the transformation
from a concrete predicate to an abstract noun in an oblique
case, is a mere transformation of language that leaves the thought
absolutely untouched. I knew this as well as everybody else until
I had arrived at that point in my analysis of mathematics where I
found that this despised juggle of abstraction is an essential part
of almost every really helpful part of mathematics; and since then
what I used to know so very clearly does not appear to be at all so”.

For Peirce, mathematics is involved in the study of any necessary
consequential relations whatsoever, and the helpfulness of what he
calls the ‘despised juggle of abstraction’ is thus applicable to a much
more extensive range of phenomena than just numerical quantities
or mathematics in the conventional sense. It is a component, rather,
of all processes of reasoning, even the most ordinary. What matters
here to Peirce is the power essential to mathematical thinking that
turns relations and properties into things. This power, Peirce sees, is
in fact at the root of all systematic questioning.”
(Gangle pg 106,107):

In this passage Gangle is pointing out the problems with Nominalism, the belief that words just refer to things. Peirce had taken the nominalist attitude for granted, dismissing the “dormitive virtue” of opium as silly talk. But he realized this treatment of abstraction is what we are always doing, treating a thought or relation as a thing. In mathematics and occult cognition we are doing this on a more refined level, where the abstractions take on a life of their own more or less, depending on the occultism or the type of mathematics.

For me, more generally, the occult is the advanced levels of any spiritual/creative discipline that demands a certain level of inner subjective change.  One can rote memorize philosophy, but to be a creative philosopher or a true musician, one must bring about a change within.  There is something occult about all real learning as Deleuze goes into in his analyses, but we call it occult when it goes beyond the normal range of creative synthesis.

Again I will use Chinese occultism as an example because it tends to be the most practically oriented.  My youngest brother is as obsessed with martial arts and Chinese inner alchemy as I am with the rest of esoteric culture.  I have always had an interest but the last few years have been great since he found the master I mentioned.  To serious Chinese martial artists the biggest distinction is between “internal” and “external” styles.  The internal styles are the styles like Chen Tai Chi that take longer to get good at but which utilize inner alchemy, chi gong, etc. which is required to get to the highest levels of mastery.

Unlike the soft Yang Tai Chi usually taught to beginners or the hard “external” styles of martial arts, the core of the training is in the “subtle” relationships of energy flow in the body (though like “occult”, they only stay subtle until they are realized, at which point they become very powerful).  Yin and Yang are balanced in Chen style, and unlike the non–martial occult schools, there is very clear ways of determining who is more advanced(humbling when a little Chinese man and my little brother can throw me so effortlessly!).

But even without the martial aspect, Chi Gong masters are tested all the time by laboratory science.  Claude Swanson’s second book “Life Force: The Scientific Basis” is an 800 page tome of the best studies and some of the best theory on the physics of what he calls variously “subtle energy”, “torsion” or any of the many names it has been called by people over the years. 
So occult is the advanced stuff.  The Chinese tend to focus on the advanced aspects of the lower centers, while the Western occultists focus more on the higher centers(higher in the vertical body not necessarily “better”). 

The occult isn’t the same as mysticism exactly because there is a lot of dogmatic religious mysticism.  But as the devotional mysticism gets more advanced it converges with the more philosophical and occult areas of practice.  Yoga as taught in the West is hardly occult at all.  Tantra, another misused word, can be used for all occult Eastern mysticism, since it was the movement that formalized the mystery school symbolism into philosophy/ theosophy(though since the Chinese had their own occult sophistication before Buddhism, tantra, an Indian word, is used less fittingly to talk about taoist occult sexual kung fu).

Hatha Yoga which people just call Yoga here came from Tantra, but it is stripped of most of the advanced and esoteric aspects, just as in popular Tai Chi.  Buddhism has its esoteric aspects but it is the basic psychology that spread East, and though the far eastern Buddhism that influenced the US has esoteric aspects, they are downplayed by Japanese minimalism.  Buddhism in China is also very basic and conservative because their occult tradition was advanced before Buddhism and stayed relatively separate as “taoism”(For instance our Chinese master gave me a speech before he opened my head center one day.  He told me as a Buddhist he wasn’t supposed to use his powers but as a Taoist it was okay if he used it responsibly—and I did appreciate the boost!).  Tibetan Buddhism on the other hand is all about Tantra, and much of Theosophy sprang from some of their most secret cosmological teachings, (which recently were found in documents in a monastery just as Blavatsky said one could).

There are more historical details I could go into but you get the point.  The line between occult and common wisdom is complex and contingent.  Philosophy is pretty occult in itself and is destined to rejoin its mystic mother in occult science.  One could call it all “metaphysics”.  But isn’t every experience tinged with the sting of absence, otherness, incompleteness, something “meta” or beyond?  Doesn’t every act of connection require an internal adjustment, more or less demanding of our openness and faith, to establish the context for understanding?