Esotericism and Criticism: A Platonic Response to Arthur Versluis
To understand what is happening in this chapter, a bit of context and background is needed. Arthur and I have known each other since the early 1990s, when he visited the Netherlands, and we saw quite a lot of each other in the years that followed. He spent time at my place in Utrecht, and I came to visit him for days at his amazing house in the midst of the Michigan cornfields. Since we were both passionate about the project of promoting the study of Western esotericism, we engaged on a course of fruitful and friendly collaboration, as can be seen from a whole series of articles that we contributed to one another’s publication projects. It was pretty clear from the beginning that we came from very different academic traditions and our approaches to “esotericism” were quite different as well, but for a long time this did not cause serious problems. Of course we had our moments of disagreement or mutual puzzlement about one another’s positions, but the basic situation was one of mutual respect, friendship, and appreciation.
|Religionists: Gilbert Durand, Henry Corbin, and Antoine Faivre at Eranos (1970s)|
|Johann Jacob Brucker|
The general point of Arthur’s book is that Platonism should be restored to its original position as the central tradition of what has come to be called “mysticism.” In his second and third chapters, he shows how the rise of cross-cultural comparativism during the 20th century resulted in an eclipse of the original understanding of mysticism as Platonic. This is a strong argument with which I agree completely. It is all the more regrettable that Arthur completely misses the point of my concept of “Platonic Orientalism” and thinks it is inspired by some kind of Protestant anti-Platonic agenda.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Arthur notes correctly that the term “Platonic Orientalism” was coined by John Walbridge, but mistakenly claims that “much of [Walbridge’s] work is dedicated to critique of the French scholar of esoteric Islam, Henry Corbin” (79). In truth, Walbridge’s books are deep and sensitive studies of the key Islamic thinker Suhrawardi; but the mere fact that he dares to disagree with Corbin’s reading of Suhrawardi seems enough for Arthur to see him as yet another enemy out to attack Corbin. As for my own understanding of “Platonic Orientalism,” once again Arthur creates a caricature by either ignoring or misrepresenting everything I have written about it. In fact the term refers, quite simply, to a very influential tradition that saw Platonism not as a rational philosophy created by Plato but as a spiritual wisdom tradition rooted in pre-Platonic sources such as Pythagoras, Moses, Zoroaster, or Hermes. Ironically, this should be quite congenial to Arthur’s own understanding of Platonism as a spiritual tradition. What seems to have provoked his ire, however, is the term “Orientalism,” which he thinks is “of course, a pejorative” (79). Never mind that both Walbridge and myself are explicit in pointing out that the terminology should not be confused with Edward Said’s famous notion but is wholly independent of it. Arthur simply ignores these statements, or refuses to believe them. He goes so far as to claim, without providing any evidence, that I use the term “not despite but because of the pejorative implications of ‘orientalism’” (79, emphasis in original) because it provides me with an excuse for not having to take Platonism and Platonic mysticism seriously “on their own terms” (ibid.).
the externalist fallacy
the study of consciousness
For quite a long while now, in many publications, I have been calling attention to the role of “alterations of consciousness” in Western esotericism (including, of course, the Platonic tradition, or more precisely – sorry Arthur! – Platonic Orientalism). If you look closely at the relevant texts and traditions, again and again you will find practioners experimenting with how to apply the “requisite stimuli” for influencing or altering human consciousness, resulting in visions, voices, mystical experiences, and so on. I have come to consider this absolutely central to the study of esotericism (it's been at my suggestion that the 2019 ESSWE conference, in Amsterdam, will be devoted to this topic), so how could I reasonably be suspected of attempting to exclude consciousness from the field? Nevertheless, Arthur takes me for an “externalist” who wants to censor experiential dimensions and prohibit scholars from even mentioning them. He thinks I blame him for discussing such dimensions in one of his books about Christian Theosophy: “Were I to remove [the experiential accounts of esoteric practitioners],” he protests, “it would no longer give the reader a sense of the theosophical tradition from the perspective of the theosophers, but rather would only give names, dates, and data.” Quite so! How could I possibly disagree? Just look at how much attention I give to such experiential accounts in my own publications, which are by no means restricted to just names, dates, and data. In short, again Arthur has gotten me confused with some other guy.
|Giordano Bruno before the Holy Inquisition|
This is a very serious allegation, but the truth of the matter is rather different, and in fact very simple. I am trying to advance what I see as proper scholarly methods, and this involves not getting them confused with non-scholarly pursuits such as mystical contemplation or spiritual techniques (no matter how valuable I may – and in fact do – find those in and for themselves). For reasons already explained above, I believe that scholarly methods are simply incapable of gaining direct access to whatever transcendent reality might exist out there. They can only approach it indirectly and at second hand, and therefore they cannot give scientific proof of its truth and real existence. All they can do is report what practitioners are saying about it, and then try to analyze or interpret (by whatever methods, from hermeneutics to neurobiology) what might be going on in such transcendental experiences. Is it possible then to scientifically disprove the truth and real existence of transcendent realities? Here opinions differ. I would personally argue that it is not possible, which makes me an advocate of methodological agnosticism; others, along the lines of methodological naturalism (see above), seem to assume that it is possible. In this debate, the jury is still out. In any case, we are not dealing here with some conspiracy of academic “externalists” against Platonism or esotericism, but with a serious and legitimate debate about the limits of scientific method.