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Occultism and Philosophy in the 17th Century
G. MacDonald Ross, 1983
Delivered at a conference of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, 1983.
1. The Neglect of Occult Influences on Philosophy:
It is well known that the heroes of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution were themselves by no means free of the occultist modes of thought from which they were supposed to be rescuing the human mind. Far less attention has been paid to occult tendencies in the philosophy of the time. Since there was no sharp distinction between philosopher and scientist in the seventeenth century, it would be most surprising if the savant wearing his philosophical thinking-cap were somehow immune from occult influences to which he was prone as a scientist. The main purpose of this paper will be to suggest a few such influences. A secondary purpose will be to draw some more general conclusions about the definability of occultism, and its demarcation from philosophy and science.
One of the reasons why historians of philosophy have tended to overlook occult influences is that there is much greater indeterminacy of interpretation in philosophy than in science. In the history of science, there used to be considerable ideological prejudice against the very idea that occultism could co-exist with rational science in one and the same mind, let alone be inextricably bound up with it. The prejudice eventually receded in the face of overwhelming, unambiguous empirical evidence, such as the Portsmouth collection of Newtonian manuscripts on alchemy and on the prisca sapientia. Philosophy, on the other hand, is too abstract for it to be generally possible to pin down a philosopher’s meaning as unambiguously occultist. And the area of potential contamination with occultism is precisely the area of greatest indeterminacy in interpretation.
A further complication is that many non-philosophical beliefs intruding into a philosopher’s writings can be interpreted as religious. For certain positivists, anthropologists, and others, this makes no difference, granted that metaphysics, religion, and occultism are all equally meaningless superstitions anyway. For them, the only demarcation which matters is that of all three from genuine science. Of course, such an attitude cannot be shared by a religious historian of philosophy. Surprisingly, perhaps, even atheist philosophers tend to treat religious beliefs with special respect. They take off their hats when entering churches, and they allow religion to be intellectually respectable when occult superstition is not. By piously labelling extraneous beliefs as religious, historians of philosophy side-step the awkward issue of demarcating metaphysics from superstition.
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