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The occult, in the broadest sense, is a category of supernatural beliefs and practices which generally fall outside the scope of religion and science, encompassing such phenomena involving otherworldly agency as mysticism, spirituality, and magic. It can also refer to supernatural ideas like extra-sensory perception and parapsychology.
The term occult sciences was used in the 16th century to refer to astrology, alchemy, and natural magic, which today are considered pseudosciences. The term occultism emerged in 19th-century France, where it came to be associated with various French esoteric groups connected to Éliphas Lévi and Papus, and in 1875 was introduced into the English language by the esotericist Helena Blavatsky.
Throughout the 20th century, the term was used idiosyncratically by a range of different authors, but by the 21st century was commonly employed – including by academic scholars of esotericism – to refer to a range of esoteric currents that developed in the mid-19th century and their descendants. Occultism is thus often used to categorise such esoteric traditions as Spiritualism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and New Age.
Use of the term as a nominalized adjective has developed especially since the late twentieth century. In that same period, occult and culture were combined to form the neologism occulture by Genesis P-Orridge.
- 2Occult sciences
- 3Occult qualities
- 5Modern usage
- 6Occultism and technology
- 7See also
- 9Further reading
- 10External links
The occult (from the Latin word occultus “clandestine, hidden, secret”) is “knowledge of the hidden”. In common usage, occult refers to “knowledge of the paranormal“, as opposed to “knowledge of the measurable“, usually referred to as science. The term is sometimes taken to mean knowledge that “is meant only for certain people” or that “must be kept hidden”, but for Theosophist Helena Blavatsky it is simply the study of a deeper spiritual reality that extends beyond pure reason and the physical sciences. The terms esoteric and arcane can also be used to describe the occult, in addition to their meanings unrelated to the supernatural. The term occult sciences was used in the 16th century to refer to astrology, alchemy, and natural magic, which today are considered pseudosciences.
The earliest known usage of the term occultism is in the French language, as l’occultisme. In this form it appears in A. de Lestrange’s article that was published in Jean-Baptiste Richard de Randonvilliers‘ Dictionnaire des mots nouveaux (“Dictionary of new words”) in 1842. However, it was not related, at this point, to the notion of Ésotérisme chrétien, as has been claimed by Hanegraaff, but to describe a political “system of occulticity” that was directed against priests and aristocrats.
In 1853, the Freemasonic author Jean-Marie Ragon had already used occultisme in his popular work Maçonnerie occulte, relating it to earlier practices that, since the Renaissance, had been termed “occult sciences” or “occult philosophy”, but also to the recent socialist teachings of Charles Fourier. The French esotericist Éliphas Lévi then used the term in his influential book on ritual magic, Dogme et rituel de la haute magie, first published in 1856. Lévi was familiar with that work and might have borrowed the term from there. In any case, Lévi also claimed to be a representative of an older tradition of occult science or occult philosophy. It was from his usage of the term occultisme that it gained wider usage; according to Faivre, Lévi was “the principal exponent of esotericism in Europe and the United States” at that time. The term occultism emerged in 19th-century France, where it came to be associated with various French esoteric groups connected to Éliphas Lévi and Papus,
The earliest use of the term occultism in the English language appears to be in “A Few Questions to ‘Hiraf'”, an 1875 article published in the American Spiritualist magazine, Spiritual Scientist. The article had been written by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian émigré living in the United States who founded the religion of Theosophy.
Various twentieth-century writers on the subject used the term occultism in different ways. Some writers, such as the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno in his “Theses Against Occultism”, employed the term as a broad synonym for irrationality. In his 1950 book L’occultisme, Robert Amadou used the term as a synonym for esotericism, an approach that the later scholar of esotericism Marco Pasi suggested left the term superfluous. Unlike Amadou, other writers saw occultism and esotericism as different, albeit related, phenomena. In the 1970s, the sociologist Edward Tiryakian distinguished between occultism, which he used in reference to practices, techniques, and procedures, and esotericism, which he defined as the religious or philosophical belief systems on which such practices are based. This division was initially adopted by the early academic scholar of esotericism, Antoine Faivre, although he later abandoned it; it has been rejected by most scholars who study esotericism.
By the 21st century the term was commonly employed – including by academic scholars of esotericism – to refer to a range of esoteric currents that developed in the mid-19th century and their descendants. Occultism is thus often used to categorise such esoteric traditions as Spiritualism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and New Age.
A different division was used by the Traditionalist author René Guénon, who used esotericism to describe what he believed was the Traditionalist, inner teaching at the heart of most religions, while occultism was used pejoratively to describe new religions and movements that he disapproved of, such as Spiritualism, Theosophy, and various secret societies. Guénon’s use of this terminology was adopted by later writers like Serge Hutin and Luc Benoist. As noted by Hanegraaff, Guénon’s use of these terms are rooted in his Traditionalist beliefs and “cannot be accepted as scholarly valid”.
The term occultism derives from the older term occult, much as the term esotericism derives from the older term esoteric. However, the historian of esotericism Wouter Hanegraaff stated that it was important to distinguish between the meanings of the term occult and occultism. Occultism is not a homogenous movement and is widely diverse.
Over the course of its history, the term occultism has been used in various different ways. However, in contemporary uses, occultism commonly refers to forms of esotericism that developed in the nineteenth century and their twentieth-century derivations. In a descriptive sense, it has been used to describe forms of esotericism which developed in nineteenth-century France, especially in the Neo-Martinist environment. According to the historian of esotericism Antoine Faivre, it is with the esotericist Éliphas Lévi that “the occultist current properly so-called” first appears. Other prominent French esotericists involved in developing occultism included Papus, Stanislas de Guaita, Joséphin Péladan, Georges-Albert Puyou de Pouvourville, and Jean Bricaud.
The idea of “occult sciences” developed in the sixteenth century. The term usually encompassed three practices—astrology, alchemy, and natural magic—although sometimes various forms of divination were also included rather than being subsumed under natural magic. These were grouped together because, according to the Dutch scholar of hermeticism Wouter Hanegraaff, “each one of them engaged in a systematic investigation of nature and natural processes, in the context of theoretical frameworks that relied heavily on a belief in occult qualities, virtues or forces.” Although there are areas of overlap between these different occult sciences, they are separate and in some cases practitioners of one would reject the others as being illegitimate.
During the Age of Enlightenment, occultism increasingly came to be seen as intrinsically incompatible with the concept of science. From that point on, use of “occult science(s)” implied a conscious polemic against mainstream science. Nevertheless, the philosopher and card game historian Michael Dummett, whose analysis of the historical evidence suggested that fortune-telling and occult interpretations using cards were unknown before the 18th century, said that the term occult science was not misplaced because “people who believe in the possibility of unveiling the future or of exercising supernormal powers do so because the efficacy of the methods they employ coheres with some systematic conception which they hold of the way the universe functions…however flimsy its empirical basis.”