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The Phenomenological-empiricist Methodology

Mar 20, 2009 12:31 PM
by Govert Schuller

Dear John,

A while ago you stated:

"I agree about study, science, comparative inquiry, but it seems to me after 10 years here most members don't have any inclinations to do that and instead restrict themselves to Theosopical Writings in it's full spectrum. I tried to read or acquire most of H.P.B.'s "Q" sources she mentioned in her works to learn what basis they contributed to the SD but how many other here do that? Not many if one must depend on what they openly state here."

I read Godwin's study "The Theosophical Enlightenment," I'm aware of Coleman's allegations of plagiarism and recently acquired Liljegren's "Bulwer-Lytton's Novels and Isis Unveiled." All these items make me think that I really like to see a study that takes HPB's work in a textual-historical framework along the (phenomenological) "empiricist" lines developed by Hanegraaff in his "Empirical method in the study of esotericism." (

[I add the term 'phenomenological' to 'empiricist' as it will prevent the possible misunderstanding to conflate 'empiricist' with the British empiricist and neo-positivist philosophy of science, which is quite reductionist in nature with some notable exceptions. It also brings out the genesis of the methodology as rooted in the appropriation of phenomenology by early 20th century scholars of religion.]

In this study he makes the case that between reductionist materialists and dogmatic religionists there is a third way of academic investigation which is metaphysically neutral ("methodological agnosticism") about religious and philosophical "first principles" with the effect that believers' claims about the "meta-empirical realm" (like Theosophists believing in and/or experiencing of the existence of the Masters) are respectfully kept intact to a certain degree. He argues that by the "rejection of metaphysical axioms" the field of study becomes more clear as it is freed from either reductionist or religionist "radical explanations" and alleged "immutable laws," which claim to be trans-historical and perport to 'expain away' the experiences under comsideration. 

What opens up then is the possibility to develop a history of ideas and modes of belief in their "historical contingency" or historicity. So, for example, such a methodology could look into the issue of congruencies between HPB's ideas and those expressed by Bulwer-Lytton in his novels without 1) having to conclude on the reductionist side that HPB plagiarised, because its meta-empirical claims are impossible in principle, nor 2) having to commit oneself to one or another religionist metaphysics (Theosophy included) that will either wholeheartedly embrace or demonize those claims. It just looks at esoteric ideas and comportments as they get expressed in ever different forms throughout the ages and develops provisional theories about idea-clusters, congruencies, transmissions, appropriations, legitimations, etc., all done while suspending the question of the truth and value of those ideas.  

Now, as far as Theosophy is concerned, I'd like to make the case that Theosophy, as it also tries to move between the extremes of materialism and dogmatism and makes claims of being scientific (or at least experiential), can benefit from the very interesting and fruitful side-effects of understanding this phenomenological-empiricist methodology and thereby make its own case in a more sophisticated way. What we can learn is 1) to become more aware of the reductionist and religionist pitfalls in which we might step sometimes ourselves, 2) sharpen our own methodology in doing comparative work, and 3) clean up hidden assumptions to free us to better understand other's spirituality, 4) appreciate and critique better the scientific work done by the historians and other social scholars in the field of religion in general and western esotericism in particular, as the latter explicitly takes the Theosophical movement as one of its subject matters. 

What we have to overcome is the fear of seeing our own tradition in a very different light. Hanegraaff is aware of the resitance of religionists (and here I'd include 'axiomatic' Theosophists too) to the empiricist method as it implies 1) a certain historical relativity, 2) it might possibly "demythologize" certain beliefs and make them look improbable, and worst of all, 3) it might be perceived as having dangerous and "profoundly reductionistic implications." 

Countering this fear is his reasoning that we just have to understand the subtleties of this philosophy of science, especially its limitations in making grand claims of ultimate truths about religion, which he says are intrinsically metaphysical in nature in the first place and as such already 'brackted' by the methodology. At the same time, yes, some myths might get cleaned up, or at least challenged, like the Liljegren interpretation of HPB's Ramsgate blind. 

In short: there is a proliferation of studies on western esotericism, including the Theosophical movement, and to save the subject matter that we value as true and priceless from reductionist and religionist explanations, we have to understand and appropriate the phenomenological-empirical methodology and its underlying philosophy of science to better counter possible misunderstandings that will marginalize (reduce) us to a historical curiosum, and also to better counter possible self-misunderstandings and self-defeating religionist tendencies that might have the same effect. 

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  Sent: Sunday, February 15, 2009 2:55 PM
  Subject: Re: Theos-World Path or Pathless - and No Gurus?

  As I said previously, KM repudiated the chosen role appointed to him by others in a moment of ultimate humiliation to Leadbeater and Besant before the whole world. He later dissolved the Order of the Star. So after turning on his heels and leaving it all behind him then at Madison Gardens---- Are there some who demand his mind and consciousness be physically excised from his Being and body? Does he not have life? Is he not as Human Being? Does he not have the intrinsic right to think and communicate to anyone about him who is there? Should his tongue have been pulled from his body for the offense of others? Hasn't he also karma to undergo catharsis as we all have? If what he says has impact upon others are others supposed to beleive it is only because of Leadbeater and Besant that he could speak words others found rewarding and healing and rejuvenating in spite of all that occurred before, when he was only the prop and center peice of their master plan. I don't think he had choice as a very young boy. There is a record of the protests of his parents against their approbation of him followed by the legal battle which the parents lost. He must have been much conflicted, confused and perhaps to him in a hopeless situation. But in any case, to me, he remains a precious human being entitled to live and grow and originate and to become "All that He is with All that is about Him' as a unique sovreign self determined thinking and acting Human being. So what if there was a "Trust"? A Trust is created to remove the hand from actions or involvement. 

  As to Cyril Scott I personally haven't read any of his books so I can't comment on their contents. But he was only 12 years old when H.P.B. died. Should Theosophists hold him in high regards because he named his dog Khoot hoomi? I don't, it is a negative if anything. Besides Harry truman said "The buck stops here" and what ever a guru or master may do to over shadow, assist protect is only as good as the conscious active actions and mindful awareness of those they want to see advance on any path. If the person choses otherwise they are helpless, so only when the subject does the right action and right inner work is the "Path" found for them and maybe that is what KM meant by "The Pathless Path". 

  And H.P.B. I seem to recall made comment that each and everyone of the 12 inner group members failed and were opposite of success. So in my view KM had a better result in some aspects. 

  I agree about study, science, comparative inquiry, but it seems to me after 10 years here most members don't have any inclinations to do that ans instead restrict themselves to Theosopical Writings in it's full spectrum. I tried to read or acquire most of H.P.B.'s "Q" sources she mentioned in her works to learn what basis they contributed to the SD but how many other here do that? Not many if one must depend on what they openly state here. Life has many demands that have stronger urgings and necessities. 

  Inspite of all the prestigious names listed in your extract here in the real world no one is raising the dead in the phenomenal way of Apollonius or creating alchemical gold like St. Germain, but Science is accomplishing similar acts by advance of natures knowledge and permissions. 

  PS: I have a new E-mail system whose spell-checker is yet arcane to me---patience. 
  Message ----- 
  From: "Morten Nymann Olesen" <> 
  Sent: Sunday, February 15, 2009 7:41:18 AM GMT -08:00 US/Canada Pacific 
  Subject: Theos-World Path or Pathless - and No Gurus? 

  Dear friends 

  My views are: 

  A few words about how to walk the Path or perhaps the Pathless Path... 

  H. P. Blavatsky wrote in The Key to Theosophy: 

  "ENQUIRER. Are we to understand that the inner group of the T. S. claims to learn what it does from real initiates or masters of esoteric wisdom? 

  THEOSOPHIST. Not directly. The personal presence of such masters is not required. Suffice it if they give instructions to some of those who have studied under their guidance for years, and devoted their whole lives to their service. Then, in turn, these can 


  give out the knowledge so imparted to others, who had no such opportunity. A portion of the true sciences is better than a mass of undigested and misunderstood learning. An ounce of gold is worth a ton of dust. 

  ENQUIRER. But how is one to know whether the ounce is real gold or only a counterfeit? 

  THEOSOPHIST. A tree is known by its fruit, a system by its results. When our opponents are able to prove to us that any solitary student of Occultism throughout the ages has become a saintly adept like Ammonius Saccas, or even a Plotinus, or a Theurgist like Iamblichus, or achieved feats such as are claimed to have been done by St. Germain, without any master to guide him, and all this without being a medium, a self-deluded psychic, or a charlatanâthen shall we confess ourselves mistaken. But till then, Theosophists prefer to follow the proven natural law of the tradition of the Sacred Science. There are mystics who have made great discoveries in chemistry and physical sciences, almost bordering on alchemy and Occultism; others who, by the sole aid of their genius, have rediscovered portions, if not the whole, of the lost alphabets of the "Mystery language," and are, therefore, able to read correctly Hebrew scrolls; others still, who, being seers, have caught wonderful glimpses of the hidden secrets of Nature. But all these are specialists. One is a theoretical inventor, another a Hebrew, i. e., a Sectarian Kabalist, a third a Swedenborg of modern times, denying all and everything outside of his own particular science or religion. Not one of them can boast of having produced a universal or even a national benefit thereby, not even to himself. With 


  the exception of a few healersâof that class which the Royal College of Physicians or Surgeons would call quacksânone have helped with their science Humanity, nor even a number of men of the same community. Where are the Chaldees of old, those who wrought marvellous cures, "not by charms but by simples"? Where is an Apollonius of Tyana, who healed the sick and raised the dead under any climate and circumstances? We know some specialists of the former class in Europe, but none of the latterâexcept in Asia, where the secret of the Yogi, "to live in death," is still preserved. 

  ENQUIRER. Is the production of such healing adepts the aim of Theosophy? 

  THEOSOPHIST. Its aims are several; but the most important of all are those which are likely to lead to the relief of human suffering under any or every form, moral as well as physical. And we believe the former to be far more important than the latter. Theosophy has to inculcate ethics; it has to purify the soul, if it would relieve the physical body, whose ailments, save cases of accidents, are all hereditary. It is not by studying Occultism for selfish ends, for the gratification of one's personal ambition, pride, or vanity, that one can ever reach the true goal: that of helping suffering mankind. Nor is it by studying one single branch of the esoteric philosophy that a man becomes an Occultist, but by studying, if not mastering, them all. 

  ENQUIRER. Is help, then, to reach this most important aim, given only to those who study the esoteric sciences? 

  THEOSOPHIST. Not at all. Every lay member is entitled to general instruction if he only wants it; but few are willing to become what is called "working members," and most prefer to remain the 


  drones of Theosophy. Let it be understood that private research is encouraged in the T. S., provided it does not infringe the limit which separates the exoteric from the esoteric, the blind from the conscious magic. 


  ENQUIRER. You speak of Theosophy and Occultism; are they identical? 

  THEOSOPHIST. By no means. A man may be a very good Theosophist indeed, whether in or outside of the Society, without being in any way an Occultist. But no one can be a true Occultist without being a real Theosophist; otherwise he is simply a black magician, whether conscious or unconscious. " 

  - - - - - - - 

  So why emphasise J. Krishnamurti's non-Guru teachings and teachings of non-comparative study, which clearly according to Blavatsky often will lead to problems? 

  M. Sufilight 

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