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Romantic vs. Enlightenment science

(letter excerpt 2/2019)

The book I am starting on is tentatively called “Occult Semiotics” and will follow in the footsteps of academic interpretations of the occult such as that of literary critic Owen Barfield, who tried to give Steiner a fair hearing in the academia of his day. My purpose is a bit different. Rather than trying to make the spiritualists of Steiner’s era more palatable to modern liberal values, whether they be of the liberal Christians Barfield was speaking to, or the multicultural parents of Waldorf school children today, I am driven by practical necessity to follow through with the radical critique of Enlightenment science that they were on to. I admit that much of Theosophy can be seen as an outgrowth of the European Enlightenment, as Joscelyn Godwin has detailed, with some of the spiritualists of the time much easier to align with those trends, especially when politics made it valuable to adopt a progressive spiritualism as Godwin points out about the Bengali Renaissance spiritualists like Aurobindo. (Gurdjieff is an especially strange example of modernist spiritualism using the mechanistic metaphors of Enlightenment science rather than the progressivism).

Barfield definitely sees Steiner as the culmination of the Romantic movement, but as a literary scholar, he does not pick up any of threads of Romantic science Steiner was working with. After the wars most of those threads of holistic science, tied as many briefly were to the Nazis, changed form or went underground. Postmodernism picks up some of the spirit however. I think it owes much more to threads Heidegger picked up from German biologists like Uexkull and his notion of the umwelt than is usually admitted. (Umwelt has become a more explicit and important concept in contemporary semiotics). The scientific turn in postmodernism definitely fuels some of my formal context, but the content of my work is much more centered on the concepts developed in quantum biology, systems theory, complexity theory, and the alternative physics in the scientific underground. The physics has been the most underground expression for various reasons while the more benign philosophical and psychological aspects of Romantic science and vitalism became much of the counterculture spirituality. My practical motivation is helping people discern truth in the counterculture, which amounts to a lot of detailed judgments on the quality of many psychological and biological paradigms, practices and technologies. With a more radical semiotic approach it is easier to help people wade through the jungle of truth claims without needing to accept or reject anything on any foundational terms.

For instance I too was put off, as many are, by Steiner’s Euro and Christ centric vision. And most academics can’t even begin to understand the esoteric culture of the last 50 years, which increasingly is making Steiner’s most bizarre ideas seem tame. But freed from the literalism and nominalism that most of academia tacitly assumes, there isn’t that much difference between the Christ of Steiner and the Christ of a materialist Hegelian like Zizek. People assume, perhaps rightly, that Zizek is being metaphorical and Steiner literal in their respective embraces of Christ. But as Barfield points out, our notion of literal is very different than the meaning of the word in the middle ages. Steiner is, to his detriment, too ambiguous on this point, though he benefits greatly from a more semiotic reading. More importantly, I find it easier to interpret the contemporary world without ignoring the evolution of its mythos and spirituality, which is what is usually done by thinkers because much of it, if taken in the modern sense of “literally”, seems silly or bizarre. While the essay I linked to above, looks mostly at popular culture myth, I am more interested in the New Age mythos, which is rapidly evolving and becoming more politically relevant. But it is seldom taken seriously, which continues to push it to the margins and the political right. I appreciate when people like Richard Thompson have shown how much UFO narratives have in common with the stories in the Puranas and Mahabharata. But I am trying to reconstruct a more scientific and cosmological justification for the occult and a basis for evaluation that is contextual, interdisciplinary and practical rather than being either foundational or “judgmental”. Anyway, that’s a sketch of some of my work.



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