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Durham e-Theses
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An anthropology of esotericism

Quayle, Brendan (1976) An anthropology of esotericism. Masters thesis, Durham University.



This thesis attempts to establish a means for investigating the social forms of a type of cross-cultural religious phenomenon to which we refer as esotericism. In the early sections of the thesis we define the meaning and referents of esotericism and argue for the term's heuristic usefulness. We then consider a set of possible examples of esotericism and locate them within a typology. We construct a model of an ideal-typical esoteric group to be applied at a later point in our investigation of an ethnographic example. Following this we survey various anthropological methods of studying esotericism and decide in favour of a formalist/rationalist approach. This approach is deemed the most authoritative and useful; and the least impertinent and ethnocentric. In part two of the thesis we examine Anthroposophy as a test case for our model and formal theory of esotericism. We describe and analyse the social conditions which governed the inception of Anthroposophy and its related groups. We attempt to establish correlations between esoteric ideation and specific types of nineteenth century social experience. We then survey the social and religious experiences, and social significance, of the founder of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, in the light of established anthropological categories of religious officiant: prophet and shaman. This is followed by a structural analysis of Anthroposophy in both its esoteric (world-transcendent) and exoteric (world-oriented) aspects. We ascertain the operations of a principle of 'mediation' which permeates the complete system and determines its inner coherence and consistency. The remaining chapter illustrates the extent of the transformations undergone by the ideal Anthroposophical schema within an empirical situation and investigates the dialectical interchange between the realms of belief and experience. Finally, we compare the usefulness of a structural analysis with diffusionist and evolutionist modes of investigating the esoteric, and in doing so, introduce and summarize the results of our structurally-orientated exegesis. The thesis concludes wien a brief comparison of metaphysical and rational modes of apprehending the world. We suggest the inevitability of a fusion between rational and metaphysical frameworks of enquiry, and offer some speculations regarding the intrinsic nature and meaning of 'structures' in esotericism.

Item Type:Thesis (Masters)
Award:Master of Arts
Thesis Date:1976
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:14 Mar 2014 16:44

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