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Spirituality – New Age (Part 3)

Terminology of the “New Age”

The term “new age”, along with related terms like “new era” and “new world”, long predate the emergence of the New Age movement, and have widely been used to assert that a better way of life for humanity is dawning. It has, for instance, widely been used in political contexts; the Great Seal of the United States, designed in 1782, proclaims a “new order of ages”, while in the 1980s the Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed that “all mankind is entering a new age”. The term has also appeared within Western esoteric schools of thought, having a scattered use from the mid-nineteenth century onward. In 1864 the American Swedenborgian Warren Felt Evans published The New Age and its Message, while in 1907 Alfred Orage and Holbrook Jackson began editing a weekly journal of Christian liberalism and socialism titled The New Age. The concept of a coming “new age” that would be inaugurated by the return to Earth of Jesus Christ was a theme in the poetry of Wellesley Tudor Pole and Johanna Brandt, and then also appeared in the work of the American Theosophist Alice Bailey, who used the term prominently in such titles as Disciplineship in the New Age (1944) and Education in the New Age (1954).

Between the 1930s and 1960s a small number of groups and individuals became preoccupied with the concept of a coming “New Age” and prominently used the term accordingly. The term had thus become a recurring motif in the esoteric spirituality milieu. Sutcliffe therefore expressed the view that while the term “New Age” had originally been an “apocalyptic emblem”, it would only be later that it became “a tag or codeword for a ‘spiritual’ idiom”.

Luc Paquin

Spirituality – New Age (Part 2)


The New Age phenomenon has proved difficult to define, with much scholarly disagreement as to how this can be done. Religious studies scholar Paul Heelas characterised the New Age movement as “an eclectic hotch-potch of beliefs, practices, and ways of life” which can be identified as a singular phenomenon through their use of “the same (or very similar) lingua franca to do with the human (and planetary) condition and how it can be transformed”. Similarly, historian of religion Olav Hammer termed it “a common denominator for a variety of quite divergent contemporary popular practices and beliefs” which have emerged since the late 1970s and which are “largely united by historical links, a shared discourse and an air de famille”. Sociologist of religion Michael York described the New Age movement as “an umbrella term that includes a great variety of groups and identities” but which are united by their “expectation of a major and universal change being primarily founded on the individual and collective development of human potential”.

Describing the New Age as a “religious movement”, the religious studies scholar Wouter Hanegraaff adopted a different approach by asserting that “New Age” was “a label attached indiscriminately to whatever seems to fit it” and that as a result it “means very different things to different people”. He thus argued against the idea that the New Age movement could be considered “a unified ideology or Weltanschaaung”. Echoing the view that the phenomenon labeled “New Age” was not “even a homogenous entity at all”, the religious studies scholar Steven J. Sutcliffe nevertheless rejected the idea of a “New Age movement”, deeming it to be “a false etic category”. Many of those groups and individuals who could analytically be categorised as part of the New Age movement reject the term “New Age” when in reference to themselves. Thus, religious studies scholar James R. Lewis identified “New Age” as a problematic term, but asserted that “there exists no comparable term which covers all aspects of the movement” and that thus it remained a useful etic category for scholars to use.

The New Age movement is a form of Western esotericism. Hanegraaff considered the New Age to be a form of “popular culture criticism”, in that it represented a reaction against the dominant Western values of Judeo-Christian religion and rationalism, adding that “New Age religion formulates such criticism not at random, but falls back on” the ideas of earlier Western esoteric groups.

York described the New Age movement as a new religious movement (NRM). Conversely, Heelas rejected this categorisation; he believed that while elements of the New Age movement represented NRMs, this was not applicable to every New Age group. Hammer identified much of the New Age movement as corresponding to the concept of “folk religions” in that it seeks to deal with existential questions regarding subjects like death and disease in “an unsystematic fashion, often through a process of bricolage from already available narratives and rituals”. York also heuristically divides the New Age movement into three broad trends. The first, the “social camp”, represents groups which primarily seek to bring about social change, while the second, “occult camp”, instead focus on contact with spirit entities and channeling. York’s third group, the “spiritual camp”, represents a middle ground between these two camps, and which focuses largely on individual development.

Luc Paquin

Spirituality – New Age (Part 1)

The New Age is a term applied to a range of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices that developed in Western nations during the 1970s. Precise scholarly definitions of the movement differ in their emphasis, largely as a result of its highly eclectic structure. Many scholars of the subject refer to it as the New Age movement, although others contest this term, believing that it gives a false sense of homogeneity to the phenomenon.

As a form of Western esotericism, the New Age movement drew heavily upon a number of older esoteric traditions, in particular those that emerged from the occultist current that developed in the eighteenth century. Such prominent occult influences include the work of Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, as well as the ideas of Spiritualism, New Thought, and the Theosophical Society. A number of mid-twentieth century influences, such as the UFO cults of the 1950s, the Counterculture of the 1960s, and the Human Potential Movement, also exerted a strong influence on the early development of the New Age movement. Although the exact origins of the movement remain contested, it is agreed that it developed in the 1970s, at which time it was centred largely in the United Kingdom. It expanded and grew largely in the 1980s and 1990s, in particular within the United States.

Despite its highly eclectic nature, a number of beliefs commonly found within the New Age movement have been identified. Theologically, the movement typically adopts a belief in a holistic form of divinity which imbues all of the universe, including human beings themselves. There is thus a strong emphasis on the spiritual authority of the self. This is accompanied by a common belief in a wide variety of semi-divine non-human entities, such as angels and masters, with whom humans can communicate, particularly through the form of channeling. Typically viewing human history as being divided into a series of distinct ages, a common New Age belief is that whereas once humanity lived in an age of great technological advancement and spiritual wisdom, it has entered a period of spiritual degeneracy, which will be remedied through the establishment of a coming Age of Aquarius, from which the movement gets its name. There is also a strong focus on healing, particularly using forms of alternative medicine, and an emphasis on a “New Age science” which seeks to unite science and spirituality.

Those involved in the New Age movement have been primarily from middle and upper-middle-class backgrounds. The degree to which New Agers are involved in the movement varied considerably, from those who adopted a number of New Age ideas and practices to those who fully embraced and dedicated their lives to it. The movement has generated criticism from established Christian organisations as well as contemporary Pagan and indigenous communities. From the 1990s onward, the movement became the subject of research by academic scholars of religious studies.

Luc Paquin

Spirituality – Metaphysics

Metaphysics in Science

Much recent work has been devoted to analyzing the role of metaphysics in scientific theorizing. Alexandre Koyré led this movement, declaring in his book Metaphysics and Measurement, “It is not by following experiment, but by outstripping experiment, that the scientific mind makes progress.” Imre Lakatos maintained that all scientific theories have a metaphysical “hard core” essential for the generation of hypotheses and theoretical assumptions. Thus, according to Lakatos, “scientific changes are connected with vast cataclysmic metaphysical revolutions.”

An example from biology of Lakatos’ thesis: David Hull has argued that changes in the ontological status of the species concept have been central in the development of biological thought from Aristotle through Cuvier, Lamarck, and Darwin. Darwin’s ignorance of metaphysics made it more difficult for him to respond to his critics because he could not readily grasp the ways in which their underlying metaphysical views differed from his own.

In physics, new metaphysical ideas have arisen in connection with quantum mechanics, where subatomic particles arguably do not have the same sort of individuality as the particulars with which philosophy has traditionally been concerned. Also, adherence to a deterministic metaphysics in the face of the challenge posed by the quantum-mechanical uncertainty principle led physicists such as Albert Einstein to propose alternative theories that retained determinism. A. N. Whitehead is famous for creating a metaphysics inspired by electromagnetism and special relativity.

In chemistry, Gilbert Newton Lewis addressed the nature of motion, arguing that an electron should not be said to move when it has none of the properties of motion.

Katherine Hawley notes that the metaphysics even of a widely accepted scientific theory may be challenged if it can be argued that the metaphysical presuppositions of the theory make no contribution to its predictive success.

Luc Paquin

Spirituality – Metaphysics

Rejections of Metaphysics

A number of individuals have suggested that much of metaphysics should be rejected. In the eighteenth century, David Hume took an extreme position, arguing that all genuine knowledge involves either mathematics or matters of fact and that metaphysics, which goes beyond these, is worthless. He concludes his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding with the statement:

  • If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

In the 1930s, A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap endorsed Hume’s position; Carnap quoted the passage above. They argued that metaphysical statements are neither true nor false but meaningless since, according to their verifiability theory of meaning, a statement is meaningful only if there can be empirical evidence for or against it. Thus, while Ayer rejected the monism of Spinoza, noted above, he avoided a commitment to pluralism, the contrary position, by holding both views to be without meaning. Carnap took a similar line with the controversy over the reality of the external world.

Thirty-three years after Hume’s Enquiry appeared, Immanuel Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason. Although he followed Hume in rejecting much of previous metaphysics, he argued that there was still room for some synthetic a priori knowledge, concerned with matters of fact yet obtainable independent of experience. These included fundamental structures of space, time, and causality. He also argued for the freedom of the will and the existence of “things in themselves”, the ultimate (but unknowable) objects of experience.

The logical atomist Ludwig Wittgenstein introduced the concept that metaphysics could be influenced by theories of Aesthetics, via Logic, vis. a world composed of “atomical facts”.

Arguing against such rejections, the Scholastic philosopher Edward Feser has observed that Hume’s critique of metaphysics, and specifically Hume’s fork, is “notoriously self-refuting”. Feser argues that Hume’s fork itself is not a conceptual truth and is not empirically testable.

Luc Paquin

Spirituality – Metaphysics

History and Schools of Metaphysics

Later Analytical Philosophy

While early analytic philosophy tended to reject metaphysical theorizing, under the influence of logical positivism, it was revived in the second half of the twentieth century. Philosophers such as David K. Lewis and David Armstrong developed elaborate theories on a range of topics such as universals, causation, possibility and necessity and abstract objects. However, the focus of analytical philosophy generally is away from the construction of all-encompassing systems and toward close analysis of individual ideas.

Among the developments that led to the revival of metaphysical theorizing were Quine’s attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction, which was generally taken to undermine Carnap’s distinction between existence questions internal to a framework and those external to it.

The philosophy of fiction, the problem of empty names, and the debate over existence’s status as a property have all risen out of relative obscurity to become central concerns, while perennial issues such as free will, possible worlds, and the philosophy of time have had new life breathed into them.

Luc Paquin

Spirituality – Metaphysics

History and Schools of Metaphysics

Process Metaphysics

There are two fundamental aspects of everyday experience: change and persistence. Until recently, the Western philosophical tradition has arguably championed substance and persistence, with some notable exceptions however. According to process thinkers, novelty, flux and accident do matter, and sometimes they constitute the ultimate reality.

Lato sensu, process metaphysics is as old as Western philosophy, with figures such as Heraclitus, Plotinus, Duns Scotus, Leibniz, David Hume, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Gustav Theodor Fechner, Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg, Charles Renouvier, Karl Marx, Ernst Mach, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Émile Boutroux, Henri Bergson, Samuel Alexander and Nicolas Berdyaev. It seemingly remains an open question whether major “Continental” figures such as the late Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Jacques Derrida should be included.

Stricto sensu, process metaphysics may be limited to the works of a few founding fathers: G. W. F. Hegel, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Henri Bergson, A. N. Whitehead, and John Dewey. From a European perspective, there was a very significant and early Whiteheadian influence on the works of outstanding scholars such as Émile Meyerson (1859-1933), Louis Couturat (1868-1914), Jean Wahl (1888-1974), Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943), Philippe Devaux (1902-1979), Hans Jonas (1903-1993), Dorothy M. Emmett (1904-2000), Maurice Merleau Ponty (1908-1961), Enzo Paci (1911-1976), Charlie Dunbar Broad (1887-1971), Wolfe Mays (1912-), Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003), Jules Vuillemin (1920-2001), Jean Ladrière (1921-), Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-), and Reiner Wiehl (1929-2010).

Luc Paquin

Spirituality – Metaphysics

History and Schools of Metaphysics

Early Analytical Philosophy and Positivism

During the period when idealism was dominant in philosophy, science had been making great advances. The arrival of a new generation of scientifically minded philosophers led to a sharp decline in the popularity of idealism during the 1920s.

Analytical philosophy was spearheaded by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore. Russell and William James tried to compromise between idealism and materialism with the theory of neutral monism.

The early to mid twentieth century philosophy also saw a trend to reject metaphysical questions as meaningless. The driving force behind this tendency was the philosophy of Logical Positivism as espoused by the Vienna Circle.

At around the same time, the American pragmatists were steering a middle course between materialism and idealism. System-building metaphysics, with a fresh inspiration from science, was revived by A. N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

Continental Philosophy

The forces that shaped analytical philosophy – the break with idealism, and the influence of science – were much less significant outside the English speaking world, although there was a shared turn toward language. Continental philosophy continued in a trajectory from post Kantianism.

The phenomenology of Husserl and others was intended as a collaborative project for the investigation of the features and structure of consciousness common to all humans, in line with Kant’s basing his synthetic apriori on the uniform operation of consciousness. It was officially neutral with regards to ontology, but was nonetheless to spawn a number of metaphysical systems. Brentano’s concept of intentionality would become widely influential, including on analytical philosophy.

Heidegger, author of Being and Time, saw himself as re-focusing on Being-qua-being, introducing the novel concept of Dasein in the process. Classing himself an existentialist, Sartre wrote an extensive study of Being and Nothingness.

The speculative realism movement marks a return to full blooded realism.

Luc Paquin

Spirituality – Metaphysics

History and Schools of Metaphysics

British Empiricism

British empiricism marked something of a reaction to rationalist and system-building philosophy, or speculative metaphysics as it was pejoratively termed. The sceptic David Hume famously declared that most metaphysics should be consigned to the flames. Hume was notorious among his contemporaries as one of the first philosophers to openly doubt religion, but is better known now for his critique of causality. John Stuart Mill, Thomas Reid and John Locke were less sceptical, embracing a more cautious style of metaphysics based on realism, common sense and science. Other philosophers, notably George Berkeley were led from empiricism to idealistic metaphysics.


Immanuel Kant attempted a grand synthesis and revision of the trends already mentioned: scholastic philosophy, systematic metaphysics, and skeptical empiricism, not to forget the burgeoning science of his day. As did the systems builders, he had an overarching framework in which all questions were to be addressed. Like Hume, who famously woke him from his “dogmatic slumbers”, he was suspicious of metaphysical speculation, and also places much emphasis on the limitations of the human mind.

Kant saw rationalist philosophers as aiming for a kind of metaphysical knowledge he defined as the synthetic apriori – that is knowledge that does not come from the senses (it is a priori) but is nonetheless about reality (synthetic). Inasmuch as it is about reality, it differs from abstract mathematical propositions (which he terms analytical apriori), and being apriori it is distinct from empirical, scientific knowledge (which he terms synthetic aposteriori). The only synthetic apriori knowledge we can have is of how our minds organise the data of the senses; that organising framework is space and time, which for Kant have no mind-independent existence, but nonetheless operate uniformly in all humans. Apriori knowledge of space and time is all that remains of metaphysics as traditionally conceived. There is a reality beyond sensory data or phenomena, which he calls the realm of noumena; however, we cannot know it as it is in itself, but only as it appears to us. He allows himself to speculate that the origins of God, morality, and free will might exist in the noumenal realm, but these possibilities have to be set against its basic unknowability for humans. Although he saw himself as having disposed of metaphysics, in a sense, he has generally been regarded in retrospect as having a metaphysics of his own.

Nineteenth century philosophy was overwhelmingly influenced by Kant and his successors. Schopenhauer, Schelling, Fichte and Hegel all purveyed their own panoramic versions of German Idealism, Kant’s own caution about metaphysical speculation, and refutation of idealism, having fallen by the wayside. The idealistic impulse continued into the early twentieth century with British idealists such as F. H. Bradley and J. M. E. McTaggart.

Followers of Karl Marx took Hegel’s dialectic view of history and re-fashioned it as materialism.

Luc Paquin

Spirituality – Metaphysics

History and Schools of Metaphysics

Scholasticism and the Middle Ages

Between about 1100 and 1500, philosophy as a discipline took place as part of the Catholic church’s teaching system, known as scholasticism. Scholastic philosophy took place within an established framework blending Christian theology with Aristotelian teachings. Although fundamental orthodoxies could not be challenged, there were nonetheless deep metaphysical disagreements, particularly over the problem of universals, which engaged Duns Scotus and Pierre Abelard. William of Ockham is remembered for his principle of ontological parsimony.

Rationalism and Continental Rationalism

In the early modern period (17th and 18th centuries), the system-building scope of philosophy is often linked to the rationalist method of philosophy, that is the technique of deducing the nature of the world by pure reason. The scholastic concepts of substance and accident were employed.

  • Leibniz proposed in his Monadology a plurality of non-interacting substances.
  • Descartes is famous for his Dualism of material and mental substances.
  • Spinoza believed reality was a single substance of God-or-nature.

Luc Paquin