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Friday, June 19, 2009

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Aleister Crowley

Here are two quotations from the inimitable Aleister Crowley, the originator of the system of Thelemic Magick. In both of them, Crowley asserts that he is a nominalist. I request that you read them carefully. I will comment afterwards.

In philosophy I was a realist of the Cabbalistic school.
In 1900 I left England for Mexico, and later the Far East, Ceylon, India, Burma, Baltistan, Egypt and France. It is idle there to detail the corresponding progress of my thought; and passing through a stage of Hinduism, I had discarded all deities as unimportant, and in philosophy was an uncompromising nominalist. I had arrived at what I may describe as the position of an orthodox Buddhist; but with the following reservations.
  1. I cannot deny that certain phenomena do accompany the use of certain rituals; I only deny the usefulness of such methods to the White Adept.
  2. I consider Hindu methods of meditation as possibly useful to the beginner and should not therefore recommend them to be discarded at once.
-- The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, pp.356-357

Well, now, before going further into this, I must behave like an utter cad, and disgrace my family tree, and blot my 'scutcheon and my copybook by confusing you about 'realism.' Excuse: not my muddle; it was made centuries ago by a gang of curséd monks, headed by one Duns Scotus—so-called because he was Irish—or if not by somebody else equally objectionable. They held to the Platonic dogma of archetypes. They maintained that there was an original (divine) idea such as 'greenness' or a 'pig,' and that a green pig, as observed in nature, was just one example of these two ideal essences. They were opposed by the 'nominalists,' who said, to the contrary, that 'greenness' or 'a pig' were nothing in themselves; they were mere names (nominalism from Lat. nomen, a name) invented for convenience of grouping. This doctrine is plain commonsense, and I shall waste no time in demolishing the realists.

All à priori thinking, the worst kind of thinking, goes with 'realism' in this sense.
And now you look shocked and surprised! And no wonder! What (you exclaim) is the whole Qabalistic doctrine but the very apotheosis of this 'realism'? (It was also called 'idealism', apparently to cheer and comfort the student on his rough and rugged road!) Is not Atziluth the 'archetypal world?' is not—

Oh, all right, all right! Keep your blouse on! I didn't go for to do it. You're quite right: the Tree of Life is like that, in appearance. But that is the wrong way to look at it. We get our number two, for example, as 'that which is common to a bird's legs, a man's ears, twins, the cube root of eight, the greater luminaries, the spikes of a pitchfork,' etc. but, having got it, we must not go on to argue that the number two being possessed of this and that property, therefore there must be two of something or other which for one reason or another we cannot count on our fingers.

The trouble is that sometimes we can do so; we are very often obliged to do so, and it comes out correct. But we must not trust any such theorem; it is little more than a hint to help us in our guesses. Example: an angel appears and tells us that his name is MALIEL (MLIAL) which adds to 111, the third of the numbers of the Sun. Do we conclude that his nature is solar? In this case, yes, perhaps, because, (on the theory) he took that name for the very reason that it chimed with his nature. But a man may reside at 81 Silver Street without being a lunatic, or be born at five o'clock on the 5th of May, 1905, and make a very poor soldier. "'No, no, my dear sister, how tempted soever, To nominalism be faithful forever!'

(If you want to be very learned indeed, read up Bertrand Russell on 'Classes'.)
Enough, more than enough, of this: let us return to the relative value of various types of thought.
I think you already understand the main point: you must structuralise your thinking. You must learn how to differentiate and how to integrate your thoughts. Nothing exists in isolation; it is always conditioned by its relations with other things; indeed, in one sense, a thing is no more than the sum of these relations. (For the only 'reality,' in the long run, is, as we have seen, a Point of View.)

-- Magick Without Tears, by Aleister Crowley

Crowely was both a nominalist and a relativist. One of the mistakes made by some of his followers, in my view, is to read his narratives as something other than useful conventions. That is not to say he was not a magician. However, he appears to have regarded his descriptions, initiatory practices, Gnostic mass, etc., not as symbols of real things, but, rather, as utilitarian devices to bring about a transformation in the cosmic will, or thelema, of the practitioner.

In this respect, Crowley's writings were, I feel, similar to the Bahá'í scriptures. I am not, of course, suggesting any substantial theological similarities. However, I believe that the perspective generally given by both Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, particulary concerning the doctrine of progressive Revelation, can be viewed in a similar functional fashion. Some of the variations in scriptural accounts may be attributed to a use of language games, according to Jean-François Lyotard's reconstruction of Wittgenstein's concept. They, like Crowley's stories, are pragmatic, not necessarily descriptive.

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