Some time ago I have re-read «Kulturwissenschaft und Naturwissenschaft» of German philosopher Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936), and some thoughts about application of his ideas to the history of study of esotericism appeared in my mind. Of course, the book was published a century ago, yet ideas described in it seems somehow fruitfull for understanding of the history of humaties in the 20th century.
Rickert writes on the difference beween «Kulturwissenschaft» and «Naturwissenschaft» and argues that the core methodologucal difference between those two is a usage of «generalizing» (in study of nature) or «individualizing» (in study of culture) methods. That means that in the study of the nature we tend to look for general laws, while in study of the culture we are interested, at the first place, in the uniqueness of events, persons and periods in history. For instance, to understand Ancient Greek culture we need to understand its unique features, unique attitude to life and so on.
If we try to use «generalizing» method in humanities and ignore «individualizing» part, we will get some type of a scientistic model of humanities, which actually exists in a wide range from marxism with its notion of «historical materializm» to those type of contemporary interventions of natural sciences in humanities where a scholar can formulate a goal to debunk religious beliefs or esoteric doctrines by means of finding «natural reasons» of certain experience or behaivior. A good example of such a study can be find in several contemporary works, that were in a scope of a wide interest some time ago (see, e.g., discussion in The Daily Beast). The approach has its roots in the 19th century positivism and other forms of scientism and is still widespread in cases when scholars try to use evolutionary biology or cognitive sciences to explain cultural phenomena. In study of magic, religion and esotericism such figures as Frazer can be named as classical represantatives of this approach.
Partly as a reaction against bold scientistic approaches in humanities, in the 20th century a number of scholars concentaited on alternative approache that criticized old solutions in terms of necessity of rejection of «big narratives» and so on. The core idea of the new approach was concentration on differences, on uniqueness of particular historical phenomena. According to it, sciences, religions and philosophies were described as a different types of understanding of the world, which actually should have equal social rights and can co-exists in parallel with each other (one of the most explicit statements of this kind were represented in Feuerabend’s works on the philosophy of science). This approach, sometimes associated with a term «postmodernism,» was a huge development comparing to 19th-century scientism, and, just as Rickert dreamed, it was all about individualisation of particular currents, countries and periods. Scientism of such authors as Frazer was overcome, yet there was one big catch.
The critique of «big narratives» (not necessari in this terms) assumed that nothing should be regarded as such a narrative and absolutized uniqueness of particular phenomena. In its ultimate forms it even proceeded to rejection of definitions or comparative studies of cultural phenomena. To put it in other words, from this point of view terms like «religion,» «science» or «esotericism» can be described as a big narratives per se. But such a total individualization in fields of study of religion and esotericism presumed that those religious or esoteric ontologies are essentially wrong, which lead to conclusion that, technically, their claims could not be accepted neutrally, but should be regarded as false claims (with all necessary respect to them). And if in field of religion this approach was partly compensated by social influence and authority of religion, in the field of esotericism it lead to reductionism that — surprisingly — returned us to classic scienticistic agenda.
The only difference is that whereas 19th-century scientism and its direct heirs tried to debunk esotericism from the point of view of «the science» (whatever a particular scientist understood as such), the new approach debunked it on basis of relativism. The shift towards radical changes in the academia which were a dream of, say, above mentioned Paul Feuerabend did not happened to be, although the huge progress in our understanding of those cultural phenomena is obvious and incontestable fact.
Thus, postmodernist critique did not undermined classical scientism of 19th century but instead ended up adjoining it in its attitudes towards to esotericism even if it criticized (and criticize) core scientistic methodology itself. So it seems that both absolutisation of methods of sciences in humanities and posmodernistic rejection of generalizations lead to the same way. Although the latter was a necessary step to overcome 19th century scientism (and influence of «traditionalism» in the academia too, by the way), it is not enough measure to guarantee the future development of the field. Any solutions? Maybe there are, yet such a solution would assume some shift in understanding of the borders, approaches and methods in the field. It seems, by the way, that Rickert himself anticipated a possibility of such type of problems in humanities and partly discussed it in the XIV section of the book where he also outlined a direction towards one of the possible solutions.