Where do Philosophy and Magick Meet?
Updated: Jun 14
Where do philosophy and magick meet, and what are they, anyways? It’s as loaded a question as can be asked, and we can burrow into it with still more and more – which philosophy, which magick? – but that would be counter-productive. So let me restate it: Where do I see philosophy and magick meeting? I essentially agree with the philosophical duo, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In their work What is Philosophy? (a deceptively simple title for a strikingly deep book), they make the claim that what makes philosophy philosophy is that it involves the active production of concepts – their interlinking and deployment in the context of lived experience. I see magick as a non-conceptual mode of shifting lived experience through “event theatres” that have a (somewhat) predictable relationship to one another. The basic tools that magickians use to achieve these shiftings are symbols, and the basic means by which they use the symbols are through rituals and meditations. Philosophers use concepts in order to make arguments, and magickians use symbols in order to construct rituals or meditations. In both cases, philosophy and magick – time is the medium targeted for intervention. Philosophers and magickians both have a stake in the unfolding of time.
Every concept shapes and reshapes the event in its own way. The greatness of a philosophy is measured by the nature of the events to which its concepts summon us or that it enables us to release in concepts. Deleuze & Guattari, What is Philosophy (p 34)
Time is a passage through and a composition of events. It is thus obvious that both philosophy and magick concern themselves with the shaping of events. But what differentiates their respective approaches? According to Deleuze & Guattari, where the philosopher uses concepts – drawn from the process of reasoning – the magickian uses ‘figures’, drawn from the intuition. These are not opposed strategies, as it turns out. Attempts to denigrate the one in favor of the other fail to recognize the essential and dynamic interplay between the two as they cooperate to shape the plane, or horizon on which events form.
…figures are projections on the plane, which implies something vertical or transcendent. Concepts, on the other hand imply only neighborhoods and connections on the horizon (Ibid. p 92).
Vertical and horizontal. Projections on the one hand, and tracings-across on the other – the authors make it clear that both these are valid (and interconnected) strategies. Put another way, these two movements appear to relate to one another orthogonally, like an axle relates to a wheel. They are entangled – yet intrinsically distinct. They intersect on the plane of unfolding events.
…figures tend toward concepts to the point of drawing infinitely near them (Ibid. p 92).
What is meant by this? Simply that the symbols which magickians use (in rituals) are intended to be as close as possible to the concepts that philosophers think (and argue) in terms of – without collapsing into being the same thing. In other words, Deleuze is using the concept of the infinitessimal drawn from calculus to mark the boundary between philosophy and magick. But it is necessary to have that boundary – precisely because it is necessary for them to each access a different respective world picture – otherwise the double-strategy, the double articulation, will fail. Consider: it is as if each of these disciplines is meant for one- but not both- of our eyes, and that as we come to see through both, we attain to a spiritual bi-camerality, and a third eye opens. The real action is happening somewhere just past the scope of the philosophical or the magickal – in a mysterious place where only both, working in conjunct, can truly access. Something definite and dramatic occurs when the boundary between concept and symbol is crossed, and yet it is such a fine line as to be almost completely invisible. There is a pivotal transition that “flips” between the magickal and philosophical mode.Who of us can truly claim to recognize exactly when and where we make that crossing? And yet it is in fact nothing more that a difference of orientation: the one orientation of thought which plunges us vertically into and across the stratified planarities, the other which ranges horizontally across their open surfaces. The two mentalities are as closely linked as the two sides of a Moebius strip, or as the inside and outside of a Klein bottle. For Deleuze and Guattari it is clear that philosophers and magickians – though distinct, are co-implicated. I concur with this assesment.
(The Article Continues Below the Ad)
Let me make a somewhat self-serving claim: the best philosophers are magickians and the best magickians are philosophers – for no other reason than either is incomplete, handicapped, in isolation. In the scaled-out view of things, the two professions are theory embodied and practice exemplified – respectively. The fertility that the respective orientations exchange between each other is essential, and we see it in the best examples of either profession. It is exactly this “do the work” approach that marks a practical philosopher or magickian apart from one who studies the topic without doing the activity – without applying the theory to lived daily life. The “armchair” variety. Aleister Crowley is, in my opinion, a prominent example of a true philosopher-mage. What made him the magickian he was is obviously a result of his having received a top quality philosophical education, and his having applied it -vis a vis concepts – to the systems of figures that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn provided him with. He could think inside, outside, beyond and between the systems he was schooled in esoterically. Granted that he had read Rabelais, Hume, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, AND Spinoza – how could anyone think that Thelema as he presented it was anything other than an inevitable synthesis between concepts and symbols in the crucible of a mountaineer’s understanding? Crowley was as disruptive as he was because he could question effectively using the philosophers skillset, but also compose event-theatres as a mage. Like a true magician, he hid his tracks well, in order to amplify his effects.
We see with him, that the world-crossing verticality of the Qabalistic ascents into Tarot and Enochian symbolism, coupled with 1) a skepticism drawn from Hume’s empiricism, 2) a nihilism drawn from Nietzsche’s revaluation-of-all-values and 3) a monism drawn from Spinoza’s ethics – together make for a potently charged magickal ritualism that extracts itself from tradition by means of rigorous philosophical questioning.
The combination of being able to work effectively in both figurate and conceptual modalities is highly potent. They do not cancel each other out – they are to one another as a wheel is to its axle. Bearing this in mind, let’s visit the Tarot:
(The Article Continues After the Image)
In this Rider-Waite image of the Chariot, there is one particular symbol that I wish to highlight and unpack into concepts – the encircled rod in the crest just below the winged disk. As a symbol, its content is emotional and affective- the winged disk suggests a mobile point and the crest suggests that this mobile point is further illuminated/empowered by the rod and circle. The rod and circle, or Shiva Lingam, suggest sexuality and the conjunction of a vertical with a horizontal – the meeting of two orientations as the dynamic source of the disk’s mobility. These are implied, not stated. They are not concepts – they are figures getting infinitessimally close to concepts, as Deleuze was saying. When those figure cross the threshold (or chiasm), we can speak of them in other terms: as the ideas of planarity-in-extension and verticality-in-transcendence. We can talk about the solar disk as a sphere of existential vectors – or as a locus of decisions: the present is a secret sun – or perhaps a black hole! We can use concepts to propose an argument that supports the same event-theatre that the symbols evokes emotionally.
The concept of freedom is evoked by the winged disk, and the process of how this is possible is illuminated by the Shiva-Lingam. This is all intuitively packaged, but readible in both registers. In this card, in other words, we have a recipe for moving from philosophy to magic and back. I call this movement across the chiasm between concepts and figures, “meta-magical translation”. These acts of translation between philosophy and magick enables both sides of the disk’s freedom to become available – concepts for their instrumentality, and symbols for their evocative memorial longevity.
Like the two different claws of a crab (and the chariot is assigned to Cancer), we have both sides of the magickal/philosophical assemblage: on the one claw, we have polyvalent aesthetic entities, the symbols, and on the other claw we have bi-valent logical entities, the concepts. The symbols render the concepts affective, and the concepts render the symbols effective. Solve et coagula. An assymetrical union of differential approaches.
Both philosophers AND magickians have accounts of this double-articulation – but each in their own language.
Lets have a look at another Tarot image:
(The Article Continues After the Image)
This time, we are looking at Aleister Crowley and Freida Harris’ Thoth Deck. On a purely affective, symbolic, & magickal level we can grasp it intuitively: it depicts a whirling force of expansion, and its centrifugal spin inclines us also to sense the axle which holds it in place, unshaken. Now look up towards the top of the image and note that a wholly second plane – with a circle drawn on it – is depicted and that circle is drawn as if on a plane perpendicular to the wheel – like it was an other-dimensional shadow cast by that wheel – or vice versa.
Aesthetically we see wheel and circle, and conceptually we may read this as the two orthogonally intersecting planes through which this card may itself be interpreted! We can read as philosopher, or we can read as magickian – and all the better if we can do both at once! As I stated earlier – the magickian is coaxing time – i.e. events- through a preconceptual theatre of figures. Nevertheless, at any position in one of these theatres, the symbolic content can easily be unpacked into conceptual content! We see this with the above two cards: In the case of the Shiva-Lingam on the Chariot‘s crest in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, and in the case of the orthogonal plane of the Thoth’s Wheel of Fortune both of these contain the necessary symbolic/figurate information necessary to draw out – among other things- the very relationship we have been talking about: the translation threshold between symbols and concepts – the chiasm. The Chariot in this respect is one of the most self-referential of all the Major Arcana – a close companion (in more ways than one) to the Wheel. The translation-threshold works both ways: concepts compressed into figures and figures expanded into concepts. Ad infinitum – philosophy and magick co-translate each other: Initiation is a visceral passage through affective environments, supplied by the magickal theatre, and destined over time to bear the fruit of a consistent harvest of cohesive, inter-related concepts, which will, in time itself prompt a return to the more compressed, magickal mode. Ad infinitum. So this, in essence, is where philosophy and magick meet: at the junction between horizontal and vertical – at the hub of the wheel where the axis connects – in the erotic tension between intellect and imagination. As you go about abiding your time, try to recognize the difference between when you are thinking in symbols and when you are thinking in concepts. Notice when your awareness is making horizontal linkages, or when it is drawing on vertical emanations. Try to find the chiasm, the pivot point where meta-magickal translation occurs. Becoming capable of consciousness in both modes will open new possibilities for encountering events – like a spiritual bilinguality that sheds true light, through mutual contrast, on the real terrain of existence. Learn to spin the wheel from out its heart. I’ll leave you with this mojo-poem: Go forth in self-conjunct, O winged suns, O stars of thought: Go forth and respirate – illumin 8 – O Ma’at, O Thoth!
Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix ; What is Philosophy?, Translated by Tomlinson, Hugh, and Burchell, Graham. 1994; Columbia University Press, New York.
Smith, Pamela Coleman & Waite, Arthur Edward ; The Original Rider-Waite Tarot, 1993 ed; Estate of A.E. Waite.
Crowley, Aleister & Harris Freida ; Thoth Tarot Deck, 2006 ed; U.S. Games, Inc.