Spirits of the Goetia are portions of the human brain | Aleister Crowley |


I have seen this topic come up numerous times on many blogs and  forums. The problem stems from Aleister Crowley in the section of the Goetia ‘The Initiated Interpretation of Ceremonial Magic’.

Page 17 of Goetia – Published by Weiser, Crowley:

The spirits of the Goetia are portions of the human brain.

I am not approaching this quote to say spirits are not real, I am aware that Crowley is not an authority when it comes to evocation. I am aware of the differences between physical and visible evocation and the general mental masturbation. I am not an expert on these matters however and so I am not approaching this quote with the intent of proving/disproving the existence of spirits, nor am I claiming that I know how to evoke spirits.

All I will say in that regard to this quote, is that Crowley argues that illusions appear in experience and are real. An illusion does not qualify as non-existent or not-real, it’s just a different kind of real. Without complicating the main objectives of this thread, I will bring up the realism of John Searle. To Searle, there are four kinds of real – ontologically objective (exists independent of experience), ontologically subjective (exists dependent on experience), epistemically objective (knowledge that is independent of experience) and epistemically subjective (knowledge dependent on experience). I would say that Crowley is arguing a form of ontological subjectivity in his interpretation, that the effects occur through experience. This is why Crowley resists calling the illusion part of realism in my opinion and instead uses Kant’s transcendental idealism to say that the spirits are active components or processes of our perception – things in themselves – that are capable of knowing things prior to experience, or sorting out knowledge. I have left the component of will out for now, more on that after I have deconstructed his interpetations.

An illusion is an effect of a mutiple contingent or necessary phenomena occuring in a constant conjunction that would not occur if the mutiple components were to be observed in isolation. In this regard, self and self-awareness is an illusion. Our bodies are made up of complex components that by themselves, produce no self, but if they are working in constant conjuction they produce the illusion of self, identity and consciousness. When illusions are understood in this way, it is absurd to extract the claim ‘Crowley says spirits are not real’ from this quote. If spirits are not real because they are an illusion, then we are not real.

Anyway, enough of that. Reading through his essay reveals many components that people seem to leave out (conveniently) when discussing this particular quote, it usually appears in isolation, which in my book is cherry picking and quote mining. Taken with the context of the rest of the essay, Crowley is arguing for the validity of illusions as real things.

What is of interest to my inquiry here, are the terms Crowley uses in the same section of the Goetia that reveal possible links to general philosophy not normally considered of use in occult studies or practices. It is my belief that Crowley and a few occultists of Theosophical creed, were using the metaphysics of their time and not from actual manifestations that occur during a ritual. For reasons that will become clearer later on in regards to the influence of German idealism on Crowleys’ explanation, it may be worth pointing out that the word for ‘mind’ in German is the same as ‘spirit’. In Hegel’s ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’, the title has on occassion been interpreted as ‘The phenomenology of mind’.

So with the foreword serving as a disclaimer of what this inquiry hopes to achieve and what it doesn’t.

Cause and effect

Crowley uses Herbert Spencer to say that if illusions exist, they are evidence at least of some cause. Crowley then asserts that this is a fact. He then uses the term Akasha, from Hinduism – which means something along the lines of ‘essence’ the first material substance which came from an astral world. Not much to go on here, but there’s more later on that gives us a better scope of influences. For now though, we need to understand the foundations of philosophy and how views have changed over time before Crowley.

A very brief history of the foundations in philosophy

Medieval dogma, modern philosophers from Descartes to Locke, all presumed an a priori realm. Much like Plato’s forms. They also assume that the cause is greater than the effect, or that it must contain at least an equal amount of the parts contained in the material object. This dualism was taken down by George Berkeley, who claimed that material substances are dependent on the existence of minds and this led to idealism. These philosophers believed that particulars were transcendent, they came out of something beyond reality. Spinoza and Leibiniz then came along with immanence, or pantheism/panentheism which sees reality as all in God, but God is greater than nature, we and all material things are finite modes of an infinite God. Immanance means there is no beyond, if there is an astral plane for instance, it would still be a part of this universe/reality/existence, but God or the essence would still be greater than all of these modes. Leibniz also believed there is a ‘Monad’ that contains a history and can percieve reality from it’s own perspective, humans were the only material things that are composed of many monads, that could reflect on their content.

Then came along Hume, who said that causes can’t be known. What is here and now is so remote from it’s original source that we only ever see a constant conjunction and that ideas and impressions come from the senses in this world and we were not as Descartes and Locke, Berkeley, Spinoza and Leibniz claimed, that God was percieving through us. He took Lockes tabula rasa (blank blackboard) and explained how we can only ever have matters of fact that others have discovered and which are self defining, or we have relations of ideas.

Immanuel Kant took what Hume said and tried to debunk him. In doing so he discovered an active part of human cognition that was in his terms ‘synthetic a priori’ knowledge that is a thing-in-itself, a ‘transcendental idealism’. This has no connotation of alternative realism in the mystical sense, it is referring to an active component within cognition and perception that can recognise patterns before they are complete, we can know something without having prior experience of it.

Back to Crowley.


Like Berkeley, Crowley explains how Fichte says the ‘phenomenal Universe is the creation of the Ego’ to which Crowley interprets as the means the third eye ‘in the brain’. He says this can be assimilated by Realism but that we ‘have no need to take the trouble’. He says all ‘sense impressions are dependent on changes in the brain’ and that illusions are as real when classed as ‘phenomena dependent on brain-changes’.

This puts him in the same transcendentalism as Berkeley, but as he has referenced Fichte, a German idealist who was after Kant and Hume, he is not strictly speaking an idealist, it’s a much more subtle version of it.

He then includes the application of ‘will’ as well as a combination of objects and practices, including the mind which are required to perform ceremony.

He explains how the perfumes and scriptures produce ‘unusual brain changes’ and the mind ‘projects back into the phenomenal world’.This passage is perhaps the most revealing of Crowley’s metaphysics. Akasha then, it a form of will – the essence is the will.

Fichte claims that ‘the essence of an I lies in the assertion of one’s own self-identity, i.e., that consciousness presupposes self-consciousness. Such immediate self-identity, however, cannot be understood as a psychological fact, nor as an act or accident of some previously existing substance or being.’ Kant, while smashing the rationalists to pieces and following the limitations of Hume’s empriical scepticism, did allow for two worlds to exist. One of experience, phenomena, which is the world we occupy in material existence and another world that was intelligible, beyond our capabilities of understanding – the things in themselves that occupy the noumenal realm, which is our active perception that allows us to experience the material world.

Kant explained that because the ‘thing in itself’ can’t be known by science, we are free to believe in things like religion, the future and other such things, but there was a realm of experience that belonged to science that was empirical and that philosophy should do the same. Crowley read these works and changed a few premises to fit his description as we shall see. A more immediate reference to Kant is ‘philosophy has nothing to say and science can only suspend judgement.’

Crowley uses this split to justify his version of idealism that he believes is proven through illusion and perception, with the will as the active process of percpetion that is capable of manifesting spirits.

With all of this background we can see how Crowley did not arrive to his claim that ‘the spirits of the Goetia are portions of the human brain’ through the methods he describes, but rather he applied transcendental idealism to his explanation. The spirits to Crowley are the ‘things in themselves’ or in Fichtes terms ‘by positing its own limitation, first, as only a feeling, then as a sensation, then as an intuition of a thing, and finally as a summons of another person.’


Crowley’s references to will also bring other Kantian influenced philosophy into the frame. When he explains the ‘destruction of our enemies is to realise the illusion of duality, to excite compassion’, aside from his explanations of how these things-in-themselves, or active transcendental mechanisms which he calls spirits that are summoned through intuition, he seems to be revealing a link to Arthur Shopenhauer and Hegel. This will further elaborate on Akasha as an essence that is more than the finite modes of existents.

Hegel was a revolutionary philosopher who actually tried to describe the experience of the transcendental realm, or the thing in itself. Hegel claims that we are all ultimately one, there is one underlying reality and self-awareness is a necessary illusion that gives us the appearance of seperateness. Shopenhauer takes these metaphysics and declares there is a ‘will’ behind or around all things, an immamance, but it’s not like our individual will however, it is is more like an energy. In humans the will is the ‘will to life’ and it manifests usually as desire for satisfaction in a never ending cycle of suffering. Shopenhauer was a pessimist and concluded that the only basis for morality was compassion, as we are all interconnected as one, one cannot act with out causing action upon other beings around me. Shopenhauer was a notoriously cranky philosopher and despised women, something that Crowley would certainly have found attractive.

So to destroy one’s enemies by realising the illusion of duality follows this same logic.


I have long suspected for many years that Crowley was influenced greatly by German philosophy, all of the philosophers I have talked about lived and died before Crowley was born in 1875, Shopenhauer died only 15 years before Crowley was born.

Crowley percieves spirits in the same sense as Kantian transcendental idealism, with Fichtes’ take on intution and summoning. Crowley sees the spirits as active components of perception and of knowledge that occupy a noumenal world that can’t be known as a cause but can be accessed and retrieved through ceremony and intuition.

I personally see Crowleys’ explanation as unnecessary, as the same conclusions and knowledge can be accessed through the same metaphysics as previous philosphers before him. As I explained when I opened this thread, I am not trying to debunk or find out if spirits are real or not, I am only breaking down the content of what Crowley provides on it’s own terms.

Crowley even admits that ‘these practices are useless;but for the benefit of others less fortunate I give them to the world’. I don’t accept his apology afterwards as I have laid out this article it seems that he was hiding influences on his thought that would probably have been better applied with a different set of questions.

Psychology was just starting to build itself up as a human science and after Shopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud came along with a powerful materialism that focused on drives, which are possible to explain in terms of Crowley’s ‘spirits’, except they are not transcendental or from a noumenal realm, they are on a plane of immanance in this world.

If taken in regards to physical manifestation

If we are to improve what Crowley says to match the claim that Goetic spirits are ontologically objective, but manifest in this world not as part of the brain but as a seperate entity that can be observed by one or two people, then we can with charity explain it in a dialectical monistic way. Dialectical monism, or dualistic monism is the ontological view that reality is a whole but expressed necessarily in seperate parts. This is more akin to Spinoza’s panentheism – the one and the many, all is in god but god is more than nature and all material substances are finite modes of an infinite being, like God. This allows for spirits to exist as modes, they are less than god and part of nature. They are not beyond nature and don’t come from a transcendental realm, nor are they soley an aspect of a human brain. They can only be experienced through ritual ceremony however, but this does not mean they don’t exist prior to the experience.

Spirits exist with humans, however spirits can exist without them also, this makes humans contingent and not necessary to spirits, but spirits are a necessity of nature for humans. This is a statement that includes a oneness of duality, that reality is not one, or two, it is one and two. When humans call spirits, it is for matters that are necessary to humans, whereas spirits are concerned with necessities outside of human experience. Due to the fact there are limits on this relationship and that humans only have a contingent part to play, it is fair to say that spirits can be related to parts of the human mind in the forms of desires and satisfaction of desires. Thus, instead of ending up with a dualism or a monism, we can say that spirits are one and two things at once. They are ontologically objective because they exist independent of our experience, however they only have relevance when they are evoked through experience and are also ontologically subjective as well. Their effects on human desires are ontologically subjective, the knowledge of the symbols in the Goetia to call them is epistemically objective and the intuition, motives and personal will is epistemically subjective in the magician.

With the transcendental idealist interpretation, there is no ontologically objective form of the spirit, there is an ontologically subjective form from the thing-in-itself in the mind of the one who experiences the spirit, the knowledge of the symbols in the book is epistemically objective and the intuition and summoning, or information aquired by the spirit in the mind is epistemically subjective.

Related posts:

Share this content:

Leave a Reply