Oversimplifying the complex: How the Grimoire Tradition Misuses Occam’s Razor


We are pleased to present this guest post by Phillip Harris-Smith on the topic of the grimoire tradition. We know this may spark some debate within the magical community, and we welcome civil discussion in the comments section. We are grateful to Phillip for his insightful contribution and for furthering an important dialogue.

Due to some passionate responses, I add the following, prior to reading:

The views expressed in this guest post belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Perseus Arcane Academy. Our platform aims to encourage thoughtful discussion by providing a space for people to respectfully share diverse perspectives and opinions. We believe exposure to different viewpoints allows for open-minded examination and debate of important issues, though our writers’ opinions are their own. We hope this piece will contribute meaningfully to the ongoing conversation

Now, without further ado, here is his post:

Grimoire Tradition and Occam’s Razor

A brief check of google for the well-known Occam’s razor gives us a general outline, to quote from
the search: “A scientific and philosophical rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”

Here is a contemporary description provided by the New Scientist magazine: “If you have two competing ideas to explain the same phenomena, you should prefer the simpler one.” See here.

Sometimes folks oversimplify Friar William of Ockham’s razor. There is a false belief that the simplest answer is usually correct. This is a mistake, all that Friar William of Ockham (1287-1347) proposed was that it is not necessary to add to a theory if a simpler explanation was already available.

However, the problem that can arise is that of reductionism where Occam’s razor is mistakenly used to cut away complexities to make a theory appear correct. An over simplified theorem imposed, ‘Shoehorned’ onto a more complex problem. Arbitrary reductionism produces false understanding. Resources are expended to conform with, compensate for and fill in the gaps of the inadequate theory.

With a small number of exceptions this kind of inappropriate use of Occam’s razor with its associated crass reductionism characterizes the general historical corpus of grimoire magic manuscripts. This also holds true for the current grimoire magic paradigm in western occultism and its contemporary occulture.

The question arises in what possible way are the majority of varied and complex grimoires fundamentally reductionist. Also, it has been shown that later grimoires like for example Lemegeton contain elements drawn from earlier works such as the Heptameron. So, is this reductionism replicated throughout the historical development of the grimoires? It is clear that the majority of grimoires do have a reductionist flaw which in the modern day is accompanied with incorrect usage of Occam’s razor.

To understand the fundamental flaw within grimoires it useful to identify commonalities between different grimoires. Firstly, the majority of grimoires require ritual equipment be made from specific materials e.g. virgin parchment, wood from a yew tree etc. These various items of ritual paraphernalia often must be constructed in accordance with astrological conjunctions and/or planetary hours. Specific conjurations are provided and only those texts from a particular grimoire are deemed to be effective with the ritual paraphernalia specified by that same grimoire. Another common feature among grimoires is that they provide instructions for fasting, even physical mortification along with prayers and various other ascetic practices, the objective being ritual purification.

Secondly very few grimoires specify any kind of personal Theurgy. By this it is meant that although texts for conjuration may include statements that for example identify the conjurer as made in God’s image or that the conjuror is in fact a prominent biblical prophet. There is no actual Theurgy, the conjurer does not engage in any kind of ecstatic activity such that they have become an embodied Deity who therefore has an automatic Divine authority to evoke the specific entity into the triangle of art. So grimoires provide details for manufacture of ritual equipment, various purification practices and provide specific texts of conjuration. However, grimoires generally lack any instructions for theurgic/ecstatic practices. The modern-day view within the grimoire magic paradigm is that Theurgy or any kind of mystical activity is not required to achieve reliable evocation. The view expressed is that Theurgy is not needed for magical evocation because very little theurgic practice is to be found in varied grimoires that are separated by centuries of time and hundreds of miles. The general view is that whilst instructions for manufacture of equipment, purification practices and conjuration texts may differ between manuscripts; these in general constitute an underlying ‘magical technology’ and are essential common factors by which success is achieved. The modern-day grimoire magic paradigm discounts use of Theurgy as a component of evocation and does have a strong historical precedent for this. However, it can be shown that the grimoire approach to evocation is mistaken and reductionist. That as a general rule it is a fundamental error to employ Occam’s razor to cut Theurgy away from evocation.

Perhaps one of the clearest outlines of evocation employing Theurgy is provided in The Practice of Magical Evocation by Franz Bardon (1909-1958).

Each magic circle, no matter whether a simple drawing or a complicated one, will always serve its purpose, depending, of course, on the magicians facility to bring his individual consciousness into full accordance with the universal, the cosmic consciousness. Even a large barrel hoop will do the job…….

The Practice of Magical Evocation by Franz Bardon chapter-Part 1-The Magic circle 8th para.
Publisher Deiter Ruggeberg/Wuppertal western Germany 1984 ISBN 3-921338-02-6

Bardon identifies the symbolism for various items of ritual equipment but emphasis that Theurgy is paramount.

…….if the magician doing such an operation, has not the right attitude towards his doings, he
degrades himself to a sorcerer, a charlatan, who simply mimics and has no true contact with the
highest. ……

Part 1- The Magic Circle 4th para (same book ref as directly above).

Bardon is clearly emphasizing the necessity for Theurgy in evocation and identifies it as having greater importance than any specific method for manufacture of ritual paraphernalia. Also, in the chapter- Book of Magic Formulae. Bardon gives a generic outline for evocation in which Theurgy is repeatedly emphasized but there are no specific conjuration texts.

If we briefly compare grimoire evocation to Theurgy oriented evocation like Franz Bardon’s approach, there are several obvious differences:
In terms of theory Grimoire evocation ignores Theurgy. With respect to practice Grimoires specify exacting and time-consuming criteria for manufacture of ritual paraphernalia and rote learning of lengthy texts of conjuration. Often there is a requirement to strictly adhere to specific planetary hours for evocation of specific entities.

In contrast, methods for evocation that both in theory and practice emphasize Theurgy do not provide exacting criteria for manufacture of ritual equipment. Elaborate ritual paraphernalia are considered optional rather than a necessity. Specific texts of conjuration are not required. Specific planetary hours or astrological conjunctions are sometimes recommended but not a prerequisite. Theurgy based methods of evocation are clearly more efficient in terms of time and resources needed for preparation. They also do not require time consuming rote learning of conjuration texts. Theurgy based evocation methods also have higher utility. If a person adopting a grimoire evocation approach wishes to start evoking a different group of entities, they must start from scratch. They must select a new, different grimoire. Manufacture a whole new set of ritual equipment and rote learn various new tracts of conjuration. However, the magician that employs Theurgy simply continues to employ this core competency. They need only change equipment if it is not generic. For example, a circle with mercurial symbols inscribed would be unsuitable for evocations of genii from the Venus sphere so that would need changing.

However, a generic circle, for example a large barrel hoop could be effectively used for genii of either planet. It is clear that evocation methods employing Theurgy are more parsimonious, they require less
elaborate equipment and there is no need to memorize conjuration texts. In the Theurgy approach to evocation ritual equipment can be more generic and does not need to be specifically made for one group of entities.

It is therefore reasonable to observe that the grimoire approach to evocation is reductionist and modern-day expressions of this approach make gratuitous use of Occam’s razor. By discounting Theurgy the grimoire magician must instead fulfil lengthy and exacting criteria for manufacture of ritual equipment, rote learn tracts of conjuration text and is only able to perform specific evocations at a given planetary hour, moon phase astrological conjunction…etc. So, by mistakenly employing Occam’s razor to cut Theurgy away from the magical practice of evocation, the grimoire magician is forced to go to absurd personal lengths and satisfy complex criteria. According to Franz Bardon however, for a magician employing Theurgy, a large barrel hoop will suffice.

Clearly then the modern-day grimoire paradigm for evocation is reductionist. The theory is over simplified (Theurgy removed) and to compensate for this deficit considerable resources and personal effort are needed as a means of compensation.

The Theurgy approach at a theoretical level is more complex. The overall practice of magical evocation employing Theurgy is however much more parsimonious. All the exacting criteria, the considerable time and effort, these are largely absent from the overall procedure. So, by simple observation of the theory and practice for the grimoire-oriented approach to evocation we can see that it is radically reductionist and wasteful of resources and personal time. Because theurgy oriented evocation is not reductionist we observe that fewer resources and less personal time is required.

The conclusion is obvious. Grimoire type evocation is radically reductionist and inefficient. Theurgy based evocation is parsimonious and has more utility.

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6 months ago

You’re assuming Occam’s razor is accurate. We thought the double slit experiment was accurate. It turns out we don’t collapse the quantum wave after all. Eventually a determined pattern arises.

Philip Harris-smith
Philip Harris-smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Nick

Your explanation about the double slit experiment sounds very interesting. If you could perhaps post links which might be understandable to a non-physicist like me that would be appreciated.

With respect to Occam’s razor I don’t think it is a hard and fast rule. Perhaps more of an observed tendency for which sometimes it can occur that there are exceptions. This is why I suggest that Occam’s razor can be mis-applied which may then lead to a problem of reductionism. Reductionism in itself is a powerful instrument. When Occam’s razor is treated as a rule or as you put it:”you are assuming Occam’s razor is accurate”. This is when a problem of reductionism can arise. In my article above I am suggesting that it is when we treat Occam’s razor as a hard and fast rule that such difficulties may occur. What I am proposing is that crass usage of Occam’s razor e.g. assuming Occam’s razor is 100% accurate may generate an inadequate, oversimplified theory. An indicator that a theory has been oversimplified by over-application of Occam’s razor might be when: excessive time and resources are required to achieve an empirical outcome based on that theory. So….If we find that applying a more complex theory to achieve the same empirical results requires usage of less time and fewer resources. I propose that in such circumstance it may be that Occam’s razor has been applied inappropriately and there is a problem of reductionism. I then suggest that Grimoire style evocation does not employ suitable theurgy, can even discount it entirely and this is an inappropriate use of Occam’s razor. I point out that the Theurgy oriented method of evocation provided by Franz Bardon in his book The Practice of Magical Evocation is more complex, does include theurgy. Franz Bardon’s approach does not employ Occam’s razor to ‘cut away’ theurgy from evocation. I observe that Theurgy based evocation as outlined by Franz Bardon requires fewer resources and preparation time compared to the general grimoire approach.

To perhaps be a little polemic. It is only if we mistakenly treat Occam’s razor as accurate rather than a general tendency for which their may be exceptions. That we end up giving any kind of serious consideration to the intricate ‘flummary’ that’s comprises much to be found in medieval grimoire manuscripts.

Last edited 6 months ago by Philip Harris-smith
Sixty Skills
Sixty Skills
4 months ago

Nice. Great article.

Corresponds to what I’ve seen in general. If you have non-dual light, you have Akasha, and if you have both you have authority in the spirit realm.

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