The Esoteric Thesis

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The Esoteric Thesis: Unspeakable things, unknowable truths.
Making inner sense of the ineffability of knowledge obtained through research for the Exoteric Thesis
By Paul Wildman


This article explores some aspects of the conventional research thesis and identifies one method - the ‘esoteric thesis’- for explicating the inner meaning of the ‘research quest’ for the student. Often, when students are completing their external world oriented ‘exoteric thesis’ based on research, literature review and so forth, little time or attention is directed to their inner world. Such a huge investment of life energy, often over a period of years, has the potential to offer substantial insights for the researcher and intriguingly may even elucidate what, in the first instance, makes her interested in the research question itself. An inward-focused, ‘esoteric’ process of inquiry may also identify patterns in the researcher’s past professional activities that may help explicate the task at hand. This article argues for the importance of such an inner quest that runs parallel to the conventional outward-looking research quest, and outlines one approach that accommodates both.


Let us pause for a moment to identify, from the perspective of the student, a list of attributes of post-graduate, research-based study. I am most particularly concerned with those attributes related to a higher degree that requires a dissertation or major self-directed research component, such as a thesis. The list would probably include certification (achieving the higher degree), publishable research, peer recognition, career advancement, and (it is hoped) a contribution to knowledge and to the betterment to humanity in general. Seldom, if ever, is recognition of the potential for self-investigation, embedded in such a mammoth investment in time, given such outward, or public, thesis effort. This represents an investment of thousands of dollars and a significant amount of life energy, such as background professional experience, research activity, dissertation writing and subsequent development of a publication.

Some of the concepts used in this paper may need explanation. Research, in this article, is defined as an epistemological (concerning the investigation of the origin and nature of human knowledge) framework, which in enacted as a methodology, which in turn is used to engage with, or investigate, an area of concern. Over the course of the research , each element is more fully understood and modified in light of greater understanding. I have coined the phrase ‘Exoteric Thesis’ to refer to the conventional academic dissertation. Theses built up of literature review, hypothesis stating and testing, statistical manipulation, observations, and conclusions are typically 25,000 words in length for a Masters degree, and 100,000 for a Ph.D. The ‘Esoteric Thesis’, on the other hand, is undertaken along side the exoteric, to enable the student to gain an understanding of the inner meaning of the ‘official’ research work. This article provides a brief outline of the principal aspects of the esoteric thesis. Over the past decade I have sought to apply these approaches in my various roles as academic, co-researcher and supervisor. [1]


This article seeks to explore the potential for self-investigation, and even self-realization, through the esoteric thesis. At this point it is important to consider the nature of motivation. Is the student motivated to follow a particular course of study by external, extrinsic factors, such as career or family pressure, or does the research question stem from a genuine inner, intrinsic drive or urge for self-transcendence and conscious realization through knowledge? Consciousness, in this instance, may be seen as a continuous spectrum from reflective states (including discursive and analytical – the home of the exoteric thesis), through non-reflective states (ecstatic and meditative) to direct apperception (intuition, gnosis, esoteric experiences) (Tacey, 1995; Wildman, 2000).

Methods of achieving these higher levels of consciousness may include: spiritual discipline such as diet and meditation; displacement events such as trauma and stress; some drugs and epiphanies rational and otherwise; intuition, apperception, gnosis and methods such as QCAR described later in this article (Taylor, 2001). Generally these categories can be considered as sense, reason and intuition, or opinion, science and illumination respectively. It is the latter that the esoteric thesis seeks to unpack. For instance:

· Sense – instincts, emotions, vernacular

· Reason – rational discourse including positivism, hermeneutics and criticism

· Intuition – poetics, self-actualization and realization, morphic field resonance, network intelligence, awareness without object, awareness without subject.

Differentiation between unconscious and conscious in this instance is, of course, somewhat arbitrary. Consciousness also expresses itself as detached, objective observer (rationality), involved yet separate participant (relational) and integrated as one of many (participatory consciousness) (Jantsch, 1975, p. 105). Indeed the esoteric thesis may be seen as offering another conscious vantage point on the exoteric thesis.

While the student’s primary motivation may well be more apparently allied to extrinsic drivers, I argue that the intrinsic urge is present in the vast majority of thesis research and writing situations, and that with a judicious approach, the internal, esoteric thesis may be encouraged to emerge.
Balancing overall thesis workload

Clearly, while developing an understanding of the esoteric thesis has merit, the student has to balance the competing needs of his private life, study, research, field time, write up, supervision and demand for publication from the ever-present examiners and perhaps employers. The potential workload of an esoteric thesis can perhaps best be viewed as a percentage of the time allocated to the exoteric thesis. I suggest that perhaps ninety per cent of the student’s overall effort be directed to the external (analysis, fieldwork, research, literature review, writing, editing and publication), with ten per cent directed to internal analysis including synthesising, reflecting, connecting, surfacing, illuminating, identifying and tracking important internal markers and understandings which emerge from the first 90% effort.

An esoteric thesis is not, itself, an esoteric journey ( inside looking in), nor is it an esoteric view of the outside world ( inside looking out). Rather it rides on the back of the external thesis and seeks insights by that contribute to the student’s ‘self-knowledge’. (The box below provides an appropriate metaphor for this process.) Yet we must keep the two theses in equilibrium. The goal is to strike a balance between the excessive effects of both rationalism and of esotericism. Just as esotericism can remove the importance of ‘dancing’ with details and concrete evidence, so exotericism can remove the importance of inner meaning and learning about self and ‘other’.

Metaphor for an Esoteric Thesis

When I was a child, each year my parents would buy a Christmas Pageant calendar. On each day of the last month of the year, as we approached the 25th December, my sister and I would take turns opening a series of little (1cm by 1cm) windows in the Christmas calendar. Slowly, window by window, the hidden pageant appeared.

On the last day the whole pattern was revealed.

The pageant, like the esoteric thesis, was an inner pattern already present, yet initially not evident to the outside world. Each day added a further perspective on the overall underlying picture.

Box: A metaphor for the esoteric thesis Source: Paul Wildman 2001

Writing an esoteric thesis, then, is about the realization and fulfillment of one's potential capacities (gained through learning, through developing insights and understanding from ones research), and applying this understanding to the self in a way that is demonstrated through understanding of, and service to, self and humanity.
Characteristics of an Esoteric Thesis

The esoteric thesis has a number of specific characteristics. First, the thesis acknowledges the emotional experiences and personal development outcomes from writing the exoteric thesis. Next, the esoteric thesis uses the external research, as a subtext, to harness both the outer and inner search for meaning and to seek their integration. It also assists in the development, revelation, or exploration, of an internal frame of reference or paradigm. Such a frame of reference can, and at an unconscious level already does, integrate and prioritize one’s life direction and ability to identify and valorize the research question, future directions and past patterns of inquiry. A further characteristic is that it provides a path to allow broader and deeper research questions to be asked about the contribution of the exoteric thesis to the students ongoing life, self and one’s emergent familial and professional roles. In so doing, it contextualizes the exoteric thesis as an analytical engine or outer journey of intellectual comprehension through categorization and compartmentalization. Finally, the esoteric thesis is about synthesising, amalgamating and patterning questions, data, insights and answers that arise from research conducted in the external world.

If we look behind the quest of the human mind for knowledge, we see something far deeper than a purely human source. We may see knowledge as embedded in bold conjectures and myths deriving from a morphic field. And that this, in turn, is embedded in archetypal energies that mental activity in its broadest sense can release as if unzipping a file. It is this unzipping that the esoteric thesis seeks to touch (Tarnas, 1991).

The esoteric thesis is meant to be intensive rather than extensive: it can be codified into story, painting, sculpture, painting, video/dvd clip or in a few specific instances, text. In all instances, however, it is overarching or underpinning by nature, rather than extensive and rule-governed (by word counts and the like). Reason and Hawkins (1988), for example, see story telling as a form of inquiry. Because our consciousness has been so colonized by narrowly defined ‘rational’ thinking, we almost need an alternative vocabulary that transforms the synthetic and intuitional forms of consciousness, methodologies and associated words.

The English language is rich in its capacity to embrace the internal ‘left-handed’ (and thereby ‘right–brained’) quest (for example, William Shakespeare). Currently, such capabilities are at best ‘silently enabled’ and at worst ‘audibly disabled’, in favour of the right-hand pair in the list above. The esoteric thesis respectfully challenges the view that only those theses that satisfy the imperious needs created by the philosophic and scientific positions of the modern world are uniquely of value. The following list postulates the esoteric thesis from a language perspective: in the list, the first word in each pair relates to esoteric dimensions of understanding. Such descriptors allow access to additional dimensions of knowing and learning that may be called meta-knowledge.

Descriptor examples

Aggregation Disaggregation

Syncretics Discrimination

Integration Disintegration

Imagination Construction

Apperception Perception

Noumenal Phenomenal

Inspiration Perspiration

Subjective Objective

Induction Deduction

Immediate Mediate

Intuition Reduction

Synthesis Analysis

Internal External

Insight Hindsight

Poetic Noetic

Idea Concept

Gnosis Logos

Design Detail

Invert Evert

Some aspects for consideration in undertaking an Esoteric Thesis

Several elements may be considered in undertaking an esoteric thesis.
Esoteric biography

In essence an exoteric thesis is written from an outside perspective looking out , while an esoteric thesis is in part a biography written from the outside looking in (and is from the vantage-point of learning insights and deep reflections gained from the exoteric thesis). In this way, the esoteric thesis seeks to reveal the inner scaffolding that has generated, and will continue to generate, the external activity associated with the actual research question.
Retroductive congruence

The esoteric thesis is not a journey around one’s psyche, nor is it an exploration of one’s inner world. Rather, it is devoted to seeking inner patterns that give rise to the external research question. It seeks a harmony or congruence and integrity between the outer research question and its associated activities on the one hand, and the researcher’s inner world, on the other. This harmony is arrived at through a cyclic, retroductive process, in which inductive and then deductive processes are followed: working both from the particular to the general and then from the general to the particular, and so on. This, in turn, has the effect of assisting in the development of an internal frame of reference with a potential role in integrating and prioritizing life directions, as well as enhancing our capacity to identify future directions and past lessons.
Interior | Exterior divide

The esoteric thesis, in effect, has links to Wilber’s (1995) descriptor ‘interior’ while the exoteric thesis links to his ‘exterior’. The esoteric thesis represents an inner mirroring of the exterior actions, behavior and measurements of the exoteric thesis. In Wilber’s terms, the western esoteric|exoteric divide (which favors the exoteric) might be described as spinning on an inner/outer axis. In some Asian and indigenous cultures, on the other hand, it may be spinning on an individual|social axis (and favour the social).

Wilber (1995) captures this dilemma well when he says ‘[t]he permanent sign of [western] enlightenment is domination over an objectified external [read exoteric] nature and a repressed internal [read esoteric] nature’ (p. 443). In this regard, readers may recall the 'integral' nature of the esoteric thesis: it is a step towards uniting the interior and exterior aspects of the student’s being.
Supervision to Supravision

Supervision in the case of the esoteric thesis moves beyond technical and academic correctness and the politics of examiner selection. For a complete and successful outcome the cognitive, linguistic and evidential requirements of the exoteric thesis are all crucial. Clearly, I am not suggesting that the supervisor needs to become a navigator of the vertical gaze, looking at the same issue from various levels of consciousness from the mundane to the rational to the spiritual (see Table 1). An alternative is the concept of supravision, which includes recognition of the potential importance for the student of such vertical navigation, as well as the desirability of reflective questioning, joint questing and pattern identification. [2] Equally, however, it may well be that the student can take the process forward herself through, for instance, quadruple column action research, detailed later in this article.
From Knower to Known

This element in the esoteric thesis derives from a belief that to have integrity in qualitative research, the outer world of the researched must interact with the inner world of the researcher. That is, the integrity of the research process demands that the research methodology chosen has the capacity to engage the internal and external worlds of the researcher. Authors such as Isenberg and Thursby (1984-6, 2000) argue that such engagement is crucial to our humanity, in overcoming the modern philosophic truncation of outer from inner. Rorty’s (1980) description of post-Philosophical humanity provides an example of such a truncated human image, and it bears repeating, ‘A post-Philosophical culture, then, would be one in which men and women felt themselves alone, merely finite, with no links to something Beyond’.

Esoteric understandings of knowledge identify our ordinary knowing as theory-laden, conditioned, relative and provisional; as essentially hermeneutic. Yet, such esoteric knowledge accepts realities, such as that human nature is teleological (having an urge to transcend, for an ultimate purpose) and that there is a collectivity, beyond the purely rational. By self-observation, introspective traditions claim, we can break the reactive link between experiencing and its associative mental processes, and their rational concomitants. Much Zen and Tantra practice, for example, is oriented toward such unconditioned, intuitive, immediate experiencing which transcends mental habits.
Chakra Activation

In terms of obtaining and inscribing the different types of energy in exoteric thesis writing, another consideration may be the chakras or energy centers of the body. Known for millennia in the East, they have been used in Western naturopathic systems for the past fifty or so years. The seven chakras run along the length of the spine. Those familiar with mediation will be aware of these centers, about which much has been written. The seven chakras may be seen to represent different ‘ways of knowing’ or intelligences.

In an intriguing piece on this topic, Passfield (1997) sees these seven energy centers as contributing the following energies:

(1) Base (bottom of spine)-> existence

(2) Genital -> activity esp. generative and procreative

(3) Stomach area-> control and power

(4) Heart->community and family

(5) Throat->meaning and decisions

(6) Between the eyes -> integration and discernment, and at the

(7) Top of the head -> spirit, synthesis

While both types of theses can use all these types of energy, the esoteric thesis draws heavily on the last three of these chakras, as they lean towards deep reflection.
Table 1: From Exoteric Thesis to Esoteric thesis and return

Exoteric Thesis <-> Esoteric Thesis*

1 ->Exoteric Research Question – immersion** in the professional field within which research is being conducted

2 ->Research Actions -> Research and Learning Observations

3 -> Learning Observations -> Learning Insights [epiphany’s, ah has, ah that’s, what it means for me to be interested in this particular research question at this particular moment in this particular way] -> exoteric thesis – incubation**

4 Learning Insights -> Deep Reflections, pattern identification and potentials for deeper understanding of the researcher and the research task [eg. see Table 2b]

5 -> Esoteric thesis and ‘rationale’ for the actual research question – illumination** - self-realisation and a modified internal frame of reference

6 -> exoteric thesis – explication**

7 -> Application of exoteric thesis having cognizance of all the above steps – creative synthesis ** hopefully of exoteric and esoteric theses in the lived life of the researcher

8 -> Revisit Research Question and know its meaning for the first time -> 1

Little Gidding

We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
when the last of earth left to discover
is that which was the beginning

T S Elliot

*Can be codified in a methodology such as Reflective Praxis
** Italics indicate the steps in Heuristic Inquiry
Quadruple Column Action Research (QCAR)

One way of integrating the esoteric and exoteric theses is via Quadruple Column Action Research (QCAR). Although not applicable in all research projects, QCAR does illustrate how conventional exoteric methodology can be expanded to include an esoteric dimension. In QCAR, the conventional two-column (Observations and Reflections) action learning field journal is expanded to include an additional two columns: Learning Insights and Deep Reflections (patterns). The QCAR format is illustrated in Table 1. One method of transforming the data generated in these extra columns into esoteric learnings is through Reflective Praxis. This Transformation is in effect another journey of understanding as the researcher searches for meta meaning in the research data.
Table 2: Quadruple Column Action Research – the QCAR process

(1) Field Work:

(2) (Learning) Observations

(3) Learning Insights

(4) Deep Reflections and pattern identification

Source: P Wildman 2001

Reflective Praxis is a process in which an extended period of professional experience (often a decade or so) engages with a process of action-based research and reflection that includes inner review and reflection, application of learning insights thus obtained and their creative synthesis into the final dissertation. Reflective Praxis can, to some degree, operate as a methodology for a conventional exoteric thesis. However, with the inclusion of a method of deep reflection and pattern identification (for instance, Heuristic Inquiry), it can also be a method for the esoteric thesis (Wildman, 1995). The QCAR process forms a triple-loop learning opportunity, in which the reflective praxis of column 4 then enables the combining of Action Research with Heuristic Inquiry. [3]

Further, engaged research such as empirical research, action research and phenomenology can provide a ready source of material for the esoteric thesis. Critical, postmodern and in some instances hermeneutic research, however, may well need a separate, though related, esoteric effort.

Through the deep reflections of column 4, above, the esoteric thesis seeks to transcend the pseudo-objectivity which enthrals so much of our academic world. In research and essays, this pseudo-objectivity is typified in the banishing of the subjective, and the adoption of the stance of passive observers recording pure fact. One of the most important things about the esoteric thesis is that it allows the subjective: it breaks through the useful yet limiting concept of objectivity. In this way the esoteric thesis promotes a new kind of academic honesty, integrity and reinstates the subjective.
The Esoteric Thesis and Academic Integrity

The investigations of the esoteric thesis can, in turn, flow into how we understand ‘academic endevour’. Some academic approaches can tend to concentrate on ‘thought experiments’, ultimately leading to somewhat detached ‘fence-sitting’ positions. This may effectively distance an academic approach from enactments of the implicit value position. Such ambivalence, although necessary for objectivity and exoteric theory development, can tend to exclude other ways of knowing. In action research, for example, it can lead to a certain reluctance to explore and enact the personal and collective compliance implications of taking such a theoretical position.

The esoteric thesis, then, stands in fundamental challenge to the all-too-frequent mantra of ‘just do your dissertation according to the conventional formula and then you can do what you want.’ This article is indeed one response to this suggestion. One may well be excused for asking: ‘How can one know what one wants without undertaking some deep learnings such as the esoteric thesis can provide?’. The esoteric thesis responds to this question by seeking ways to touch and understand the ground on which we stand, while explicating our research question and thereby taking various research positions.

There are of course differing viewpoints. Some streams of critical theory including much postmodernism and some forms of hermeneutics would be deeply suspicious, even hostile, to the concept of an esoteric thesis, while not necessarily being hostile to intentionality in a genealogical sense. Clearly, post-structuralism can view systems of layered meaning and causes such as the esoteric thesis or indeed causes in general as even a ‘malicious falsity’ indicative of a belief in dangerous utopias. Such a position, however, would reject the multitude of layers and levels, instead seeing each one solely in horizontal epistemological space and not in any deeper sense, or would assert that depth is arbitrary and understood only genealogically and not structurally, as the esoteric thesis seeks to.

One response to this critique is to argue that the esoteric thesis is not reviewing causation from the perspective of predicting or generating grand theories, but is about, for example, creating transformative spaces and perspectives for the creation of alternative understandings. Such understandings can then be shaped as activators for the researcher. These spaces allow distancing from and awareness of the current categories and allow us to see these categories, such as ‘dissertation’, as fragile, epistemologically unique, historically specific, transitory and non-universal.

The ‘contact’ allowed by the esoteric thesis’ includes personal and social compliance, public self-disclosure, ethical and integrity development, and contestability. In this way academic integrity can be enhanced.

It may well be that the notion of the esoteric thesis appeals to no more than 5-10% of students, and even less to academics. This is to be expected. Nevertheless an esoteric thesis if properly undertaken can be effectively linked to a conventional thesis process with a small allowance for additional workload. This article has argued that such a process can provide a rich and rewarding field of life-meaning for the student and in some instances, for the supervisor. Further, it has the capacity to enhance the process and understandings of the exoteric thesis.

It is hoped that in some small way the esoteric thesis may help answer the frequent claim by students that the research/thesis process is ultimately formulaic, alienating and not sufficiently personally challenging or insightful. It is to these latter two critiques of the conventional thesis process that this article is addressed.


Galtung, J., and Inayatullah, S. (Eds.) (1997). Macrohistory and Macrohistorians: Perspectives on Individual, Social and Civizational Change. Westport: Praeger.

Isenberg, S. and Thursby, G. (2000). A Perennial Philosophical Perspective on Richard Rorty’s Neo-Pragmatism. At ursby/pub/devol.htm

Isenberg, S., and Thursby, G. (1984-6). Esoteric Anthropology: "Devolutionary" and "Evolutionary" Orientations in Perennial Philosophy. Religious Traditions, 7(9), 177-226.

Jantsch, E. (1975). Design for Evolution: Self-Organi zation in the Life of Human Systems . New York: George Braziller.

McCubbin, H. (1999). Total Devotion – A spiritual path of poetry. Multi Media CD-ROM. Brisbane: Prosperity Press. [McCubbin is Paul Wildman’s ‘nom de plume’]

Moustakas, C. (1990). Heuristic Research: Design, Methodology, and Applications. Newbury Park: Sage.

Passfield, R. (1997). Managing the energy of thesis writing: A chakra perspective. ALCAR – Action Learning and Action Research Journal, 2(3), 19-39.

Reason, P. and Hawkins, P. (1988). Storytelling as Inquiry. In P. Reason and P. Hawkins (Eds.), Human Inquiry in Action: Developments in New Paradigm Research (pp. 79-101). Sage.

Rorty, R. (1980). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. UK: Basil Blackwell.

— See also College of Liberal Arts – University of Florida. At

Tacey, D. (1995). Edge of the Sacred: Transformation in Australia. Melbourne: HarperCollins.

Tarnas, R. (1991). The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Random House.

Taylor, S. (2001) From the Unreal to the Real. New Renaissance, January. At

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala.

Wildman, P. (1995). Research by Looking Backwards: Reflective Praxis as an Action Research Methodology. In S. Pinchen and R. Passfield (Eds.), Moving On: Creative Applications of Action Learning and Action Research (pp. 171-192). Brisbane: ALARPM (Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management Association).

Wildman, P. (2000). Life Futures: An Initial Taxonomy of Terrestrial and Non-Terrestrial Forms of Life. Journal of Futures Studies, 4(2), 93-108.

Wildman, P. and Inayatullah, S. (1996). Ways of Knowing and the Pedagogies of the Future. Futures, 28(8), 723-740.

[1] My direct experience, over the past decade, includes many of the elements of developing an esoteric thesis covered in this article, such as:
. Story telling – I included in my dissertation a modified Dreamtime story which, incidentally was not read by any of the three male examiners.
. Poem writing – leading to a CD-Rom (McCubbin 1999).
. Sculpture making – in particular a piece called ‘A Question of Balance’.
. Applying Reflective Praxis in developing text for a chapter in my doctoral dissertation, as well as in further research, application and publishing 1993, 1995 and 1997.
. Theory development, trialing and application (Reflective Praxis) by myself and then with students (see Wildman, 1995; and the link between ‘math’ and ‘myth’ in Wildman and Inayatullah, 1996).

[2] The reader should note that the exoteric thesis is almost always a Promethean work (explanatory and analytic) whereas the esoteric thesis (interpretative and synthetic) is often a Hermeneutic work. Generally speaking, universities do not take kindly to the latter. While vocational education may well strive for behavioral competence in the material world, tertiary education reaches for understanding of the mental world. Both are Promethean tasks. The process of completing an esoteric thesis reaches for meaning in the inner world of the researcher.

[3] Heuristic Inquiry has five dimensions: immersion in the field; incubation and illumination of learning insights, meta meaning and pattern identification; explication in the esoteric thesis; and finally creative synthesis – the application of the lessons learnt in relation to both the researcher and the researched. Table 2 illustrates this process. Moustakas (1990) (Heuristic Inquiry) and Galtung and Inayatullah (1997) (deep pattern identification) are also valuable texts.


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