Demons and Egregores

Friend-of-the-blog Wyatt has written on semantic drift for terms like demon and ghost. It's short and I think correct, you should read it before continuing here.

Done? As I said, I do agree with the post, but I'm also sympathetic to the quoted perspective of "of course demons are real, look at the law of supply and demand."

A good personification of an abstract system can be extremely handy. First, it's just a time saver. In a discussion of why consumer goods keep getting more fragile, you can say "that's the will of Moloch" and your interlocutor can parse that as "it's a race to the bottom, any supplier that optimizes for quality will be outcompeted by one that doesn't." Same idea, fewer words.

Second, and I think more important, is that our primate brains are better at conceptualizing people (or people-like agents, e.g. deities and spirits) than big distributed webs of cause and effect like The Economy. Even saying "The Economy" is a form of doing this! "The Economy is skittish", "The Economy is recovering", etc. The unconscious tendency for complex social systems is toward personification simply because we are savannah apes with brains made for thinking about other apes.1

I think it's worthwhile to have a term describing the class to which "The Economy" and "Moloch" belong in those examples. The problem is that we enlightened secular moderns (correct about everything, very smart) have overloaded existing terms that some people still want to use to talk about spooky scary skeletons, leading to absurd exchanges where one person is talking about the metaphorical Spectre of Neoliberal Economic Policy and the other is talking about the literal spectre of a guy that died.

To resolve the ambiguity between "useful but not literally true personification for something abstract" and "freaky ghost man" I nominate the use of egregore to refer to the former. The latter case has been around much longer so I think it's only fair it keeps the existing words ghost, demon and the like. The occult concept of the egregore already connotes a being brought into existence by emergent properties of a complex system, so it's not even a redefinition per se.


You might personify this tendency as the Egregore of Egregorification, even.