The Metaphysics of Tarot

What do you have to believe in order to read Tarot? Well, technically, nothing. Tarot is a practice, not a dogma, and you can learn the interpretive skill without any prerequisite beliefs. But at the same time, the ways in which many readers use Tarot do entail certain metaphysical presuppositions.

When I say “metaphysical” here, I mean it in the way it’s used in university philosophy departments, not in a broader hoobedy-hoobedy sense. In the Tarot world, and in the world of woo more broadly, we tend to conflate the terms “occult” and “metaphysical”, but it’s worth understanding that there is a meaningful distinction between the two. Philosophical metaphysics is notoriously hard to define, but for our purposes today, we’ll say that it is the branch of philosophy studying which things exist and the ways in which we understand their existence. Classical metaphysical questions include such gems as “Do numbers exist?” or “How do objects persist through time?”

And importantly, metaphysics need not be supernatural. There are many hardcore materialist metaphysicians who believe that the only things in existence are physical objects. There are also metaphysicians who believe in the existence of things that might be considered, ahem, less mainstream. But the word “metaphysics” should not, in its own right, lead us to think about angels, spirit guides, magic, reincarnation, chakras, auras, reiki, or any of the other terms that populate the online “metaphysical” community.*

My question for the day, then: Does Tarot reading entail specific metaphysical commitments? My answer is, broadly, yes. Acknowledging from the outset that there are a variety of ways to read Tarot, and that there’s no broad consensus on what Tarot is or how (or if) it works, I’m going to talk today about a less strictly naturalistic version of Tarot. Let’s all briefly accept the notion that when you perform a Tarot reading, some spooky process takes place whereby you turn up cards that are symbolically appropriate to your question, that provide you with new insight into your situation, and even that allow you access to otherwise inaccessible information about other people or future events.

Here’s what that view entails.


1. The existence of non-physical mind

I know, I know. Who doesn’t believe that minds exist? Surely this isn’t a radical metaphysical claim unique to the Tarot-reading population. But like I said above, metaphysicians believe all kinds of things, and some of them** will go so far as to reject the existence of minds and mental content. Related, and more difficult to reject, is the position that the mind simply is the brain–that you can’t have a mind without a brain, and that you can’t have a (properly functioning) brain without a mind. People who believe this will argue that all of our mental states–thoughts, beliefs, desires, perceptions–are completely reducible to certain patterns of neurons firing in the brain. If you’re a Tarot reader who likes the aforegiven spooky version of how Tarot works, you have to reject this view.

Why? Because we’re meant to understand that there is some thing underlying the function of Tarot, which guides it and produces the right cards for a given reading. Depending how you use Tarot, this thing might be a spirit guide. It might be your own subconscious or your higher self. Hell, it might be the animated spirit of the cards themselves. The point is, Tarot involves a thing other than the structural laws of the physical universe. And if that thing isn’t physical, philosophical tradition tells us it must be mental.

I’m not saying that Tarot is a mind, or that Tarot has a mind. I’m saying that the mechanism that makes Tarot work is understood as somehow mental in nature. And we can only accept that if we think of the mind as distinct from (and not wholly dependent upon) the brain.

2. The non-linearity of time

This one’s obvious. If Tarot gives us access to the future, then we have to complicate the classical understanding of time as an arrow pointing in only one direction.*** Some people will think of time as cyclical, which I think is true in a very big-picture metaphorical sense but not particularly helpful if we’re trying to find out whether Shondra will get the job she just interviewed for.

The most helpful way to think about this (I’ve found) is that space and time are not distinct. Instead, they’re part of the unified fabric of space-time. (This idea is by no means my own; I’m presenting Einstein here, but I’m trying to go over it in very basic, non-scientific terms for anyone who’s not already familiar.) We, as people, happen to be able to move freely in the three dimensions of space, but we can only move through time in one direction and at a fixed rate. However, time itself is not a conveyor belt; it permeates the fabric of the universe just as space does.

We can think about any given moment as a set of coordinates: a location in space indexed with a location in time. And those locations all exist with the same level of reality. My location in the present moment is space-point x, time-point t. Your location in the present moment is space-point y, time-point t. And both of those locations (obviously) exist. But so does my location at this time tomorrow; let’s call it space-point z, time-point t+1. These are all just points in space-time, and there’s nothing that makes points in the future or the past fundamentally different from those in the present.****

Our hoobedy-hoobedy understanding of Tarot tells us, then, that Tarot gives us access to other points in space-time, sharing information about points in the future or the past just as easily as about the present.

I have to run off to a discussion about higher-order logic, type theory, and the lambda-calculus. (Ah, the glamorous life of a graduate student.) I’ll cut this post short for now, and return soon with a Part 2 where I discuss some other metaphysical commitments that Tarot readers might be inclined to make. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed. If you don’t accept one of the views I’ve put forward (maybe you’re uncomfortable with my picture of space-time–see footnote 4), please do let me know why! This is the sort of thing that I always enjoy exploring.

*This terminological appropriation bothers me to no end. Let’s reclaim metaphysics for the philosophers.

**Not many, though. It’s a difficult position to defend.

***This picture is complicated by some philosophers, like the immortal Immanuel Kant. One of Kant’s many contributions to philosophy is the idea (oversimplified here for the sake of brevity) that we can’t help but perceive time as linear. If you care to read more, I wish you luck.

****This understanding of the structure of time is part of why I am so adamant about determinism. The future already exists, just as much as the present and the past do; so it’s absurd to say the future isn’t predetermined. I’ll revisit this in a later post, because there’s more worth discussing here.

6 thoughts on “The Metaphysics of Tarot

  1. So, what’s the etymology of metaphysics getting appropriated? And if it’s not okay to say “metaphysics” the wrong way, perhaps you should more carefully define “hoobedy-hoobedy.” Which I thought was “hoobedy-doobedy.”


    1. We get the term from Aristotle. It just means “the thing that comes after the Physics“. In the chronological ordering of Aristotle’s works, the Metaphysics was a collection of essays about things like substance, form, and causation.

      “Hoobedy-hoobedy” (or “hoobedy-doobedy”; either is fine, depending whether you were taught in Haiti or New Orleans) has, up to this point, remained ill-defined. Convention would indicate it’s an umbrella term including those practices that night otherwise be termed supernatural, mystical, occult, or (in the quotidian use of the term) metaphysical.


      1. Okay, I looked it up. According to the Oxford English dictionary, the word “metaphysical” can mean “That is above or goes beyond the laws of nature; belonging to an operation or agency which is more than or other than physical or natural; supernatural”. The first recorded use of the word in this sense comes in Tamburlaine the Great, Part II IV.ii, by Christopher Marlowe. The quote:

        “The essential form of marble stone, / Temper’d by science metaphysical, / And spells of magic from the mouths of spirits”

        The play was written in 1590.

        The next occurrence of this appropriated usage of the word is in Macbeth I.iv: “the golden round, / Which fate and metaphysical aid seem / To have thee crown’d withal.”

        I suppose I can be more lenient about the use of the word if we got it (the use) from Marlowe and Shakespeare.


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