14 March 2018


Jason A. Josephson-Storm. The Myth of Disenchantment - Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences. The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

The key thought behind this scholarly work is the meaning and significance of 'disenchantment' (German: Entzauberung) in social science and Western intellectual culture. Max Weber (1864 - 1920), an influential German philosopher and one of the founders of 'sociology' as a new academic discipline
Weber coined the term to describe the character of the secularised modern world where the magic and myth pertaining to traditional values had, seemingly, all but disappeared and had been subsumed by pure rationalism and intellect. Josephson-Storm exhaustively traces the development of Western thought on this subject through history to the present time, and convincingly argues that the magic never really went away after all.

As a young Associate Professor of Philosophy, the author displays impressive erudition in tackling what is, by any standards, a massive undertaking. While the underlying theme is eminently simple and understandable, some of the philosophical arguments become immensely complex. This book is a serious academic work written by a scholar in the process of building a reputation, and it shows. Yet he reveals a capacity for lightness of touch in his Preface and Introduction to show some of his own personality and background.

We learn that the inspiration for this book came to him while he was in Japan on a writing research project in March 2011. He happened to be in a tattoo parlour in Kyoto, having some finishing touches done, when the news came over the television about the massive earthquake and tsunami that had hit the Tohoku region. As the disaster unfolded, the conversation that ensued between those present covered topics such as protective talismans, ghostly premonitions, and whether Japan was more 'spiritual' than the West. Realising that his research project might reinforce cliches about the 'mystical Orient', he decided to expand his project by studying in depth the linkage between modernisation and enchantment in Europe and America.

His Introduction opens promisingly with a graphic description of a seance in 1907 attended by one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century, Marie Curie (1867 - 1934). The spirit medium was Eusapia Palladino (1854 - 1918) who convinced many seekers with astonishing displays of phenomena but was eventually shown to be a fraud. Curie's presence was not her first attendance, as she and her husband Pierre (1859 - 1906) had been researching psychic phenomena for some time.

Tragically, Pierre was killed instantly in 1906 when he slipped on a pavement in the rain and fell under a cart which crushed his head. The Curies had both been researching invisible energies such as magnetism, electrical fields and, of course, radioactivity, for which they had been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. In a letter written shortly before his death, Pierre mentioned that he and Marie had attended several seances with Eusapia Palladino. He reported that "these phenomena really exist and it is no longer possible for me to deny them". It is no wonder that Marie might have hoped for a communication 'from the other side', but what is most interesting is that both of these leading scientists believed in spiritual energy as a higher form of the invisible physical energies they were researching.

Presenting himself as a disciple of critical theory, the author refers to a key text in Dialectic of Enlightenment, a monumental work by Horkheimer and Adorno of the Frankfurt School published in 1944: ''Enlightenment's program was the disenchantment of the world." In other words, the concept of a 'clockwork universe' arose with mathematical physics and other hard sciences. Josephson-Storm says: "From my perspective, this particular world picture is a myth insofar as it has taken on its own narrative force and bears little relationship to the status of physics in any given moment."

While finding Dialectic intensely useful, the author considers it "a late expression of an old myth" that rests on a set of basically mythical binaries (myth/enlightenment, nature/human) while asserting that myth and magic had been lost, on the assumption that reason had triumphed. "Yet this event never occurred. It too is a myth". Perhaps anxious that the reader might not get his gist, he goes further: "Let me put this differently. What I am saying is that not only is myth myth; not only is the opposition to myth myth; but the recognition of the opposition to myth as myth is itself myth." We might wish that he had put it differently. Does not reading, and re-reading, that sentence leave you feeling somewhat, well, miffed? A surfeit of myths, I would say. One must allow the odd tortuous sentence in a serious philosophical work such as this, and it may even be an attempt at humour.

Isaac Newton, a pivotal figure for this study, straddled the world of mathematical physics while yet being, more privately, an alchemist and mystic. Apart from his great knowledge he showed wisdom when he said: "Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity of things." That is indeed the ideal, but philosophical thought and argument always have a tendency to a prolix style of writing. Take this sentence from the book under review as an example: "According to the set of augmentation and periodization that loosely gets clustered under the name of 'postmodernism', perhaps postmodernism has meant the return of irrationality."

However, it has to be said this book rewards time and effort in reading the text carefully for many gems of knowledge and historical fact in the lives of great men who were pioneers of human intellectual and social evolution. All of the great thinkers are here, such as Paracelsus, physician and alchemist, Giordano Bruno, cosmological theorist, Francis Bacon, founder of the scientific method, Jakob Boehme, a mystic with a profound vision of God, and Rene Descartes "whose bifurcation of mind and matter relegated the physical world to mere extension".

The French philosophes receive a good deal of attention, in particular Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784) a prominent figure of the Enlightenment and co-founder of the Encyclopedie. Diderot dismissed those non-rational thinkers such as Paracelsus and Boehme as theosophes, although he did find some redeeming qualities in Paracelsus. It appears that anything that could not be comprehended by the rational mind was unacceptable to those purist philosophes. Diderot is most interesting because of his reputation as 'the first of the atheists', yet he still evinced a sense of wonder at natural phenomena displaying a kind of divine intelligence and order. Furthermore, he had studied in his youth with a known alchemist and had read magical texts with interest.

German philosophy and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries clearly had a passion for mythology. One need look no further than the Brothers Grimm, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and later Martin Heidegger for evidence of the 'longing for myth'. This kind of mythology was romantic, nostalgic and based on past glories such as Ancient Greece, Rome and Teutonic history. Later German philosophers called for a new mythology, without defining exactly what it should be other than something arising from a future generation. As Josephson-Storm rightly points out, the word 'myth' usually implies "embellishment if not outright falsehood".

Friedrich Nietzsche
This is where the author seems to be claiming a new insight: "What later scholars have typically missed is that the real myth was not in their proposed solutions: it was not Orientalized reconstructions of Aryan mythology nor Teutonic revivals. Its core was the very idea that, as Schlegel stated, 'we have no mythology'". To elaborate what this actually means, Josephson-Storm gives us the following concise explanation: "In a nutshell, the myth born from this philosophical conjuncture was an anti-myth, a myth that described itself in terms of longing, absence and mythlessness. Its paradox is that only by being a myth that there was no myth could its status as myth go unnoticed and hence not be demystified. It was a myth in search of a myth. Insofar as this myth is still our myth - or at least an animating narrative across many sectors of modern society - their project worked."

The main point he is making in this section is that "the myth of disenchantment" was born and found expression in 19th century Germany, and then spread to other developed countries, especially Britain and France. Was it not Nietzsche who became famous for the quotation "God is dead"? It did not mean that there was a creator God who had died at some point. Christianity had lost its grip, and in The Will to Power Nietzsche gloomily predicted the advent of nihilism. So it proved as the whole of Europe was plunged into the Great War, followed by Communism, Nazism, and Nationalism.

At the same time, there was an occult revival, manifested in leading figures such as Helena Blavatsky who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, and Eliphas Levi. A most important and influential book was published by James Frazer in 1890: The Golden Bough. Josephson-Storm devotes a whole chapter to this work, which reveals ancient origins of religions as fertility cults, human sacrifice, and a dying king or god. Aleister Crowley, the most outstanding occult figure of the period, drew a great deal of his ideas from Frazer's book. Crowley also rightly gets a whole chapter to himself and his work, reflecting the significance of the mission he had set himself: nothing less than to revive true 'Magick' and to be the messiah of the new age.

Crowley's definition of Magick was: 'The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.' Finding one's true will, or one's place and purpose in the universe, was the key. He proposed that Magick was cutting-edge science and future-focused, based on the power of the mind over matter and energy. Quantum mechanics, with the 'observer effect', shows the scientific validity of magical philosophy, but one must never think it is all intellect. I like this quotation of Crowley: "The universe is a phenomenon of love under will, a mystic and poetic creation, and the intellect only stands to it as mere scansion does to poetry."

The Myth of Disenchantment is a most stimulating and informative book that covers much more than its title alone suggests. Professor Storm, as he likes to be addressed by polite students, is to be congratulated for his great work of collating and analysing so much material on a complex subject. He admits in his final words that he does not come down on either side in this debate. His point is that the extremes of both modes transform into their opposite. It is this duality of opposites and polarities that is most fascinating. Might this be exactly the reason why we humans have two hemispheres in our brains? -- Kevin Murphy.


Professor Storm said...

Thanks for reading my book and writing this review! If any of your readers have questions, please feel free to comment below and I'll circle back in day or two to respond.

Patrick said...

Hello Professor Storm. My question may be a little naive, since I am not trained in religious studies and am just discovering these topics. Your book circles around the subject of the supernatural, while never making positive assertions about it. So what's the role you ascribe to it overall? I gather it is a kind of liminal area that can't be disposed of but also can't be approached by scientific means? A kind of surplus of human experience that defies rationalization? Or a stand-in for the yet-unknown or undiscovered? Or do you state that, since knowledge is historically and locally bound and we always interpret the world through myths, the supernatural is the wordly-surplus spawned by a historically dominant myth? Do I make any sense?

By the way. Do you happen to know a short text called "The Absence of Myth" by Georges Bataille? I stumbled upon it recently and it strongly reminded me of your arguments in this book. Bataille tries to interpret disenchantment itself as a new kind of myth there. It isn't very cheerful, though.

Professor Storm said...

Hello Patrick, Thank you for your comments. Sorry for the delay. I just circled back here

First, Excellent question! I like your notion of the "supernatural" as an excess or stand-in for the undiscovered/undiscoverable. I think, however, it might help to have a sense of the history of the term.

To make a long story short, the notion of the “supernatural” comes from late medieval Christian theology. They already had an older theological opposition between natural and unnatural.

But then later theologians started worrying about how to understand “miracles.” Christian theologians widely shared the conviction that God was the author of nature and that everything he did was natural. Indeed God was even identified as “prima natura” (prime nature). So if miracles were unnatural (contra naturum) then it would seem that God was violating himself or at least going against the ordered world he had brought into being. So that couldn’t be it.

But if miracles were natural--just very unusual--as some theologians argued, then it seemed to diminish God’s powers. So other theologians argued that this didn’t make sense.

Accordingly, in response thinkers like Aquinas come up with a new category of the supernatural, which was formed from a contraction of supra naturalis (above nature). This allowed Aquinas to imagine a kind of causation totally outside or above the natural world. In sum, for Aquinas, God was not against nature, nor are miracles merely the outer-limit of natural processes, but instead they are temporary suspensions of the cosmic order.

But the category of the “supernatural” produced more problems than it solved.

As notions of God became more powerful and the idea of nature as rooted in divine (and then scientific) laws expanded, it came to seem that almost nothing but God was truly supernatural.

Some scholars have thought that led to disenchantment, but actually it gave rise to various notions of magic and witchcraft as “praeter naturae (beyond nature),” basically it was seen as a natural marvel like birth defects or the unusual powers of particular species of animals. So in this account, which is very early, witches and magic were not supernatural. So this even convinced more people about the reality of witches. Indeed, the most famous text in the persecution of witchcraft (The Malleus Maleficarum) had a notion of basically natural but dangerous witches whose power came from the actions of various demons.

Eventually, this notion of “praeter naturae” basically became the “paranormal” which further absorbed many things previously seen as magical. Even today researchers often use the paranormal to describe phenomena they see as just outside the reach of ordinary science.

There is a lot more I could say about the notion of the “supernatural,” but I feel as though the comment above is already too long. So hopefully that goes some distance to answer your first question. But If not I’m happy to say more.

Second, I found that particular text of Bataille to be very insightful. Indeed, I actually quote “The Absence of Myth" in the epigraph to “The Myth of Disenchantment.”

Anyway, thanks for your comments!

Patrick said...

Thanks so much for taking the time and responding extensively. This is definitely a starting-point for a more profound understanding of these concepts and it corresponds to what've I already figured out for myself.

It must have slipped my mind that you have cited the Bataille text, sorry! Actually I'm glad that it already informed your book, since I found it very engaging.

Bill said...

Thanks in advance for your accessibility, Dr. Storm. From Bacon to Hitler, it's not really a big secret that numerous major exponents of modern, material ontology were themselves dabblers in or practitioners of ancient, ontologically non-material arts and knowledge, so to speak. What I find interesting about your book, as presented in this review, is the idea that the entire paradigmatic shift from ancient, non-material, functional ontology to modern material ontology was really just swapping one form of mythology for another. This idea affirms a suspicion I have long held, that what we in modernity know as science is really just an adaptation of the various institutions of esoteric knowledge practiced throughout the history of human civilization.

Both science and the so called "mystery schools" (to indulge in popular vernacular) are broadly concerned with knowledge. That by itself is not much of a nexus, admittedly. But whereas the ancient pursuit of knowledge was entirely functional in its ontology ("functional" here refers to functionality for humans, for human order, and ultimately for human civilization, as opposed to chaos) and was expressed through various concepts of deity, the scientific pursuit of knowledge introduced, and ultimately "deified" if you will, a material view of ontology, expressed through a methodical process of gathering and analyzing data. Both are limited by that which can be observed through the physical senses. But while one hid behind the veil of deity and produced (or at least reinforced) an entirely functional ontology, the other hid in plain sight, as it were, and backhandedly deified (or at least ascended to) a material ontology. Whereas the ancients mythologized a functional knowledge of existence, science has essentially mythologized a material knowledge existence. Both are ultimately mythological systems in the sense that they both dispense (or withhold) knowledge of existence.

As an excursus, for all the apparent ascendancy of materialism in our modern ontology, I wonder how far we have really strayed from a purely functional understanding of existence. We now possess sufficient fundamental knowledge of matter to keep lights bulbs turned on, airplanes in flight, and satellites in orbit. But at the end of the day what are all those things, if not functionality for humans, and more specifically, functionality for human civilization? And when we encounter data that does not conform to the current material orthodoxy, we describe it in oddly mythological and functional terms: "dark matter" and "entanglement", notions faintly reminiscent of a nascent Atum in the primeval waters of Nun before bursting forth in light upon the primordial hillock, or the air god Shu un-entangling the embrace of the two lovers Nut and Geb, creating the heavens above and the earth below. In other words, for all our modern insistence upon a material definition of existence, material knowledge ultimately seems to get expressed in ways functional for humans. For all our modern insistence upon an ostensibly de-mythologized ontological materialism, how far removed are we, really, from the ostensibly mythologized ontological functionalism of the past?

Thanks for taking probably too much time out of your life to read this long post. Your thoughts, if any, on any of this stuff are appreciated. (And if you are wondering, yes, I am reading John Walton right now.)