The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences

The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences

by Jason Ananda Josephson Storm

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A great many theorists have argued that the defining feature of modernity is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm argues that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong, as attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Even the human sciences have been more enchanted than is commonly supposed. But that raises the question: How did a magical, spiritualist, mesmerized Europe ever convince itself that it was disenchanted?

Josephson-Storm traces the history of the myth of disenchantment in the births of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, folklore, psychoanalysis, and religious studies. Ironically, the myth of mythless modernity formed at the very time that Britain, France, and Germany were in the midst of occult and spiritualist revivals. Indeed, Josephson-Storm argues, these disciplines’ founding figures were not only aware of, but profoundly enmeshed in, the occult milieu; and it was specifically in response to this burgeoning culture of spirits and magic that they produced notions of a disenchanted world.  

By providing a novel history of the human sciences and their connection to esotericism, The Myth of Disenchantment dispatches with most widely held accounts of modernity and its break from the premodern past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226403533
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/18/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 13 MB
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About the Author

Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm is associate professor in and chair of the Department of Religion at Williams College. He is the author of The Invention of Religion in Japan, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Myth of Disenchantment

Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences

By Jason A. Josephson-Storm

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-40336-6


Enchanted (Post) Modernity

This book began as an attempt to make sense of some of the systems of belief which were current in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, but which no longer enjoy much recognition today. Astrology, witchcraft, magical healing, divination, ancient prophecies, ghosts and fairies, are now all rightly disdained by intelligent persons.

KEITH THOMAS, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971

The postmodern condition is nevertheless foreign to disenchantment.

JEAN-FRANÇOIS LYOTARD, La condition postmoderne, 1979

If you were to travel to the small town of Kotohira on the Japanese island of Shikoku, you might, after strolling past one of the country's oldest Kabuki theaters and partaking of the region's famous udon noodles, find yourself at a famous shrine, the town's central attraction for tourists and pilgrims. There, on the grounds of this ancient site, you would find a dedicatory plaque sporting a very modern image, that of Japan's first cosmonaut, AKIYAMA Toyohiro, clad in a spacesuit standing next to his craft. Despite its space-age content, however, the plaque gives thanks to Konpira, the so-called god of sailors, for Akiyama's safe voyage through interplanetary space. This confluence of technology and public religiosity is by no means unique to the Konpira Shrine. Analogous examples dot the Japanese cultural landscape. As I have argued elsewhere, generally speaking, recent Japanese history meant changes in the locus of enchantment, in ways unanticipated by classical theorists of modernity. In one of the most technologically and scientifically advanced nations today, one finds — in addition to old-fashioned faith healers and spirit mediums — flash drives that double as magical charms, funeral rituals for old photographs and discarded electronics, iPhone apps for automatic exorcisms or traditional fortune-telling, and Buddhist stupas dedicated to Thomas Edison and Heinrich Hertz as the "Divine Patriarchs of Electricity and Electro-Magnetic Waves."

Despite the Orientalist cliché of a mystical Asia, Japan does not have a monopoly on contemporary enchantments. In study after study, scholars of the Global South have charted not only traditional but modern forms of magic, including: Internet-based virtual Haitian Vodou; epidemics of spirit possession among Malaysian factory workers; clairvoyant Brazilian spirit surgeons; modern witchcraft persecutions in South Africa and Indonesia; Vietnamese divinities that are appeased with cans of Coke and Pepsi; aerosol sprays to evoke the protection of Santísima Muerte in Mexico; gun-toting spirit mediums in Uganda; an Indian guru supposedly capable of magical materializations, faith healing, and even bringing people back from the dead; and a notorious pair of demonically possessed underpants in Ghana. It would seem that Latin America, Africa, and indeed most of Asia are inhabited by sorcerers and alive with spirits.

While lingering enchantments used to be taken as a rationale for the backwardness of non-European others, today they are often regarded as evidence that the disenchantment model is an uncomfortable fit outside the land of its birth. Hence contemporary scholars like Denis Byrne explicitly reject "the common assumption that post-Reformation disenchantment encompasses the non-European world." While I agree with Byrne's sentiment as far as it goes, in this short chapter I want to challenge the idea that disenchantment is the order of the day even in the so-called heartland of modernity.


There is a constant war between the messengers of God and ghosts and demons, dancers and drinkers, and, for all anyone knows, between God's messengers and God himself — no one has ever seen him, but then no one has ever seen a cuckoo either. ... Here is a mystical body of the republic, a kind of public secret: a declaration of what sort of wishes and fears lie behind any public act, a declaration of a weird but clearly recognizable America.

GREIL MARCUS, The Old, Weird America, 2011

It is hard not to be skeptical of claims to disenchantment as I write these words in a café adorned with flyers advertising "crystal healing," "energy balancing," "chakra yoga," and "tarot" readings. Undeniably, what Catherine Albanese and Courtney Bender refer to as American "metaphysical religion" would seem to be on display in coffee shops, co-ops, and bookstores throughout the country. Moreover, in Europe and America, films, novels, and television series continue to overflow with magic, providing symbolic resources — what Christopher Partridge and Jeffrey Kripal refer to as "occulture" — that are often recouped by this religious counterculture (e.g., rituals appearing first in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are adopted by contemporary Wiccan covens). It would seem that many of the stories we tell ourselves in the modern West are about superheroes and magicians, ghosts and monsters, and that these creatures often spill over into other parts of the culture. As Kripal observes in regard to the seeming ubiquity of such cultural materials: "The paranormal is our secret in plain sight."

Even setting aside the abundance of explicitly fictional forms of enchantment, studies of American reading habits similarly suggest that "New Age" print culture has "expanded exponentially in the past thirty years" with "non-fiction books" about magic, guardian angels, and near-death experiences appearing in the upper echelons of Amazon's best-seller lists. Moreover, the last ten years have seen a proliferation of "reality" television series that claim to report evidence for ghosts, psychics, extraterrestrials, monsters, curses, and even miracles. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, it is also easy to turn on the television and encounter the prognostications of celebrity psychic mediums. It might seem that contemporary audiences are at least willing to flirt with the existence of spirits and the supernatural.

A variety of sociological evidence would seem to support this intuition. In 2005, Gallup conducted a telephone survey with 1,002 American adults asking them if they believed in things like ESP, ghosts, telepathy, and witches (see figure 1). Not only did a surprising number of the American respondents reportedly believe in each of these (e.g., almost a third believe in ghosts), but also other polling firms, while not covering identical beliefs, have produced similar numbers. For a recent example, a YouGov 2015 survey of 1,171 Americans showed that 48 percent of those sampled agreed with the claim "Some people can possess one or more types of psychic ability (e.g., precognition, telepathy, etc.)," while 43 percent agreed with the statement "Ghosts exist." Even slight differences in the wording produce different responses, but taken together it appears the majority of Americans are at least open to the idea of ghosts and psychic powers, while a not-insignificant number believe in necromancy.

Remarkably, if one takes a closer look at the Gallup 2005 polling data, it shows something even more interesting: belief in different forms of the "paranormal" (see note for terminology) are not confined to a single subculture. For example, believers in telepathy and witchcraft are likely only semi-overlapping sets because, as the survey indicated, 73 percent of those responding believe in at least one of the poll's ten paranormal categories (see figure 2). Although it might sound shocking, this percentage is nearly identical to earlier iterations of the Gallup poll from 2001 and 1990. The implications of these statistics are worth underscoring because, if this data is accurate, it means that only approximately a quarter of Americans are not believers in the paranormal. We live in a land of wonders in which most people are believers and skeptics are the clear minority.

It might be tempting to discount these polls as mere journalistic sensationalism, but sociologists have found similar results. In 2005 and 2007, sociologists at Baylor University conducted a fairly robust set of phone interviews (sample size of 3,369) from across the United States. Their main focus was a complete picture of American religious beliefs, but a similar pattern emerges (see figure 3). Again we see evidence that about half of the American population believes in ghosts, while a clear majority believes in demonic possession. This latter claim accords with the fieldwork of the American sociologist Michael Cuneo, who in 2001 suggested that belief in demonic possession was not only widespread, but also on the increase such that "exorcism is more readily available today in the United States than perhaps ever before." Moreover, in a section of the 2007 survey not depicted in figure 3, 55 percent of those polled claimed they had personally experienced being "protected from harm by a guardian angel." In sum, the picture painted by the Baylor study is one of an America enthusiastically engaged with angels, demons, and other invisible spirits.

Sociologists Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph O. O. Baker published an analysis of relevant portions of the Baylor data in Paranormal America (2010), which they combined with fieldwork interviewing self-described psychics and Bigfoot hunters. Bader, Mencken, and Baker ultimately summarize their findings in strong terms:

The paranormal is normal. ... Statistically, those who report a paranormal belief are not the oddballs; it is those who have no beliefs that are in the significant minority. Exactly which paranormal beliefs a person finds convincing varies, but whether it is UFOs and ghosts or astrology and telekinesis, most of us believe more than one. If we further consider strong beliefs in active supernatural entities and intense religious experiences the numbers are even larger.

In sum, Bader, Mencken, and Baker also estimate that more than two-thirds of Americans believe in the paranormal.

Demographic trends can also be extracted from the data as specific paranormal beliefs can be identified with different populations. For example, African American women were the most likely to believe in ghosts and the possibility of communication with the dead, while Caucasians were more likely to believe that they have been abducted by extraterrestrials. But believing in at least one form of the paranormal is not confined to a particular counterculture and is evidently the norm throughout the country.

Nor has it vanished with compulsory mass education. While there is a connection between education and specific paranormal beliefs, there is little correlation between level of education and having paranormal beliefs as such. For instance, Bader, Mencken, and Baker conclude that college graduates are less likely to believe in UFOs but more likely to believe in psychics. Other surveys targeting the issue specifically have also suggested that "higher education fuels [a] stronger belief in ghosts." At the very least, college seniors are more likely to be open to the possibility of ghosts and psychical powers than their less educated peers. A related point worth underscoring is that sociological evidence suggests that self-identified magicians and witches are generally better educated than average and more likely to hold a college degree. Hence, it would be a mistake to assume that education necessarily leads toward disenchantment.

An important corollary of these surveys more broadly is that paranormal belief can be found on both sides of the political aisle, albeit in different typical forms. This is significant because in the popular culture, the occult is often associated with reactionary right-wing politics, especially fascism (e.g., the occult Nazis in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark). This argument has a scholarly pedigree in sources such as Theodor Adorno, "Theses against Occultism" (Thesen gegen den Okkultismus), the German context for which will be explored in chapters 8 and 9. In contrast, one can also find the reverse association between "New Age hippies" and left-wing politics. Yet, one of the most straightforward implications of the wide diffusion of paranormal belief is that there is no particular political affiliation that is more "irrational" or more magical than the other (at least, according to this axis).

History bears this out insofar as one can find enchantment across the political spectrum (e.g., both pro- and anticolonialist Theosophists). But this evidence does not neutralize political readings of magic. Specific beliefs do correlate with demographic backgrounds and ideological commitments. Different paranormal beliefs have elective affinities with different political movements. One could go some length to explore the progressive political coordinates of, say, spiritualism in nineteenth-century America. But we should resist too quickly assuming a clear political bifurcation between believers in magic and skeptics.

On a related note, as the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe reminds us, belief in witchcraft is often taken as paradigmatic of cultural backwardness and is sometimes supposed to be the very thing that makes Africa, for example, difficult to modernize. But the historian Owen Davies has demonstrated that despite the common claim that Salem was the last great witchcraft persecution in this country, "we now know of more people killed as witches in America after 1692 than before it," with extrajudicial murders of suspected witches continuing at least until the 1950s. Although Davies does not explicitly draw this conclusion, he provides a lot of evidence that it was the rise of Wicca that began to shift the discourse around witches post-1954. Additionally, the commercialization of Halloween combined with the popular Bewitched television series popularized a more harmless image of the witch. But, in the same period, some Evangelical communities have if anything amplified their so-called war against witches. Indeed, even today, Pat Robertson, the controversial chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, cautions his viewers against the dangers of witches and their curses on a seemingly regular basis. All told, it should not be surprising that surveys suggest that more than a quarter of Americans believe in witches.

There has been some excellent scholarship on the decline of belief in miracles over the course of European history. Indeed, the loss of faith in divinely inspired wonders is often taken to be a hallmark of the grand trajectory of disenchantment. But as useful as historians have been for recovering the context and politics of natural philosophy, as a broad trajectory, notions of a post-miraculous age run into trouble in the face of contemporary sociological evidence. For instance, a large survey of more than 35,000 Americans conducted by the Pew Research Forum in 2007 reported that 79 percent of those polled believed that "miracles still occur today as in ancient times." Less than a fifth of all those surveys rejected the existence of contemporary miracles as a whole. It is worth remarking that some of those who reject the idea that miracles occur today must include a significant number of Protestants committed to the cessation of miraculous gifts at the end of the apostolic age (discussed in chapters 2 and 5). So one might imagine that many of those denying the currency of contemporary divine wonders are doing so on religious grounds. At the very least, it would seem that many Americans still live in "worlds of wonder."

By looking at Bader, Mencken, and Baker's American demographic information in greater depth, it is striking that the groups least likely to believe in the paranormal generally define themselves in religious and not secular terms. For instance, Evangelical Christians are particularly skeptical about the "paranormal." But rather than stripping the world of animating forces, Evangelicals are more likely to believe that ghosts, aliens, and psychic powers are caused by demons or witches. It is hard to read this as a straightforward sign of disenchantment.

This is an important clue to the mechanisms of occult disavowal, as Evangelicals are not alone in exchanging one sort of enchantment for another. Instead of a single amorphous New Age, different metaphysical communities are often dismissive of one another. Self-identified magical practitioners often discount spiritualists as frauds and vice versa; while psychics are often anti-ritualists, suggesting that mental powers explain what people think of as magic. Taken together, this indicates that supernatural beliefs often destabilize one another. By way of shorthand, I will refer to this pattern as "an interchange of enchantments," as a gesture toward the way that supernatural beliefs can actively function in the service of disenchantment.

Finally, although social science predictions should be taken with a grain of salt, Bader, Mencken, and Baker — extrapolating survey trend lines combined with predicted demographic shifts — suggest that by 2050 it is likely there will be a further "14 percent increase in the mean number of reported paranormal beliefs in the United States." If they are right, instead of further disenchantment, America will get more magic in the coming decades.


Excerpted from The Myth of Disenchantment by Jason A. Josephson-Storm. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
A Note on Texts and Translations

A Philosophical Archaeology of the Disenchantment of the World
Reflexive Religious Studies: The Entangled Formation of Religion, Science, and Magic
Overview of the Work: Europe Is Not Europe

1          Enchanted (Post) Modernity
Weird America
Haunted Europe
Conclusion: New Age (Post) Modernists?

Part 1: God’s Shadow

2          Revenge of the Magicians
Francis Bacon and the Science of Magic
The Philosophes and the Science of Good and Evil Spirits
Conclusion: The Myth of Enlightenment

3          The Myth of Absence
Nihilism, Revolution, and the Death of God: F. H. Jacobi and G. W. F. Hegel
The Eclipse of the Gods: Friedrich Schiller
The Romantic Spiral: Friedrich Hölderlin
A Myth in Search of History: Jacob Burckhardt
Conclusion: The Myth of the Modern Loss of Myth

4          The Shadow of God
Spirits of a Vanishing God
The Haunted Anthropologist: E. B. Tylor
The Magician and the Philologist: Éliphas Lévi and Max Müller
Theosophical Disenchantment: Helena Blavatsky
Conclusion: Specters of the Transcendent

5          The Decline of Magic: J. G. Frazer
The Cultural Ruins of Paganism
The Golden Bough before Disenchantment
The Departure of the Fairies
The Dreams of Magic
The Lost Theory: Despiritualizing the Universe
Conclusion: A Devil’s Advocate

6          The Revival of Magick: Aleister Crowley
The Great Beast: A Biographical Sketch
The God-Eater and the Golden Bough
Disenchanted Magic
Conclusion: From The Golden Bough to the Golden Dawn

Part 2: The Horrors of Metaphysics

7          The Black Tide: Mysticism, Rationality, and the German Occult Revival
Degeneration and Mysticism: Max Nordau
Kant the Necromancer: Carl du Prel and Arthur Schopenhauer
Hidden Depths: Sigmund Freud
Conclusion: The Cosmic Night

8          Dialectic of Darkness: The Magical Foundations of Critical Theory
The Cosmic Circle
Magical Philosophy and Disenchantment: Ludwig Klages
The Esoteric Constellations of Critical Theory: Walter Benjamin
Conclusion: The Magic of Theory

9          The Ghosts of Metaphysics: Logical Positivism and Disenchantment
Philosophical Technocracy: Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer
Revolutionary Antimetaphysics: Positivist Disenchantment and Re-enchantment; Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath
Positivists in Paranormal Vienna: Rudolf Carnap and Hans Hahn
Conclusion: The Magic of Disenchantment

10        The World of Enchantment; or, Max Weber at the End of History
The Disenchantment of the World
Weber the Mystic and the Return from the God Eclipse
Conclusion: Disenchantment Disenchanted

Conclusion: The Myth of Modernity
The Myths of (Post) Modernity
The Myth of Disenchantment as Regulative Ideal
Against the Tide of Disenchantment

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