Myth of Disenchantment

A great many theorists have argued that precisely what makes the modern world “modern” is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Even theorists who have challenged grand narratives of secularization often assume that modernity produces a disenchanted world. The age of myth is allegedly over, the spirits have vanished, and vibrant nature has been subjugated.

In The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, I argue that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong. Our era is far from mythless, belief in spirits continues to be widespread, vitalized nature has been a persistent philosophical counter-current, and even attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Hence, I contend that the whole notion of “modernity” as rupture that undergirds a host of disciplines is itself a myth.

In the first substantive chapter of the book, I focus on contemporary sociological and anthropological evidence. While scholars have learned to be cautious about assuming that belief in sorcery and spirits vanished everywhere, it is widely supposed that at the very least the contemporary, industrial, capitalist societies of Western Europe and North America have lost their magic. But if one looks at America and Europe through the eyes of an outsider—with the same sort of gaze often leveled at non-Europeans, it seems hard to assert that we live in a straightforwardly disenchanted world.

Comparing several large-scale sociological surveys suggests that roughly three-in-four Americans believe in ghosts, telepathy, witches, demonic possession, or something comparable. Skeptics are in the minority. Moreover, despite being “less-religious” (e.g. much lower church attendance and reported belief in god), an analogous percentage of believers in the supernatural can be found in Western European countries as well. This is not all. At the very least, the equivalent forms of evidence anthropologists have been bringing back from the far reaches of the globe regarding indigenous belief in spirits, witchcraft, folktales, and popular depictions of the supernatural can be found in the West.

Despite its self-conception, it is easy to show that European culture has been enchanted all along. The question becomes: how did a magical, spiritualist, mesmerized Europe ever convince itself that it was disenchanted? The answer becomes even more interesting once you realize that the notion of a disenchanted modernity formed in the very period in which Britain, France, and Germany were in the midst of occult and spiritualist revivals. Furthermore, as I discovered through archival research and reading letters and diaries, an engagement with spirits and magic can be found in the lives of the least likely people: the very theorists of modernity as disenchantment themselves.

Accordingly, in the remaining nine chapters of the book (See the table of contents), I trace the genealogy of the notion of modernity as disenchantment alongside the birth of the academic disciplines (philosophy, anthropology, sociology, folklore, psychoanalysis, and religious studies). The book shows that a number of influential figures—including Theodor Adorno, Francis Bacon, Walter Benjamin, Rudolf Carnap, Marie Curie, Denis Diderot, Sigmund Freud, G. W. F. Hegel, Max Müller, Friedrich Schiller, Arthur Schopenhauer, E. B. Tylor, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Weber, and others—were not only aware of, but profoundly enmeshed in the occult milieu, such that the very objects of inquiry, methods, and even the self-definition of many disciplines still bear the marks of this important early encounter with esotericism. Contemporary scholars of all these thinkers will want to see them read afresh often alongside archival evidence and translations of lesser known works; and many scholars will be surprised to learn that their discipline’s founders were in dialogue with “occultists,” such as Cornelius Agrippa, Helena Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, Stefan George, Ludwig Klages, and Éliphas Lévi.

For those readers who have already suspected the persistence of magic in modernity, I trace the genealogy of the myth of disenchantment and how it came to function as a regulative ideal, the myth itself producing both enchantment and disenchantment. Indeed, I show that it was specifically in relation to this burgeoning culture of spirits and magic that European intellectuals gave birth to the myth of a myth-less society—a claim that was simultaneously celebrated as progress and lamented—often while being described in terms of rationalization, divine death, and fading magic.

All told, The Myth of Disenchantment challenges the most widely held account of modernity and its break from the premodern past. It reveals the paradoxical origins of the modernization thesis in the shared terrain between spiritualists, sorcerers, and scholars.