The world was once enchanted, but it is enchanted no longer. This, Jason Josephson-Storm dubs the myth of disenchantment. The phrase “the disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung der Welt) is Max Weber’s.1 The Myth of Disenchantment is an account of just how nineteenth-century scholars came to associate the creation of modernity with the withdrawal from magical beliefs.

Among the Disenchanted

It is to Enlightenment historians that we owe the myth of Enlightenment skepticism. The myth had its effect. Anything suggesting paganism or superstition was excised from the canon of proper philosophy.2 This meant the marginalization of thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, the scholar-magician Cornelius Agrippa, or the freethinking friar Giordano Bruno. It also meant the sanitization of thinkers who, despite dabbling in superstitions, had made valuable contributions to thought. Isaac Newton’s Principia is celebrated, his work on alchemy and biblical chronology ignored.3

Josephson-Storm adopts this story, but only up to a point.4 He reminds us that, as a historical period, the Enlightenment is itself a late nineteenth-century invention, the term emerging first in Germany, and only gaining wider currency in the 1950s.5 When Josephson-Storm writes about figures such as Francis Bacon or Denis Diderot, it is to criticize the notion that these figures represented a rupture with an enchanted past. His proper targets are Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and the critique of Enlightenment associated with the Frankfurt School.6 Writing as World War II engulfed Europe, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung (The Dialectic of the Enlightenment) sought to understand how the civilized world could so easily descend into barbarism. They answered that if the disenchantment of nature had its roots in the Enlightenment, it found its expression in totalitarianism. The notion of disenchantment as the rational domination of nature is central. This is why the Frankfurt School regarded Bacon as a precursor to the Enlightenment. On Josephson-Storm’s counternarrative, Bacon appears as a magician, disposed to make magic more public and effective.7 He never relinquished his hold on the animated world, and cannot be “the intentional author of the despiritualization of nature.”8

Josephson-Storm makes a similar argument about the French philosophes and encyclopédistes. The Encyclopédie is plundered for clues that Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert occasionally retained a positive view of natural magic. Josephson-Storm regards natural magic as a bimodal concept—one that can simultaneously “disenchant and enchant in different registers.”9 One entry of the Encyclopédie might deploy magic to dismiss the superstitious Christian theosophy of Jakob Böhme, while another might draw a distinction between supernatural and scientific magic.10

That magic could convey a positive association to Enlightenment eyes may seem surprising, but only if one is trapped by the myth of disenchantment—as Critical Theory appears to be. To historians of science, this news is not new. A look at Giambattista della Porta’s sixteenth-century work, Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic), would reveal that natural magic was but the empirical and practical side of natural philosophy. Published between 1923 and 1958, Lynn Thorndike entitled his eight-volume work on the development of empirical science A History of Magic and Experimental Science.

What We Ought to Believe

Historical evidence is easily neglected, Josephson-Storm argues, when it crosses the grain of what we ought to believe. Disenchantment is a foundational myth of the new human sciences that emerged during the nineteenth century. By treating magic and religion as anachronisms, anthropology and sociology reinforced the myth of disenchantment, while promoting their own claim to scientific status. A taboo invites its own subversion. So, too, with disenchantment. The disavowal of the occult typically involved the public rejection and the private embrace of various enchantments. As I argued in The Problem of Disenchantment, the explicit worldview into which people are socialized and articulate publicly is one thing; what they do with it in daily life is quite another.11

Josephson-Storm reaches a similar conclusion by proposing a psychoanalytic theory of disenchantment. Despite his reputation as a master of suspicion, Sigmund Freud had more than a passing interest in the occult. As late as the 1920s, he was defending the reality of telepathy, attending spiritualist séances, and at one point even playing the role of the medium. Josephson-Storm suggests that Freud had been struggling with a perceived prohibition against the occult. This led Freud to project his own desire for enchantment onto the “monstrous instinct of a savage mind,” while casting official science as a repressive hegemon.12 This, Josephson-Storm suggests, is the very mechanism of occult disavowal.13 His book is a treasure trove of examples.

The anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor came to his idea of animism as the original form of religion in part by reflecting on the presence of spiritualism in his own society—practices in which he, like so many other learned Victorians, occasionally participated.14 Friedrich Max Müller, the philologist best known for his thesis that mythologies originate as a disease of language, promoted the esoteric view that real religion recognizes the unity of the soul and the divine.15 He labelled this superior form of religion Theosophy. The logical positivists Rudolf Carnap and Hans Hahn chased ghosts in Vienna.16 Weber was himself deeply attracted to the German poet, mystic, and prophet Stefan George. He had a personal soft spot for Christian mysticism.17

The most important of these vignettes comes in a chapter entitled “Dialectic of Darkness: The Magical Foundations of Critical Theory.” It is here that Josephson-Storm shows how large parts of the Frankfurt School’s critique of modernity appear lifted from the eccentric occultist Ludwig Klages.18 A figure in the Munich-based group of poets and neo-pagans calling themselves the Kosmikerkreis (Cosmic Circle), Klages castigated the myth of progress, the techno-scientific exploitation of Mother Earth, and the logocentrism of Western civilization. He called for the return to a pristine, spontaneous connection with nature that he called “the Cosmogonic Eros.”19 These ideas are important because, as it turns out, there is a direct link between Klages’s diagnosis of what went wrong with modernity and Critical Theory. The link runs through Walter Benjamin, who not only knew and corresponded with Klages, but even went to Munich to study with him.20 Klages’s work is explicitly cited in the footnotes of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung. An intellectual movement that is usually seen as anti-occult shared its critique of modernity with a neo-pagan occultist.21

The myth of disenchantment has as much potency on the right as it does on the left. Klages was an anti-Semite, which Benjamin somehow tolerated, and was co-opted by the Nazis. Joseph Pryce, who has translated some of Klages into English, is an influential American white supremacist, his translations distributed by the far-right publisher Arktos.22 When neo-fascists and white power groups have been reinventing themselves in recent years as identitarians, ethno-nationalists, or the alt-right, they have done so by co-opting criticisms of modernity associated both with the left, and with esoteric authors like René Guénon, Julius Evola, or, indeed, Klages.23 The myth of disenchantment retains its potency.

Enchanted Yearnings

Nineteenth-century scholars certainly accepted the myth in order to project an image of disenchanted scientific probity, but they did not invent the myth as much as discover it—sometimes in their own sources. Josephson-Storm traces two separate lines of transmission. The first starts with Friedrich Schiller’s poem, Die Götter Griechenlands (The Gods of Greece), a poem written in the context of a controversy about pantheism. Did the scientific conception of nature entail Spinoza’s pantheism? Or even atheism? The metaphysical anxieties evoked by the question were just beginning to be expressed as the death of god, a phrase we today associate with Friedrich Nietzsche. It was Schiller that first expressed this idea in a grand historical narrative, one moving from ancient polytheism to monotheistic creationism to godless, autonomous nature.24

This was a story of loss. Natural philosophy had “reduced the vibrant world of the primitive humanity into dead mechanism,” and with it, a deeper connection with nature had been severed.25 It did not celebrate the ingenuity of human reason. The departure of the gods soon became a powerful myth, which would inspire later accounts of disenchantment. The poem was celebrated by the romantic and idealist thinkers of the early nineteenth century; it reemerged later among authors discussing the disappearance of magic, from James George Frazer to Freud to Klages to the members of the Frankfurt School.26

Motif F388

Before scholars were using fairies and elves as metaphors for lost magic, folktales were awash with this very theme. The Aarne–Thompson classification system, which folklorists have invented to keep track of recurrent themes and motifs in folktales, even has its own code for the departure of the fairies: Motif F388. That fairies were once plentiful, but have since gone into hiding, is one of the oldest and most widespread European folktales. We find it in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century, and in medieval romances and Arthurian legends. Those recounting these fairytales would sometimes anticipate the reflections of later sociologists: the fairies were disturbed by the plowing of the land, frightened by the advent of printing or gunpowder, or had been dispersed along with the Catholics.27 Folklorists like Frazer could discover the myth of disenchantment in their sources.

Weber ultimately connected modernity and disenchantment to shifting views on salvation, a process of rationalization originating within theology as early as late antiquity. In The End of Sacrifice, Guy Stroumsa describes the reorientation of salvific behavior from external ritual and symbolism to individual ethical conduct and care of the self.28 Robert Yelle has argued that the language of disenchantment has been a force in the Western history of religion as far back as the Christian claim that Jesus silenced the pagan oracles.29 The deep history of lost magic in folktales is better understood in the context of an anti-magical polemic at the heart of Christianity.

Who We Are

Are we really bereft of enchantment? Weber wrote of a shift in attitude, one imposing rational constraints on all the bureaucratic organs of life and society. This does not quite suggest a complete withdrawal of magical practices and beliefs from the interstices beyond bureaucratic control. It is in this sense that we moderns are not particularly disenchanted. The neo-Kantian assumptions to which Weber appealed, that facts and values, nature and normativity must be completely separated, have not been anywhere near as influential as he assumed.30 It ignores that strand of naturalistic thinking that explicitly sought to ground ethics and values in the study of nature. It is a strand that runs from early Darwinians like Thomas Henry Huxley to secular humanists and many new atheists.

This is not what Josephson-Storm argues. In arguing that the modern, presumptively secular West is still haunted by enchantments, he searches for evidence that people still believe in magic; he quite easily finds a modern world teeming with psychic powers, haunted houses, and astrological beliefs. There is evidence that appears to support the persistence of magical belief. A Gallup survey from 2005 indicated that seventy-three percent of Americans held at least one paranormal belief.31 Americans who doubt the paranormal are dominated by evangelicals, whose distrust in telepathy or ghosts is driven by a conviction that these phenomena might be caused by demons. The Baylor Religion Survey, conducted in 2005 and 2007, found that fifty-three percent of the American population believe in the possibility of demonic possession.32

In terms of common indicators of secularization, Europe and America may appear worlds apart.33 But secularization is not disenchantment. British and American respondents differ markedly on belief in God (ninety-two percent of Americans vs. thirty-seven percent in the United Kingdom), but their paranormal beliefs are remarkably consistent. Given these widespread beliefs, Josephson-Storm argues, disenchantment has clearly failed to happen.

This argument is overstated because it relies on superficial survey data. The statistics suggest that certain ideas are fascinating, but tell us little about their subjective meaning, or their practical significance. It is far from evident that those who believe in extrasensory perception see it as a magical or enchanted phenomenon. Those who believe in the paranormal often accept it as science.34 Parapsychologists have labored to sanitize such beliefs and make them appear scientific by inventing technical nomenclature, publishing experimental studies, and presenting paranormal abilities as exceptional but quite natural aspects of the human organism. The same can be said for much of New Age beliefs.35 When parapsychological beliefs are positively correlated with higher education, are we justified in concluding that educated Americans are likely to believe in magic? Who gets to decide what is magic and what is science?

In 2001, a representative sample of Scots was asked whether they had consulted horoscopes or divination techniques, practiced yoga or meditation, or tried alternative and complimentary medicine.36 Given how such practices are marketed, it is far from obvious that people view them as enchantments. The survey found that the practice of alternative medicine and horoscopes is fairly common (forty-four percent and forty-one percent), divination and yoga less so (thirty-percent and twenty-two percent, respectively). In looking at those who practice more than occasionally, the survey found that alternative medicine falls to twenty-one percent, and yoga to eleven percent. When asked to rank how important these practices are in their lives, only twenty percent of those who try alternative medicine find it significant, while a mere ten percent of yoga practitioners say the same. Horoscopes (five percent) and divination (six percent) appear even more trivial to users.

There are, of course, people who act on their enchantments; on analysis, their networks appear vanishingly small. In the UK, the cradle of contemporary paganism, members of all pagan categories put together make up as little as 0.1% of the population.37 It is hard to support the notion that modernity is still infused with magic.

It remains a question whether the past was any more enchanted than the present.

  1. For a discussion of Weber see Daniel Gelernter, “The Lawless Frontier,” Inference: International Review of Science 3, no. 1 (2017). 
  2. Wouter Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). 
  3. See, however, Betty Dobbs, The Janus Face of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). 
  4. Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 53. 
  5. Ibid., 58–59. 
  6. Ibid., 8–11. 
  7. Ibid., 46. 
  8. Ibid., 50. 
  9. Ibid., 57. 
  10. Ibid., 54–57. 
  11. Egil Asprem, The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900–1939 (Leiden: Brill, 2014). 
  12. Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 207. 
  13. Ibid., 207. 
  14. Ibid., 100–101. 
  15. Ibid., 108–12. 
  16. Ibid., 251–68. 
  17. Ibid., 287–301. See also Joachim Radkau, Max Weber: Die Leidenschaft des Denkens (Max Weber: The Passion of Thought) (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2005). 
  18. Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 214–15. 
  19. Ibid., 223. 
  20. Ibid., 226–39. 
  21. See, for example, Wouter Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 312–14. Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 213–15, 220, 237–39, 372. 
  22. Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 372. 
  23. See Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). 
  24. Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 76-81. 
  25. Ibid., 83. 
  26. Ibid., 149–50 (on James George Frazer), 197 (on Sigmund Freud), 216 (on Ludwig Klages), 311. 
  27. Ibid., 138–40. 
  28. Guy Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). 
  29. Robert Yelle, The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 17–23. 
  30. See Egil Asprem, The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900–1939 (Leiden: Brill, 2014). 
  31. Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 25–26. Cf. 
  32. Ibid., 27. 
  33. Recent evidence, however, indicates America is becoming more like Europe: David Voas and Mark Chaves, “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?” American Journal of Sociology 121, no. 5 (March 2016), 1,517–56. 
  34. Egil Asprem, “Psychic Enchantments of the Educated Classes: Parapsychology and the Naturalization of the Supernatural,” in Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm, eds., Contemporary Esotericism (London: Routledge, 2014), 330–50. 
  35. Olav Hammer, Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age (Leiden: Brill, 2001); Egil Asprem, “How Schrödinger’s Cat Became a Zombie: On the Epidemiology of Science-Based Representations in Popular and Religious Contexts,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 28 (2016), 113–40. 
  36. See Steve Bruce, Secularization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 105–106. 
  37. See James Lewis, “The Pagan Explosion Revisited: A Statistical Postmortem on the Teen Witch Fad,” Pomegranate 14, no.1 (2012).