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  • The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm
  • William M. Clements
The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. By Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Pp. xv + 411, preface and acknowledgments, note on texts and translations, introduction, notes, index.)

Folklorists will not be surprised that belief and interest in magic and other paranormal phenomena have endured beyond the Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and Age of Reason, which conventional wisdom suggests supplanted those concerns with a fundamentally rational epistemology. Many books and periodical articles in folklore studies have shown the persistence and acceptance of an enchanted cosmos in popular culture and folk tradition, not only among enclaves of old-time culture wherein the “folk” are believed to dwell but also in various mainstream media. What may surprise some folklorists, though, is how interest in the paranormal permeated the origins of modernity traceable to Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and the eighteenth-century philosophes. Moreover, interest in—and often acceptance of—a worldview that did not exclude magic persisted into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when it helped to shape the ideas of many founding figures in sociology, psychology, anthropology, religious studies, critical theory, and other humanities and social science disciplines.

Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm’s aim in this study is to interrogate the assumption that occult interests disappeared from European thinkers’ worldviews as they developed toward modernity. He convincingly demonstrates that many iconic figures in the origin and development of modernity avidly turned their attention to examining paranormal issues and that their concerns with these issues informed their general thinking. The “myth of disenchantment,” he finds, emerged as a trope, often taken literally, to distance modernity from a European past steeped in medieval mysticism and from the rest of the world, which had not yet received “Enlightenment” (a term that, he notes, attached itself to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a hundred years after such central works in the movement toward reason as the Encyclopédie had been published).

Thinkers in the nineteenth century projected onto their forebears a disenchanted stance that they apparently believed they themselves were employing, though they were concurrently turning attention to occultism in their own work. The gallery of philosophers, writers, social scientists, and physical scientists who evinced interest in the enchanted world that they and their intellectual descendants announced they were rejecting includes Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, Theodor Adorno, and Max Weber, from whom Josephson-Storm takes the term “disenchantment of the world.” Since Weber’s phrase (which the author suggests would be more accurately translated as “disenchanting of the world,” to convey process) provides focus for [End Page 91] the notion that this book queries. Accordingly the narrative’s trajectory points toward the ideas of this pioneering sociologist whose work, treated in the final chapter of The Myth of Disenchantment, has generally been viewed as the culmination of intellectual developments begun centuries earlier in progressively enlightened Europe. But Josephson-Storm shows that Weber himself did not reject the possibilities of magic or of other phenomena that moderns supposedly dismissed. Along the way to Weber, Josephson-Storm examines the occult interests not only of familiar names but also of not-so-well-known thinkers whose influence on this ignored aspect of modernity has often eluded the attention of intellectual historians.

Readers of this journal will have particular interest in the volume’s examination of the work and influence of James G. Frazer and lesser-known British folklorists of his era. Frazer’s most important work was, of course, The Golden Bough, whose second edition (1900) receives Josephson-Storm’s focus. That volume, perceived as dethroning magic from its centrality and replacing it with religion and then science in the evolution of human thought, actually perpetuated the role of paranormal phenomena in European intellectual circles. Josephson-Strom shows how Aleister Crowley, often dismissed from serious intellectual consideration as a sybaritic charlatan, drew upon Frazer’s theories about “primitive” magic to fashion his own ritual protocols. The Golden Bough also affected the thought of Freud and other early twentieth-century thinkers, some of whom...


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