Blind Spots of Disenchantment (2/3)

Following up the previous post about Weber’s notion of disenchantment, and its normative implications, this second part of the installment provides some snapshots of episodes in the early 20th century – that is, of Weber’s contemporaries – which all seem to be in conflict with the disenchanted perspective of science. We start by considering some episodes in physics, then move on to the life sciences, before ending with some remarks on the controversial borderland which is psychical research.

(“Blind Spots of Disenchantment: Science, Psychical Research, and Natural Theology the Early 20th Century”, part 2/3)

The problem of disenchantment in early 20th century science


Questions related to the problem of disenchantment were opened up and debated as a part of the disciplinary changes in physics in the early 20th century. The controversy over causality and determinism during the interwar period is well known. Indeed, a triumphalist version of the advent of quantum mechanics, typically ensnared by the philosophical style of men like Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, has been used time and again to paint rather fanciful pictures of a ‘re-enchantment of science’.[1] That, obviously, is not the point here; I find such uses of history to be as untenable as they are ideological.[2] Instead, I take a cue from historian Paul Forman’s thesis about the wider worldview implications ascribed to quantum physics in Weimar Germany.[3] In a classic article from 1971 Forman documented the surprising ease with which a great number of the leading physicists in Germany stated, within a decade, that physics had abolished causality from the workings of nature.

Three "non-disenchanted" physicsist: Bohr, Heisenberg, and Pauli in discussion.

The insistence on indeterminacy and acausality was, perhaps, most explicit in Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 paper on the uncertainty principle.[4] Even if that principle could be read as a primarily methodological problem arising from imperfections of measurement, Heisenberg concluded his article with the bold statement that ‘quantum mechanics establishes definitively the fact that the law of causality is not valid’.[5] This interpretation eventually gained a hegemonic status through being canonised in the anti-realist Copenhagen interpretation – despite much criticism from people such as Albert Einstein.

Unlike the overly enthusiastic ‘New Age’ and romantic references to this development, Forman seeks an explanation to why so many physicists embraced acausality and indeterminism outside of science itself. Instead of talking about ‘revolutionary discoveries’ that may have ‘proved’ the world to be enchanted in some sense (that is, an ‘internalist’ approach), Forman connects their attitude with the cultural climate in Germany after the First World War (‘externalist’ approach). The turn towards acausality in physics coincided with the development of a culture which was pessimistic about modernity, and which went far to equate the materialism, mechanism, and reductionism it saw in science with everything that was wrong with modern society in general. This culture of neo-romantic Lebensphilosophie and crisis-thinking challenged the ‘disenchantment of the world’.[6] According to Forman, the physicists accommodated their scientific writings and concocted broader worldview implications from their theories which harmonised with this anti-disenchantment cultural trend. The major point is that culture and worldview in these cases were prior to the scientific knowledge production. And, I would add: that leading scientists of the era did not work by the disenchanted dictum to keep science and worldviews apart.

The Life Sciences

Other examples can be found in the life sciences.[7] The most striking case in the field of biology is the controversies over mechanism, organicism, and neo-vitalism, which were very prominent during the first three decades of the century. What was at stake in these debates was precisely a question of whether or not the phenomenon of life can be understood by the same causal mechanism thought to govern inert matter. In the explicitly vitalistic form, there would even be an opening for explaining life with recourse to a ‘mysterious incalculable force’, whether in the form of Henri Bergson’s élan vital, or the German embryologist Hans Driesch’s concept of entelechy.[8] Anne Harrington’s study of the conflicts in the sciences of life and mind in Germany explicitly made reference to disenchantment and enchantment when discussing these questions. What the organicists and holists in biology, psychology, as well as in politics, were hostile towards, was the looming image of ‘the Machine’ – the image par excellence of the disenchantment of nature, society, and the human organism itself.[9]

Hans Driesch, embryologist and champion of neo-vitalism.

While here, too, we see scientific discourse aligned with a heavy cultural bias which may be called ‘romantic’ or even anti-modern, one should be quick to point out that far from all of these attacks on philosophical mechanism wanted to reinstate ‘mysterious incalculable forces’ in their entirety.[10] A holistic materialism was the most mainstream of these anti-mechanistic approaches, and enjoyed the support of many well-known biologists.[11] Their main claim was that some version of ‘emergent properties’, operative on different levels of organisation, was needed to fully account for something as complex as living organisms.[12] The strictly analytical method by which one could explain a machine in terms of its constituent parts would not hold. In this sense one might say that the holistic materialist did subscribe to some notion of incalculability: no matter how much one knew about the motion of the most fundamental particles of matter from which an organism is composed, one would not be able to derive or calculate the workings of the whole. But there was nothing mysterious about this incalculability. Life was composed entirely of ordinary matter, even though one needed principles other than mechanism to understand how it worked.

Neo-vitalism went one step further away from disenchantment. For explicit vitalists, such as Hans Driesch, the problem was not only about adjusting explanations to levels of organisation; their opposition was much more fundamental in character, and involved the existence of forces which were not only sui generis among natural phenomena, but the sine qua non of life.[13] These various vitalistic principles were both incalculable and mysterious forces. Driesch’s concept of entelechy, for example, was construed as a completely immaterial, organising, and directing force. Driesch was explicit about his anti-reductionism, anti-mechanism, and anti-materialism. Introducing his principle in 1908, he was wrote that:

No kind of causality based upon the constellations of single physical and chemical acts can account for organic individual development ; this development is not to be explained by any hypothesis about configuration of physical and chemical agents. Therefore there must be something else which is to be regarded as the sufficient reason of individual form-production.[14]

This ‘something else’ was entelechy. It consumed no energy, while it operated in mysterious ways in the development of organisms: from the fertilisation of the egg, through the various embryonic stages, to the fully fledged individual. Possibly, it was even active beyond death, although Driesch felt forced to claim an agnostic position on the matter.[15]

Psychology, Psychical Research, and the Occult

Now we reach a point where biology merges into psychology, and not only mainstream psychology but also the very controversial subject of ‘psychical research’. Discussions concerning vitalism and teleology in biology had their parallels in psychology – particularly in the controversy surrounding the behaviourist program of John Watson and his followers. The methodological premise of behaviourism was to avoid psychological interpretations resting on concepts such as ‘soul’, ‘consciousness’, or even ‘mind’, and to reject introspection as a method.[16] Instead, human behaviour was viewed strictly as an input-output system, and the goal was, to quote Watson’s programmatic article of 1913, ‘the prediction and control of behavior’.[17]

Watson for behaviourism ...

... McDougall against.

In the United States in the 1920s, the most vociferous enemy of behaviourism was the English psychologist William McDougall, professor at Harvard, and a leading figure in the British and American Societies for Psychical Research.[18] Although a respected academic psychologist, McDougall was a controversial figure in his own days, writing passionate scientific and popular defences of a range of heterodox fields bordering science, politics and religion, including Lamarckism, psychical research, and eugenics.[19] He also provides a tangible link between the debates in biology and psychology on the one hand, and the curious field of researches into spiritualism, telepathy and other extraordinary ‘occult’ phenomena on the other.

Indeed, the ‘occult revival’ which followed the First World War represents a more readily apparent rejection of Weber’s disenchanted world.[20] Even though spiritualists, occultists, and psychical researchers were often more than happy to provide ‘theories’ and ‘explanations’ of what was going on in the gloomy séance room – whether in terms of the extension of ‘etheric’ and ‘astral’ bodies, the operation of psychic forces, or the actual intervention of departed souls[21] – they all indicate that some phenomena are indeed mysterious, incalculable and out of the ordinary.[22] Cloaked in scientific sounding terminology and claimed by their supporters as parts of a valid empirical field of research, these phenomena were also typically put forward as authentications of religious beliefs – thus denying the intellectual sacrifice.

While the occult is thus interesting on its own terms, I wish to say something more about how it was linked up with the more reputable discourse of the life and mind sciences.[23] McDougall provides my link, because, in addition to being one of the most visible opponents of behaviourism within the psychological profession, he also made his point based on a very explicit and clear theoretical understanding of life, mind, the organism and its evolution, which used psychical research as part of its evidential support. Recognising that the behaviourist programme rested on the Darwinian conception of evolution through blind mechanistic selection processes, McDougall built his position on the interdependent theories of Lamarckian, purpose-driven evolution, and a theory of irreducible and autonomous mind – a position he termed ‘animism’.[24] This cluster of ideas was easily connected with vitalism.[25] Furthermore, McDougall referred to some of the data produced by the Society for Psychical Research as particularly good indications that some kind of an autonomous, non-mechanistic conception of mind had to take precedence.[26] Referencing one of the supposedly strongest cases of spiritualism, the so-called ‘cross-correspondences’, McDougall insisted that whichever interpretation one preferred, whether the outright spiritualistic or the ‘psychical’ where extreme ‘supernormal’ cognitive powers were at play, one had now strong evidence against a purely mechanistic concept of mind.[27]In his view, the occult provided empirical support for a re-enchantment of biology and psychology.

(end of part 2/3; view 1/3; view 3/3

[1] In addition to the obvious ‘New Age’ varieties, e.g. Lawrence LeShan, The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist; Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, and Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, we might mention the more academic variety of the same form of proselytising, found in, e.g. Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, and David Ray Griffin, ed., The Reenchantment of Science. Professional philosophers of science have, on the other hand, not always been as impressed by the speculations of Bohr and his students and colleagues in Copenhagen. See for example Mara Beller, Quantum Dialogue, 270-276.

[2] For criticisms of this type of historical writing about science, see Sal Restivo, The Social Relation of Physics, Mysticism, and Mathematics; John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, Reconstructing Nature, 75-105.

[3] See Forman, ‘Weimar culture, causality, and quantum theory’; Forman, ‘Reception of an Acausal Quantum Mechanics in Germany and Britain’; Forman, ‘Kausalität, Anschaullichkeit, and Individualität, or How Cultural Values Prescribed the Character and Lessons Ascribed to Quantum Mechanics’.

[4] A number of outstanding physicists had stated similar views in the preceding years. Max Born expressed in 1926 that he was ‘inclined to abandon determinedness in the atomic world’, and was immediately followed by colleagues in the German physics community, including Arnold Sommerfeld and Pasqual Jordan. Cf. Forman, ‘Kausalität, Anschaullichkeit, and Individualität’, 336.

[5] Heisenberg, ‘Über den Anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik’, 98. Cited and translated by Forman, Ibid.,  ‘Kausalität, Anschaullichkeit, and Individualität’, 336. In the original, the last sentence reads: ‘Vielmehr kann man den wahren Sachverhalt viel besser so charakterisieren: Weil alle Experimente den Gesetzen der Quantenmechanik und damit der Gleichung unterworfen sind, so wird durch die Quantenmechanik die Ungültigkeit des Kausalgesetzes definitiv festgestellt.’

[6] The Lebensphilosoph which Forman spends most time on in this context is Oswald Spengler, whose Untergang des Abendlandes was published to huge success and widely read in German intellectual circles after the war. Incidentally, it was published for the first time only a few months before Weber’s ‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’, and a worry about its rapid popularity among the young people seems implicit to much of his lecture. That is, at several occasions he seems to address the young generation which he assumes is becoming ensnared by Lebensphilosophie, attempting to convince them of the value and importance of science.

[7] Here, too, there have been some good studies which are relevant to the problem of disenchantment. Esp. Michael Ash, Gestalt Psychology in German Culture; Ann Harrington, Reenchanted Science; Scott Gilbert and Sahorta Sarkar, ‘Embracing Complexity’; G. E. Allen, ‘Mechanism, Vitalism and Organicism in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Biology’; Heather Wolffram, ‘Supernormal Biology’.

[8] See e.g. Bergson, Creative Evolution; Driesch, The Science and Philosophy of the Organism.

[9] Harrington, Reenchanted Science, esp. 3-71.

[10] For a good and concise analytical distinction between various forms of anti-mechanism in early century biology, see Allen, ‘Mechanism, Vitalism and Organicism’. Cf. Gilbert and Sarkar, ‘Embracing Complexity’.

[11] Among the proponents of holistic materialism were Hans Spemann, Joseph Needham, Paul Alfred Weiss, and the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt. See e.g. Allen, ‘Mechanism, Vitalism and Organicism’, 266-269.

[12] It was in this context that the terms ‘emergence’ and ‘emergentism’ made their way into the philosophy of science for the first time. See especially C. Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution. Morgan’s concept may be compared and contrasted to the similar Bergson’s similar concept of ‘creative evolution’, as well as to the concept of ‘process’ in the later philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. I.e. Whitehead, Process and Reality.

[13] For Uexküll’s position in these debates, cf. Harrington, Reenchanted Science, 34-71.

[14] For a larger discussion of the ‘vitalistic or autonomous factor’ of entelechy, see Driesch, The Science and Philosophy of the Organism, Vol. 1, 142-149, citation on p. 142; Vol. 2, 129-265.

[15] E.g. Driesch, Science and Philosophy of the Organism, Vol. 2, 260-263.

[16] Watson, ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’.

[17] Ibid., 158.

[18] See e.g. McDougall and Watson, The Battle of Behavorism: An Exposition and an Exposure.

[19] See Egil Asprem, ‘A Nice Arrangement of Heterodoxies’.

[20] Major studies of the occult (and the relation to psychical research) in this period include R. Laurence Moore, In Search of White Crows; James Webb, The Occult Establishment; Jenny Hazelgrove, Spiritualism and British Society between the Wars; Olav Hammer, Claiming Knowledge; Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment.

[21] Sceptics, on their part, would refer to combinations of fraud, hallucinations and psychopathology. For a representative view of the conflict as it appeared in 1927, see Carl Murchison, ed., The Case for and against Psychical Belief.

[22] But cf. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘How Magic Survived the Disenchantment of the World’. Hanegraaff argues that, in the modern world, magic itself became ‘disenchanted’ in important respects. For criticisms and a call for a more nuanced perspective, see Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, Vol. 1, 40-41; Asprem, ‘Magic Naturalized?’; Asprem, Enochiana, esp. Ch. 4.

[23] For a discussion of these overlaps in the German context, see Heather Wolffram, ‘Supernormal Biology’; Wolffram, Stepchildren of Science, 191-232.

[24] E.g.  McDougall, Body and Mind.

[25] Cf. Asprem, ‘A Nice Arrangement of Heterodoxies’, 137. Driesch connected McDougall’s psychology to neovitalism in the second edition of his historical overview of vitalism in 1922: Driesch, Geschichte des Vitalismus, 207.

[26] See especially McDougall, Body and Mind, 347-354.

[27] McDougall, Body and Mind, 349. The cross-correspondence sittings were documented in a series of installments in the Proceedings of the SPR from 1907 onwards. A summary was published in Herbert Francis Saltmarsh, Evidence of Personal Survival from Cross Correspondences.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] (previous: 1/3 – 2/3) […]

  2. … Egil, pursuing this, on my hard drive I found the (freely available on the web) May, 2012 article which is probably more relevant [than Interpreting “Mind-Cure”: William James and the “Chief Task…of the Science of Human Nature” by SUTTON: Article first published online: 25 APR 2012 Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences]: “Psychical research and the origins of American psychology: Hugo Münsterberg, William James and Eusapia Palladino,” by Andreas Sommer, University College London, UK; History of the Human Sciences 25(2) 23–44 (2012); that’s actually what first came to mind when I initially looked at Blind Spots of Disenchantment today…
    From the abstract: “This article discusses strategies employed by psychologists in the United States to expel psychical research from the agenda of scientific psychology. It is argued that the traditional historiography of psychical research, dominated by accounts deeply averse to its very subject matter, has been part of an ongoing form of ‘boundary-work’ to bolster the scientific status of psychology.” …
    This is outside my familiarity, and James was obviously pre-Watson and behaviorism, nonetheless, it appears that the leitmotif of “Psychical research and the origins of American psychology,” e.g., is at least nominally congruent with the overall narrative. I’d like to read all of it closer, especially several of the posts (and perhaps various references) that Egil has provided – the vast majority I’m seeing for the first time. There’s quite a bit going on at I wasn’t aware of (let alone “prepared for”)… my apologies if I’ve adduced little besides a pithy distraction here or there … that was unintentional … my formal background is in the exact sciences, so maybe I’m not all that far behind the 8-ball. A step back, a deep breath, and sometimes a fresh perspective is just what the doctor ordered.


    • Yes I’m aware of Sommer’s work and also this article. But not at the time of the lecture this post is an extract from (which was given a year earlier, in April 2011). I worked with similar questions as those of Sommer in my dissertation, but unfortunately that too was submitted (aug. 2012) before I got properly acquainted with the article in question and could integrate it in the relevant sections. Might do that for the revised publication. I have quite a bit on James in it, especially vis-a-vis psychical research.

  3. […] Now, this is not what Sheldrake is arguing when challenging the universality of laws. He argues that regularities are habits that have evolved through the history of the world. In a sense this strengthens the temporal and even historical aspect of the world (“natural history” becomes once more an apt term for science).  As was the case with his position on minds, mechanisms and organisms (discussed here), this does not make him a completely novel thinker but rather places him in an alternative tradition  that has deep roots in Western natural philosophy. We could list, for example, the medieval distinction between natura naturata (“nature natured”) and natura naturans (“nature naturing”), made famous through Spinoza’s natural philosophy, and its reception in e.g. German romantic Naturphilosophie around the turn of the 19th century. This type of speculation emphasises nature’s creative potential, its self-causing, generative properties, that give rise to stable phenomena without the incursion of non- or super-natural agents or forces (whether a theistic god, an indifferent and distant “first mover”, or Platonic/Pythagorean disembodied numbers). This stream of thinking obviously has affinities with vitalistic and organicist theories, and in more recent times we find varieties of it in Driesch’s “entelechy”, Bergson’s “élan vital” and “creative evolution”, and to some extent in modern emergentist philosophies of nature. (I’ve written about some of these  in a different context here). […]

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