On “Scientific Illuminism” and the Psychologisation of Magic

There is a post up at the tyromanteia blog, which offers a nice criticism of my article on Aleister Crowley’s negotiation of magic with science and psychology (“Magic Naturalized?”, published in Aries back in 2008). Tyromanteia draws on the work of Alex Owen (which I briefly reviewed last year) to place three 20th century magicians, Crowley, Israel Regardie, and Dion Fortune, within a broader “crisis of subjectivity” and a process of psychologisation. In this connection, the author finds opportunity to deal with my criticism of the “psychologisation thesis” on the survival of magic. I largely performed this criticism on the basis of Crowley, arguing that in this case, an attempted naturalisation of magic is more important than psychologisation. To this, Tyromanteia objects that Crowley largely anticipated the psychological and even psychotherapeutic interpretations which Regardie and Fortune later emphasised in their teachings. As I think this criticism points out an ambiguity in the original article, I will take this opportunity to make a brief response.

The main objective of “Magic Naturalized” was to contribute to an ongoing scholarly debate concerning the survival of magic in modern society. The presence and even revival of magical practices in the modern west during the 19th and 20th century, and continuing today, has often been conceived of as a problem for narratives of secularisation and especially disenchantment. The late-19th century “occult revival”  has, for example, variously been seen as a reaction to a “crisis of faith”, or alternatively as a reformulation of older systems of belief and practice in terms and ways of thinking which make them seem compatible with a “rational modernity”. Alternatively, trends such as these have been used to debunk the idea that secularisation or disenchantment really happened, and reinstate a picture of modernity which is much more complex and much less straight-forwardly rational and neat.

To the second of these three types of interpretation belongs the “psychologisation thesis”. As I summed it up in 2008:

“According to this view, modern magicians feel a strain of “cognitive dissonance” when their magical practices are faced with the “rational and scientific ideology” of the modern world, which they consequently feel the need to deal with. As a result, a certain type of psychologisation of the techniques, ontology and efficacy of magic takes place, whereby magic in the end is thought to operate in a ‘separate-but-connected “magical plane”’, existing on a different level of reality, accessible with the cultivation and use of the imagination.9 Th e function and effect of this psychological interpretation is to insulate magical practice from rational critique, thereby legitimising it. Hanegraaff writes that ‘[t]he dissipation of mystery in this world is compensated for by a separate magical world of the reified imagination, where the everyday rules of science and rationality do not apply’. The psychologisation of magic is seen as a way for magicians to suspend their disbelief by confining magic to a place outside the empirical realm of verification, evidence and rational criticism. This version can be said to propose a kind of psychological escapism: psychologisation is a way for the magician to hide his or her beliefs and practices from the threatening natural scientific tribunal of truth. (p. 141-142)

In other words, psychologisation in this sense (psychological escapism) should be distinguished carefully from a “terminological psychologisation”, or the mere use of psychological discourse to cloth one’s ideas, or drawing on contemporary psychological theories to form esoteric ideas or notions of magical efficacy.

My point has been that while the second, broader form of “psychologisation” has indeed been quite common since the growing acceptance of academic psychology and, especially, since the popular explosion of psychotherapy in the 1920s, the same can not be said for the stronger form. It is the stronger form of the psychologisation thesis, which stresses that magic survived because it insulated the ontology of magic and retreated its conception of efficacy from the intersubjectively available physical world to the purely internal and subjective world of the psyche, that I have criticised. With Crowley as case study, I argued that here is an example of an influential modern magician who, quite to the contrary, emphasises that magical experience should always be quantifiable, testable, and subjugated to the hardest possible criticism by a group of peers. In the evaluation, scientific methods should reign supreme, and one should take care to avoid any sources of errors in testing magical efficacy, and extirpate biases. How far we have come from psychological escapism! Not only do “the everyday rules of science and rationality” apply to the magical imagination: they are to be consciously developed and applied in the most rigorous fashion. Thus, the motto of Crowley’s “Scientific Illuminism”: “The Method of Science – the Aim of Religion”. This is what I mean by emphasising a “naturalising” attitude in Crowley’s approach to magic.

Now, let’s return to tyromanteia’s post. One of the criticisms brought up is summarised in this quotation:

“There can be no doubt that Crowley’s scepticism and rigorous use of scientific methods did give him a unique position at such an early stage in the modern occult legitimisation process, but Asprem unduly juxtaposes this technique against his contemporaries, relegating Israel Regardie to the role of psychological escapist without due consideration for the major similarities which existed between the two practitioners.”

Sure, there are parallels, and I would be happy to explore them more carefully some time. The point here is that Regardie in fact provided much of the primary material for Hanegraaff’s interpretation, and was as such enlisted in the argument leading to the escapist version of pschologisation (another important part of the argument was Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft). Indeed, if it can be shown that ” the ‘naturalisation of magic’ was present throughout the legitimisation process”, including in Regardie, then (as far as I can see) my original point vis-a-vis the psychologisation thesis would emerge strengthened rather than weakened.

Tyromanteia brings up one more point which I should respond to:

“Asprem’s arbitrary division between whether his [Crowley’s] methods were a ‘rhetorical strategy’ or ‘more sincere’, are irrelevant to this process. It was indeed a rhetorical strategy, whether Crowley understood it as such or not.”

I completely agree. The passage in the original article which is referred to here is the following:

“Was Crowley’s appeal to science merely a rhetorical strategy, a faddish way to express and sell one’s religious ideas in a society where naturalistic science had replaced religion as the main institution of truth? Or was his expressed wish to apply scientific ways of inquiry to magical phenomena more sincere? I believe Crowley’s re-evaluation of the magical diary indicates the latter.”

This may have been a somewhat unfortunate phrasing. Stressing the word merely should, however, give the right reading. Crowley certainly played on the incredible public fascination and appreciation of science during his time, and in that sense also employed references to it strategically to position himself favourably. My intention was, however, to go a bit further with the analysis instead of leaving it at the purely discursive level. Thus, I still stand by my conclusion:

“Far from accepting that the magical realm was a “separate reality” which science could not touch, he struggled to devise scientific methods for reaching it. Whether his attempts were successful or not  is a different question, but I see no reason to doubt the sincerity of Crowley’s  ambition in this direction. In this sense, then, Crowley’s system can be seen as  representing a naturalisation of magic, and the psychologisms which do show up from time to time are merely secondary, and subject to his more fundamental scientific naturalism.” (163)

With these points straightened out, I should finish by otherwise recommending the post at Tyromanteia, which has many interesting reflections (may I also add that it is great to see so many new good blogs dealing with the academic study of esotericism). The attempt to start a broader comparison of early 20th century theories of magic, including Fortune and Regardie, and adding other influential figures of various shapes and shades such Paul Foster Case, Austin Osman Spare, or even Julius Evola, or Franz Bardon, would be very interesting and quite overdue. I try to add a bit of this in my own forthcoming book on Enochian magic, but a much broader and systematic study focusing on this would be welcome. Until now, it has been all too easy to cherry-pick data from one particular author or current which seems to support a certain developmental trait in the reinterpretation of magic. Focusing on complexity and diversity would be a necessary counterweight.

Creative Commons License
This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for engaging with my post. I really do appreciate it. A recommendation from you means a great deal.

  2. […] quite be called a raging academic throw-down, I was interested to read the discourse* between Heterodoxology’s Egil Asprem and the new Tyromanteia blog about psychological and scientific methods of analyzing magic. While I […]

  3. Very interesting. My own article dealing with (among other things) Crowley and psychologisation will come out in a couple of months in the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. It includes some critical observations about Egil’s article. Pity I couldn’t see this discussion before I sent it to the printer.

    • This is where it happens. 😉
      Congrats on the MRW article, look very much forward to reading! I suspect I have heard some of these critical observations in earlier conversations (?), but always nice to have things spelled out in full on paper.

  4. […] that has so far been published in a peer-reviewed journal. It also ties in neatly with a discussion here at Heterodoxology and a couple of other blogs earlier this year (Tyromanteia and Invocatio), namely […]

  5. Based on the dates, this thread may be old news which is good news to me – if things have stabilized any – ’till three minutes ago, I confess, I knew of precisely 1) out of the slew of “good [or otherwise] blogs dealing with the academic study of esotericism.” Is there a fairly stable list of (TopTen, e.g.) blogs dealing with the academic study of esotericism [including/excluding 2) Tyromanteia and 3) Invocatio]? Assuming that’s are a pool of grad students, maybe there’s the random independent or three and that “given” perturbs the stability? Or rather, increases it. I’m not complaining about “Esoteric, Occult, and Pagan Blogs,” listed here, which I’ve yet to survey, since that seems like a different criteria.


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