“Varieties of Magical Experience” – a new article on Crowley, magic, and psychologisation

Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft (Penn Press)

The November issue of Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft ran an article by my colleague Marco Pasi, titled ”Varieties of Magical Experience: Aleister Crowley’s Views on Occult Practice”. It may safely be characterised as the most complete academic treatment of Crowley’s magical thought and practice 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 the question of the “psychologisation of magic”. A review is definitely in order.

Pasi will be a well-known name to the Crowleyites reading this blog. His book on Crowley and politics has been published in Italian and German (Aleister Crowley und die Versuchung der Politik), with the long awaited English translation due to appear on Equinox Publishing in 2012 (Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics). He has also worked on Crowley’s art, published on his conception of yoga, and written important dictionary entries on Crowley and the O.T.O. in the seminal Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. His PhD dissertation was on conceptions of magic in modern occultism, and it is in part to this question – focusing on Crowley – that Pasi returns with the present article.

There are several noteworthy things about this article, but I will focus on that which concerns previous discussions on this blog. The article makes an important contribution to the ongoing debate on the transformation of magic in modernity, and in particular the theme of the psychologisation of magic. It starts off by discussing three recent contributions to the same debate, namely those of Wouter Hanegraaff, Alex Owen, and myself. Owen’s The Place of Enchantment is introduced as being of an importance that is “difficult to overestimate”, but in the end Pasi actually spends one paragraph to dismiss some very problematic aspects of the work, and never returns to her book again. Instead, it is the discussion about the psychologisation and naturalisation of magic that provides the backdrop of the article, a discussion which is now starting to look primarily as an exchange between Hanegraaff, Pasi, and myself.

As mentioned in earlier posts, my first contribution to the discussion came with an article in Aries in 2008. In it, I took issue with the notion that “magic” had survived in the modern West primarily by having been “psychologised”. The problem was not so much with psychologisation as such, however, as with a specific type of psychologisation that was described by Hanegraaff in the article I responded to (“How magic survived the disenchantment of the world”, 2003). This type of psychologisation was premised on the idea of withdrawing the content of magic from the empirical everyday world to the internal and subjective world of the individual magician’s psyche – thus effectively saving magic from confrontation with a rational and “disenchanted” worldview. Against this type of psychologisation, which I termed “psychological escapism”, I held that a seminal modern magician such as Crowley was driven by something quite the opposite: namely, a naturalisation of magic in which everything hinged on whether or not one could translate and reconceptualise magical experiences into terms that could be intersubjectively tested – and even devising methods by which such testing could be performed.

Pasi largely agrees to my criticism of the psychologisation thesis, but has a few minor objections to my notion of a naturalisation of magic. Some of these I think are pertinent, others I would like to defend against. Let’s start with the latter.

As far as I can see the main objection is that I have failed “historically to contextualize the terms” I am using, namely concerning psychology and naturalism. This, of course, is a relatively grave accusation to get for a historian, and must be taken seriously. However, when Pasi spells out the criticism in more detail, it becomes clear to me that it does not really hit the mark. Pasi writes that

“It is far from evident that a sharp distinction between natural and psychological interpretations of metaphysical realities would have made much sense to authors writing around the turn of twentieth century.” (126)

Thomas Henry Huxley - grandfather of scientific naturalism and the originator of "agnosticism". Also frequently referenced by Aleister Crowley.

That is definitely true, and I agree completely that the main opposition that would be recognized around the turn of the century is rather between “naturalism” and “supernaturalism”. This was for example what the late-Victorian debate on “agnosticism” was all about – although views were legion – and it was reflected in such titles as The Naturalisation of the Supernatural (Frank Podmore, 1908),  Naturalism and Agnosticism (James Ward, 1899), not least in T. H. Huxley’s correspondences with clergymen and intellectuals in Christianity and Agnosticism: A Controversy  (1889).

The problem, however, is that I have made no distinction between naturalisation and psychologisation as such. More important was a deconstruction of the term “psychologisation”, precisely through a historical contextualisation, which shows that psychologising strategies can be put to widely different uses. Furthermore, my point was that the kind of psychologisation pointed out by Hanegraaff is of an escapist kind, and is very different from the kind of psychologisation observed in someone like Crowley, which, I argued, is rather a part of a broader and more fundamental “naturalisation”. What is more, although this remains perhaps implicit in my original article, “naturalisation“ in a broad sense here concerns the insistence on focusing on empirical aspects of supposedly “supernatural” phenomena, and in this sense actually contesting the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” as well. This, in fact, is an important aspect of turn of the century naturalism, and one which we particularly see in the context of psychical research, the origins of parapsychology. The point of my article was to place Crowley in this context (the relation with psychical research was explicitly addressed, and I even suggested that Crowley in some cases took a stronger naturalistic position than the average psychical investigator did), and thus I do not feel that the criticism of a lacking historical contextualisation hits home. In fact, when Pasi states about Crowley that

“He was therefore both naturalizing  and psychologizing, depending on the moment in his intellectual trajectory and the context in which he found himself,”

that reads almost like a repetition of some of my own conclusions from 2008, such as: “Crowley’s view on psychology was mainly one designed to remain within the confines of purely naturalistic approaches”; and “this sort of psychologism places magic within the continuum of scientific naturalism” (163).The point is that an analytical distinction between them is not needed in this case.

However this may be, a more systematic discussion of these terms, and not least the contested nature of the epistemic concept of “naturalism” at the time, as well as the unstable definition of “psychology”, would still be helpful.

Other aspects raised by Pasi’s article are more to the point. For example, also in connection with my focus on making magical experience “testable” by way of a sort of naturalistic approach to psychology, Pasi reminds that other aspects of magic never even face this problem:

“there is an aspect of magic that is strongly empirical from the start, and that is not necessarily related to the problem of magical ‘‘experience.’’ This is rather related to instrumental forms of magic, which aim at the acquisition of material gains, such as money, health, erotic success, and the like.” (125-126, n.8)

That is again certainly true, and I think that much of the scholarship on modern magic has consistently underplayed this point. Looking at the continued fascination with and practice of such “manipulative magic” in fact would continue to strengthen my arguments against “psychologisation”, escapism, and the rather oxymoronic notion of “disenchanted magic”.

Aleister CrowleyThere is a final and I think very important point made in Pasi’s article that deserves attention, and this concerns the interpretation of Crowley’s magical trajectory in particular (rather than the more abstract question of how to account for modern magic in general). While my “Magic Naturalized” article focused primarily on one particular part of Crowley’s intellectual trajectory, and thus emphasised the naturalistic aspects of his thinking, it is without doubt that Crowley, sometimes unquestionably writing as an intellectual opportunist, presented many different views throughout his career. Thus, for example, towards the end of his life, more “traditional” and “supernatural” interpretations of magic and magical entities (demons, angels, “intelligences” etc.) became central. Pasi illustrates this with a detailed and thorough discussion of the notion of a “Holy Guardian Angel”, and the relation between this entity and the concepts of a Higher Self and of the entity Aiwaz – which famously “dictated” The Book of the Law to Crowley in Cairo in 1904, and thus ushered in the age of Thelema.

One of the intriguing arguments made by Pasi is that Crowley’s turn to a form of supernaturalism, as well as a realism about external intelligences and entities not dependent on the person’s psychology or physiology, was in fact closely connected with Crowley’s turn to Thelema, and full embrace of his own role as “prophet” of a new age. Pasi suggests that this role made it necessary to adopt strategies that would confer a type of authority on Crowley’s writings, qua prophet, that were not just “from him”, or available to just anyone given the use of natural techniques. There had to be an aspect of being elected by some higher (=”supernatural”) authority.

This seems to me a convincing argument, and is a very interesting case study of how a variety of different strategies are taken at various points in a magician’s career, based on shifting concerns and intellectual contexts. More than anything else, it is yet another warning against positing totalising “processes” by which magic is “recreated” in very specific ways. The empirical material shows us that things are much more complicated and messy, as history always is.


Asprem, Egil, “‘Magic Naturalized? Negotiating Science and Occult Experience in Aleister Crowley’s Scientific Illuminism’.’ Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism 8.2 (2008): 139 – 66

Hanegraaff, Wouter, “How magic survived the disenchantment of the world”. Religion 33.4 (2003): 357-380.

Pasi, Marco, “Varieties of Magical Experience: Aleister Crowley’s Views on Occult Practice”. Magic, Ritual, & Witchcraft 6.2 (2011): 123-162.

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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. Great review, thanks.

  2. Reblogged this on Gideon Jagged.

  3. Excellent article, a pleasure to read. I agree that the problem is not psychologisation per se but a particular kind of it, in which the entire magical realm is shifted into the psyche. However it is perfectly possible to accept that Deity X represents an archetype of a particular quality- let’s say courage- within the psyche, but also refers to a general principle of ‘courage’ that exists across times and cultures. This model can survive a range of approaches regarding the conceptualisation (beliefs) and means of attempting to interact (ritual practice) with Deity X. It comes down to: what is the relationship between the forces that operate at the interface between the subjective realm of the psyche and their equivalents in the universe at large? (I call this interface the Shoreline).

    One occultist, on learning of my interest in Jung, said Jung had tried to ‘take the magic out of magic’. But this is a complete misreading of Jung- see for example his ideas on synchronicity.

    Part of the problem may be the word ‘magic’ itself. The word fires our imaginations, because we intuitively sense it refers to something real, beyond our inadequate consensus concepts of reality. But it also suggests something outside of nature itself (the natural vs supernatural argument you allude to), and thus risks condemning itself to the status of a fairytale or fantasy. I don’t know of a better word, though, I admit. http://thehauntedshoreline.wordpress.com/

    • Thanks for the interesting comment. The position you draw uo based on Jung sounds like a form of “panentheism”, which uses the psychological aspect to account for immanence only. Would you agree?

      • I’ll give a cautious yes to that. Note the caution though.

  4. […] of the angel conversations in Western ritual magic. In particular, it makes a contribution to the ongoing discussion about the relation between ritual magic and modernity, about the struggle for legitimacy, about reinterpretations of magic in the face of a […]

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