A fresh take on “magic” on the Societas Magica blog


Bodies, brains, magic, culture.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s new uses.

Some time ago I mentioned that Societas Magica were going to launch a blog. Well, that happened soon after, and I did not pay attention. So, quite overdue, here is the link to this new and valuable addition to the esoteric-et-cetera blog community.

So far there is only one post, but it is also a very good one that sets a high standard: “Ritual Magic and Conjured Bodies: A Philosophy and Methodology” by Damon Lycourinos. I was impressed with Damon’s paper at ESSWE4, on the use of Merleau-Ponty and embodiment theory in the analysis of contemporary ritual magical practice. In his first blog post at Societas Magica, Damon continues this exploration and offers, I think, some very valuable and stimulating reflections on how to theorise magical practice.

In particular, I couldn’t agree more with his complaint that talk about the body and embodiment in “postmodern” theorising has in fact not taken the body seriously at all – and that this could be remedied by returning to the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty:

“…the study of body, and especially within the human sciences, is closely related to the postmodern rhetoric of the fragmentation of meaning,which can be interpreted as reflecting a yearning desire to establish a centre of meaning and play. Many postmodern thinkers have unjustly neglected the French phenomenologist’s interest in the ‘lived body’ by developing Mary Douglas’ concern with the body as socio-cognitive representation of reality. The tendency to favour a socio-political construction is clearly echoed in the works of Michel Foucault where the body is inscribed both hegemonically by the self and by external relationships in accordance with the power relations of a given society within a specific historical period. However, such postmodern concerns offer no positive proposal and only fall victim to their own endless repetitive patterns of deconstruction fuelled by a suspicion of all cultural formations.”

The “body” is merely a passive screen for cultural inscriptions; by contrast, with Merleau-Ponty “the body can be interpreted as the precondition for experience, and also in a pre-cognitive manner” (my emphases).

With fear of derailing or hijacking the discussion, I think these points are valuable in light of a more general (meta)theoretical debate on the relation between “constructionist” approaches (in a veeery broad sense, sorry) on the one hand, and “naturalistic” and embodiment approaches on the other. This has been raging for quite some time in the humanities, of course, but in the past half decade or so it has especially resurfaced in the study of religion. Part as a controversy around the place of the “cognitive science of religion” vs. discursive and constructionist approaches, part as an attempt to revive better ways of doing phenomenology and discussing “experience”.(*)

I’m getting increasingly convinced that phenomenology belongs within a broader naturalistic approach, which includes the cognitive sciences of religion and offers the theoretical constraints and boundaries for other approaches (e.g. forms of social constructionism and discourse theory). These are thoughts I still have to probe deeper and yet have to formulate in a coherent way. Damon’s blog-article on embodiment and theories of “magic” remind me that I have a couple of unfinished articles in this area to get back to. It also opens what promises to be a very engaging academic blog.

(*) Some crucial monographs in this connection are Edward Slingerland, What Science Offer the Humanities (2008);  Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered (2009);  Manuel Vásquez, More Than Belief (2011).
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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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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The embodied approach is well established in cognitive science, psychology and AI research. It is basically the main alternative to the cognitivist paradigm which is mainstream. There are many flavours to embodiment in cogsci. Most of them however do not care much about about phenomenology and related philosophical issues such as consciousness, free will etc. (Some even claim that people do not have representations or intetions at all.) With these folks Merleau-Ponty is held only as a historical reference…

    I agree with you that embodiment is a part of a more general issue and I can only reiterate that it would be interesting to make a connection between study of esotericism and cogsci, which would fall along the lines of naturalistic approach you suggested. I have to admit that I’m not very impressed by cogsci of religion (e.g. the writings of dennett, atran, boyer and most of the stuff posted on Tom Rees’ epiphenom). It’s not clear to me that the cogsci approach really brings some progress. Sometimes it only looks like they provide new language but present theories and results that are similarly hazy and unreliable as the results and theories constructivists considered before them. I think Esotericism and the study of myth and ritual in particular are areas where the cognitive approach could make a difference, since these kinds of spiritual practices are more constrained by the cognitive processes that people share, compared to the more general religious ideas and practices. In fact I think, Esotericism could lead the way for religous studies and in fact all humanities in showing how sciences and humanties can fruitfully interact. How about that? 🙂

    • Excellent comment Matus, just saw it now. I agree wholeheartedly with the last statement. And a spoiler for upcoming posts: you will likely see a lot more discussion of these issues here in the near future. 😉

      As to the status of cogsci of religion (CSR): I would not count Dennett in that crowd; see for example the wholly negative response to Breaking the Spell in the review symposium in MTSR in 2010. Armin Geertz, whom I would consider a much better spokesperson of CSR, entitled his review of Dennett “How Not to Do the Cognitive Science of Religion Today”, seeing it as a great disservice to this emerging field. Should be noted, though, that he (and others) see the neuroscience-oriented “neurotheology” of Andrew Newberg et al. as equally misguided and detrimental.

      There are many competing strands of research in this area, with “religion” having remained up for grabs as a research field for quite different cognitive, neuroscience, and psychological approaches.

      As to embodiment, cogsci, consciousness: you do also have people like Antonio Damasio, Shaun Gallagher etc., and the whole “neurophenomenology” springing out of Francesco Varela et al. as well. Some of this has been linked up directly with the “religion” problem, but perhaps not as systematically or as critically as it could (yet). E.g., people like Sam Harris sometimes refers to this literature, and meshes it with neurotheology to arrive at his own brand of atheist spirituality.

      • Cool, I’m looking forward to future posts. And thanks for references, I will look them up. Maybe when it comes to cogsci of religion I have been reading the wrong stuff.

        I know Varela and Damasio and there are other non-embodiment authors in the consciousness literature like Ramachandran and Sue Blakemore who wrote on religion and spirituality. As I see it the topic of consciousness and especially the neuro approach to it is very sexy but there has been little progress since the mid-nineties when the consciousness hype started. So I don’t think there will come anything interesting from this direction.

        I do have a rough idea what would be a promising approach (that is from my point of view of a cogsci researcher), though it would take some explaining and I would have to look up some references. I may do that when I have more time…

    • I agree Matus.

      Interesting that the ASE conference next year at Colgate is addressing praxis. As I see it, the nub of the dilemma for any pragmatic academic approach to esoteric studies, is to reconcile public scholarly discourse with private empirical narrative. In short, to find the most effective strategy for elucidating a coherent paradigm encompassing the notion of “education for initiation.”

      As a late academic starter and mature student in my sixties, I began PhD research in 2005/6 at Cardiff, but after supervision hiccoughs due to various complicated set-backs beyond my control, and financial demands beyond my budget, I am now pursuing this task ~ at least for the time being ~ independently.

      I had arrived at the realization that what I was beginning to produce, was an exploration of what I subsequently chose to characterize as “cognitive esotericism.” As I am not yet aware of any comparable formal studies extant, I found your remarks interesting and relevant therefore.

      I am concentrating on the work of A.C. and the influence of William James on Crowley, and many others whose work I also believe to be deeply resonant but not directly acknowledged by him, because their contributions are subsequent to his time, and do not directly even allude to Thelema.

      Since I have gone much further into this, the greater and more evident loom the implications of its necessary scope. The scale of such an omniverous inter-disciplinary intellectual endeavour is therefore quite daunting, so I really welcome your timely recognition of the possibilities inherent to such an approach.

  2. Sounds excellent! I look forward to future exchanges with you on this and related topics. As for CSR, Boyer and Atran are certainly still relevant, but I would point to Geertz, Lawson & McCauley, Harvey Whitehouse (interesting anthropological stuff focusing on memory), Justin Barrett (experimentally refining Boyer’s work), and Ann Taves (working to translate across culture, cognition and psychology) as being closer to what’s going on right now. In addition, there’s much work building on e.g. Stewart Guthrie (anthropomorphism), Dan Sperber (epidemiology of representations), Lakoff & Johnson (metaphors), and Fauconnier & Turner (conceptual blending). These latter tend to be used for theorising ritual action, magic, etc.

    Agree with you re. the neurohype. However, it will be interesting to see what happens now with the new generation of mapping projects (thinking of the Human Brain Project now being launched, and similar “Big Neuroscience” endeavours starting up in Russia and China).

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