Review symposium on “The Problem of Disenchantment”

The Journal of Religion in Europe has just published a review symposium on my book, The Problem of Disenchantment (2014). I’m excited to say that it contains critical reflections from three world-class scholars of religion, along with my own response. Hans Kippenberg, a well-known expert on Weberian approaches to the history of religion, evaluates some of the book’s claims in light of a broader reading of Weber’s oeuvre. Willem Drees, one of the leading figures in the “religion and science” field, takes a closer look at some of the points I made about the new natural theologies that emerged in the early twentieth century – specifically their relation to esotericism and “heterodoxy”. Finally, Ann Taves, a leading American scholar of religion working with (among other things) the cognitive science of religion and the notion of experience, continues a discussion that she and I have been having over the past few years regarding the perception, explanation and interpretation of “events” (for more on this, check out our forthcomming co-authored target article in Religion, Brain, & Behavior) . If you’ve got access, go ahead and read them!

While you are at it, you may also be interested in checking out my response, which I called  “The Disenchantment of Problems: Musings on a Cognitive Turn in Intellectual History” (non-final version uploaded here, and added to my Academia page for easy access).


Max Weber Prize for “The Problem of Disenchantment”

Prof. Hans Kippenberg delivering his laudatio.

Prof. Hans Kippenberg delivering his laudatio.

On December 1, I was awarded the Max-Weber-Preis für Nachwuchsforschung from the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt for The Problem of Disenchantment. It was given in absentia, but upon receiving the manuscript of Prof. Hans Kippenberg’s laudatio, I was pleased to see that finally someone picked up on my namesake from the sagas, a certain “wayward Icelandic seafarer”. Kippenberg’s concluding words:

Es ist eine herausragende Arbeit eines Nachwuchswissenschaftlers in dem Feld zwischen Religionswissenschaft und Naturwissenschaft, ist bezogen auf Webers Forschungsprogramm, interdisziplinär angelegt und mit historischer Tiefe und langem Atem, wie man ihn von einem Seefahrer erwarten darf.

I guess Egil Skallagrimsson was actually more of a farmer than a sailor (incidentally that fits better with my own family background, too), but perhaps our shared warrior-poet mentality and ruthless brutality make the link stick nevertheless.

In any case, this is now the fourth prize for The Problem of Disenchantment, and perhaps the one that means the most to me. With Weber towering over the work for so long, and the book arguing for some serious revisions to Weberian approaches, it does mean a lot to get the recognition of an institution that, so to speak, carries Weber’s “routinized authority” in the present day.


A cult leader in the (royal) family

Astarte Inspiration bannerWorking as a historian of religion/esotericism/”pseudoscience” one often has to deconstruct misleading and sensational tabloid headlines. They could look a bit like the title of this post. Sensationalistic appeal notwithstanding, this time around I assure that the title is entirely appropriate and accurate for the topic.

There are several people that this title could have referred to – one might think of Prince Charles, or perhaps the Dutch Princess Irene, whose abilities to communicate with trees and dolphins bring her closer to the cultic fringe of the environmentalist movement. But as most Norwegian readers may have guessed, it refers to a princess closer to home.


The Problem of Disenchantment – invitation to a PhD defence

Problem of DIsenchantment cover

Last autumn I completed my PhD dissertation, and now it’s time to defend it. The defence is public, and will take place on February 5, 2013, at 12:00 in the Agnietenkapel of the University of Amsterdam. The event is open to anyone (with a max. capacity of 90 people), and I will give a short public lecture on the topic of my research prior to defending it in front of the committee.

While I have given hints about my research in a number of posts here at Heterodoxology, I am now happy to present an official abstract of the final product – the dissertation itself:


Blind Spots of Disenchantment (3/3)

The third and last part of my paper on the “Blind Spots of Disenchantment” focuses on the somewhat neglected concept of Weber’s 1918 “Wissenschaft als Beruf” paper: “the intellectual sacrifice”. It looks particularly at the Scottish Gifford Lectures’ attempt to promote a new “natural theology”, and suggests that this whole attempt defies Weber’s emphasis that science and religion are being/ought to be kept apart in a disenchanted modern world. It also includes the complete bibliography for all three parts.


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 (1/3)

Max Weber (1864-1920)

The way things have turned out, the content of my PhD dissertation will revolve around a concept which Max Weber somewhat unsystematically formulated almost 100 years ago: the disenchantment of the world. Disenchantment has usually been described as a socio-cultural process, driven by rationalisation and intellectualisation processes which Weber traced back to the invention of monotheism, and the development of monotheistic theology. It has been embraced by sociologists and historians of religion in particular, who have seen in it (as did Weber) certain consequences for the condition of religion, magic, and their relation to intellectual life (and particularly science) in the modern world. My dissertation is increasingly becoming a criticism of the concept of disenchantment, and an exploration of a more nuanced approach to it as it relates to interfaces between religion, science, and that vast unsystematic and poorly defined set of “the occult”, “esoteric”, and “magical”. In April I had two opportunities to discuss these ideas in workshop settings, first with a commentary from the social historian of knowledge Peter Burke, and later in a research workshop for cultural history PhDs in the Netherlands called the Barchem symposium. In this post, and in two following installments, I will share the text of my lecture(s), intended to give an overview of my general approach, illustrated with snapshots of relevant cases from early 20th century history of science and culture. This first post discusses, historicises and criticises Weber’s concept of disenchantment in what is a brief theoretical introduction proposing that we take a different approach to it. Part two will concern the place of this revised notion in early 20th century scientific discourses, particularly in their broader cultural reception and context. The third part discusses briefly the attempt to create a “new natural theology” in this period.


Peter Burke, the social history of knowledge, and “agnotology” – notes on a lecture

It’s been a busy spring so far, and unfortunately not much time for keeping this blog running. In an attempt to get started again I will give a brief report on Professor Peter Burke’s visit to Amsterdam last week, and particularly one lecture (out of two) he gave on that occasion.