The Myth of Disenchantment

Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences

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Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , May
     2017.
     400 pages.
     $32.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780226403366.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This title is also being reviewed in JAAR by Michael Heyes.

The titular disenchantment in Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment refers to some of the phenomena most characteristic of modernity: “the rise of instrumental reason, the gradual alienation of humanity from nature, and the production of a bureaucratic and technological life world stripped of mystery and wonder” (4). Max Weber is one of the main characters in discussions of disenchantment, having first conceived of modernization as die Entzauberung der Welt, the “de-magic-ing” of the world, or, the process by which intellectuals came to take it for granted “that the contemporary, industrial, capitalist societies of Western Europe and North America have lost their magic, and that it is this absence that makes them modern” (4). In The Myth of Disenchantment, though, Josephson-Storm sets out to demonstrate that disenchanted modernity is “a hegemon that never achieved full mastery” by “exploring the haunting presence of magic in the very instances when disenchantment was itself being theorized,” as illustrated by the fact that a figure like Weber was “enmeshed in the occult milieu” (5-6). Josephson-Storm reconsiders the relationship between a number of theorists of modern disenchantment and magic, but, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on his treatment of Weber and the myths that have developed around his work, since he is usually recognized as the scholar who coined and popularized “disenchantment.” Josephson-Storm aims to frame Weber’s reputation as a purely disinterested sociologist, and the very notion that Weber referred to the modernizing phenomena listed above when using the phrase die Entzauberung der Welt, as myths that developed from receptions of Weber’s work rather than from within Weber’s life or work itself. 

To speak first to the question of the personal context of Weber’s writing: Josephson-Storm’s thorough research has revealed that Weber frequently vacationed at a commune in Ascona, Switzerland known as Monte Verita, which served as the headquarters of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light. In his 1917 constitution for this group (also known as the Ordo Templi Orientis), Theodor Reuss identified it as a “Modern School of Magic” (269). According to Josephson-Storm, Weber, famed though he may be for his theory of disenchantment, was quite enchanted with Ascona: in a 1914 letter, he called the commune there his “home” and regarded it as “a sort of oasis of purity” that contrasted sharply with the “‘human’ world based on superficial sensations” (277). 

For Josephson-Storm, the normal use of disenchantment “as a poetical synonym for secularization or modern rationalization,” and the assumption among Weber scholars “that a disenchanted world has absolutely no magic in it” misses the mark when compared to Weber’s work. As evidence for his argument to dissociate disenchantment from secularization, Josephson-Storm points out that, according to Weber, “the complete disenchantment of the world has only been carried out to its full conclusion” by Puritans, who are quite closely associated with superstition, given their responsibility for New England’s famous 17th-century witch trials (270-71). This suggests (1) that opposition to magic need not be accompanied by the withering away of religion in the public sphere; and (2) that the rejection of magic need not entail the denial of its efficacy (after all, why hunt witches if you don’t believe in their magic?). According to Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the disenchantment that Puritans enacted so thoroughly was theological and ethical rather than descriptive or scientific. They did not deny the efficacy of magical action upon the world or in social life, but instead denied that there was any “magical means of attaining the grace of God,” which is simply to say that they were logically consistent in their adherence to the Protestant notion that the individual believer could not be saved through individual action or ritual performance, but instead “that salvation is solely due to the sovereign grace of God” (281). Josephson-Storm goes on to note that the development of this denial into the idea that individuals’ conduct could not make an impact on cosmic affairs troubled Weber, who observed that the transformation of disenchantment into a “causal mechanism” leads “rational, empirical knowledge” into “tension with the demands of the ethical postulate” (283). Josephson-Storm continues by pointing out that Weber’s later work proposed mysticism as one of the few alternatives remaining “alongside the de-deified (entgotteten) mechanism of the world”; in this view of Weber’s oeuvre, “one can see him working toward a set of oppositions: on one side, the alienation produced by bureaucracy, routinization, intellectual hyper-specialization; and on the other side, the potentially (but not necessarily) redemptive charisma, mysticism, and authentic prophecy” (297). 

While edifying, Josephson-Storm’s new reading of Weber is not entirely convincing. His case that the theory of disenchantment reflected moral anxieties as much as it did sociological description for Weber himself is quite compelling. However, it is not clear from the evidence Josephson-Storm provides that Weber’s visits to the commune at Ascona informed his anxieties over secularization and disenchantment, or that those visits involved a practical or personal involvement in the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light’s teachings. This is not cause to reject Josephson-Storm’s thesis, but it does raise some questions about his guiding question: he asks how “a magical, spiritualist, mesmerized Europe” could “ever convince itself that it was disenchanted”, but feeling at home in a magical order’s retreat center is not the same thing as practicing magic. That being the case, we might ask: does Weber’s time at Ascona really mark him as a resident of “a magical, spiritualist, mesmerized Europe?” Independent of the uncertain relationship with Hermeticists, though, The Myth of Disenchantment still offers critical insights on Weber’s use of “disenchantment” by contextualizing it within Weber’s own work and personal writing rather than the use of the term by later social scientists and scholars of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Landau Ames received his doctorate from Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures in May 2018 and is Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at St. Francis College.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm is associate professor in and chair of the department of religion at Williams College. He is the author of The Invention of Religion in Japan, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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