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
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


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.


Jason Josephson Storm

While short and focused on just one chapter, this review does have a number of insights… but I’m afraid it doesn’t do a very good job of summarizing my argument about Weber for those who haven’t read the book. I hope I can be forgiven for adding some additional clarification here.

In brief, the argument of Chapter 10 is that many nonspecialists understand disenchantment as a poetical synonym for secularization or rationalization; and even most Weber scholars take the phrase “the disenchantment of the world” (Die Entzauberung der Welt) at face value and assume that a disenchanted world has absolutely no magic in it. 

But the counter evidence can be found in two places:

1. Textual. Largely overlooked sections of Max Weber’s own writings. For example, his statement “Magic, for example, has been just as systematically ‘rationalized’ as physics” (Weber 1922, 488). Elsewhere, Weber literally discussed the “systematic rationalization of magic” and he had a number of similar statements, which I discuss in a close reading in the chapter.

2. Biographical. Ascona is only the smallest piece of evidence for where Weber was personally involved in mystical societies, and I use it illustratively as a chapter opening. If that were indeed the only evidence of Weber’s engagement with esotericism, I agree that as evidence it would be fairly weak. (I also never suggested that he had any personal involvement in the Hermetic Brotherhood; I don’t know where the reviewer is getting that from). Instead, based on archival work, I show that Weber was intimately connected to a group known as the Munich Cosmic Circle. He exchanged writing with members of the group and met in person with several members (including Stefan George who inspired Weber’s theory of charisma) and even cited them in a couple of places. Moreover, as I show, Weber read a text that he knew described the group’s philosophical justification of magic. Members of the Circle also read Weber and themselves used his language of disenchantment.

A better summary of some of this evidence can be found here.

I also show that several of Weber’s friends and family suggested that Weber flirted with self-identification as a mystic, and his letters back this up insofar as he at least expressed a desire to attain mystical experiences for himself. 

What I take this all to mean is that Weber knew that many of his contemporaries believed in magic, that he did not advocate a classical account of secularization theory, and that he did not think rationalization and magic were necessarily opposed (which will come as a suprise to many Weber scholars). Nor can Weberian disenchantment be read as a synonym for the death of magic. 

Instead I argue that Weber’s disenchantment as a characterization of popular mentality, had four levels: 

1. Metaphysical realism (the belief that the world is and does not represent) 

2. Ontological homogeneity (the belief that there are no truly extramundane objects or people)
3. Ethical predeterminism (the belief that God has already decided each individual’s soteriological fate) or value nihilism (the excision of value from the world of fact)
4. Epistemic overconfidence (the belief that everything can be known by means of intellectualization/theoretical rationality)

Finally, I conclude that chapter as follows: “We understand Weber better if we read him as also theorizing the persistence of magic into modernity. What Weber envisioned can be further clarified on basic philological grounds. Entzauberung in German signals something that is in process. One of the most straightforward implications of this chapter would be to translate Weber’s famous phrase not as ‘the disenchantment of the world’ but instead as ‘the disenchanting of the world.’ ‘Disenchantment’ suggests an accomplished state of affairs. But what Weber has in mind is not just a process, but also a program. All he’s doing is identifying that this program is in place, not that it is completed. For there to be an active, ongoing disenchanting of the world, magic has to be intact—somewhere, among some groups. There must therefore be pockets, entire regions, groups or classes where magic remains. If anything, disenchanting the world might seem destined to produce a ‘magic sphere’ with a new host of professionals, subject to its own internal rationalization process.”

Also, I should add that the book is not solely about Weber. It engages a range of theorists and my central engagement is with Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment

Thank you for the review. I hope readers find this additional clarification useful. 


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