The Philosophy of Reenchantment

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Michiel Meijer, Herbert De Vriese
  • New York: 
    , October
     284 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There was a time when people explained diseases and droughts as the actions of immaterial beings. The individual incapacitated by a fever or the village losing its crops must have done something to anger a god. But as people increasingly developed the ability to explain these events in terms of material realities like germs and climate, and were increasingly able to predict and influence them, explanations in terms of immaterial entities became less and less plausible. The dominant modern worldview does without “spooky” or “queer” entities not grasped by the natural sciences. As Max Weber famously said, modern people live in a “disenchanted” world.

The problem, according to the authors in The Philosophy of Reenchantment, is that the natural sciences exclude not only the supernatural. Being beautiful, morally right, or worthy of reverence are also properties that cannot be explained in the lab, and so a disenchanted world lacks aesthetic, moral, or religious entities. The essays in this focused volume offer a uniformly rich and insightful discussion of how, without contradicting any science, one could recognize value as a feature of things in the world and not simply as a projection of the perceiver. The goal of this movement is to escape “the Weberian theoretical clutches” (55).

The book organizes its essays into three parts. The first explores the line between theistic and nontheistic versions of reenchantment. In a focused interview with editor Michiel Meijer, Charles Taylor argues that an ontology that takes the methods of the natural sciences as the ultimate way to understand the world does not do justice to our experience of things as value-laden (ch. 1). Seeing John McDowell and Akeel Bilgrami as secular allies, Taylor calls for a moral ontology or even a theistic metaphysics that includes the objectivity of worth. John Cottingham argues that giving due weight to the objective reality of goodness in the world and its effect on us can lead to religious participation without superstition or magic, religious participation that includes the discovery of and responsiveness to a world “charged with the grandeur of God” (ch. 2).

In contrast, Akeel Bilgrami argues for a secular enchantment in which value properties are features of the world not reducible to one’s desires or other mental states (ch. 3). Importantly, Bilgrami endorses a naturalism that is not identical to what the natural sciences deliver, which means that the opposition to naturalism by Taylor and Cunningham does not apply to his approach. It remains to be seen whether the three approaches can be brought together in a non-supernatural position (cf. 31–32). A similar question remains about the nontheistic approaches to moral realism offered by Iris Murdoch and John McDowell, both of whom are used as reference points in several chapters.

The three essays in the second part of the book are genealogical. Guido Vanheeswijck identifies different senses of “disenchantment” in Weber’s thought, and tracks the debate about the term in the work of philosopher-historians Hans Blumenberg and Marcel Gauchet (ch. 4). Summarizing the critique of the idea by Hans Joas, Vanheeswijck raises the question whether “disenchantment” is a coherent concept. In response, Herbert De Vriese (ch. 5) grants that the term has multiple meanings, but defends it as an inclusive and unifying term that “embraces the attitudes to the modern world of both the Enlightenment and the Romanticism” (108). Reflecting on experiences of being disenchanted, disillusioned, or dispirited, Paolo Costa considers the popular secular metaphor, used by Weber, that a person might be religiously “tone-deaf” or “unmusical” (ch. 6). He contrasts this with an account of being resonant with the value-laden affordances in one’s environment.

The third part of the book is constructive. Sophie-Grace Chappell contrasts the value-free political subject described by John Rawls and the values-committed subject described by Alasdair MacIntyre and then provides an eloquent philosophy of direct perception as human animals learn socially to track values in the world (ch. 7). Fiona Ellis argues that rejecting a dualism of natural and supernatural eliminates the idea that, in addition to the other entities that make up the world, there is a God who interferes with the workings of nature, but it does not eliminate the idea of a transcendent or supernatural dimension of the natural world (ch. 8). Michiel Meijer analyzes the position called robust moral realism which, like reenchantment, holds that values are objective (ch. 9). But Meijer argues that that approach is flawed in that it “reifies” values, treating them as analogous to objects in the world, completely independent of one’s affective awareness and responsiveness. Meijer writes: “The question about the nature of value needs to be asked not in terms of moral judgement but of moral engagement” (205). Rob Campaijen argues that disenchantment is the result not of an ontological issue (seeing the meaningless world rightly) but rather an epistemic issue (taking a detached stance toward the world; ch. 10).

The central question therefore has to do with one’s mode of attention, and both detached and engaged modes can reveal values. David McPherson distinguishes between a disenchanted version of neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics (exemplified by Elizabeth Anscombe) that is “quasi-scientific” in that it takes a third-personal, disengaged perspective on human needs, and a reenchanted version he endorses that countenances the existence of “peculiar” and “mesmeric” forces that place moral demands on people (ch. 11). Though he does not argue for a religious position, he argues that some things in the world are reverence-worthy or sacred (240) and in that sense religious attitudes or mystical perceptions are warranted.

In an epilogue, Jane Bennett distinguishes her own new materialist position that recognizes the agency of material things—as she calls it here, “neo-animism” (262)—from Bilgrami’s secular reenchantment, stressing that human agency always includes nonhuman powers and that Bilgrami’s desired goal of harmony with the extra-human environment overlooks the inevitable disharmony and discomfort in the world. In his response, Bilgrami clarifies his account of agency and his metaphor that values in the world “call” to us. The result, as I read it, is that his notion of secular reenchantment and her new materialism complement and do not contradict each other. One can therefore combine Bennett’s focus on the political and Bilgrami’s focus on the moral to develop an even stronger alternative to the notion that the nonhuman world is simply mechanical.

Not a single essay in this collection fails to be clear and insightful. The notion of reenchantment is cousin to recent developments in philosophy, especially new materialisms, new realisms, moral perception, and the development of a liberal or expansive naturalism. All of these are relevant to the academic study of religions, and philosophers of religion in particular should henceforth engage not simply with “naturalism,” understood as scientistic and reductive, but with these developments, and in particular with the possibility of discussion of nature as enchanted.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Schilbrack is professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University.

Date of Review: 
October 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michiel Meijer is postdoctoral researcher of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Antwerp. He is the author of Charles Taylor’s Doctrine of Strong Evaluation (2017) and has published widely on subjects such as moral value, human agency, moral epistemology, moral ontology, moral phenomenology, and moral psychology in the fields of metaethics, normative ethics, and social theory.

Herbert De Vriese is assistant professor at the Center for European Philosophy of the University of Antwerp. His work focuses on secularization, critique of religion, and disenchantment in general, and the role of philosophical theory and critique in historical and sociological debates on (the end of) classical secularization theory, postsecularism, and classical narratives of disenchantment in particular.


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