The Problem with Disenchantment

Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900-1939

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Egil Asprem
SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , June
     646 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is praiseworthy that State University of New York (SUNY) made Egil Asprem’s study available in a paperback reprint. Based on the author’s doctoral thesis of 2013, The Problem with Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900-1939 was originally published in 2014 in Brill’s Numen Book Series. Since then, it has received considerable attention from both scholars of Western esotericism and those interested in the modern relationship between science, religion, and disenchantment. 

The study departs from Max Weber’s famous disenchantment thesis. According to his historical claim, processes of intellectualization and rationalization, together with the growing potential of science to explain and calculate the forces of the natural world without resorting to the supernatural or magical, increasingly demystify the world. Asprem demonstrates that if one examines the development of the relationship between the sciences and religious fields in the first four decades of the 20th century, things become more complicated. Taking the concept of “disenchantment” as a “problem”—in the sense of “Problemgeschichte”/ “problem history”—he asks how actors framed it differently within the emerging sciences, within the academic discourse on religion, and especially in the field of Western esotericism. Throughout the book, Asprem emphasizes how the concept of disenchantment as a homogenous and unchallenged paradigm obscures the standpoint of actors who were seeking to combine the scientific ethos of controlled experimentation with a kind of “religious naturalism” (Ann Taves) or “open-ended naturalism” (Asprem). Such perspectives were open to integrative views that combined biological life, physical forces, chemical structures, and human experiences deemed religious.

Chapter 1 begins with a presentation of Weber’s disenchantment theory. Unfortunately, for readers interested in global history, the study limits itself to the West (though not indicated in the title), which, given the growing awareness for interdependent processes in global modernity, seems in need of at least a small justification considering that: the “polytheism of worldviews” was an effect strengthened by globalization; and the question surrounding the scope and form of disenchantment in non-Western societies of the early 20th century is equally important. Chapter 2 outlines the characteristics of science as a worldview. Part 1 introduces valuable distinctions between forms of naturalism and argues that protagonists of the disenchantment thesis often ignore median positions within the naturalism-supernaturalism continuum, which become theoretical “blind spots.” Part 2 moves on to discuss developments in modern physics (the theory of relativity, quantum physics, radioactivity) and biology (embryology and the question of vitalism, mendelism, behaviorism), demonstrating how interpretations of these scientific innovations were synchronous with the emergence of “natural theologies” such as a panentheistic theology advocating—in line with the author’s own concept of “open-ended naturalism”—the existence of an immanent component of the “supernatural” (76-77; 283). 

Part 3 visits the “laboratories of enchantment,”—psychical research and parapsychology—which became established as a research paradigm at universities. Some protagonists engaged parapsychology as an attempt to conduct “enchanted science.” However, Asprem notes that these efforts failed to establish parapsychology as a progressive science. Part 4 discusses esotericism in its relation to the problem of disenchantment. According to Asprem, post-enlightenment forms of esotericism, such as Theosophy, were less engaged with “gnosis” than with pushing the boundaries of perceiving and experiencing higher domains. Here, Asprem observes that early Theosophists created problems for future Theosophists by aligning their psychical research with paradigms of mainstream sciences later discarded—such as ether theory, or chemical elements that were subsequently redefined by mainstream science. Equally enlightening is Asprem’s comparison of Rudolf Steiner’s and Aleister Crowley’s engagement with the emerging sciences, which highlights the different cultural backgrounds of these attempts: Steiner’s program to attain higher knowledge, an ineffable gnosis, must be situated within the tradition of romanticism and its philosophical anti-Kantianism (533), while Crowley’s endeavor should be regarded as vigorously “experimental” (523-525), resulting in a Scientific Illuminism that capitalized on controllable methods and techniques. 

In the conclusion, Asprem summarizes and contextualizes his results. Clearly, esotericism reacted with various, often conflicting responses to the “problem of disenchantment”: the enchanted continuation of views and practices predicated on occult powers, the pursuit of higher knowledge, and the assumption of intermediate beings—the latter being an important factor. In the final section, Asprem refers to insights of the cognitive science of religion regarding the “theologically incorrect” folk-religious assumptions broadly held today. These are seen as parallel to earlier spiritualist and occult convictions. 

Without doubt, the study—almost encyclopedic in scope, and at the same time replete with new insights—provides an extraordinary contribution to the clarification of the intricate interrelation of esotericism and science in the early 20th century. However, there are a few minor points in which the study could have been more conclusive. First, major trends in Western theology (beyond the more idiosyncratic approaches of “natural theology”) are rarely mentioned and even less often discussed, although they were influential frames of the religion/science interface (e.g., critical approaches to the Bible, liberal and ecumenical theology). Second, while the study explicitly declares the inclusion of ethics (540) and the “value sphere” of religion, it largely leaves ethical aspects of disenchantment untouched, including the Weberian view of “value-free” science. For example Weber observed that the “ethics of intention/conscience” favored in many religious traditions was progressively replaced by an “ethics of responsibility,” in line with the ideal of secular politics in a democratic society. Obviously, this change is relevant for the “problem of disenchantment.” Finally, the concept of “open-ended naturalism” as an operative, analytical category could have been made clearer. As a category it serves to denote an attitude shared by psychical researchers, occultists, and parapsychologists who sought to overcome the boundary between “natural” and “supernatural” by declaring (some) objects of esoteric knowledge to be empirically observable—in other words, to negotiate religion and nature in immanentist perspectives (9-10, 77-8, 299-302; 433). Even though the study demonstrates that actors expressed an attitude of “open access to the absolute” (Wouter Hanegraaff), it is less obvious whether the underlying category of “naturalism” (in “open-ended naturalism”) is appropriate. The reader may wonder if the term “naturalism” is fitting to define an etic category of analysis, given it is at the same time an essential element of emic discourse. What does “empirical” knowledge of the “supernatural” mean if not that the supernatural will be transformed into nature that can be observed? How is it possible to escape the dialectics that emic protagonists of open-ended naturalism may transform the yet unknown into “nature,” and thereby undermine their own “open-endedness”? A solution could be to describe “open-ended naturalism” as merely the cognitive disposition to be open for the supernatural; this, however, seems to transgress the definition of naturalism. Defined in this way, open-ended naturalism turns into an epistemological meta-theory of a unity of nature and non-nature. But these are only follow-up questions inspired by the richness of the study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jens Schlieter is Professor of the Systematic Study of Religion at the University of Bern.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Egil Asprem is Associate Professor of History of Religions at the Department of Ethnology, History of Religions, and Gender Studies, Stockholm University, and the author of Arguing with AngelsEnochian Magic and Modern Occulture, also published by SUNY Press.


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