Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Magic, Participation and Causality


Peter Paul Rubens, The Head of Medusa, 1618.

A defining essential characteristic of magic that must identified when studying it and may yield further research possibilities, is magic’s capability to adapt and transform itself under the impact of unfavourable worldviews, and finally seek ways and references to legitimise the theory and practice of magic. However, despite these attempts on behalf of magical practitioners, I concur at times that in regards to the persistence of the reality of magic within contextual arenas of performance and legitimation under the auspicious gaze of unfavourable worldviews, such as the those pertaining to secularisation in the modern world, “practices and strategies of legitimation does not even begin to address the question why contemporary people would wish to practice occultist magic in the first place.”[1] In response to this Hanegraaff relates to an adaptation and updating in some respects of Lévy-Brühl’s concept of ‘participation’, endeavouring to present the essence of magic as being natural for it to survive a process of disenchantment.

The defining feature and effect of ‘participation’ is summarised by Tambiah,

Participation… signified the association between persons and things in primitive thought to the point of identity and consubstantiality. What western thought would think to be logically distinct aspects of reality, the primitive may fuse into one mystic unity… This sense of participation is not merely a (metaphorical) representation for it implies a physical and mystical union.[2]

The nature of participation seems to resist attempts of rationalisation, with Lévy-Brühl emphasising the ‘primitive mind’ remaining indifferent to intervening mechanisms and modern culture embracing the notion of causality. However, drawing upon the inconsistency of such as divide, Evans-Pritchard wrote that “it is not so much a question of primitive versus civilised mentality as the relation of two types of thought to each other in any society, whether primitive or civilised, a problem of levels of thought and experience.”[3] Following from this Evans-Pritchard concludes that we fail to rationally grasp participation as it remains aloof to precise intellectual reflection, and rightly emphasised that the crucial point is that,

Primitive man does not, for example, perceive a shadow and apply to it the doctrine of his society, according to which it is one of his souls. When he is conscious of his shadow he is aware of his soul… In the same way, a primitive man does not perceive a leopard and believe that it is his totem-brother. What he perceives is his totem-brother.[4]

Despite the avoidance of intellectualist perceptions within paradigms of participation, Hanegraaff argues that participation still requires a more radical non-intellectualist interpretation, with participation being recognised as “a spontaneous tendency of the human mind. As such, it is an immediate and irreducible datum of human experience, which neither permits nor requires further explanation but has to be noted simply as fact.”[5] Recognising how scholars, such as Tambiah,[6] have placed ‘participation’ against ‘causality’ as two defining orientations to the religious worldviews, one can identify that instrumental causality does not necessarily have to be in opposition to participation if one can recognise that it must primarily be distinguished from the ideological character of instrumental causality as a field of discourse established as the dominant symbolic system in Western society, and which can be described as the endeavour of establishing a complete worldview based upon a set of theories claiming exclusive truth and sufficiency with respect to all dimensions of reality. Hence, instrumental causality, like participation, must be construed as “a spontaneous tendency of the human mind: the tendency to suspect things that happen in the world to be the result of material causation, and to explain events in this manner.”[7]




[1] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’, in Religion, 33: 4, 2003, page 371.
[2] Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality, 1990, page 86.
[3] E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion, 1965, page 91.
[4] E. E, Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion, 1965, pages 107-108.
[5] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’, in Religion, 33: 4, 2003, page 374.
[6] See Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality, 1990, pages 105-110.
[7] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’, in Religion, 33: 4, 2003, page 375.

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