Further thoughts on the psychologizing of magic

Posted on September 12, 2011
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I’m really hard on Crowley sometimes. Actually make that all the time. Readers of this blog know by now that I have an avid dislike for his legacy. One of the things I come down hard on him is in regards to the psychologizing of magic. In the radio show I did on Friday, I commented on that in regards to his treatment of the Goetia. One of my listeners took the time to write a response and I really appreciated the critique in the spirit it was offered in:

While it is true that Crowley said “the demons of the Goetia are parts of the brain” and thus the psychologizing of magick can be traced at least as far back as him, but I think it is a mistake to assert that this is the only way he saw them. He also endorsed the preaterhuman existance of Aiwaz, Abuldiz, the Wizard of Almalantra and others. It’s ok if you have a real issue with Crowley (welcome to the club!), but I have a real issue with your misrepresentation of the facts! You might be able to trace the psychologizing of our Art to some of his remarks but it was people after him that contributed most to this trend. All in all, though, I liked your talk and I must agree with you: Sprits Are Real! (I also like Lon Milo Duquette’s “It is all in your head–you just don’t know how big your head really is!”)

This is a fair critique. Crowley isn’t wholly responsible for the psychologizing of magic. Yes, I really wrote that. I actually will admit that I was a bit unfair to him (I bet some of you never thought you’d see this day). But (and you knew there was one of those), his effect on occult thought and theory is substantial enough that it doesn’t take him off the hook entirely. A lot of contemporary occult theory is based off his ideas, so when he made that remark about the Goetia, for better or for worse, he did promote the psychologizing of magic (and IMO, it was for the worse). And unfortunately what I’ve noted is that people don’t focus on his alternate perspectives about spirits nearly as much as they focus on that remark about the Goetia (I’m guilty of this).

With that said, this trend of thought and theory about magic has been around for a while and has had other people advocate for it. We see it in chaos magic, most notably, but I’ve also seen it espoused in ceremonial magic as well. It’s something which a lot of contemporary magicians draw on as a way of explaining how magic works.

I don’t care for the psychological model of magic. While I recognize that psychology has some useful concepts that can be drawn on, I’m leery of assigning magic as a psychological phenomenon that’s all in your head. The reason magic is labeled in this way comes down a valuation of empirical methods of knowing and experiencing the world over other ways of knowing and experiencing the world. While I won’t deny that magic is a subjective experience, I don’t think it makes magic inferior or that it makes me a superstitious loon that I believe in the objective existence of spirits.

By the same token I realize that for some people the psychologizing of magic is how they best understand and explore it within their lives. I can respect that, but I don’t agree with it, just as they don’t agree with me.

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