What’s missing from academic inquiries into magic

Posted on March 15, 2011
Filed Under academia, Magic | 7 Comments

I’m currently reading A Cognitive Theory of Magic (affiliate link) by Jesper Sorenson and the Anthropology of Magic (affiliate link) by Susan Greenwood. So far, they are fascinating reads, but in looking over their bibliography I find myself annoyed because in their effort to comment on magic the only sources they have pulled from are academic sources, and they have not even done a complete survey of that body of literature. But most importantly they have not also drawn on what occultists actually have to say about magic.

Greenwood, being an actual practitioner, has no real excuse for not doing this, but Sorenson also doesn’t have an excuse because he hasn’t even drawn on contemporary academic examinations of magic. Actually neither of them have, instead drawing on the academic work of scholars from the early to  late twentieth century. Certainly it’s good they are drawing on those sources, but both authors have done something I see occur in a lot of academic work on magic, namely limited themselves in drawing on very specific sources, while ignoring others. It’s an academic tactic I’m familiar from my own days in the institution and paradoxically there’s also this cry to be “rigorous” and thorough in drawing on available sources.

However even looking at the academic works of people who practice magic, we see more of a focus on pagan academic studies than occult or esoteric studies. And while that is still a good development, the pagan focus as it pertains to magic is more of a religious approach and less of a practical approach.

The aforementioned authors are focused on discussing the practical application of magic and where it fits into civilization, or lack thereof, but there’s always this curious lack of inquiry into the actual occult texts that are available. I’ve seen it in other academic texts as well. There’s lots of commentary on what other academics had to say about magic, but little to no commentary on what occultists might have to say on the subject. To claim authority in defining magic there necessarily needs to be familiarity with the entire field of study, which means drawing on a wide variety of sources that aren’t academic, but also involves doing a thorough reading of the available academic literature. I’d like to see more of that kind of rigor in academic works on magic.


The Retrograder
The Retrograder

Wow! I didn't even realize that there was an academic body of work out there on the study of magic. Looks like I have some reading to do...

There's a ton of work out there. If you have a copy of Multi-Media Magic by myself look at the bibilography. A good number of the sources are academic. Joshua mentions some names in his response to you, but I'd add Hutton, Greenwood, Hale, and others. It also depends on what direction you want to go in.

Joshua Madara
Joshua Madara

TR, you can find many academic papers about magic in various journals of anthropology, psychology, and semiotics.

There is a large body of work that is historical or journalistic -- Richard Cavendish, Erik Davis, Nevill Drury, Dave Evans, Michael Howard, and Colin Wilson all come immediately to mind.

As does Eliade's stuff. Catherine Bell and Victor Turner. Murry Hope's The Psychology of Ritual. Douglas Cowan's Cyberhenge. Usw.

Joshua Madara
Joshua Madara

I partially agree with you. I dislike that the anthropology of magic in "the West" largely overlooks that magic is very much alive and well, growing and evolving in our own back yard, and that today's practitioners of the occult might have something useful to contribute.

Part of the problem is the closed loop of academia, but that is also what academia is for, to give us a perspective from within that circle. Sørensen could investigate Conceptual Blending in the context of practices and narratives of contemporary occultists, but he needs to be able to compare (really, contrast) his observations with those of others from the academy, which is easier to do when comparing apples to apples. If you compare Anthropologist A's observations of Subject X with Anthropologist B's observations of Subject Y, then you also need to demonstrate that X is like Y such that you can compare A's and B's observations together on a level field. So there is a tendency for multiple anthropologists to refer to X and leave Y out of it.

Also, what occultists have to say about magic is neither rigorous nor scientific from the academy's perspective (it would first need to be demonstrated as such), so it is not on equal footing with what academics have to say about magic. The two remain distinct domains of discourse.

I am interested to know what you think of Sørensen's book. It seems to me that it may have some relevance to the stuff you have been doing re space and time.


Hi Joshua,

You make some good points here. There is a closed loop in academia, and those kind of referential points are easier to handle, but Anthropology is social science, not hard science, and there attempts to apply the scientific method have always been based in a desire to be a "legitimate" science. What I find refreshing about Greenwood's work is that she acknowledges that and points out the potential flaws in adhering to such a closed system. I'd also argue that there are at least a couple occult authors who have done their best to apply such standards to their work. Peter Carroll and Isaac Bonewits are a couple who come to mind and I've also done some work in that direction. Of course, I benefited from being in academia for a while and that definitely contributes to my writings.

But you are correct that there are two distinct domains of discourse. I'd just like to see to an academic actually examine the occult discourse as well as the academic discourse. I did that in Multi-Media Magic, but from more of an occult angle.

I've read chapter one of sorenson's work at this point. It's definitely intriguing and I'll let you know what I think of it.

Joshua Madara
Joshua Madara

"The hard sciences are successful because they deal with the soft problems; the soft sciences are struggling because they deal with the hard problems." -- Heinz von Foerster

I have a review of Carroll's Octavo coming up in the Spring issue of Witches & Pagans, in which I point to some problems with the book as a scientific text (no disrespect to Carroll; I love his work). Bonewits did a little better. I have not read Greenwood although The Nature of Magic has been on my list for quite some time.

The solution may be to get more occultists contributing to academic literature (which means training more occultists to be academics -- or academics to be occultists!). We also need to legitimize reflection and reflexivity, and allow for observers to (meta-)observe their own observations, interpreting them in rigorous contexts if desired. Usually this is roped off into philosophy. Without data-driven scholarship, it is likely to remain there.


I think you'll like her work. I found it informative and found her openness to be refreshing. There are some academic journals...pomegranate and the Academic Journal for the study of the occult come to mind, so there's definitely a possibility of contributing to such journals and I know they welcome scholarly work done by non-academic occultists. Part of it comes down to mastering the discourse, but I think you're right about philosophy vs data in this context.