Magically Speaking

In this Aeon article about “legendary comics author Alan Moore” (whose legend and existence had escaped my notice until now), Moore explains his decision to become, and call himself, a magician:

“The more I think about it, the more absolutist I get,” he says. “I believe exactly that art and magic – specifically writing, but art in general, and magic – are almost completely interchangeable. They share the same terminology, they match up in nearly every respect.”

So why call himself a magician, I wonder, rather than a writer or an artist? He replies that magic is the broader and earlier notion: “It includes all the other things, and it has other connotations as well.” A fair definition of magic, he says, might be “engaging with the phenomena of consciousness. All modern linguists and consciousness theorists seem to agree that we have to have the word for a thing before we can conceptualise it. The first magical act was the act of representation – just saying ‘this means that’.”

Forgive me for burying the lede, but that last sentence neatly sums Durkheim’s argument, in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Swain translation at pp. 237-39), that magical thinking is the evolutionary root of all thinking:

It is true that [magico-religious thought] is disconcerting for us. Yet we must be careful not to depreciate it: howsoever crude it may appear to us, it has been an aid of the greatest importance in the intellectual evolution of humanity. In fact, it is through [magic-religion] that the first explanation of the world has been made possible.

Of course the mental habits it implies prevented men from seeing reality as their senses show it to them; but as the senses show it, [experienced reality] has the grave inconvenience of allowing of no explanation. For to explain is to attach things to each other and to establish relations between them which make them appear to us as functions of each other and as vibrating sympathetically according to an internal law founded in their nature.

The great service that [magic and religion] have rendered to thought is that they have constructed a first representation of what these relations of kinship between things may be. In the circumstances under which it was attempted, the [magico-religious] enterprise could obviously attain only precarious results.

The essential thing was not to leave the mind enslaved to visible appearances, but to teach it to dominate them and [symbolically] to connect what the senses separated; for from the moment when men have an idea that there are internal connections between things, science and philosophy become possible. [Magic] opened up the way for them.

By this reasoning, which Robin Horton calls the Continuity Thesis (i.e., magico-religious thinking is structurally and functionally similar to scientific thinking), we are all talking magicians.


Did you like this? Share it:

4 thoughts on “Magically Speaking

  1. Dominik Lukes

    “it has been an aid of the greatest importance in the intellectual evolution of humanity. In fact, it is through [magic-religion] that the first explanation of the world has been made possible”

    Thanks for choosing that. But it is only partially correct. The same principles that underpin magical thinking (ie analogic or metaphoric reasoning and rich framing) are still at work in science at even the hardest end of the spectrum. Just look at mathematical proof, the model of the atom based on the solar system, conceiving of light as a wave or gravity as disrruption of plane, law of nature, or (ehm) evolution by natural selection. I wrote about it at some length (quite densely, I now realize) here:

  2. Chris Kavanagh

    Nice parallels, you might actually enjoy some of Alan Moore’s comic’s Chris. His work is pleasantly satirical and lampoons both modern society/history and comic book tropes.

  3. franscouwenbergh

    Much work, this post about magic-religion, the reading of the interview of Tim Martin with the old hippy Alan Moore and his semi-esoteric and not really science-based ideas. And then the critic of Dominik Lukes on the Durkheim thesis that magical thinking is on the evolutionary root of all thinking.
    A lioness would not be able to hunt without thinking. Het thinking is in physically hunting, not in magical hunting, I suppose. And our early ancestors had to become humans from ape-men before they could think magically.

    What made our ape-men ancestors so special?
    Most linguists speculations tantamount to representations, to ‘labels’ or ‘denotations’, ‘for dealing things that exist’. Dominik Lukes speculates about a “tiny ontology”.
    My speculation is more concrete. Some 4 mya in one ape-men group somewhere in the Afar region of today’s Ethiopia the girls play came into vogue of imitating what a girl had in her mind by chance and what she eagerly wanted to communicate with her friends. We became ‘the symbolic species’, so Terence Deacon speculated in 1997, and this could have been the beginning.
    It was a nice play, and the older women liked too and so it became a special culture of this ape-men tribe. Our earliest ancestors. Because what was so special in this gestural imitations of things? It were ‘names’ for the things’. OK, what is so special on disposing of ‘names for the things’? Ever more ‘names’ for evermore ‘things’ have a strange effect on animals. In the end their whole world (natural environment) consisted of named things, and they arrived in (mentally) living in a ‘word world’ – and we still live in it.

  4. Chris Tolworthy

    > All modern linguists and consciousness theorists seem to agree that we have to have the word for a thing before we can conceptualise it.

    As someone on the autism spectrum I have trouble accepting this. Most of the concepts that drive my life have no words: or rather, I struggle to find words and they are never sufficient. And as franscouwenbergh says, an animal must surely need to conceptulise its prey.

    As for Alan Moore, I’m not a fan of his comics, with the exception of early Future Shocks, and it is easy to dismiss him as a pseudoscientific paranoid has-been, but that doesn’t matter: I find him one of the most likable and interesting people on the planet and never tire of his opinions.

Leave a Reply