Rethinking secularism:

Modernity, enchantment, and Fictionalism

posted by Michael Saler

The stern visage of Max Weber looms over discussions of modernity and enchantment, as does the sunnier countenance of Charles Taylor. Perhaps they should be joined by the open faced, bluntly spoken, and allegedly poker wielding Ludwig Wittgenstein. This choice might seem counter-intuitive. Wittgenstein did not write much about enchantment, and is more often considered a disenchanter who used the tools of philosophy to dispel illusions brought about by linguistic misuse. As he wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

Nevertheless, enchantment was central to Wittgenstein’s outlook on life. By enchantment he meant a sense of wonder regarding the world. He described wonder as his “experience par excellence…when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’ or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.’” Plato and Aristotle claimed that philosophy begins in wonder, and Wittgenstein’s famous last words—“Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”—suggests it ends there as well. His later philosophy aimed at re-enchanting the world by re-describing it in new and unexpected ways. In so doing, the world does not change—things remain as they are—but our fundamental orientation to the world changes: “We see, not change of aspect, but change of interpretation.” As a result, one becomes aware of how rich, contingent and variable the world is. As Wittgenstein stated in 1948, “life’s infinite variations are essential to our life.”

This “infinite” outlook is a secular form of transcendence that transports us beyond our finite selves and immediate needs. It awakens us to awe, possibility, difference, and a humble acceptance of the provisional nature of our understanding. Max Weber had famously defined the disenchanted modern world as stifling and deterministic, an “iron cage” of rationality. Wittgenstein’s later philosophy aimed to free us from this cage, or as he put it, “to show the fly out of the fly bottle.” It was meant to simultaneously disenchant and re-enchant the world.

Wittgenstein exemplified an attitude of “disenchanted enchantment,” one that is characteristic of modernity and is held by many, religious and secular alike. I’ll talk more about disenchanted enchantment momentarily, but Wittgenstein’s formulation of it is one reason he merits attention when we think about enchantment and modernity. A second reason is that he recognized that enchantment is an ambiguous term with multiple meanings. He asked, “How do I know that someone is enchanted? How does one learn the linguistic expression of enchantment? What does it connect up with?” This is important because many other influential writers on the subject did not acknowledge the varieties of enchantment that are available at any given time. Weber, for example, equated enchantment with a traditional, supernatural worldview, and disenchantment with a modern, rational outlook. For him, modernity and enchantment were not compatible. Wittgenstein might have brandished a poker at such a reductive notion, as he forthrightly challenged the commonplace assumption that modern science disenchanted the world. He criticized Sir James Frazer, who claimed in The Golden Bough that so-called primitive people expressed an animistic, enchanted outlook that the rational West had outgrown. Wittgenstein found this to be patronizing nonsense. Wonder, he wrote, “has nothing to do with [a people] being primitive.”

In the spirit of Wittgenstein, I’d like to look briefly at the language game of modern enchantment and disenchantment that we have inherited, and are currently in the process of revising. Following that, I’ll discuss “disenchanted enchantment,” and how it relates to the late nineteenth century outlook of “Fictionalism.” Disenchanted enchantment challenged the Weberian view that modern reason and enchantment were fundamentally opposed. It also rejected the view, famously expressed in Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, that modernity’s faith in reason was itself an irrational illusion—that modernity is inherently “enchanted” in the negative sense of being deluded. In both of these cases, enchantment was depicted as an irrational state of mind. The disenchanted enchantment of Wittgenstein and others, however, demonstrated that critical reason and imaginative wonder could co-exist and serve progressive ends.

There are at least two ways that we can understand the meanings of “enchantment” and “disenchantment.” We can define them as stages within a broader historical process, and we can define them as human affects. In terms of historical process, the narrative of Weber and others described the shift from a premodern, “enchanted” world governed by an overarching supernatural order, to the modern “disenchanted” world characterized by scientific naturalism. Scholars advanced different historical periods for the origins of this process, but their accounts of its outcome were similar. A recognizable discourse equating modernity with disenchantment emerged among the late eighteenth century romantics, was given added momentum by nineteenth century cultural pessimists, and apparent scientific legitimacy by twentieth century sociologists, philosophers, and political scientists. The constant iteration that modernity has foresworn enchantment for disenchantment made it a virtual orthodoxy in the West until very recently.

In terms of human affect, since the Middle Ages “enchantment” had two meanings in Western culture: enchantment as “delight” and enchantment as “delusion.” The pleasures of enchantment as delight could be so overpowering that one is placed under a spell—an “enchantment”—and becomes deluded. The remedy was to become disenchanted. But disenchantment, like enchantment, also had positive and negative meanings. A positive meaning of disenchantment is that of emancipation: one is freed from dangerous illusions. A negative meaning of disenchantment is that of disillusion, a hard-bitten refusal of ideals or any form of transcendence.

The problem with the historical discourse was that it became conflated with the affective discourse. It equated the historical shift to a disenchanted world with the affect of disenchantment as disillusion, the end of a sense of wonder. States of enchantment might be delightful, but they were also delusory and regressive, at best suitable for children and other irrational beings, such as women, the working classes, and non-Western peoples. The historical narrative of modernity and enchantment could have positive elements—this was true of Weber’s account—but fundamentally it was one of discontent and loss. This was certainly the case for Horkheimer and Adorno, and also I think for Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. For Taylor, secular individuals have developed “buffered selves” that are less “porous” to the transcendent. He suggests that they tend to lead “flattened” rather than full lives.

Thus, the received discourse of modernity and enchantment has not been a neutral story, but a normative one. Disenchantment stands for secularization, but also discontent. It was not simply an account of the disenchantment of the world; it was a confession of disenchantment with the world. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, the term “disenchantment” was often synonymous with “cultural pessimism,” an intellectual current associated with Arthur Schopenhauer and his followers. For example, Edgar Saltus’s 1885 book, The Philosophy of Disenchantment, was a history of contemporary cultural pessimism, not a history of secularism. When Weber’s entzauberung, or “removal of magic” was translated into the English “disenchantment,” it was imbued with the pre-existing undertones of cultural pessimism.

Not that Weber would have minded. He was a cultural pessimist, and while he tried to provide a balanced assessment of modernity, his account of disenchantment was as much concerned with the deficit of delight as it was with the shift from a religious to a secular worldview. According to Weber, modernity was distinguished by the narrow “instrumental rationality” favored by positivists and bureaucrats, which prized quantification and efficiency over meaning and morality. The modern world was mechanistic and predictable, denuded of mystery and wonder. Disenchantment, he wrote, “means that there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.”

Weber also noted that a disenchanted modernity lacked the unifying beliefs and purposes that had allegedly distinguished the premodern world. Modern individuals sought enchantment through the subjective domains of art and religion. For him, irrational enchantment played a compensatory if atavistic role within modernity. This was one reason he and many of his contemporaries (notably Horkheimer and Adorno) disliked mass culture: they believed it fostered delusive enchantments.

Weber’s account encapsulated the major components of the historical discourse of modernity and enchantment that existed from the late eighteenth through the late twentieth centuries. The historical process of disenchantment was not simply about the shift from a religious to a secular world. It was also about the impoverishment of human experience resulting from the dominance of instrumental rationality; the loss of overarching meanings and purposes; and the redefinition of enchantment from a state of delight to a state of delusion. The manifold nature of the discourse, its ability so speak to so many modern grievances, explains why it has exerted such a hold on the Western imagination. It was also a performative discourse, leading people to view the world in the dour descriptive terms it provided.

Nevertheless, contemporaries contested its exaggerated claims. This was especially true for the idea that the imagination, and states of enchantment more generally, were the irrational antitheses of modern rationality. Such a stark opposition between reason and the imagination had not been expressed during the Enlightenment, or among the early Romantics. It was advanced in the course of the nineteenth century by positivists, scientific naturalists, and certain aesthetes. In turn, it provoked a reaction by late nineteenth century psychologists, philosophers, and artists, who argued that reason and the imagination were complementary rather than antagonistic. As R.G. Collingwood insisted in a series of talks that were posthumously published as The Philosophy of Enchantment, “It is only in a society whose artistic life is healthy and vigorous that a scientific life can emerge.”

This more capacious understanding of the imagination as well as reason suggested that mass culture was not a cesspool of delusive enchantments. It could be a resource of specifically modern enchantments reconciling reason with imagination, providing an alternative to instrumental rationality. Sherlock Holmes exemplified this reconciliation, which he called “the scientific use of the imagination.” He became an iconic figure, and has remained one, precisely because he demonstrated how modernity could be re-enchanted in its own rational and secular terms: as he tells Watson, “The world is big enough for us. Ghosts need not apply.” In addition to the new genre of detective fiction, the new genre of science fiction also aimed at reuniting reason and imagination after their artificial sundering by scientific positivists. One writer explained in 1928 that science fiction “takes the basis of science, considers all the clues science has to offer, and then adds a new thing that is alien to science—imagination.” Similarly, J.R.R. Tolkien defended fantasy as “a rational not an irrational activity; the keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.”

As these examples indicate, by the late nineteenth century mass culture had become a locus of enchantment consonant with the rational and secular currents of modernity. It seems a slim response, however, to the weighty issues raised by the discourse of disenchantment. Yet this turn to the rational enchantments of mass culture was only one facet of a much larger response to the discourse of modern disenchantment: an outlook of “Fictionalism.” Fictionalism was coined by the philosopher Hans Vaihinger in his 1911 The Philosophy of ‘As If.’ He argued that the self-reflexive character of modernity resulted in traditional beliefs being replaced by provisional fictions, which provided practical guidance as well as spiritual enchantments. Vaihinger’s Fictionalism was a form of disenchanted enchantment, in which both belief and disbelief were held in suspension through the use of an “as if” perspective.

Vaihinger drew on Immanuel Kant and especially Friedrich Nietzsche for his ideas. Nietzsche was an early exponent of disenchanted enchantment. He believed that consciously held illusions were indispensible for human existence, insisting that “the most erroneous assumptions are precisely the most indispensable for us, and a negation of this fiction is…equivalent to the negation of life itself.” Unlike Weber, Nietzsche did not mourn the loss of shared beliefs that allegedly characterized the premodern world. For him, the modern turn to plural meanings and provisional perspectives was both liberating and a genuine source of enchantment in its own right. As he put it, “the world has become ‘infinite’ for us all over again, inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations.” This Fictionalist recovery of the infinite within the immanent was a secular form of transcendence that Wittgenstein also endorsed in his later philosophy. As he commented in 1948, “Life’s infinite variations are essential to our life.”

Fictionalism was expressed in numerous ways during and after the fin de siècle. There was of course Aestheticism, in which art no longer imitated life, but life art. There was also the process in which religious texts were redefined as morally improving works of literature. This began in the eighteenth century, but was given exemplary expression in Matthew Arnold’s 1873 Literature and Dogma. By the early twentieth century this move to recast religion as fiction had progressed to such an extent that devout Christians like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis tried to stem the tide by redefining all fiction as religious: writers, in their view, were sub-creators emulating the Creator. Other instances of turn-of-the-century Fictionalism include Georges Sorel’s call for the self-conscious creation of new myths for revolutionary purposes, and William James’s explorations of the pragmatic outcomes of the “will to believe.” The list only expands for the twentieth century, culminating in postmodernist thought.

While fictions continued to be used for delusory purposes, Fictionalism aimed at providing narrative enchantments that delighted without deluding: disenchanted enchantments. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century fictions were being entertained in a more ironic, self-reflexive, and autonomous fashion than they had been only a century earlier. Literary scholars have usefully identified new understandings of “fictionality” in the eighteenth century, a contributory current to late-nineteenth century Fictionalism. Nevertheless, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the middle classes remained highly ambivalent about fiction and the powers of the imagination. They feared that the delights of the imagination would incite dangerous desires, and consequently subordinated fiction to religious and utilitarian imperatives. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1817 statement that we experience poetic fantasy or enchantment through the “willing suspension of disbelief” reflected this restrictive attitude. The default outlook is one of disbelief, which can only be circumvented temporarily through a conscious act of will. This is a labor-intensive way to relax with a good book, which the early Victorians intended it to be. But their encumbrances to the free play of the imagination were gradually undone during the nineteenth century, for a variety of reasons. The end result was that imaginative play with imaginary worlds became more permissible for adults as well as children.

Among the contributing factors was a shift in definitions of selfhood, from the early Victorian ideal of a unitary self to a greater recognition that the self was multiple. For example, psychologists exploring the unconscious in the 1830s began to discuss the phenomenon of “double consciousness,” in which individuals self-reflexively entertained illusions while acknowledging them to be unreal. As one psychologist observed in 1844, individuals had “two distinct and perfect brains: One brain was… watching the other, and even interested and amused by its vagaries.”

There is nothing new in this double-consciousness: it’s an innate human aptitude, manifested by children at an early age. What was new was the wider cultural acceptance of it by the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Readers no longer approached fantasy through the willing suspension of disbelief. Instead, they willingly believed in them with the double-minded awareness that they were engaging in pretense. In short, by the later Victorian period we see the rise of what could be called an “ironic” imagination, through which adults were given permission to live in fantastic and real worlds simultaneously. This double-minded consciousness enabled people to be enchanted and disenchanted at the same time.

But isn’t this simply escapism? Yes, but Fictionalism wasn’t merely escapist. By the turn of the century psychologists and philosophers acknowledged that imaginary and real worlds were mutually constitutive, and that fictions enabled the revising of the real. Nor did Fictionalism imply absolute relativism or a rejection of normativity. Vaihinger, for example, distinguished fictions, which were acknowledged to be false, from scientific theories, which did have claims to truth.

Normativity could also emerge through the consensus of interpretive communities devoted to fictional works and worlds. These communities, which I’ve called “public spheres of the imagination,” blossomed in the late nineteenth century, alongside the growing acceptance of fiction as autonomous from Victorian religious and ethical precepts. Readers communally imagined fictional characters and worlds by discussing them in the letters pages of fiction magazines, or by forming clubs, issuing magazines, and organizing conventions devoted to them. In such public spheres, debates about imaginary worlds and characters frequently elided into productive discussions of their real world analogues. Essentialist interpretations were often challenged, to be replaced by more nuanced understandings. In addition, these public spheres countered the anomie of modernity with elective fellowship.

Fictionalism, then, redressed many of the discontents advanced by the discourse of disenchantment. The ironic imagination generated both wonder and meaning, while remaining rational. Its exercise could appeal to the religious as well as the secular. Normativity was not lost, nor was community. In fact, the Internet has become an enormous repository of imaginary worlds and of public spheres of the imagination devoted to them, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to online computer games. Like religious communities, these secular communities devoted to fictional worlds promote fellowship and guidance, and are frequently sustained by their own rites and rituals. But unlike the traditional enchantments of religion, Fictionalism fosters awareness of narratives as provisional and contingent, rather than as essentialist. It provides forms of enchantment that delight without deluding.

Let me conclude by summarizing my main points. Enchantment and disenchantment are ambiguous terms and have been used in diverse ways, notably to describe historical processes and human affects. Too often we use them without defining what we mean. This was the case for the dominant discourse of modernity and enchantment that we have inherited. It conflated disenchantment as historical process with disenchantment as disillusioned affect; it was a cry of cultural despair masquerading as impartial social science. It became pervasive by the end of the nineteenth century, but at this time it was challenged by a variety of specifically modern enchantments. One of these was a turn to Fictionalism, assisted by the wider acceptance of the ironic imagination, a double-minded form of consciousness that enabled one to be enchanted and disenchanted simultaneously. Fictionalism itself suggests that the human imagination has become a major resource of modern enchantment, permitting the redescription of the immanent world in infinite ways. As a result, transcendence is preserved within a secular orientation. We also see an important shift from narratives demanding uncompromising belief to those that emphasize the contingent and provisional, an “as if” approach to the world. Rather than seeing the world in terms of the sacred and the profane, many now see it in terms of the fictional and the real, both of which are avenues to enchantment.

Perhaps this is why Ludwig Wittgenstein made an invidious comparison between the philosophy journal Mind and his favorite magazine, Detective Stories. As he wrote to a colleague, “If philosophy has anything to do with wisdom, there’s certainly not a grain of truth in Mind, and quite often a grain in the detective stories.”

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2 Responses to “Modernity, enchantment, and Fictionalism”

  1. avatar Vincent Pecora says:

    I very much enjoyed Michael Saler’s discussion of “fictionalism,” in part because it is a clear and cogent summary of a popular point of view right now, as a recent collection of essays by George Levine demonstrates (see: Realism, Ethics, and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science). On the one hand, Saler’s “fictionalism” differs little (as both Vaihinger and Levine suggest) from the Kantian sublime. Our “wonder” at the world, at the root of both Kantian sublimity and the human imagination that supposedly supersedes it, is precisely what “fictionalism” has to offer. On the other hand, it is finally hard to be much satisfied with this ironic approach as a replacement for religion unless one is willing to fool oneself in a most debasing manner. As both Marcel Mauss and Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out in responding to Georges Bataille’s 1930s version of “als ob” or ironic religiosity, what you largely end up with is a fantasy island of sacred space that has been created by those who are always already in on the joke. In the end, no matter how much one hops around proclaiming one’s ironic enchantment, no one (not even you) will really take it seriously. This is, of course, a completely dessicated form of “belief” in which one is reduced to the viewers of the movie “Big.” Tom Hanks might be fooled by the enchanted world into which he has been transported, and we might enjoy seeing Tom Hanks fooled. But none of us is also fooled, nor could we be. You can say that that is our enlightened salvation; fine. But what you can’t do is pretend that we also have the ability to forget completely that we are not the enchanted Tom Hanks in “Big.” It just won’t work.

  2. avatar Matt Kofler says:

    I feel like the definition of Enchantment used in this essay is too narrow, and as such the proposed response to Disenchantment is thin and insufficient. Enchantment is more than just “delight,” or “a feeling of delight”; it is (to me, anyway) a fundamental compatibility, and thus union, between Reality (God & Nature) and Personality (human consciousness, subjectivity, language, moral impulse, etc). The modern scientific world is Disenchanted in so far as it divorces the subjective and personal (humans and our various endeavors) from the objective and scientific (reality, minus God), creating a deep sense of alienation and homelessness in modern man. The proposed response to Disenchantment fails because it cannot bridge the immeasurable gap now present between subjectivity and reality; it can only re-brand it as “irony” or “double-minded consciousness,” both of which signify a detachment from both reality and the self. Imaginative attempts at re-enchantment similarly fail because imagination is no longer a participation in reality but the creation of a separate reality into which a person escapes. We see in the creation of imaginary worlds and their associated communities an attempt by people to find a home, which they have been denied in reality, but which they long for nonetheless.

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