Posts Tagged ‘disenchantment’

November 24th, 2014

The Devil: A New Biography

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A great deal of ink was spilled in the medieval and early modern period on the nature of demonic copulation. Could demons engage in sodomy and other “perverted” sexual practices with human beings? No, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) opined, because demons retained a residue of their original angelic nature, which prevented them from engaging in sexual acts against nature. Why was sex with demons so pleasurable for women? Because, the philosopher Francesco Pico Della Mirandola (1470-1533) suggested, their “virile members were uncommonly large … and stimulate something very deep inside the witches” (104). The jurist Pierre de Lancre (1553-1631), who had interrogated a number of accused women during the witch hunts he conducted in Bordeaux, disagreed: Satanic sex was not pleasurable, he wrote, because the Devil’s organ was covered in scales that tightened and pinched the skin during intercourse.

October 21st, 2014

Conference: Toward a Critique of Secular Reason?

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On December 10-11, 2014, the Institute of Philosophy (KU Leuven) will host the international conference Towards a Critique of Secular Reason? in Leuven, Belgium.

December 20th, 2013

Modernity, enchantment, and Fictionalism

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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.”

July 16th, 2013

Secularism and the invention of American evangelicalism

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Few books in the field of American religious history has received more attention over the few years than John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America.

March 4th, 2013

Confused parchments, infinite socialities

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Ambivalence, avoidance, hedging, delay—these are but some of my responses to Michael Warner’s richly rendered provocation and response to my book Secularism in Antebellum America.

Indeed, was antebellum America secular?

To answer his title question definitively, yes or no, is to commit oneself to a vision of the present in which religion recedes into oblivion, or flowers, or does battle with its secular other. Definitive answers, moreover, serve a politics of normativity for they help determine the ideas, objects, and persons to be jettisoned, not to mention what views of the world become authoritative, which moral feelings count, and which ones become unaccounted for and forgotten.

Warner engages crucial work on secularity even as he considers the dissolution of the entrenched differential of the religious and the secular. Consequently, Warner’s essay is also incitement for a renewed interrogation of the history of the difference between the religious and the secular and how that difference makes a difference in the lives of individuals—no less for historical actors than for the scholars who study them.

January 7th, 2011

Disenchantment and the mind-dependence of the moral

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At the core of contemporary secularism is the denial of the existence of deities and the supernatural. There is only the natural, as described by our best sciences. This ‘disenchantment’ of the world seems to leave no place for value, and this exclusion of value from the world is, Akeel Bilgrami argues in his essay “What is Enchantment?” one of the central and damning failures of contemporary secularism.

How does secularism crowd values out of our picture of the world?  If we accept a secularist metaphysics, then a necessary condition for the existence of values is that they can be accommodated by our best sciences. But our best sciences do not seem to have any room for values. Values make demands on human beings as actors—for instance, we ought to pursue the good, we ought to avoid the bad, and so on—but science describes no such free-standing “oughts.”

September 14th, 2010

The sun shone fiercely through the window at Starbucks (Part II)

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Soon after reading Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I turned to Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals. It is a work of elegant inquiry and provocative precision—not only because Bender refuses to locate her subjects in a progressive history of flowering individualism, that old saw about the evolution of liberal cosmopolitanism, but because, in adopting an approach that reminded me of Brown’s reading of Marx, Bender’s portrait of new-age-Cambridge refuses Taylor’s narrative frame. Rather, Bender’s cast of characters offers critical perspective on what might be called the nova effect of arguments in the grain of Taylor. I am struck by the inadvertent but eerie parodic quality of scenes depicting homeopathic healers, yoga practitioners, past-life regressioners, shamanic drummers and bankers, energy intuitives, and lecturers in esoteric astrology. Indeed, these characters, at least on my reading, become strange reflections of Taylor’s existential élan and sober tone of explanation. They become, in other words, down-market versions of Taylor’s magisterial aspirations.

September 9th, 2010

The sun shone fiercely through the window at Starbucks (Part I)

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Let us recognize, from the outset, the delicious perversity of inviting comments upon comments about the comments about Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, itself a commentary, magisterial in scope, about the inability of Anglo-Europeans to end a certain cycle of commentary about themselves, their religion, and their humanity. Nevertheless, of the many thoughtful responses and salvos found in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I was most struck by Wendy Brown’s pointed and potentially devastating piece on the shortcomings of Taylor’s “odd historical materialism.”

Taylor’s sense of the material world is not unrelated to his not always implicit commitment to (or perhaps nostalgia for) the ideals of a self that flourishes, unfolds, and, at the end of the day, can be sufficiently liberated from history so as to be able to take the measure of itself—in concert, of course, with others, as they liberate themselves sufficiently from those very same forces.

September 6th, 2010

Understanding disenchantment

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Jane Bennett’s sympathetic yet critical commentary on my essay “What is Enchantment?” (published in the volume Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age) describes the notion of disenchantment that I present as primarily addressing the theological displacements that emerged with the rise of the new science. Her own work, she says, offers a quite different focus, one of a mood or affect that “circulates between human bodies and the animal, vegetable, and mineral forces they encounter.”

I don’t doubt that this interesting focus is quite different from mine, though I think it would be wrong to represent my view as being focused on the theological. In my analysis, the theological had only a central genealogical role to play in the process of “disenchantment.”

August 18th, 2010

On the call from outside

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In Akeel Bilgrami’s contribution to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, “enchantment” refers to the historical belief that God or his divine expression is accessible to the everyday world of “matter and nature and human community and perception.” Correspondingly, “disenchantment” refers to that shift in perspective (encouraged by early modern science and its mechanistic model of nature) by which God was exiled from nature.  Bilgrami’s ultimate aim is to “reenchant” the secular age by affirming the “callings” of a world laden with “value elements.” I will say more below about this interesting notion of a call from outside and its role in ethics; let me point out now that the processes of “enchantment” and “disenchantment” are for Bilgrami, as for Charles Taylor, essentially shifts in theological orientation, different views of the relationship between God and nature.

June 14th, 2010

Quantum sociology and The New Metaphysicals

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At first glance, Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals might appear narrow and idiosyncratic. After all, it’s an ethnography of spiritual practitioners in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a pairing of the sacred and the secular that can seem as incongruous as Buddhists at boxing matches. What do astral voyagers, shamanistic drummers, and OBEs (Out of Body Experiencers, not to be confused with the equally rarefied Order of the British Empire) have to do with a progressive community anchored by such bastions of rational knowledge as Harvard and MIT?

September 2nd, 2008

Buffered and porous selves

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A Secular AgeAlmost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed. […]

November 21st, 2007

Deus absconditus and disenchantment

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secular_age.jpgCharles Taylor’s A Secular Age is an inspired yet rigorously argued Wagnerian effort to analyze the distinctive anxieties of modern intellectual and social life, by one of the most important and interesting philosophers of the last five decades. I will pick up one strand that illustrates Taylor’s central themes of religion and secularity and the conceptual and historical continuities and discontinuities between them: the process of so-called ‘disenchantment’ that is supposed to mark our modernity […]