Is Philosophy For Enchantment or Disenchantment or…?

“One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means.”

Those are the words of Max Weber (from a lecture he gave in 1919, the year before he died), quoted in a post by Charlie Huenemann (Utah State) at his blog, Huenemanniac. The post is a version of an address he delivered at the Mountain-Plains Philosophy Conference, and takes up the “disenchantment” of the modern world and philosophy’s role in regards to it.

Seems like a good topic for a day dedicated to re-enchanting the world with fantastical play and portraying the scarily supernatural, no?

Here’s how Huenemann frames his inquiry in the post:

Scientists who go ahead and believe that there is a supernatural order, or supernatural values, will have to pay for this extravagance with an intellectual sacrifice, according to Weber: they will have to kill off their scientific presupposition that the world is disenchanted. If they do not disown this presupposition—if intellectuals want to have the world both ways, both enchanted and disenchanted, they will be living a lie…

Is philosophy in the same boat as science, as Weber saw it—meaning that philosophy, thoroughly applied, is an engine for thorough and complete disenchantment? Or can philosophy provide some sort of grounding for value, which Weber thought was not possible? Or, going in the opposite direction: should philosophy possibly be in the business of providing enchantment, and thereby providing overarching values?

He discusses this initially in the context of early modern philosophy (“Each philosopher had, on the one hand, a no-nonsense basis from which to launch explanations, and, on the other, the wild bouquet of experience that needed to be explained, and the two never met up very well; and magic rushed in to fill the gaps…”) and then turns to contemporary philosophy, particularly the work of Daniel Dennett and Peter Sloterdijk.

First up is Dennett’s program of disenchantment:

[A] way to characterize Dennett’s philosophy is that he is trying to deprive philosophy of any domain of inquiry that belongs specifically to it, as opposed to science. This is the main reason, I think, that many professional philosophers don’t like Dennett: he cedes all of philosophy’s domain to the natural and social sciences, and philosophers are left doing the clean-up work of explaining exactly how traditional philosophical problems are either answered or dissolved through naturalized inquiry… The basic outlook is that, if it isn’t science, then it is something to be explained through a weakness in human psychology (and so in that way it turns out to be science after all). As Dennett insists, there never is any magic.

This might sound like a criticism of Dennett—but in fact I think that his enthusiasm for debunking (what I call his “dansplaining”) grows from deep philosophical roots going back to Thales and Socrates. There is a long, long tradition of philosophers not getting on well with religionists and poets, faulting them for giving in to magical thinking and for not subjecting their beliefs or their utterances to rigorous cross-examination. No philosopher likes being accused of magical thinking; any philosopher accused of it will deny the charge and restore their credibility by insisting that the natural domain, in their view, just has more stuff in it than someone like Dennett believes there to be. In this, they assert themselves to be naturalists, and not supernaturalists. Harkening back to Weber, we can say that, to a philosopher, intellectual integrity is everything, and no one is willing to make the sort of intellectual sacrifice Weber thinks has to be made if one wants to be both enchanted and a scientist. Dennett’s philosophy, and the dialectic between him and his critics, shows that there is a powerful drive in philosophy toward disenchantment.

But… magic always finds a way to creep back in…. [W]e might well ask in what way Dennett’s project is compromised. I believe the compromise is made at the very foundation, in Dennett’s scientism. While Dennett cheerfully deconstructs the belief systems of qualia freaks and other fantasists, he shows no interest in deconstructing science (and philosophy) as a human institution, subject to cultural, economic, and political pressures. He’s not interested in disenchanting our faith in science, and instead accords it an epistemic privilege rather like the privilege the astrologist extends to the stars…

To pretend that the world of philosophy (and science) is insulated from a broader context of historical conditions… is magical thinking of a very advanced degree. Science is a human endeavor, after all, and as Kant observed, from the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made.

What I am claiming here is that Dennett might be located at the “disenchanting” end of the spectrum, but even he does not go as far as he might. He retains scientific inquiry as a kind of skyhook for his dansplanations, and does not press into the ways in which natural science might be historically naturalized. Furthermore, I suppose someone who took this additional step might also have to go even further, and inquire into the ways in which historians themselves are subject to political, professional, and cultural pressures. One one sets of down the path of disenchantment, one will find no natural resting place: it is critique all the way down, so to speak, with every alleged “view from nowhere” being relocated as a view from an identifiable time and place, politics and class…

So, to sum up, I am arguing (or really only gesturing toward an argument) that philosophy, when thoroughly pursued in a familiar, Dennett-esque fashion—that is, in a Weberian scientific fashion—ends in disenchantment, and retaining any confidence in our values would require the sort of intellectual sacrifice Weber described.

Huenemann then turns to Sloterdijk’s program of philosophy as a way “to provide some sort of enchantment which might give human beings a kind of direction and purpose after having traveled down the long, descending road of disenchantment.” He continues:

Dennett sees enchantment as a disease to quarantine and eradicate; Sloterdijk sees it as a sort of medicine which, when intelligently applied, can save us from the despair of our own self-knowledge. For Sloterdijk, philosophy ought to be in the business of generating some form of enchantment, for the disenchanted life is not worth living…

The two philosophical approaches also differ fundamentally in what sort of discipline they conceive philosophy to be. For Dennett, student of Quine, philosophy rides piggy-back on science, and the presuppositions it carries are the same as those of science. For Sloterdijk, philosophy is a profoundly humanistic affair, drawing upon history and literature as well as art and architecture in its assessment of where we are and where we should be going.

Just as we saw that, in the case of Dennett, there is something to be said for seeing philosophy as driving toward disenchantment—for most philosophers do not wish to be accused of magical thinking—we must also admit that there is something to Sloterdijk’s vision as well. In its most widespread and popular sense, philosophy presents an encompassing vision through which individuals can not only make sense of the world, but can also find some place for meaningful endeavor. Plato’s form of the good, Aristotle’s account of virtue, Descartes’s Catholicism, Spinoza’s single-substance doctrine, and Kant’s noumenal world are integral parts of their attempts to retain some sort of enchantment in the world. Even Dennett’s expression of wonder over the workings of nature—the delight he finds in his own dansplanations—is a low-octane form of enchantment, and it provides the foundation for what he regards as a human life worth living.

Are these instances in which philosophy has failed in its job to shake off all enchantments? Or are they instances where philosophy has successfully done its job, generating the enchantment we need in order to live with ourselves? 

I encourage you to read the whole thing, as my excerpting left out quite a bit (including many helpful examples).

Art: modified image from The Flying Books of Morris Lessmore by William Joyce and Joe Bluhm

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6 years ago

as folks like Isabelle Stenger’s (writing on science) and Andy Clark (writing about neurophenomenology) have noted all human doings (including thinking) are done in/for our interests, prefigure our umwelten for our purposes and passions, we are not unified in what enchants us as one sees in figures like Dennett and Sloterdijk.

Maja Sidzinska
Maja Sidzinska
6 years ago

Huenemann’s talk was probably the best philosophy talk I’ve ever heard. Hats off, Dr. Huenemann.

6 years ago

Today a definition of philosophy could be Words—Do words, their evolution, like everything (technicalization–intellectualization) eventually become subjects then objects for observation…Are words of enchantment an actual
value for one’s life…

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

How exactly are we defining “enchantment” and “disenchantment”? It seems hard to evaluate the argument without that.

6 years ago
6 years ago

The idea that we have to choose between scientism and belief in magic strikes me as an obvious false dichotomy, and one that scientism itself helps to create. If you think that the only legitimate modes of inquiry are those used in the natural sciences, then perhaps acceptance of anything non-reducible will look like belief in magic. But as far as I can tell there is no good reason to accept the antecedent of that conditional, and lots of good reasons to reject it (for instance, the fact, which Heunemann hints at, that natural science can’t justify its own methods and endeavors.)

If you do reject that idea, then it’s not hard at all to think of things that fall between the horns of the dichotomy. For example, it seems very unlikely to me that textual meaning is reducible to the natural sciences, but certainly it’s not magical thinking to suppose that Crime and Punishment means something.

6 years ago

First, I’m not sure that Dan Dennett is really the grand disenchanter he is portrayed as being above. I think this portrait is basically correct with respect to his work on consciousness and religion, but not other areas.

Dennett may somewhat deflate, but does not thoroughly disenchant or eliminate traditional conceptions of morals, responsibility, and free-will. If the view we take of ourselves from within the manifest image is by and large an enchanted one, Dennett actually tries to preserve what he believes are important aspects of that self-conception from total disenchantment.

Doesn’t simply denying the existence of moral facts, moral responsibility, and free-will have an even more disenchanting effect than saying they really exist but not exactly in the way we pre-scientifically thought?

In addition, Dennett coined the phrase “greedy reductionism”. Quite a bit of reduction is fine, but it should be adequate to the phenomena to be reduced. He has also defended an interesting form of anti-reductionism in the philosophy of science– at length in his classic paper “Real Patterns”. So he’s certainly not an arch-reductionist either.

Strict atoms-and-the-void style materialists such as Alex Rosenberg live up to the grand disenchanter and arch-reductionist images a bit better.

I’m all for the truth. A propositon’s enchantment and disenchantment properties are just a bonus. Disenchantment can be sad, but sometimes it’s pretty fun.