Saturday, 6 January 2018

Philosophy & Magical Thinking

The philosopher R. G Collingwood took magic seriously as something that was inappropriately judged in scientific terms. It was best judged alongside art as a craft with ends in view that involved the arousing of emotion. He was deriving his notion of magic from the anthropology of his day but what he was trying to say in the round was that magical thinking and practice were not 'primitive'. It was just another way of seeing the world and engaging with it that was perfectly functional within its own cultural frame of reference. It is on emotion that he is most interesting:
" ... although magic arouses emotion, it does this in quite another way than amusement [which Collingwood associates with Art]. Emotions aroused by magical acts are not discharged by those acts. It is important for the practical life of the people concerned that this should not happen; and magical practices are magical precisely because they have been so designed that it shall not happen. The contrary is what happens: these emotions are focused and crystallized, consolidated into effective agents in practical life. The process is the exact opposite of a catharsis. There the emotion is discharged so that it shall not interfere with practical life; here it is canalized and directed upon practical life." [R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, Oxford, 1938, p.67]
This is interesting because we see this contrast all the time in observing people in their relations with significant others. We also note what happens when emotion is stunted and people are trapped in an addiction to emotional states (the weekly marital argument, the addiction to the state of love, anger at the same thing every time without moving forward).

High emotions seem best directed as either catharsis (an explosion that rewires the brain or moves a person on from one state to another) or channeled, within a context often ritualised in all but obvious name, in order to let the emotion change the world in which the person lives by permitting the conditions for action or change.

One model changes the person (or forces behavioural change on the target of the emotion which may, of course, be mere bullying) and the other transforms the social and cultural, possibly material (but the jury is out on that one) world in which the person has to survive. Both are evolutionarily honed on organism survival. The explosion of emotion forces change in the world in others or in oneself while the sublimation or channeling of emotions manipulates others or one's sub-conscious into desired outcomes.

From this perspective, magic (the channeling process) is as efficacious in its way as doing art, experiencing art or undertaking psychotherapy or religious practice and more effective than science in some contexts (changing the social and cultural conditions we live in) while less effective than science in others (changing the material conditions in which we live).

Science-based politics always fails because magic-based politics will always beat it in an open struggle for hearts and minds as much as magic-based construction will see buildings fall and planes drop out of the sky. Magic will certainly not allow a man to fly despite the claims of yogis and certainly not with the efficiency of modern technologists but it will allow him to cope with, manage or exploit the social and cultural changes created by a world in which people can fly by other means.

Collingwood is not advocating that magic is real insofar as some claim that it can change material reality - there is still no evidence for this and unlikely to be any evidence at any time soon. Magic is only real insofar as it affects psychological reality which is, in fact, the reality that most accords with the really lived lives of most people in the world. Most people use technology and take it for granted but few understand it. It may as well be magical for all the actual comprehension of the science behind it.

At the outer reaches of physics and cosmology, science goes so far beyond perceived reality that its reality looks a lot more magical (although ultimately based on logic, mathematics and observational experiments) than magic does to the mind who has not simply decided to 'believe' in science (a most reasonable belief but still, for most people, a matter of faith rather than knowledge).

Magical thinking is anti-thinking from the inside outwards, constructing reality from the self, the consciousness that is embedded in material reality and is capable of flying shaman-like at any time it wishes. This is opposed to scientific thinking which is reasoning of the outwards world undertaken inwardly.

Eventually scientific thinking ends up following its own logic into mysteries that bend reality and magical thinking ends up following its own logic into realities that bend if not materiality, then society and its workings on materiality.

Science gives us the tools but magic enables us to use the tools by triggering our emotional commitment to a purpose for which the tools have a use. The magical process is an operation on 'morale' - one's own and that of others as manipulation. It is why propaganda, PR and the totalitarian cultural forms of late capitalism are 'magical'.

It is also why magical operations can construct true selves (despite the post-modern nonsense that there are no selves because rational thinking says there are no selves) that flourish regardless of social norms, far more effectively that psychotherapy's attempt to adapt the individual to society and creating a working norm that is healthy within that framework.

The shaman is often indistinguishable from the modern psychopath but his context makes him different. Our 'normal' magical rituals often have a social context that removes their efficacy because the total system disrespects the mobilising power of emotion except as manipulation from above (which has incidentally 'conceptualised' and commercialised art, its sibling, out of existence).

When the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia can buy Da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' for $450m simply to establish his modernising credentials and shock his culture into compliance with a new ideology, then art is effectively dead and magical thinking rules.

Magical operations are all around us, operating every day in our lives. The late Marxist attempt to theorise rationally about these operations in nonsense terms such as 'objectification' and 'commodification' utterly misses the point that rational, political manipulation of emotional content must always result in a logical dark magic to maintain emotional balance. Populism's rise was inherent in the manipulations of late liberal capitalism and predictable.

Earlier Marxists would not have used this language but they would have understood the point better ... the decadence of Marxism as it got captured by the middle classes is one of the tragedies of our time. Early Marxists would have seen each magical operation in society as a thesis calling forth by its very nature its own antithesis. Successful magical operations incorporate their own antithesis into their workings to that synthesis is part of what the operation is intended to effect.

A true magician would have understood Newton's "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction" to be as applicable to his world as that of the physicist - a lesson not understood by the dark master magician Adolf Hitler and certainly not understood by contemporary pseudo-scientific materialists who take no account of a huge swathe of matter that is ignored because it cannot yet be weighed - the magical minds of men and women.

The human mind is essentially magical. Rationalist liberals hate this and want our minds to be scientific but, if they were, we would not then be human. Just as the fact of a rough 15% of the population (like me) being completely irreligious does not remove the fact of the species being, on balance, religious in its spiritual or communitarian senses (horrified as I am by what this means) so only a minority of humans are purely rational actors and there is no earthly reason why they should expect to rule over others who think in different and equally efficacious ways.

Indeed, just as the fanatically religious and the atheist, the asexual and the polyamorous, have more adjustment problems with social reality than the general majority of humanity, so the radical rationalism of futurist technologists and the lifestyle magicians are faced with the same near-outsider status. Fortunately, most people are sufficiently rational to have faith in science and sufficiently magical to run their own lives effectively in the world the scientists have made.

Anyone who wants to understand themselves and the world and to know how to manipulate the reality created by the rationalists has to learn to become a magician. This does not mean dressing up in a dark cloak and leaping naked on the Seal of Solomon shouting the names of 10,000 demons. That's just fun but probably a bit of a waste of time magically speaking.

It simply means isolating the will from the world and applying it to what you want rather than what other people have told you that you must want and then finding the techniques that tap into the enabling (usually emotional) sub-conscious, stripping away layers of social patterning in order to find out what is under there, how it can relate most effectively to 'reality' and then bending self and reality through will to create a new functional reality within oneself or as a re-patterning one's relationship with others.

The supernatural does not need to exist to make magic work but its pretend existence itself can become a tool or weapon in the process of self and social construction. But bear in mind that you are always up against 6 billion or so other natural magicians, all creating their own reality out of the material to hand. Some of those will be your enemy (snowflakes, religious fundamentalists and radical feminists are mine) because their reality must place constraints on yours.

In practice, all magical thinking is struggle for social and personal survival in which the dangers are obvious - you lose or, worse, you win, and don't stop there but try to go beyond survival to domination. And that is where every action having its own reaction comes in. The Wiccans have it right with 'Do What Thou Wilt an Harm No One' since 'bad magic' (as one A. Hitler found it) will come back to bite you because of the eventual opposition it creates. To live long and prosper, there is only ever 'white magic' ...

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