Modern academe does not recognize a discipline devoted to the analytical study of occult, magical or esoteric traditions. Work in these areas though on the increase remains hampered by various methodological and political blinders. The primary difficulty is simply explained work on magic is tightly constrained by the conventions of the disciplines in which it is locally formulated. Early modern magic a preoccupation of the present work receives treatment within the narrow limits of intellectual history and the history of science. Most books advert to normative modes of evidence analysis and studies similarly present themselves in traditional disciplinary styles. And some important potential contributors notably philosopher have not as yet seen a reason to join the conversation.
Academic scholars working on magic have often been strikingly anxious to situate themselves indisputably within a conventional disciplinary frame work ad though thereby to ward off the lingering taint of an object of study still thought disreputable if not outright mad. Many have encountered hostility or amused disdain from colleagues in more accepted fields. Thus it is no surprise that scholars of magic bend over backward to demonstrate just how straight they are.
But is should no longer be necessary to defend studies of magic given the long line of distinguished predecessors in several disciplines. In the history of ideas Eugenio Garin, Carlo Ginzburg, Paolo Rossi, D.P Walker and Frances Yates laid and eminently reputable foundation on which other have built. In the history of science Brian Copenhaver, Allen Debus, Walter Pagel, David Pingree, and many others have legitimated previously disdained materials as essential to understanding the foundations of science. In anthropology surely the name of Claude Levi Strauss by itself grants sufficient legitimacy whatever one thinks of his conclusions to say nothing of Lucien Levy Bruhl Stanley Tambiah and robin Horton. In the history of religions Jonathan Z. Smith has continually grapped with magic as have in different ways and areas Hans Dieter Betz Christopher Faraone, Fritz Graf, Moshe Idel and Joseph Needleman. One could continue such lists endlessly why then the desire or need to apologize?
The peculiar insecurity of scholar of magic has further prompted a failure to read across disciplines or at least to do so much overtly. Classics do not cite anthropology historians of science do not cite comparative religious studies and vice versa. The exception are few and far enough between to prove the rule and rarely developed on a broad basis; Tambiah’s interesting look at Yates’s work in Magic, Science, Religion and the scope of rationality independent interrogation of magic.
One explation lies in the difficulty of writing on an interdisciplinary basis. However fashionable the notion of interdisciplinarity scholarship normally rests on narrow foundations and reaches outward for occasional inspiration. A work by and for historians must satisfy their criteria of evidence and argumentation and if it draws on anthropology it need not by this taken take entirely on board the disciplinary context of the ideas borrowed. Thus in the last few decades we have seen the rise of self consciously theoretical history which as a rule borrows notion form theorists of one sort or another and deploys them as tools to extend fairly traditional historical scholarship.
I do not dismiss the value of such works in the study of magic or elsewhere but one often finds problematic assumptions embedded therein assumptions at odds with many of the theories employed. In particular such work presumes a clear and distinct division between data and theory primary and secondary source. One takes for granted that a Foucault an study of sixteenth century German witch trials uses Foucault as a lens through rists insisted on the intrinsic invalidity of such a procedure the methods and theories must be part and parcel of the analytical object because the object is constituted by the scholar not simply there to be studied.
To take seriously the theoretical developments of the last fifty years requires that such easy divisions be challenged and furthermore that the challenge occur in the doing and not only in the abstract. Theoretically informed history must do theory as much as it does history and it must at least consider the possibility that one might not always be able to tell the difference.
The truly interdisciplinary theoretical scholarship required for magic would if formulated in the ordinary way tend to make itself an artifact of no discipline and furthermore unreadable. A genuine merger between history and anthropology for example would need to legitimate itself in the evidentiary and discursive modes of each discipline and would have to advance critically within both sets of question and concerns. One book must do the work of two and also strive towards some further synthesis not normally requisite. If the number of disciplines at stake is large as with the study of magic even a single article soon expands to epic proportions.
The present book works somewhat differently. I have striven to include sufficient detail whatever discipline or era to make the arguments comprehensive and allow purchase for critical engagement. To accomplish this chapters build on once another both argumentatively and thematically this is not a series of independent essays. In thus moving form start to finish I try to provide enough data to elucidate my various forms of evidence. But the purely defensive gesture of disciplinary self positioning is pared to the bone.
In a previous work I attempted a first gesture toward the comparative theoretical method employed here focused on a close reading of a single major work in the history of magic I also worked to constitute a dialogue between magical thought and modern theories. The present book though it makes a similar gesture has higher stakes and needs a larger array of materials and as such the explicit documentation must be slimmer to prevent utter tedium. I have therefore provided extensive notes as a partial solution.
In composing this book as something of a preliminary to an interdisciplinary fields as yet improperly constituted I have wished not to exclude those new to the field or to early modern studies or to various modes of theory. For this reason I deliberately focus on works available in modern English editions. Where I draw on other languages I downplay this in the text I have tried where possible to suppress jargon and technical language magical or theoretical by simple avoidance or by defining terms where necessary and using them consistently.
Nevertheless it must be said that this book makes some peculiar demands. Because I can have no knowledge of readers’ prior familiarity with any of the various areas examined I must on the one hand summarize everything and on the other not do so at length. I hope the readership is composed significantly of those not specializing in the history of magic and I have significantly not to mystify them but it must be allowed that the nature pectations of every reader. Thus I ask the reader to imagine this book as a product of a discipline that could exist but does not. For that reason it is only to be expected that its analytical conventions will be somewhat unfamiliar.
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