overemphasis on magic

JHOUBEN at rullet.LeidenUniv.nl JHOUBEN at rullet.LeidenUniv.nl
Thu May 30 14:44:57 UTC 1996

In a reaction to George Thompson's posting of 24 May, I would here briefly 
address the "problem of magic", and deal in another memo with some other points 
raised by him. 
   I certainly do not hold that "the discussion of magic is now pass'e". In 
Thompson's remarks and in his quotation from his forthcoming review of 
Elizarenkova's recent book (to which I saw earlier references but which I could 
not yet study), however, "magic" still functions as a well-established 
categorie and the impression one gets is that the problem of magic lies 
entirely in the objects categorized under this notion. In discussions in the 
last decennia  it has become clear that we now have to take into account that 
magic as a category of cultural phenomena or cultural products (implicitly or 
explicitly contrasted with science and religion) is problematic in itself. This 
shift in the problematic is traced with remarkable clarity in Tambiah's Magic, 
Science and the Scope of Rationality.
  Let me add some loosely formulated further reflections on this topic, while 
trying to remain within Wujastyk's "two-screen" boundary: the problems of 
Magic, Science and Religion are intimately linked with problems of the relation 
between Reality, Thought and Language. In the traditional ideas about magic 
Reality is what is objectively given, and language and thought reflect this 
reality either correctly or incorrectly. If one makes the paradigm shift of the 
"linguistic turn" and starts to perceive the major importance of language in 
creating one's world in a very profound way, or if we do not believe in an 
objectively given reality with certain philosophical streams in Buddhism, then 
how to define the boundaries between magic and science and religion? Correlated 
with this is the problem that the sharp demarcation between language, meaning 
and referent is something which one cannot project to non-Western cultures and 
thought-systems without running into very serious difficulties. 
  If part of the acts in a Vedic ritual seem to aim at creating a certain 
condition in the persons involved, should we consider this as magic directed 
towards inner conditions? Or should we consider these acts as early examples of 
(perhaps sometimes succesful) "neurolinguistic programming" and the acts in 
which external objects figure (like enemies to be overcome, etc.) as special 
derived cases? This is not a matter of trying to "upgrade" the status of these 
texts at all costs, but of trying to find the most suitable angle of approach. 
A naive acceptance of the category magic (versus science and religion) will be 
unacceptable to anyone who is even just distantly aware of recent discussions 
on this subject, but that does not mean that the word 'magic' may not be used 
anymore, only that additional critical reflections (for which recent 
discussions may provide useful startingpoints) are needed (and I do not know to 
what extent these are given in Elizarenkova's book or in Thompson's review). 

Jan E.M. Houben,
Research Fellow International Institute for Asian Studies,
P.O. Box 9515,
NL-2300 RA   Leiden, The Netherlands.

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