Saint Louis University
You watch a magic show. The magician tosses coins into a tank which, seemingly by the wave of a hand underwater, turn into fish. You experience a sense of wonder, caused by the impossibility of this feat: it’s impossible that coins turn into fish, yet this is what happens. In this paper I investigate the connection between wonder, magic and science. I’ll argue that wonder is the unifying emotion that both drives science and our fascination with the occult. My starting point are early modern accounts of wonder (notably René Descartes, Passions of the Soul, and Adam Smith, History of Astronomy). Both authors identify wonder as the emotion that underlies our pursuit of science. This is clear in the early modern context, where science was conducted in the domestic sphere, often with a theatrical element. However, in that same period we also see how wonder takes a prominent place in other human pursuits, notably the rise of Science Fiction as a genre, the empirical exploration of the world (e.g., Robert Hooke’s Micrographia), and in dabbling in the occult in the development of stage magic, esotericism and occultism (as I’ll note, the separation between these phenomena is not absolute). Authors such as Frazer and Neurath, for this reason, see science as continuous with magic. I’ll explore their ideas in detail and examine the implications of this for the thesis that science is an aspect of, or the contributing factor to, the disenchantment of the world in the west.
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