“The Disenchantment of the World”

“The Disenchantment of the World” March 31, 2019


Stars above Arizona
A night sky over Arizona (Wikimedia Commons public domain)


“The fate of our times,” wrote the great pioneer German sociologist Max Weber, “is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”


Weber’s notion of “disenchantment” — he seems to have borrowed the term (in German, Entzauberung, which could more literally be rendered as something like “demystification” or even as something rather barbarous, like “demagicification”) from the famous poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) — has become quite famous.  It refers to the modern process by which, as Weber saw it in a famous 1918 lecture, religion has been explained away and/or devalued.  It is closely connected with secularization and reductionism.  In a “disenchanted” society or culture, in this sense, scientific understanding is valued, but belief tends not to be.  Whereas in still-enchanted societies, according to Weber’s 1920 book Sociology of Religion (Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie), “the world remains a great enchanted garden,” it is valued after “disenchantment” largely or even entirely as a rational means to practical ends, a source of raw materials, an object of economics, a mass of chemicals and materials, and so forth.


The illustrious Anglo-Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729-1797) had already noticed something of this sort, although his attention was largely focused on political events and attitudes, in his famous pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France:


The Age of Chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold the generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize is gone!


The American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) wrote a famous protest against the reduction of the stars to mere globular masses of hydrogen being transformed by a process of thermonuclear fusion into helium — an example of the very “disenchantment” described by Max Weber:


When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


Does this mean that stars don’t burn by a process of thermonuclear fusion?  That the natural world isn’t made up of chemical substances?  That it can’t be adapted for rationally chosen economic purposes?  Hardly.  But sometimes it’s worthwhile to just go outside and contemplate the heavens.  A painting is much more than mere pigments on a canvas.  A violin concerto is very much more than sound created by horse hairs being dragged across strings made of sheep intestine.



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