Buffered and porous selves

Charles Taylor in The Immanent Frame:

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

This is not a mere “subtraction” story, for it thinks not only of loss but of remaking. With the subtraction story, there can be no epistemic loss involved in the transition; we have just shucked off some false beliefs, some fears of imagined objects. Looked at my way, the process of disenchantment involves a change in sensibility; one is open to different things. One has lost a way in which people used to experience the world.

Disenchantment in my use (and partly in Weber’s) really translates Weber’s term “Entzauberung,” where the key kernel concept is “Zauber,” magic. In a sense, moderns constructed their own concept of magic from and through the process of disenchantment. Carried out first under Reforming Christian auspices, the condemned practices all involved using spiritual force against or at least independently of our relation to God. The worst examples were things like saying a black mass for the dead to kill off your enemy or using the host as a love charm. But in the more exigent modes of Reform, the distinction between white and black magic tended to disappear, and all independent recourse to forces independent of God was seen as culpable. The category “magic” was constituted through this rejection, and this distinction was then handed on to post-Enlightenment anthropology, as with Frazer’s distinction between “magic” and “religion.”

The process of disenchantment, involving a change in us, can be seen as a loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment (as against simply the shedding of irrational feelings).