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SUSAN GREENWOOD: ccwe seminar notes

These brief notes outline Susan Greenwood’s presentation at the CCWE  seminar: Legitimate Forms of Knowledge?  on 13th May 2010. If you would like to share in a discussion of her work in this field you can contact:



new patterns for exploring magic and science

Dr Susan Greenwood

University of Sussex, UK

As an anthropologist and practitioner of magic my aim has been to create a bridge of communication between the social sciences and the experiential domain of magic. The focus of my work has been to explore an approach to this subject that helps us understand the experience of magic as an aspect of consciousness, and legitimate it as a source of knowledgei. What is required is a consideration of these issues that does not reduce the magical experience to observable cultural manifestations only, but also allows the possibility for a spirit dimension. I have done this in three ways:

  1. My research methodology is based on fieldwork in which I both observed and also fully participated in the direct experience of magic. My intention in taking this approach has been twofold: to show that magical consciousness is a universal experience not just specific to indigenous peoples; and to counterbalance what I believe to be an over-reliance on prevailing rationalistic theories in the social sciences. Such explanations have tended to downplay – or even marginalise – magical experience, or they lead into conceptually limiting debates on whether or not magic is rational.
  1. In terms of theory, I have developed the notion of Magical consciousness as an orientation to life that participates in an inspirited world through emotion, intuition and imagination. Magical consciousness is a type of associative thinking that appears to be separate from more abstract, analytical or what we might call commonsense modes of thought, however in my view the two orientations are ultimately linked.

  1. In order to fully examine magical consciousness, I have sought a broader and more inclusive scientific framework that allows for in-depth analysis of the process of magical consciousness, and in particular a fresh and experientially-based exploration of the whole question of the reality of spirits. To this end, I have employed Geoffrey Samuel’s multimodal framework a descriptive model that features the metaphor of a web as a conceptual space for all knowledges, including magical, each bringing a nuanced and enriching perspective to our understanding. This requires a new attitude towards scienceii.

In seeking to articulate the concept of multiple conceptions of reality, I have developed Gregory Bateson’s two pivotal notions of ideation and abduction. Ideation is a concept for constructing mental patterns, the term coming from ‘ideate’, to imagine and conceive ideas in the mind. ‘Abduction’, on the other hand, is the intuitive process of reasoning through metaphors, of recognizing patterns in dreams, parable, allegory, poetry, even the whole of science and the whole of religioniii. In this way we can see knowledge as patterns of understanding, and as patterns for understanding in complex global situations where many varieties of magical, religious, political, developmental and institutional ideologies come into play.

Applying the above notions of magical consciousness and multiple conceptions of reality to the subject of spirits, I seek to show how a rationalistic orientation, in which spirits do not exist, can be examined alongside a magical orientation with its inspirited worldview. The purpose is to consider how we might understand and apply these different orientations in a new way. The analytical orientation and the magical orientation in this framework are presented as two patterns of knowledge that need not be seen as mutually exclusive systems of understanding separated by belief or non-belief in spirits. This model might help to explain how people can come to hold together and at the same time what might appear to be conflicting beliefs in both ‘science’ and ‘magic’.

My overall aim in this work is to explore how magical consciousness might be examined as a legitimate form of knowing within an expanded scientific explanatory framework.

i Susan Greenwood The Anthropology of Magic (2009) Oxford: Berg

ii Geoffrey Samuel Mind, Body and Culture (1990) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

iii Gregory Bateson Mind and Nature: a necessary unity (1988) New York: Bantam

CCWE SEMINAR 1: Legitimate Forms of Knowledge?


SEMINAR 1: Legitimate Forms of Knowledge?

Date and time: Thursday 13 May 2010, 2.30 – 5.30 pm

Venue: Wolfson Court, Girton College, Cambridge

There are practitioners of esoteric disciplines for example: Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, Gnosticism,

and there are scholars who study these disciplines. This seminar is for academics who belong to both these groups and would like to begin an exploration of some of the ways we might encourage a better understanding of both these interrelated activities by asking how we define legitimate forms of knowledge.

We are delighted to have with us:

DR SUSAN GREENWOOD Visiting Senior Research Fellow of Sussex University, a scholar and practitioner of magic, whose recent publication The Anthropology of Magic, (Berg, 2009), addresses this question by recounting some of the academic debates about the history and nature of magic together with her own experience of magical practices and begins to examine ‘the challenging topic of revisioning science so that magic can be considered as a legitimate form of knowledge.’

The seminar will be chaired by ANDREW JAMES BROWN, Woolf Institute, Cambridge.


2.30 – 2.45  Welcome and introductions

2.45 – 3.00  DR SUSAN GREENWOOD will present for ten /fifteen mins


Visualise a spider’s web that stretches across different branches in a hedge at dawn; pearls of dew hang from its delicate strands and each thread makes a connection to the whole. This web is a beautiful part of the natural world and a wonder of nature in itself, but it can also be used for envisioning a different type of science. The metaphor of a web can bring together such seemingly disparate branches of knowledge as science and magic into a new pattern that includes both.
Susan Greenwood The Anthropology of Magic Oxford: Berg, 2009: 146.

Historically magic has been seen as an irrational belief opposed to reason, and in evolutionist terms as leading to the development of an enlightened science. Due to rationalistic theories in the social sciences, magic has more recently tended to be explained solely by its psychological or sociological effects, resulting in the subjective experience of magic being marginalized.

As a practitioner of magic and an anthropologist my aim has been to create a bridge of communication between the experiential domain of magic and the social sciences. The focus of my paper is to explore an approach to this subject that helps us understand the experience of magic as an aspect of consciousness, and legitimate it as a source of knowledge.

3.00 – 3.30 general response and discussion of her presentation

3.30 – 3.45 tea

3.45 – 4.30  ten/fifteen min presentation from
DR MATT LEE, Greenwich University,
Matt is an active philosopher and practicing magician from Brighton, UK. Academically he works in the space in between the dominant traditions of analytical and continental philosophy, drawing upon Deleuze and Guattari to develop a transcendental materialist philosophy. Magically he draws on the Chaos current and for the last three years has been facilitating a working magical group in Brighton which irreverently practices Golden Dawn kabbalistic techniques and Enochian magic.

The role of practical knowledge (‘know-how’) has become increasingly central to philosophical concerns with knowledge over the last century. One of the central difficulties encountered in the increasing acknowledgement of the role of ‘know-how’ is a problem of transmissibility and learning. The more knowledge is taken to be something unconsciously learnt, the less conscious reasoning processes can be taken to be at its centre. The worry for many in philosophy is that this dynamic masks a loss of reason rather than an advance into a new conscious practice.
Followed by discussion

4.30 – 5.00  DR ALASTAIR REID, Girton College, Cambridge, will lead a structured exploration of points arising during the afternoon.

5.00 –  5.30  Options. Looking at how to take this forward into the next seminar.

There are limited places, if you are interested in securing a place at the seminar please email Dr Sophia Wellbeloved at with a brief note of your academic and practitioner interests.

There will be a fee of £15.00 to cover costs (this includes tea and there is free available parking).


The Cambridge Centre for the Study of Western Esotericism, see is independent of any academic or esoteric communities with an aim to forward the need for a wider dialogue between scholars and practitioners in the field of Western Esotericism and for the provision of a secular space in which an interdisciplinary network of scholars and practitioners can thrive. From 2009 CCWE has operated within Lighthouse Editions Limited, a small publishing company Directors: Dr Sophia Wellbeloved, Jeremy Cranswick – see


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