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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

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