Highlights from the Parergon archives: Rationality and renaissance magic

We asked members of Parergon‘s Early Career Committee to tell us about a Parergon article that really stood out for them and why they found it valuable for their research. In this post, Julie Davies of the University of Melbourne relflects on Gregory W. Dawes, ‘The Rationality of Renaissance Magic’, Parergon 30.2 (2013), pp. 33–58. (DOI: 10.1353/pgn.2013.0132)

I was very excited to read Dawes’s article exploring the rationality of magical beliefs from a philosophical perspective. The question of belief is complex and historians of witchcraft and magic often have to balance the ideal of evaluating their subjects according to the values and beliefs of their time with the scepticism of both contemporaneous critics and modern readers. While it is sometimes appropriate to reduce engagement with supernatural themes to ignorance, credulity, fantasy, delusion or outright fraud, hastily, unconsciously or consistently presuming such would significantly distort our historical perspective. As Dawes points out, even if certain accounts of magical phenomena are known to have been completely made up, many were unquestionably intended to be plausible fictions. Understanding the rationality behind such beliefs is, therefore, key to understanding both believers and deceivers.

Dawes gives an overview explanations for magical thinking from a range of disciplines including anthropology, sociology and psychology. However, his main discussion focuses on the different epistemological levels of rational belief. Dawes leads the discussion beyond the typical historical focus on the background beliefs which supported and promoted beliefs about magic and rendered them rationally defensible. He also explores how Renaissance belief in magic was formed on the basis of evidence and other cognitive mechanisms, and how it’s weakness, from the modern perspective, arises from its failure to employ collectively rational procedures. Unlike the modern scientific community who attempt to overcome biases through replicability and verification, magical practitioners tended to value secrecy, limiting the spread of knowledge to like-minded initiates or, as in the case of controversial figures such as Paracelsus, actively maintaining independence from established institutions.

As a result, Dawes not only provides a very useful and detailed introduction to the philosophical theory of knowledge production, magical or otherwise, it also provides insight into the value shift which arguably represents the biggest hurdle to our own objective engagement with the magical past.

Parergon can be accessed via Project MUSE (from Volume 1 (1983)), Australian Public Affairs – Full Text (from 1994), and Humanities Full Text (from 2008). For more information on the current issue and on submitting manuscripts for consideration, please visit https://parergon.org/