Espiritualidade e Sociedade

Andreas Sommer

>    From ‘Natural Magic’ to ‘Scientific Naturalism’: Basic Readings

Artigos, teses e publicações


Andreas Sommer
>   From ‘Natural Magic’ to ‘Scientific Naturalism’: Basic Readings



Has science vanquished magic? While many prominent popularizers of science think so, professional history of science scholarship suggests otherwise. Here is a short list of basic and introductory readings for those who want to study the complex historical relationship of the sciences with magic for themselves.

For the sake of brevity and with a broad audience in mind, the below list of titles is limited to books, omitting journal articles and chapters in edited volumes (and omitting valuable titles in languages other than English). Unfortunately for readers without an academic affiliation, scholarly articles are usually hidden behind paywalls – however, authors occasionally upload PDF files of their works on or ResearchGate, or on their institutional websites, so a web search is always worth a shot.

A great starting point for those wishing to investigate transformations of scientific knowledge and practice from ‘natural magic’ and related traditions to modern ‘scientific naturalism’ is IsisCB Explore, an excellent open access literature search engine supported by the History of Science Society and other scholarly bodies. Apart from books and chapters in edited volumes, it includes articles in history of science, medicine and technology periodicals (such as Isis, History of Science and the British Journal for the History of Science to name just a few) which have published key texts that fundamentally changed historians’ understanding of the relationships between the sciences and the ‘occult’ over time.

The following list of books is deliberately basic and introductory, and necessarily selective and incomplete. In my view, however, most of these titles are required reading for anybody who wants to understand the complexities of historical and ongoing interactions between science and magic. (If you’re overwhelmed by this relatively long list, you can click here for a much shorter one.)

Disclaimer: If you buy any of the titles using the provided weblinks below, this will support running Forbidden Histories as your purchase will yield a small commission (at no extra cost for you). Some titles are hair-raisingly expensive, so if you want to own a copy or can’t borrow them in your local or university library, I recommend comparing prices on sites other than Amazon, such as Abebooks.

Ancient (Pre-Socratic) to Medieval

Dodds, Eric Robertson. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1951 [US readers]

Edelstein, Emma J., and Ludwig Edelstein. Asclepius. Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies. Second ed. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 (studies in ancient temple medicine and related magic-medical traditions) [US readers]

Lloyd, Geoffrey E. R. Magic, Reason and Experience. Studies in the Origins and Development of Greek Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979 [US readers]

Luck, George. Arcana Mundi. Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. A Collection of Ancient Texts. Second ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006 [US readers].

Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science. Vols. 1-3. New York: Macmillan (vols. 1-2) and Columbia University Press (vol. 3), 1923-1934 [US readers].


Early Modern (Scientific Revolution to Enlightenment)

Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999 [US readers].

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998 [US readers].

Davies, Owen. Magic. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 [US readers].

Heilbron, John L. Galileo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010 (includes references to Galileo’s practice of astrology) [US readers].

Henry, John. Knowledge Is Power. How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Inspired Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science. Cambridge: Icon, 2002 [US readers].

Hunter, Michael. The Occult Laboratory. Magic, Science and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001 [US readers].

Newman, William R. Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002 [US readers].

Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998 [US readers].

Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science. Vols. 4-8. New York: Columbia University Press, 1934-1958 [US readers].

Vickers, Brian, ed. Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984 [US readers].

Webster, Charles. From Paracelsus to Newton. Magic and the Making of Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982 [US readers].

Westman, Robert S. The Copernican Question. Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011 (like Heilbron includes information on Galileo and astrology) [US readers].

Westman, Robert S. Copernicus and the Astrologers. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Libraries, 2016. [Open Access PDF]


Modern (late eighteenth to twentieth centuries)

Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark, eds. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. Volume 5. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999 (includes the chapter “Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment, Romantic and Liberal Thought” by medical historian Roy Porter, probably the best available account of the decline of magic during the Enlightenment, arguing it had little to do with advances in science or medicine) [US readers].

Collins, Harry M., and Trevor J. Pinch. Frames of Meaning: The Social Construction of Extraordinary Science. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982 (not exactly history, but a now classical sociological study of the controversies around alleged psychokinetic phenomena. Includes encounters with the professional debunker, James Randi). [US readers].

Crabtree, Adam. 1988. Animal Magnetism, Early Hypnotism, and Psychical Research, 1766-1925: An Annotated Bibliography. White Plains, NY: Kraus International Publications [Very rare, but click here for a free digitized version] .

Crabtree, Adam. From Mesmer to Freud. Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993 [US readers].

Cunningham, Andrew, and Nicholas Jardine, eds. Romanticism and the Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 [US readers].

Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of Enlightenment in France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968 [US readers].

Ellenberger, Henri F. 1970. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books (the classical history of the unconscious, showing that theoretical and clinical approaches to unconscious cognition have always been pervaded by debates over transcendental functions of the mind). [US readers]

Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968 [US readers].

Gauld, Alan. A History of Hypnotism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 [US readers].

Gregory, Frederick. 1977. Scientific Materialism in Nineteenth Century Germany (Studies in the History of Modern Science 1). Dordrecht: Springer (unsurpassed study of debates over materialism in German science. Not strongly focused on the role of occult movements, but still indispensable for a qualified understanding of developments that gave rise to an initially anti-materialistic ‘scientific naturalism’ not only in Germany, and should therefore be read together with Frank Turner’s seminal study below) [US readers].

Heyd, Michael. “Be Sober and Reasonable”. The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries (Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History, 63). Leiden: Brill, 1995 (a key study of how attacks on ‘enthusiasm’ – a then common pejorative term for unchurched or alternative spiritualities that bypassed scriptural authority – powerfully contributed to the ‘decline of magic’ during the Enlightenment) [US readers].

Josephson-Storm, Jason A. The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017 [US readers].

Mauskopf, Seymour H., ed. The Reception of Unconventional Science (AAAS Selected Symposia Series, 25). Boulder: Westview Press, 1979 [US readers].

Mauskopf, Seymour H., and Michael R. McVaugh. The Elusive Science. Origins of Experimental Psychical Research. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980 (a balanced history of the laboratory of parapsychology at Duke University) [US readers].

Midelfort, H. C. Erik. Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005 [US readers] [UK readers] [Search on Abebooks].

Shamdasani, Sonu, ed. Théodore Flournoy. From India to the Planet Mars. A Case of Multiple Personality with Imaginary Languages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994 (a new contextualized edition of a classic text marking a brief but important period, when experimental studies of trance mediumship competed with physiological psychology) [US readers].

Shamdasani, Sonu. Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology. The Dream of a Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 [US readers].

Taylor, Eugene. William James on Exceptional Mental States. The 1896 Lowell Lectures. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983 [US readers]. Read my review here.

Taylor, Eugene. William James: On Consciousness Beyond the Margin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996 [US readers].

Turner, Frank M. Between Science and Religion. The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974 (with important chapters on ‘the other Darwin’, Alfred Russel Wallace, and his preoccupation with spiritualism, and on two founders of modern psychical research, F.W.H. Myers and Henry Sidgwick) [US readers].

Winter, Alison. Mesmerized. Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998 [US readers].






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