A Psycho-sociological Interpretation of Magic

Luther Lee Bernard
Tulane University


A psycho-sociological interpretation of magic.—The purpose of this paper is to show (1) that magic is in its pure form the attempt of one person to impose his will directly upon the will of another person or object, (2) that the illusion of direct imposition of will was due to the peculiar character of the primitive definition of self and of objects, (3) that the difficulty of the technique led to the use of indirect methods or instrumentalization, (4) that the control of instrumentalization led to psycho-physical analysis of instruments and of environment, and (5) that this led in turn to the development of a naturalistic or scientific explanation of control which is gradually superseding the theory of magic or direct personal or will control. The execution of the paper involves an analysis of the relation of the individual to the social and other objects in his environment. Anthropological data are omitted because of space limitations.

Among primitive people and young children the sensory definition of objects in consciousness is secondary in importance to the affective consciousness which is conditioned by the objects.[1] That is to say, the dominant consciousness and definition of objects in the primitive mind or experience is social rather than physical. Even those objects which we now call physical or inanimate tended primitively to be social by analogy and association with human objects or persons. Owing to the fact that the first contacts of the child which are significant enough to integrate his organic responses as wholes are had with other and older human beings, and since these contacts or relations are carried on largely in the form of integrated attitudes, his consciousness is at first predominantly attitudinal. He perceives the attitudes of others toward himself because of their significance for his survival. Consequently, what he perceives of others is primarily attitudinal, and his sensory contacts with them are organized around his and their attitudes rather

(61) than in independent detached units or integrations. Perception is significant primarily in so far as it aids him in mapping out persons as attitudinal objects which can thereby be differentiated from other attitudinal objects which are the sources of his comforts and discomforts. He defines others primarily in terms of his subjective reactions to them. They are moral objects, i.e., "good" or "bad"; or aesthetic objects, "pretty," or "ugly"; or a mixture of the two, "nice" or "horrid," etc. He carries these attitudes over to physical objects associated with people and to those which actively affect him in similar ways. The young child has no impersonal definition for what we call physical objects. To him all objects are social or personal. We may say, then, that objects are defined by the child in terms, first of the receptive or feeling attitudes which they call forth in him, and secondly, in terms of the anticipated receptive attitudes which he expects them to produce in himself. In this second phase of the definition of objects, that by anticipation, the sensory differentiations and perceptions play a larger role, for he begins to distinguish bodily and facial expression as indicators of attitudes in others. In the course of time the anticipatory definition largely replaces the completed receptive attitudinal definition. That is, the object is defined in terms of what he expects it to do to him, before its effect upon the self is experienced. The superior advantage for survival and comfort of this sort of definition is sufficiently obvious and serves to explain why the third method of the definition of social objects arises, that is, definition in terms of the perceived physical and verbal attitudes or preparation for action of the object toward ourselves. In this way the subjective or affective aspect of the definition of social objects becomes closely identified with the sensory or perceptual content of the objects in experience. But the definition of social objects never becomes wholly sensory or perceptual. To the young child and to the primitive man, who has not learned to interpret his social world naturalistically, his affective or evaluative responses toward this objectively perceived attitude continues to be dominant in his definition of the object. It is fur this reason that he describes it as good or bad, kind or unkind, nice or horrid, etc., before he describes its physical appearance or language.


The self, which apparently is not at first distinguished from others, is also defined initially in terms of the receptive affective responses to the behavior of others. This receptive attitudinal definition of the self is helped out by such objective physical definitions as is possible at early stages of the development of self-consciousness through kinaesthetic, tactual, temperature, visual, auditory, and other sensory differentiation and description of one's own body. But the passive attitudinal response of the self to other objects does not persist indefinitely. The organism adjusts to the outside world in reciprocal response, and as the self becomes more fully integrated, the adjusting response becomes increasingly active. Consequently the definition of self, almost from the time it is effectively integrated, is in terms of aggressive affective attitudes or the expression of will. Self-consciousness, in becoming differentiated thus from object or social consciousness, comes to be defined therefore in terms of aggressive affective attitudes, while consciousness of the social object is ultimately in terms of its perceived attitudes interpreted or evaluated in terms of anticipated affective experiences of the subject. Thus in both self and social consciousness there is a secondary sensory or perceptual, possibly conceptual, element to which the affective attitude is attached. In the case of the social consciousness this objective sensory content is not only differentiated from the sensory content of self-consciousness, but it is likely to be even more prominent.

Where the self personality has been repressed and unduly dominated and has never had an adequate opportunity to develop into active self-expression, the aggressive affective attitude may be very weak, almost non-existent. Frequently we characterize such selves as wanting in personality, or as will-less, or as buried in others. But in the normal personality, where the self-feeling is strong, there is a marked urge to dominate one's environment, that is, the other persons or social objects with which one is in contact. The central problem of control of the environment for the child, and, we may infer, for the primitive man, is to render the attitudes of others subservient to his own will, that is, to impose his will upon them in so far as he has developed a will in opposition to their at-

(63) -titudes. In so far as other objects give only satisfactions and offer no protests or rebellion there is no occasion for conflict of wills, or even for the differentiation of an active self-feeling over against the active attitudes of opposition in others. But in the lives of the average person there certainly is sufficient occasion to develop self-assertion, and fortunate is he who does not have so much opposition as to repress or break his self-feeling and render his will inactive.

The primitive method of asserting our wills over those of others, to speak in subjective or affective attitudinal terminology, is that of magic. Primitive man, like the child, has not yet developed sufficiently a psychophysical analysis of his world, particularly of the social objects with which he deals, to enable him to adopt a mechanistic or naturalistic interpretation of causation or control. Consequently he attempts at first to assert his will over others by direct methods, later by more indirect ones, but always by personality means. The essence of magic is that it involves an attempt at a direct transfer of will not unlike the supposed direct transfer of thought of the clairvoyants. Thus the theory and practice of magic are based on the apparent ability of the individual to command the wished— for response through the direct and unaided instrumentalization of the wish, the word, or force. In its purest form magic is (attempted) action by fiat. Because desired responses apparently and actually follow such direct instrumentalization without other perceived causes, the primitive man believed the attitude response of the other person or object was caused directly by his own attitude or will. His ignorance of the mechanism of conditioning and of the laws of chance prevented any other causal explanation.

Of course this theory of control is illusory. As the environments to be controlled become increasingly complex and less personal, or more mechanical and physical, even the apparent success of the more direct exercise of the will becomes less obvious. Accordingly the control methods employed are made increasingly indirect, until finally, with a better understanding of the mechanics of physical nature, the control processes eventuate into mechanistic manipulation of the physical environment. A naturalistic control

(64) supersedes an attempted personalistic one, and magic merges into science.[2]

This increasing use of indirect mechanistic processes to achieve the end desired, although undertaken originally from the standpoint of the theory of magic and without any appreciation of its ultimate effect upon this theory, may be called the process of instrumentalization. How it leads over to a naturalistic interpretation of causation and a mechanistic or science theory of the control of objects may be illustrated by explaining briefly a few of the major types of magic.

1. The most direct form of magic is wish or fiat magic. Here instrumentalization is at a minimum, Perhaps few of us have not at some time had the experience of trying to wish a much desired object or event into existence. So vivid and real was it in our own consciousness, so obviously right and desirable, that it seemed as if it must be a fact, not merely an image or a desire. In certain pathological cases the wished thing does appear to the subject as reality. Sometimes, perhaps most commonly, wish magic employs a putative or symbolic instrument in the form of spirit, or divinity, in which cases the wish may be instrumentalized into the verbal form of prayer or conjuration. It is very difficult for the subject to make an objective test of the success of his wish magic. Besides being likely to forget or ignore the cases of failure to secure response, he is ignorant of the fact that frequently the putative response is itself the cause or conditioner of the wish attitude.

2. Force magic is also apparently a direct imposition of the will of one person upon another through direct physical contact and energy. The self-consciousness of will attitude in the subject is extremely strong in connection with the use of force, and success

(65) in making force effective in overcoming the object's resistance in kind is superficially self-evident proof of the transfer of "will." Since the child and the primitive man do not understand the mechanism of the conditioned response, they cannot realize that the "force" used is only the cue or conditioning stimulus which has been associated with the performance of the act through previous experience. If the pattern for the performance of the act were not already in the mind of the beaten person or not immediately induced there through the simultaneous use of conditioning language, no amount of use of force would secure the carrying out of the "will" of one person by another. The real cause of the act is not in the beating or the blow but in the previous habituation to the task, to which the present act of violence is merely the conditioning release. It is this which of course the savage does not understand. The use of force may itself be a powerful conditioning instrument leading to the future performance or avoidance of the response or behavior indicated.

3. The verbal command, threat, curse, incantation, etc., are only less direct or more instrumentalized forms of magic or imposition of the will. These magical methods probably developed originally in connection with the exercise of force magic. Their instrumentality consists in the fact that they serve as conditioning cues and thereby evoke the response desired. A violent command may so strongly fix the previously learned pattern in the attention that its accomplishment will occur almost automatically, as if by hypnotism or "as if by magic." Similarly, a violent threat may so strongly negatively condition the behavior that it becomes practically impossible to perform the act forbidden. The American Indians, like other primitive peoples, made frequent and effective use of the threat in this way and apparently looked upon it as a magical method or as having "uncanny" powers. The medicine man, primitive or modern, who holds his hearer and watcher in almost hypnotic trance and commands him to perform the rituals of his cult undoubtedly attributes magic or supernatural instrumentalization to his methods.

4. What is ordinarily called sympathetic magic is, in its various forms, but extensions of the forms just described briefly, but

(66) with more emphasis upon the instrument, which in these cases is the conditioning cue or stimulus. That form of sympathetic magic which seeks to secure the result by contact, as in the laying on of hands and the consequent flow of some mystical "will" force or magic essence or quality or "virtue" from subject to object, or from object to subject, is obviously derived from the magic of force, now softened and transformed perhaps into affection or awe or reverence. As anger fades before love, the "will" or "virtue" or essence runs out of one object into the other and the second is become like unto the first.

5. Another form of sympathetic magic, finding application in many varieties or modes, is the attempt to produce the whole by means of the part, the act from the gesture or the magic word. The naturalistic or instrumental functioning of the part, the gesture, or the magic word or name is that these several parts condition or suggest the whole or representative act because of previous conditioning. Each of these has become the symbol of certain patterns which are so strongly conditioned in the behavior make-up of object individuals that the completed patterns tend readily to occur in action upon the appearance of the symbol or cue. The gesture is a foreshortened symbol of a complete act, so that its symbolization is natural. So is the part the symbol of the whole object or of the act to be performed. The name or the word is but a portion of the total descriptive context of behavior which has strategic emotional associations and position in the attention. The effectiveness of the "magic" depends of course upon the effectiveness of the symbolization or conditioning, and not upon any mystical mechanism.

6. The attempt to produce the real by means of the shadow, as in the case of pantomime, or by the pictorial representation, as in the art of the Cro-Magnons, illustrates a still further step in instrumentalization. Here the whole outline of the act or object is executed in imagination. The artist has mastered the sensory details of the object and of the process and can give it naturalistic definition, but his belief that the real will appear from the shadow or the picture shows that he has not yet mastered the mechanism of production. He still depends upon direct personal will causation. It is only another form of the attempt at creation of the act or object

(67) through language. The difference is that here he speaks to invisible forms by means of a detailed picture of them and expects the picture to become physical embodiment, just as, he thinks, his words become incarnate in acts when he speaks commands or utters sacred names or performs a gesture which suggests the act as a whole. This magic by similarity is apparently more successful when directed toward the control of human behavior than toward the creation of new forms of life or toward the control of physical objects. Just how successful or unsuccessful any form of magic is, the primitive man can never know with exactness, because he has no objective or naturalistic methods of measurement. But in a vague sort of way the relative value of different forms of magic must be in some measure apparent to him.

7. Dire necessity leads primitive man to seek for the most effective magical instruments he can find. Somehow he must get control over a too-niggardly and refractory nature guarded by jealous or hostile spirits and over relentless enemies. Thus he hits upon chance associations of events which have greatly impressed him. Because some two striking events occurred together, each henceforth conditions the other in consciousness and the incidental one is erected into the cause of the one which is pursued as a primary object of behavior. Henceforth it is repeated as a magical instrument in the causation process. It is only to be expected that in this sort of random or post hoc, propter hoc selection of magical instruments there should be increasing success in the unconscious selection of factors in mechanical causation. As the mechanics of nature unfolds before man his selection of instruments, although explained by himself on the basis of a theory of magic, actually fits into a naturalistic process. As mechanical replace magical instruments, so in time will a mechanistic or scientific theory replace a magical theory of instrumentalization.

The growth of instrumentalization, which has already employed spirits and divinities, tends to extend to persons as instruments. Thus the medicine man or priest arises to perform the magic, and is selected on much the same basis of trial and error, chance, or post hoc, propter hoc determination. It is part of his function to perfect the instrument, partly by elaboration of mystery and de-

(68) -ception (he may himself be deceived) and partly by use of naturalistic causation as his specialized knowledge of instrumental processes renders him more familiar with naturalistic mechanics of causation. Ritual, which is the flowering of the process of instrumentalization in magic and indicates a fairly late development of magic, is largely the product of this specialization of the medicine man.

In the way here indicated, in this brief description of the forms of magic, the theory of direct personal or will causation on a mystical or supernatural basis gives way to the theory of direct impersonal mechanical causation on a naturalistic basis. And thus science tends to replace magic.

It is therefore the development of the instrument in magic that leads to a mechanization of the process of control and ultimately to a theory of science instead of magic as a method of control of objects. The employment of the instrument calls for a sensory and mechanistic analysis of both its content and its relation to other objects. This leads to the emergence in consciousness of physical objects and of a physical environment, where the instrument is itself physical. Thus a naturalistic interpretation of the function of the instrument is achieved and the process of instrumentalization comes to be looked upon as mechanical. Inanimate things are first mechanized, but the mechanization and naturalistic interpretation comes finally to be applied also to the simpler life-forms, such as plants and the invertebrates.[3] In our day we have begun to make a mechanistic interpretation of human behavior, or of the human instrument, with the result that magical belief and practice tend to disappear from the field of human conduct. Even the instrumentality of the priest comes in time to be interpreted naturalistically and

(69) his function is changed from that of supernatural to social intervention or mediation.

The control of industrial processes is now wholly mechanized in civilized countries. No one attempts to make shoes or automobiles by magic. Physical science has laid bare to all of us the processes of instrumentalization in industry. Some people among us still attempt to use magical processes of control over the larger physical or cosmical mechanisms, where the naturalistic explanation is not yet complete or is not generally known and supernatural personalities can be inferred as instruments. This is particularly true with reference to rain-making and control over climate. But few people in modern nations would still attempt to stop eclipses, or hold up cosmic luminaries, or turn comets from their courses. In personal relations also there is still some attempt to use magic, since the adoption of a behavioristic and naturalistic psychology still lags behind or is vociferously repudiated by the devotees of magic or near magic. But the largest survival of the use of magic is today in the field of social relations. A vast number of reformers and preachers still assume that they can make over human beings individually and collectively by the use of wishes, force, and words, or even by charms and emblems, instead of by means of a reorganization of the conditions of existence, i.e., by a change of the social environment. Our reformers still pour forth almost illimitable barrages of words, of commands, threats, suggestions. Slogans and shibboleths are substituted for sense, platforms and resolutions for the transformation of social conditions, punitive and moralizing laws for constructive environmental prevention. This is the heyday of social magic. Nearly a century ago a small group of social theorists began to see that a new society and new types of personalities could be produced only through the instrumentalized control of the environments. They preached the significance of the environment and the philosophy of its reorganization, but their chief reward so far has been to he scoffed at by the social magicians SS materialists, and infidels, and more recently as behaviorists. Their own experience illustrates their theory, viz., that wishes, words, and force in themselves do not create a new world, but come only to

(70) be the cues to release responses which are developed by a deeper-seated instrumentalization which comes slowly into play, but also surely.

The psychological and sociological sciences are themselves latterly beginning to play a significant role in the replacement of magical practice and theory by naturalistic interpretation and mechanistic control. Having in large measure become free from the old personalistic metaphysics and mythology, which were the philosophic sanctions of the theory of magic, and now taking their cues largely from the underlying physical and biological sciences, they have begun to bring into play a naturalistic interpretation of human behavior, thus preparing the way for the employment of measurable control devices. This tendency is reflected especially in the applied psychological sciences of advertising, industrial or efficiency management, motion study, social work, mental testing, employment management, etc. It has also been used in attempts to work out naturalistic theories of ethics, scientific theories of education, co-operative enterprises, and other ideal schemes of behavior direction and social organization. In this category must also be placed the attempts of sociologists, economists, political scientists and administrators, anthropogeographers, and others to discover the natural conditions under which the most normal types of life can be lived and the most effective types of social organization can be consummated, and to construct standards of living and behavior and mechanisms of social control on the basis of these investigations instead of on the basis of subjective values and affective attitudes.

The only cure for magic, which still persists, is the more intensive and extensive application of the remedy which has always been in operation in some degree throughout the intellectual history of man. This is the extension of naturalistic and mechanistic principles of explanation to all phenomena, including human behavior. This can come only through the application of the methods of psychophysical analysis of phenomena in place of the methods of affective valuation and attitudinal definition of phenomena. In the human realm behavioristic science must replace spirits, personified Virtues and Vices, underived or innate conscience and instincts,

(71) and a free will which knows no external guidance or control. This substitution has been going on so rapidly since the eighteenth century that the devotees of the old magic have cried out against it as an attack upon fundamental human and divine values— for one always associates what he knows with the fundamentals— while the advocates of the change reassure us with the statement that the new science will not only preserve the fundamental values, but it will aid us in discovering them.


  1. No specific parallelism of individual and race development is implied.
  2. Of course there has always been naturalistic control over the great mass of simpler and more immediate physical objects and processes, where there was less opportunity for the mystical interpretation to take refuge in unseen processes. Such empirical controls largely antedated any theory of control, magical or naturalistic, but in many cases even these controls were clothed in magical or personalistic procedure after the personalistic interpretation, i.e., any conscious interpretation, of the world had once appeared. The theory of magic, like all theories of control, is relatively recent. But the theory of magical control is older than the naturalistic or scientific theory of control, based as the latter is upon psychophysical analysis of objects and mechanistic processes.
  3. Jacques Loeb gave a scientific and experimental account of this process for invertebrates earlier foreshadowed philosophically and aprioristically by some of the eighteenth-century thinkers. The early mechanical control of everyday objects and processes achieved by primitive man before the appearance of a theory of magic, hinted at above, was a purely empirical control and was not based upon the psychophysical sensory analysis which. forms a part of the theory of science. On the contrary, when a theory of magic causation did appear after these empirical mechanical controls were established, in many instances it was applied by reversion to explain the empirical controls themselves, although later displaced by a naturalistic explanation.

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