Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Collingwood on Magic, Art, Emotion & Utilitarian Civilization

Another quote today from Collingwood. Reading Collingwood reminds me of when I first read Hannah Arendt over 40 years ago--the feeling of reading by lightning--being struck with flashes of deep insight. Insights that alter the way that I perceive the world leap-up from the page. Having read a great deal more and pondered about how the world works over that period since first encountering Arendt, it shocks me a bit to have a such an experience again. But Collingwood, whom I've only begun to explore in the last few years, has provided a deeper, richer vein of insight than I had anticipated. The quote below comes from his essay "Magic." I have some sense of Collingwood's take on the subject from having read his Principles of Art (1938), but this particular essay digs deeply into the relation of magic and emotion and how our utilitarian civilization has attempted to suppress emotion and magic. To read and appreciate this, you must--at least temporarily--set aside your belief that magic is simply crude or distorted science. (Read Collingwood's full treatment of the topic in this book, and I suspect he'll permanently dissuade you from that misconception.) Also, for the curious, compare Collingwood's insights and argument with the work of Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary). I believe that they arrive at very similar conclusions. 

After a long and hideous experiment in suppressing [magic] by force, by burning witches, we came to see that burning witches means believing in them, and that their victims’ belief in them, what I have called emotional vulnerability, was the source of their power. So we changed our own attitude towards them: replaced persecution by ridicule, and gradually developed a whole system of education and social life based on the principle that magic was not a crime but a folly, whose success depended on a like folly in its victims.

            The hard-headed or thick-skinned or rationalistic attitude towards life, which our civilization invented in the seventeenth century, worked out in the eighteenth, and applied to all aspects of human affairs in the nineteenth, is the dominant factor in modern civilization. The best single-word name for it is utilitarianism. Our civilization prides itself in being sensible, rational, businesslike; and all these are the name for the same characteristic, namely the habit of justifying every act, every custom, every institution, by showing its utility. The doctrine that utility is the only kind of value that a thing can have is called utilitarianism; and it is obvious to anyone who reflects on the general character of our civilization that it is, characteristically, a utilitarian civilization. . . .

            This utilitarianism is more than a principle; it is an obsession. Whatever cannot be justified in this way our civilization tends on the whole to suppress. In general, it discountenances emotion and the expression of emotion; in particular it distrusts art and religion as things not altogether respectable. To live within the scheme of modern European-American civilization involves doing a certain violence to one’s emotional nature, treating emotion as a thing that must be repressed, a hostile force within us whose outbreaks are feared as destructive of civilized life. We have already had occasion to observe that our horror of savages is really a horror of something within ourselves which ‘the savage’ (that is, any civilization other than our own) symbolizes. We are now finding reason to think that this thing is emotion: for magic, which sums up all that we dislike in savage life, is beginning to reveal itself as the systematic and organized expression of emotion.

R.G. Collingwood, The Philosophy of Enchantment: Studies in Folktale, Cultural Criticism, and Anthropology (ed. David Boucher, Wendy James, & Phillip Smallwood), (2005; note, however, that the book is based on manuscripts written by Collingwood in the 1930s but not published—and largely forgotten—until long after his death).