The Disenchantment of the World – an Excerpt from Beginning with the Word

The following is an excerpt from Beginning with the Word, by Roger Lundin.

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Before nature could be brought under predictable control, the magical forces that had haunted it for centuries needed to be vanquished. Known as the disenchantment of the world, this scouring of the animistic world proved to be a long, complicated process that required more than two centuries for its completion.

Cover ArtAlthough the process of disenchantment was driven by mechanistic science, it was propelled by other forces as well, including Calvinist theology, capitalist economics, and nascent forms of political individualism.

From the start, disenchantment paid rich dividends, as “the decline of magic coincided with a marked improvement in the extent to which [the physical and social] environment became amenable to control.” Without disenchantment, it is difficult to imagine how long it would have taken for modern medicine, transportation, and communication networks, among other things, to develop as rapidly and completely as they have.

As nature was in the process of being disenchanted, the language used to describe it had to be demystified as well. Gadamer explains that the search for a “system of artificial, unambiguously defined symbols” was born out of this need for demystification. “Only through mathematical symbolism, would it be possible to rise entirely above the contingency of the historical languages and the vagueness of their concepts.”

Viewed as signs, words become “instruments of communication,” and all contingent developments—all the twists and turns, all the startling surprises and gradual changes that accrue to any given language over time—are seen as a nuisance, a “mere flaw in their utility.” According to Gadamer, the “exclusion of what a language ‘is’ beyond its efficient functioning as sign material” became the “ideal of the eighteenth and twentieth-century Enlightenments,” which pressed to discover or create a “language . . . to [which] would correspond the totality of the knowable: Being as absolutely available objectivity.”

For such a language, there can be no mystery hidden within the world, nor any divinity dwelling beyond it, for no power can be tolerated that might disrupt the predictable course of matter in motion.

©2014 by Roger Lundin. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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