Pagan Studies

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The Role of Theory in Magic

This is part 1 of a 2 part series about theory and practice in magic. I've started with theory, because in my opinion the word theory is not accurately used by the majority of people including it in their writing. The word theory is one that has become conflated with a variety of meanings and associations. I'd argue that how theory is often used, in Paganism and in general, isn't really in line with the meaning of the word as it applies to the scientific method. In other words, a person chooses to use the word theory but how s/he uses it has less to do with the scientific method and more to do with cultivating a certain image associated with the word. If theory is used in context to the scientific method then the theory is a 'proven' hypothesis which has been tested and replicated by multiple people, all who have gotten the same results. The theory is valid as long as the same result is replicated each time, but becomes disproven if the result isn't replicated. In that context, theory is actually a part of practice and is used to demonstrate what a person understands about practice, but also is used to test that practice.

How the word theory seems to be applied, when people use it, is more along the lines of providing a generalizing statement about a topic. Said statement is speculative and nothing is really proven. The word theory becomes a kind of paper shield. It looks impressive so we use it to make what we discuss seem impressive. Used in this way the word theory seems to be used in the classic Aristotelian sense of the word, where no doing, no practice occurs beyond the formulation and expression of the theory. In contrast there is practice (which I'll cover in my next post), which involves doing, an essential activity to really experiencing anything life.

The latter use of the word theory is unfortunately used a lot. It leads to a lot of speculation, a lot of discussion and very little doing. Armchair magicians, in particular, love this kind of theorizing. I find it to be boring and less than useful. Theory without practice is a lot of hot air, with no engagement, no experience occurring. I find that when the word theory is employed in discussions about magic and metaphysics in general the result is a lot of speculative conjecture thrown around for the sake of doing it. Theories abound about why magic works or why deities are or aren't real, or any number of other metaphysical topics. But does it even matter? All that kind of conjecture leads to is an intellectualizing of magic, which in turns creates a distance that from doing the actual work. My question is: Does your theory work?

That question can only be answered by marrying practice to theory and recognizing that theory provides a framework to describe practice, but that theory can and should be approached with enough skepticism to allow for the possibility that the theory is wrong. The theory is not the reality of the practice or the magic. The theory is just a descriptor based off your experiences that provides a way to explain those experiences to others, while providing the opportunity to replicate and test the practice. When theory is understood in this context it becomes useful and meaningful because it is an expression of your engagement in the practice. 

Theory has its place in magical work as a tool, but the tool should never overtake or become more than the actual work. I prefer that if I use the word theory I use it in context to actual magical work I've done and shared with others, because it is done in context to practice and made useful in illustrating how others can approach practice. Theory used outside of that context isn't a theory and shouldn't be treated as such because at that point it becomes a tactic used to obfuscate the actual issue. There's no genuine engagement, just an argument that goes around and around with no resolution in sight. When we get involved in a lot of arguing about who is right or isn't right, we've lost track of what's really important: Does your theory work? Does your theory demonstrate a meaningful engagement with the practice you are engaged in? 

Describing the work you do IS important and that's the role of theory in magic. A theory describes the work so that other people can replicate it, experiment with it, or try and disprove it. As a writer I use theory to share what I've done with others, so that they can take it, engage it, and make it part of their own practice (or not as it pleases them). There may be other theories as well and so long as the practice can be replicated and experimented with the theories are worth exploring as a way to engage those practices. Theory doesn't serve any other role in magic than to provide the opportunity to share your practice and work with others to improve it. Used any other way, theory is just a waste of hot air and time that could be better applied to actually doing the work one is called to do.

 

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Taylor Ellwood is the author of Pop Culture Magick, Space/Time Magic, Magical Identity and a number of other occult books. He posts about his latest projects at Magical Experiments. He is also the managing non-fiction editor of Immanion Press. Taylor lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two kids, as well as 7 cats.

Comments

  • Stephanie Rodriguez
    Stephanie Rodriguez Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Thank you, Taylor for this effort to steer the general conversation back toward meaningful discourse and away from spiteful argument.

    As a scientist, I especially appreciate your defining what 'theory' actually means; most often, people use the word when what they really mean is 'hypothesis', or, unfortunately, as you point out, they use it in an attempt to legitimize what is merely opinion.

    I enjoy the opportunity to read the wide variety of topics, written from a wide variety of perspectives, on Pagan Square, but the recent collection of posts attacking others' beliefs while inflating the importance and superiority of one's own had me contemplating unsubscribing...thanks for giving me hope!

    Stephanie

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Saturday, 08 June 2013

    Hello Stephanie,

    Thank you for the kind comment. Theory is fairly loaded word, which is one of the reasons I wanted to unpack it in this post, as well as do the same with practice. I hope you do continue to read...there's a lot of good writing and sharing occurring even in the midst of all the fussin' and a feudin'.

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