Experimental Magic: The Evolution of Magic

Experiment with your magical practice by learning how to apply art, pop culture, neuroscience, psychology, and other disciplines to your magical work, as well as exploring fundamental underlying principles of what makes magic work. You'll never look at magic in the same way!

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Why the question why is important to your magical practice

The other day a student from the Process of Magic class told me that she was working on the first homework assignment, which asks the student to tell me what their definition of magic is and why they've chosen that definition. She'd answered the first part, but asked me: "Why do you ask why?" I quipped "Why not" but then proceeded to explain why the question why is so important not only in magic, but in any subject you are trying to learn. In my opinion, if you can't answer the question why it indicates that you don't understand what you would be explaining to the person. For example, going back to the question of why a person has chosen a particular definition of magic, simply offering the definition isn't enough, if s/he can't explain how s/he arrived at that definition of magic. When you define something like magic, you are either defining it based off your personal experience, using someone else's definition, or a combination of the two, wherein your experiences seem to confirm the definition that someone else has offered.

One of the problems I have with how the average occultist or pagan defines magic is that all too often the definition offered is someone else's. Crowley's definition of magic, for example, is often used to explain what that person conceives of as what magic is. The problem, in my opinion, is that there is a tendency to accept this definition without asking why. The same applies to any other definition of magic that is offered up without the person questioning the definition. A definition of magic, or anything else for that matter only really becomes relevant when you can explain why that definition is important to you, in context to your own experiences. Simply expressing what something is doesn't demonstrate true understanding of it, until you can explain why the definition is meaningful to you.

Another reason to ask why is that why necessarily helps you to uncover the positives and negatives of a given definition. Any definition brings with it the baggage and agendas of the person who created the definition. Thus when we use another person's definition we are also using all the associated baggage and agendas that come with that definition. Asking why allows you to examine a given definition carefully and explore what makes it what it is, and ask whether that really fits your needs. Definitions are ultimately words used to describe how something ought to work and/or exist, and as such they are far less tangible then we sometimes think. A definition of magic is ultimately just words used to describe how you think magic ought to work...so why not ask why and actually test the definition to see if it has any validity to it. By doing so you can determine if the definition really applies, or if you need to develop one of your own that better fits your experiences.

Now what I write above exposes the weakness that all definitions have. A definition is a subjective statement about what it defines. This can bother some people, because definitions tend to be treated as objective statements, but remember that any definition is something that a person defined not even so much as to describe what something is, but rather to provide his/her own take on what something is. By recognizing this "reality" about definitions we can test them and will because we no longer buy into the idea that they are truly objective statements that define reality. Instead we recognize that by asking why we are acknowledging that they are subjective statements used to describe subjective experiences. Ask why that you might discover your own definitions and consequently use them to navigate reality. For further reading on this topic I recommend the excellent book by Edward Schiappa: Defining Reality. It explores the concepts I've mentioned here in much further detail and will prove enlightening as a way of exploring the value of definitions in our culture.

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Taylor Ellwood is the author of Pop Culture Magic Systems, Space/Time Magic, Magical Identity and a number of other occult books. He posts about his latest projects at Magical Experiments.


  • J'Karrah
    J'Karrah Sunday, 01 September 2013

    This article very closely aligns with a position I have held as a teacher of magic for years: if I agree to take you as a student, you must agree to never argue or or disagree with me on any subject UNTIL you can explain WHY you disagree. I have never had a problem with people whose opinions on magic or magical processes differ from mine, even if they do so radically. We are all different and perceive the magical world differently. But unless a student is capable to explain to me WHY they disagree they obviously don't consciously understand the reason themselves. And for far too many, unless they are pushed to keep delving until they do understand they never will, really.

    And who knows... Maybe I'll wind up changing my views because they have presented something from a perspective I had never considered before. It's happened more than once in the past, and a good teacher should never be afraid to learn something new from their students!

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Sunday, 01 September 2013

    A good teacher always is willing to learn from his/her students. I certainly have. Ad like you said until they explain why they haven't delved deeply enough to fully understand what they are doing.

  • J'Karrah
    J'Karrah Sunday, 01 September 2013

    I hope I explained that right. Reading back over it, it sounds more than a little cocky...even though it's not meant to be :p

  • Lalia Milner
    Lalia Milner Wednesday, 11 September 2013

    What would be a good way to introduce this concept to my children? With so many "traditional" beliefs out there it's sometimes difficult to explain why we believe the way we do.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Thursday, 12 September 2013

    Hello Laila,

    The best way to teach them is get them to ask why and also to explain why to them. By getting them to ask why, they'll have the necessary critical awareness to determine for themselves what really works or doesn't work for them.

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