Rethinking how to define magic

Authored by: Richard Kieckhefer

The Routledge History of Medieval Magic

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9781472447302
eBook ISBN: 9781315613192
Adobe ISBN:


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What is magic? We know perfectly well what it is if no one asks us, but when someone asks and we try to define it, we are confused. Or perhaps we give definitions adequate to some forms of magic but not others. Or we have definitions that make sense to us but not to others around us, who, when pressed, come to the table with rather different notions. We tell people, “When I speak of magic, what I mean by it is …”, but then we should not be surprised if they tune out our abstractions and understand us in terms of their own vague preconceptions. Defining magic is notoriously tricky business. And one reason for that is, I wish to argue, that we try to make the word “magic” accomplish what it is ill equipped to do. It is the wrong kind of term for what we want to do with it. 1

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