Juvenile Instructor » Review Essay: Edward Bever, The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe
 


Review Essay: Edward Bever, The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe

By: Steve Fleming - July 04, 2010

Bever, Edward. The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe: Culture, Cognition, and Everyday Life. Houndsmill, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 2008.

I read this book recently at the recommendation of my adviser, Ann Taves, because she is now focused on the cognitive science aspect of religion. This book is an attempt by Bever, a historian by training, to apply some of the cognitive science methods to the study of early modern witchcraft. This review is a little long but I thought it suggested a number of interesting approaches for the study of supernatural beliefs in a historical setting.

“What basis did early modern beliefs about witchcraft and magic have in reality?” asks Bever. Bever focuses his study on witchcraft and popular magic beliefs in the Duchy Wurtemberg in early Modern Germany. “The results of this investigation indicate that early modern Europeans’ fears of malefic magic reflected both actual practices and potential harms more than previous accounts have suggested.” “To what extent did people really engage in and experience the things contained in the beliefs? Second, to what extent did their activities have real effects, and their perceptions reflect objective events?” (xiv). As I mentioned in some earlier posts, there are a number of scholars who have tried to figure out what the actual practices that people called witchcraft were. Bever follows up on this scholarship but goes one step further: he tries to figure out what was actually going on when people performed popular magic. Bever argues that cognitive science suggests that there was a reality to these beliefs. “For historians have traditionally started from the assumption that at bottom nothing real can have been going on, and therefore have focused on explaining why people would hold delusional beliefs and engage in inefficacious activities” (xviii). Bever seeks to refute this assumption and much more.

Bever’s first three sections focus on the reality of such beliefs (titled “The Realities of Maleficium,” “Diabolism,” and “Beneficent Magic” respectively) while the last section (“Repression and Reality”) argues that the repression of popular magic in the early modern period forced early modern Europeans to essentially ignore how their brains really worked in favor of the fiction of the rational self. So a lot to cover.

In the first section, maleficium (or harmful magic), Bever attempts to explain as real a series of cases of witchcraft in Wurtemburg. “The knowledge that a reputed sorcerer is casting a harmful spell has been shown to be sufficient to cause some people to become ill,” argues Bever, and Bever notes the ill effects of stress on the body, which one is likely to feel if they believe they’ve been cursed (29). Bever also notes certain physiological states like sleep paralysis (often called the Old Hag experience) that some people experience, where they find themselves unable to move while in a state between being asleep and being awake.

Yet Bever’s goal is not just to give a handful of explanations, he wants to cover everything, including beliefs that most of us would say have no basis in reality like cursing animals, beer, or butter. Ultimately, says Bever, there is “a substantial body of evidence suggesting that there are natural processes which are not adequately explained by current scientific understanding” (36).

Bever continues with his discussion of physiological states, the most interesting of which are out of body experiences (OBEs) and an array of states that Bever places under the heading of Shamanism or shamanistic states of consciousness (SSCs). OBEs “are primarily artifacts of the way our brains operate, and only secondarily elements of culture.” They are not a form of other experiences, they are not regular dreams, they are not flying dreams, they can happen while resting but not asleep, they can occur sometimes during “frenetic” activity, they can occur during non REM sleep, they are not the same of hypnosis though they can occur during hypnosis, and they are not the same as sleep paralysis, though they can occur then also. Experiencers see OBEs as different from dreams; OBE is like waking consciousness, more real than a dream (125).

Shamanism, Bever argues, is a cross-cultural phenomenon whereby special individuals are able to travel into the world of spirits where they often gain special powers and knowledge. Physiological studies of such individuals suggest that they are able to create OBEs and near death experiences where the heart rates and brain functions can fluctuate radically. “What ever the physical reality of paranormal processes, there does appear to be a correlation between shamanistic states of consciousness and the ability to perform in experimental settings in ways that appear to manifest them,” argues Bever (209). Thus “the demonologists fantasies were not entirely unfounded.” That is, those (most early moderns) who believed that witches flew by night to make a pact with the devil, whereby he gave them great powers, were responding to actual (in a sense) shamanistic practices. Shamans did believe they went to the fairy world “and thereby gained the power to heal and to harm by manipulating people’s nervous systems through contact with the spirits” (212).

Bever’s work on treasure digging is of particular interested and highlights the work of Johannes Dillinger, whose book on magical treasure digging will be out next year. “The spirits of the dead were often connected with the treasure because it was thought that if a person’s fortune was tainted in some way, his or her spirit would be tied to it until it was dug up and used in some way that atoned for the transgression.” Ghost sightings would inspire treasure hunts “and the treasure-seeking often took on the character of a beneficent exorcism in which a damned soul would be liberated if the treasure was recovered and put to a good purpose, either restored (at least in part) to some rightful owner or donated (at lead in part) to a worthy cause” (171). Later Bever revisits the treasure digging and asserts “while conscious fraud played a significant role in magical treasure-hunting, it does not seem to have played a dominant role. Instead, it was an outgrowth of, one could even say a parasitical mutation of, a practice that was for the most part undertaken by people who genuinely thought that was possible and some of whom really experienced encounters with spirits” (245).

The point about encountering spirits leads Bever to some interesting statements. Bever wonders whether tests could be done to see if people really talk to spirits but laments,

Even if it can be established that people can obtain information that no currently established channel of information transfer can account for from what they take to be the spirits of the dead, it is difficult to see how the existence of ghosts can be demonstrated over a combination of the construction of the internal representation of voyance, precognition, and retrocognition, all of which have stronger experimental support and more developed theoretical explanations than the continuation of individual consciousness after the associated neural activity has stopped. Since we have seen that fraud does not seem to account for most of the cases discussed here, some form of unconscious intrapsychic generation seems to be the most likely explanation for the aural and visual perceptions that were experienced as ghosts, with the incorporation of some information gained paranormally—if such a thing is possible (247-48).

Got that?

In Bever’s final section, he lists the various ways that the church and state suppressed these beliefs.

The repression of magic thus involved a form of neurological fine-tuning in itself, a kind of reverse-shamanism that inhibited the accessing of knowledge and powers inaccessible to normal waking consciousness, initially because accessing such knowledge and powers outside the framework established by the church was seen as devilish, incompatible with the moral strictures of the Christian faith, and later because it was seen as foolish, incompatible with the cognitive processes connected to rationalist materialism.

Though invalid ideas were repressed, “we have seen evidence that in the process valid and useful insights and procedures were also repressed.” Thus the Enlightenment through the baby with the bathwater (377).

In the end, “They stopped believing in witches in part because over the course of the century women had learned to try to avoid acting like witches.” (413). “As officials came to believe all magical activities were essentially fraudulent or foolish, they found it harder to believe that the people who practiced them could be anything other than cynical swindlers or dupes, and became ever more determined to prove that this was the case even to the point of using physical coercion (what would have been called torture in a witch trial) to get suspected con artists to confess” (427).

Thus,

The modern concept of reality was not formed in a vacuum, or through some peaceful process in which truth just naturally unfolded. Instead, the process was bitterly contested, involving a protracted, three century campaign of repression in which magical beliefs, practices, and practitioners were misrepresented and vilified, first as nefarious agents of the Devil and later as nothing but frauds and dupes.” “peoples’ behavior was modified, even if not purified; and a new definition of the self was put in place, a self that, at least in theory, was in rational control of its own actions and decisions, able to repress any irrational thoughts or illusory perceptions that might well up from within, and pervious to any direct contact with or irresistible influences from without (440).

To conclude, Bever remarks on how we perceive our environment, a combination of the senses that scientists call “sensorium.”

Modern Westerners assume that the purpose of the sensorium is to model the outside world as accurately as possible and all other input is a form of pollution, but that is actually false: the purpose of the sensorium is to help us survive to reproduce and rear children. If seeing an angel from God come to warn us from our evil, self-destructive way helps us to that, it is just as valid a use of the sensorium as tracking prey or watching a play, and to ignore it or explain it away because it might not show up in a photograph would be the height of folly. Naturally, this process is not always reliable; sometimes the Devil appears as an angel from God and tries to trick us into doing wrong. But, then, perfectly rational thought can lead us astray just as easily, as the followers of a variety of modern ‘scientific’ ideologies attest. If there is any resolution here, any moral, it is that we should not, and in fact, cannot, choose between rationality and inspiration, for we are hard-wired for both. The question is not whether we will get input from both, just what we will make of it and therefore choose to do with it (439).

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26 Comments

  1. Steve, thanks for another great review. Does Bever specify what time period he’s looking at? ‘Early Modern’ can be a bit slippery across discipline boundaries.

    One of the interesting things I came across while working on my book is how early modern astrologers could make their case based on things that everyone accepted as true–”Of course the planets affect us, as everyone can see in the moon’s influence on the tides, and in moonlight’s fatal effect on wounded horses.” On the other hand, one of the few contemporary sources on witchcraft I dealt with (Wilken=Witekind=Lercheimer, 1585) already calls witches deluded old women who are needlessly persecuted based on baseless superstition.

    Some of the quotes sound a bit far out, but I assume I’m just missing the fuller context. I don’t think you’d have to introduce the possibility of pseudo-supernatural perception just to raise the question of whether people think they are experiencing something like it (or that it is being exercised against them). Without having read the book, I’m a bit leery of the idea that actual, if rare, human abilities could simply be suppressed. Wouldn’t it be easier (and, for religious leaders, more useful) to give them a Christian coloring as some form of religious experience?

    But I’m ready to shout “Amen!” on the last quote from Bever.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 4, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

  2. Wow. Thanks for the heads up on this book. I’ve been reading in this area for a while and find it fascinating. I’m currently reading: “Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic” by Emma Wilby which touches on a similar time period, but focuses on British folk magic and its practitioners. Wilby comes to similar conclusions about the “reality” of magic, but seems less incline to the non-scientific aspects you describe from the book you review. Again thanks.

    Comment by SteveP — July 4, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

  3. I’m just looking at my notes and don’t have exact dates, I think he focussed on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

    Bever does seem overly eager to come up with some sort of “real” explanation for these beliefs, where the old idea that pre-modern people simply blamed misfortune on witchcraft often seems like an adequate explanation. He does go through quite a number of cases though and I do find his approach refreshing since I’ve read a number of books that start out by saying “we all know these beliefs are ridiculous.”

    On the issue of suppression and transference into Christian idioms, Bever gives a few examples of the suppression of people claiming to be prophets. The story of one Hans Keil from Gerlingen is particularly interesting. In 1648 Keil said an angel came and told him that if the people did not repent of their sabbath breaking, extortionate taxation, usury, and “Priestly avarice,” they would be destroyed in 6 months. He gained a lot of popularity and pointed to bleeding vines as a forewarning of God’s wrath. The authorities investigated and found that he was a collector of such apocalyptic literature and that he had faked the bleeding vines. He confessed that he faked the bleeding vines, but that an angel really had appeared to him but that he was worried that the people would not believe him without a sign. He was tortured on the wrack until he agreed to say he made the whole thing up. Then he was flogged, branded, and banished. Rough stuff. No doubt certain forms of pietism were acceptable, but many claims to supernatural gifts were not.

    Bever says of the incident, that several things could have happened, “One is that an angel of the Lord really did come down from heaven and appear to him, but even if we accept this as possible, the fake miracle makes it seem unlikely in this case.” He then goes onto to explain how he was likely sincere in his belief that an angel had appeared to him (264).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 4, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

  4. Thanks Steve. Bever cites Wilby but says that her book came out too late for him to use. See my review here.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 4, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

  5. Yeah, prophecy had a long track record of leading to conflict, unless the prophet was firmly embedded in the ecclesiastic structure. Otherwise you get cases like Keil, who sounds like he was not only a thorn in the side of the local church by challenging its authority, but also leading to popular unrest against local political power (taxation) and economic elites (usury). That’s a sure recipe for immediate, brutal clampdown.

    I like the cognitive approach, but Keil sounds like a tough case for Bever to deal with. I can see cognition explaining a lot of things, but a stubborn belief in angels is a bit much–doesn’t that end up with something like, “Hans Keil was either a true prophet, or a madman” and, in either case, not a good subject for cognitive analysis? And it’s not clear that the focus on cognition tells us more about the case than the old-fashioned analysis of local power structures. On the other hand, Bever’s book is sounding more and more like something that I very much need to read.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 5, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

  6. “The story of one Hans Keil from Gerlingen is particularly interesting. In 1648 Keil said an angel came and told him that if the people did not repent of their sabbath breaking, extortionate taxation, usury, and “Priestly avarice,” they would be destroyed in 6 months.”

    The question is, were they destroyed in six months? I think any study of prophecy and visions (yes, even in Mormonism) has to start with that.

    Comment by Jettboy — July 5, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

  7. Thanks for the review–I’ll definitely want to check out the whole book. Bever’s idea that people had to ignore some of their experiences/brain functions to be moderns is pretty provocative.

    It sounds like Bever’s contention that shamanism is basically universal draws pretty heavily on Eliade, a risky move since Eliade played pretty loose with his evidence. Have you checked out H. Sidky’s Haunted by the Archaic Shaman and Alice Beck Kehoe’s Shamans and Religion? They problematize the common scholarly assumption that shamanism is shamanism is shamanism no matter where you go.

    Comment by Brett Hendrickson — July 5, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

  8. Jonathan and Brett, thanks for the input. To respond let me try to explain a bit more about the approach of cognitive science as I understand it.

    The cognitive scientists reject the notion that we are purely rational beings (our brains just make us think we are). So Bever’s whole approach is to not choose between real prophet and madman in the case of Keil. You can legitimately believe you encountered a non-existent angel and not be crazy, Bever argues. He also seems to leave open the possibility of real angels; he’s sort of agnostic about all that.

    Bever argues that a lot of the divinatory means that people used were ways to tap into the subconscious, which he argues is a pretty effective thing to do. He argues that the myth of the rational self was invented in the Enlightenment, which worked to shut out these intuitive ways of knowing.

    Brett, I have not read those books (thanks for the references) but I am aware of the critiques (broadly). My adviser, Ann Taves’s book mentions the critique of the use of the term “shamanism” in her book Fits, Trances, and Visions.

    Bever’s response to those critiques is to take a cognitive science approach rather than an anthropological one. He cites cognitive studies on certain special individuals around the world to come up with “shamanistic states of consciousness.” The argument that Bever and other cognitive scientists make is that there are a series of bodily functions that are pan human (though limited to a certain portion of the population): sleep paralysis, out-of-body experiences, and Bever adds shamanistic states of consciousness. Bever also wonders is seeing the dead should count as one of these experiences.

    So the argument is that cognitive scientists have pin-pointed a group of bodily functions they are calling shamanism that is independent of what scholars call “strict sense” shamanism of Siberia.

    The goal of the cognitive approach is to find common biological functions that transcend culture and then look for their influence on various cultures.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 5, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

  9. I missed your review! We ought to compare reading lists! I’m very interested in this area.

    Comment by SteveP — July 5, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

  10. Indeed, Steve. I put up links in the OP to the reviews I’ve done on the books I’ve read on the topic. These are books that I put on my book lists for my fields exams. As I mentioned in the OP, I wanted to learn what some of the folk practices were.

    What is your interest? I was surprised you mentioned Wilby since her book seemed a little obscure.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 5, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

  11. Thanks for this review essay, Steve; a fascinating topic.

    Comment by Ben — July 6, 2010 @ 2:40 am

  12. Steve, you continue to bring these pertinent studies to bear on early Mormonism. I believe your dissertation/first book will be a historiographical heavyweight.

    On this:
    “Bever’s work on treasure digging is of particular interested and highlights the work of Johannes Dillinger, whose book on magical treasure digging will be out next year. “The spirits of the dead were often connected with the treasure because it was thought that if a person’s fortune was tainted in some way, his or her spirit would be tied to it until it was dug up and used in some way that atoned for the transgression.” Ghost sightings would inspire treasure hunts “and the treasure-seeking often took on the character of a beneficent exorcism in which a damned soul would be liberated if the treasure was recovered and put to a good purpose, either restored (at least in part) to some rightful owner or donated (at lead in part) to a worthy cause” (171). ”

    Maybe this is a good generalization for 17-18thC Germany. And the idea survives into the early American Republic, but just fyi my sense of the landscape is, after reading scores and maybe hundreds of treasure tales, that the lore in the early American republic is much more diverse and fluid.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — July 6, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

  13. Keep the review coming, Steve. These are great.

    Comment by Christopher — July 6, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

  14. Jetboy #6. I don’t think they were, but that’s not really Bever’s interest.

    Mark, thanks. Still, Moroni does guard the treasure to make sure it is put to good use :).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 7, 2010 @ 7:29 am

  15. Thanks for the review. I’m delighted by attempts to cross the arbitrary lines of academic disciplines though in my experience importation of “neuroscience” perspectives into humanistic work usually ends up with a book that’s dated by the time it’s eligible for paperback. I agree there are reams of fantastic material in any consideration of “magic.”
    Mark, I agree that American treasure stories are diverse, but my reading of Mormon treasure context is that Steve is correct to point out the associations with the troubled spirits.

    Comment by smb — July 7, 2010 @ 9:09 am

  16. fine with me

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — July 8, 2010 @ 9:18 am

  17. I not in a position to render any judgment yet, I thought it was useful to make a note of what Bever said on the matter. Thanks for the input.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 8, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

  18. Steve,

    These are very useful! I teach the History and Philosophy of Biology and in the history part of the class we do a section on the rise of science contrasted with esotericism and witchcraft. The beliefs that influenced some of the early stabs at science had their roots in attempts at gaining knowledge about this world through otherworldly sources. So many of the early scientists, like Roger Bacon and Newton, and others were also alchemists and astrologers. So in my class we take a close look at people like John Dee, and other early natural philosophers. Folk beliefs make a nice comparison with modern superstitions in interesting ways. So we look at things like dowsing and try and draw some demarcations between science and other ways of trying to gain knowledge. In addition, the witch hunts of the 17th Century provide a nice segue into how worldviews and their associated assumptions can be used to harm or mark others-as-other in society. In short, this has led me into that literature fairly deeply. In my class we read articles from Isis, the Ankarloo and Clark Witchcraft and Magic in Europe series, explore the work of researchers like Stuart Clark, and try and situate current science vis-a-vis early esoteric attempts to understand the world and how those attempts still influence and are resisted by modern science. So what started as just some background reading for class has become an actual interest. My research is in the philosophy of mathematical and computer models and so representation, as such, is fairly important in my research and this are actually has been productive in exploring how knowledge is represented and transferred in the world of science.

    Comment by SteveP — July 9, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

  19. Very interesting stuff, Steve.

    Oh, and Bever cites studies done on dowsing to argue that it really works.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 11, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

  20. Hi.

    Sorry I’m coming to this late, but I just became aware of this review and discussion in the last few days.

    First off, I want to say that I’m honored that Ann Taves recommended my book to you. I know her work from my research, and think it is exemplary.

    Secondly, I want to thank you for posting this review. I think you do a very good job of representing my points both in it and in your responses to the questions and comments. As a consequence, there is only one real correction and one comment I’d like to add to the discussion.

    The correction is that I don’t think that belief in or fear of magic is necessary for curses and other displays of hostility to have a debilitating effect on their object. Instead, I think a visceral reaction to threat displays triggers the stress response, which makes us better able to fight or flee, but suppresses the immune system and causes other bodily changes that make us more vulnerable to longer-term problems. This happens pretty much whenever we have a hostile encounter, but its effects are particularly important when the stress is intense, which can happen when someone deliberately or spontaneously tries to maximize the impact of their hatred or anger, or when the stress is chronic, which can happen especially in the kind of small, closed communities that early modern peasants and small-townspeople lived in.

    The comment I want to make concerns the issue of my eagerness to find “real” explanations for things that have traditionally been seen as pre-modern people just blaming random misfortune on witchcraft, because that’s a criticism that’s been raised by others as well. In looking back, I wish that I had emphasized more strongly that I think that in many specific cases that was what was going on; my point is that I think these are misapplications of concepts that have an essential validity, rather than the traditional view that they are essentially invalid. If you look at the way I discuss cases, I do try to constantly emphasize that I’m dealing with possibilities and probabilities, not certainties; I estimate that only about 12% of suspects had “really” done anything that could reasonably be construed as witchcraft (and these included unconscious threat displays as well as deliberate attempts to inflict injury); and I have a whole section of Chapter 4 where I trace in detail a totally unfounded set of accusations and the processes of rumor and gossip that gave rise to it. However, this criticism has come up often enough that I wish I had done more to preempt it when writing the book.

    Once again, many thanks for your interest in my book and your thoughtful review (and not just of mine, but of the others like Wilby’s). Thanks also to the commenters for your thoughtful questions and observations as well.

    Comment by Edward Bever — July 23, 2010 @ 12:46 am

  21. Edward, thanks for the response. Your book was certainly a lot of food for thought. I hope to figure out ways to use it in my writing.

    Ann said that one of her colleagues suggested the book to her while she was on sabbatical at Stanford last year. The colleague saw it a a real breakthrough in the application of cognitive science. So Ann put it on my reading list for my comprehensive exams; she had not read it at the time, but did order it. I’m interested to hear her take.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 25, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

  22. Edward, I think another big project would consider the cultural power of the narrative of immune dysfunction. Before being willing to endorse physiological stress as the “real” (James would have called it “medical materialist”) explanation for witchcraft’s effects, it would be worth considering that the data associating social stress and chronic fear with “immune supression” does not tend to pan out in terms of actual infection rather than just laboratory assays of immune function that don’t correlate with actual clinical outcomes. (As a medical researcher and cultural historian, I find the narrative of immune dysfunction of much greater cultural than scientific significance–I would be very cautious about moving from elevated cortisol levels or subtle variations in leukocyte function to physiological symptoms.)

    Comment by smb — July 25, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

  23. Its nice to hear that the book was recommended to Ann, at least, and I hope she finds it interesting once she gets it.

    As far as the link between stress, immune suppression, and disease goes, first of all, immune suppression is just one of several mechanisms that are discussed as linking stress to health, and there are other processes besides stress that seem to be at work as well (like classic psychodynamics), and in my study I discuss the range of them. Secondly, as an historian engaged in interdisciplinary research, I have to rely on my judgment of the balance of studies in the allied fields I draw upon at the point I do my investigation. I’m aware that research and theorizing about both the extent and nature of psychosocial factors in physical health are ongoing; that some readings are undoubtedly exaggerated (while others undervalue them); and that the understanding of specific mechanisms will undoubtedly change. However, at the point of writing, I have to take what seems to be the current consensus in the context of its historical trajectory and do my best to relate it to the specific historical phenomenon I’m trying to understand. When I first started my study of witchcraft back in the late 1970s, the great emphasis in “psychosomatic medicine” was on psychodynamics. When I returned to the topic in the 1990s, the field had gone through a veritable revolution in which psychodynamics had come to be strongly deemphasized, and stress had been adopted in (and beyond) its place. In each case, I had to adopt the current understanding and apply it to my material as best I could, but to me the really important things are 1) over time a role for psychosocial factors in health and disease has been supported, even if the proposed mechanisms have changed and the extent recognized fluctuates somewhat, and 2) over time, despite the fluctuations, the trend in the estimation of the importance of psychosocial factors in disease has been increasing.

    On this latter issue, I find your point about the cultural narrative of immune dysfunction interesting, but I think somewhat incomplete. I think it would be more interesting and useful to trace the interplay of the cultural narratives about things like immune dysfunction with the skeptical counter-narratives they give rise to. It would also be interesting to study the psychological and sociocultural functions that enthusiasm and skepticism serve for the people who adopt them.

    Comment by Edward Bever — July 27, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

  24. Edward, I’d be willing to cede your point that a history would have to include the “naysayers,” though in doing so one would need to acknowledge and consider the ways that reductionistic research has been generalized in a logically inconsistent way. Independent of such an analysis, I think there must be a better way for humanists to interact with experimental/quantitatively observational work that avoids the types of sweeping generalizations that I commonly see when people cite “the balance of studies in allied fields.”

    Comment by smb — July 29, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

  25. Sam, “reductionistic” isn’t an accurate way to describe Bever’s book. I’d say it’s rather the opposite since he’s arguing for greater reality for such claims rather than less. His response to my review was on a particular point; the book covers a much wider range of approaches and topics. I’d be very interested in your take on the book since you have expertise in many of these issues, but I think it really is worth reading.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 29, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

  26. Steve, sorry, “reductionistic” refers to the research that is used to support the stress–>immune suppression connection, not Bever’s book per se. That reductionistic research is generalized as if it accurately applied in real life, and that over-generalized narrative is then handed over to humanists for digestion. I don’t object to multidisciplinary approaches to complex phenomena–I just recommend that they be cautious about how reductionistic studies in the life sciences are generalized.

    Comment by smb — July 29, 2010 @ 10:31 pm