Jason Leddington – philosophy of magic (#87)


Jason is a Associate Professor of Philosophy & NEH Chair in the Humanities at ​Bucknell University. ​From 2019–2021 he is also a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at ​The Centre for Philosophical Psychology, University of Antwerp. His research has two main overlapping areas: (1) aesthetics & philosophy of art and (2) the philosophy of perception. Jason also has a substantial research interest in the epistemology of understanding.

Twitter: @jpleddington

Website: http://jasonleddington.net/

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

Here are four very different examples:

  1. At the 2019 meeting of the Science of Magic Association in Chicago, Tom Stone performed a magic trick that left me utterly amazed. (He also performed it on this season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us, so you can see it yourself!)
  2. I recently moved to Antwerp, Belgium. In late summer, I saw some amazing sunsets over the River Scheldt.
  3. The other night I happened upon a YouTube video of skateboarders doing “hill bombs” in California (mostly San Francisco, I think). Apparently, a hill bomb involves riding straight down a long (and preferably steep) hill without skidding or sliding in any way to break your speed—and, of course, as skate culture requires, without wearing any protective gear. All the hill bombs on this video were amazing, but I was most amazed by the rider who hill bombed while doing a handstand on his skateboard—and never fell.
  4. For my birthday this year my wife and I went to an amazing dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Antwerp.

What do these examples have in common? They are all cases where I said, or might have said, “That was amazing.” But is there anything else that unifies them? The dinner was a highly refined sensory experience. Watching the hill bombs anything but. The sunset was in some ways like the dinner (sensorily rich), but also possessed a distinctive grandeur and sublimity. And seeing Tom Stone’s magic trick? Different yet again. Perhaps the only thing that unifies “amazing” experiences is that they are positively valenced and extra-ordinary, and so, snap us out of the dullness of everyday existence in ways that we find gratifying.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

My views here are not fully settled (especially on awe), but I’ll give this a shot, anyway—and try to keep it brief.

Let’s start from magic. As I understand it, a good magic trick aims to get us to think something like this: “I know it’s a trick, but I don’t see how it could be.” What we seem to have witnessed is, in fact, impossible (and we know it); thus, it must be a trick, an illusion. But if it’s really good magic, we will also have no idea whatsoever as to the magician’s method; thus, we won’t see how it could be a trick. So, even though we know it can’t be real, it sure feels real!

Now, contrary to many, I don’t think magic tricks are proper objects of wonder. The reason is that I think wonder is an attitude toward the real—in the following sense. While we give expression to the experience of magic by saying, “I know it’s a trick (i.e., fake), but I don’t see how it could be,” we give expression to the experience of wonder by saying, “I know it’s real, but I don’t see how it could be.” The unifying element is that both are experiences of bafflement—or as Plato would say, aporia—where we’re faced with something that renders us literally speechless: “It must have an explanation, but how could it? I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to make sense of it.” The difference is that, in virtue of being directed at the real, the experience of wonder carries a weight the experience of magic can never match.

One of my favorite objects of wonder is the fact of existence: that there is something rather than nothing. Here’s how I experience it: there must be an explanation for existence—but how could there be? The sheer fact of existence is baffling, and wonderful. (For some people, the existence of consciousness is like this, too.) (And note that, while it would be equally baffling for there to be nothing rather than something, nothingness can’t be wondered at, because it literally is not.)

Now, if magic tricks aren’t proper objects of wonder, then what’s the relationship between magic and wonder? As I understand it, magic tricks are simulacra of objects of wonder, and the experience of magic structurally parallels the experience of wonder but lacks its existential oomph. (Note that, if I’m right, we should expect that people who are most susceptible to experiences of wonder will be those who are most attracted to magic. Look! A potentially empirically testable philosophical thesis!)

What about curiosity and awe? I’ve already said a lot so I’ll just say this. Curiosity is, I think, a simple and positively valenced emotional response to things that we assess as both novel and generally manageable (see psychologist Paul Silvia’s excellent work here). Understood in this way, I think curiosity is a part of wonder, which is a complex (multi-part) and mixed (multi-valent) emotion. As for awe, I’m inclined to say that awe is a response to magnitude. The size of the universe. The power of the sea. These things are awesome. (Philosophers will note that this conception of awesomeness is very closely related to Kant’s conception of the sublime.) Awe and wonder are related inasmuch as our sense-making capacities are both stimulated by, and can easily short-circuit in the face of, things of great magnitude.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

If I’m right, then wonder is an outgrowth of our curiosity. And I think curiosity is natural to humans—that is, I think it’s part of our human (animal) nature.

As for cultivating wonder, I think it’s all about attention. Opportunities for wonder abound. It’s all a matter of what you pay attention to—and how. Magic can be useful here. But so can film, literature, philosophy, and various “spiritual” practices.


What do you love about magic?

What I love about magic is, above all, the experience of magic.

Like wonder, the experience of magic has a simplicity, a purity, and an intensity that’s not easily duplicated. I think this is reflected in the indelible impression that a good magic trick can make on its audience. Years after you’ve forgotten the details of your visit to the Louvre, including what it was like to stand in front of the Mona Lisa, you may recall—and relish recounting—the details of the “simple” card trick you saw a magician perform that evening on the Boulevard St. Germain. (All the more remarkable given how so much of life is so easily forgotten.) Given the way in which many people carry and treasure such memories, it’s not at all silly to think of the performance of a magic trick as an act of gift-giving.


Magicians often trivialise their magic, whereas you think the experience of magic should be something so much more. Can you tell me more about what makes powerful magic? Where do magicians go wrong?

Let me begin by saying that everything I say here abstracts away from particular performance situations and the demands that they impose. That having been said, I agree: magicians often trivialize their magic. There is an anxiety amongst magicians about the status and reputation of magic that provokes a variety of coping strategies. Some performers adopt an ironic distance toward their magic. Some take an apologetic stance. Some get defensive. Some hide the magic behind something else—as if it needs redemption by comedy, storytelling, poetry, or philosophy. Some magicians do all of these things in different ways. I don’t blame any of them for this. It can be very challenging to perform magic in a cultural and social context that so often demeans it. At the same time, it’s critical to remember that most people actually love magic. And I think the strongest performers create the space for people to indulge this affection without irony, shame, resentment, or diversion.

I think that, if your goal is to give people the strongest possible experience of magic, then your task is to find good material and find a way to clear space for people to relish it. One important ingredient here—one that every competent professional knows—is: less is more. Strong magic is not easy to deal with—exactly why it’s so memorable. But if you perform six or seven strong tricks for an audience, you dull the effect and muddy the cognitive waters. Our capacities for attention and retention are finite. So, instead: choose carefully. Give your audience one, two, or maybe three potent experiences to turn over in their minds (again and again).


In your work you write about the term “alief”, can you explain what that is and give a couple of examples?

‘Alief’ is a term coined by philosopher Tamar Gendler for states of mind that are belief-like but not under direct rational control. Gendler argues—convincingly, I think—that there are a variety of psychological phenomena that we can’t explain without appeal to something like alief. Normally, when I explain your behavior, I appeal to your beliefs and your desires. (Why did he go to the fridge? Because he’s thirsty and he believes there’s beer in the fridge.) However, there are cases of “belief-behavior mismatch” where this approach doesn’t work. Here is a description of a famous experiment first performed in the 1980s by psychologist Paul Rozin:

Participants observed as sugar from a commercial package was poured into two clean bottles.  They were then given two labels, one saying “sugar” and the other saying “sodium cyanide, poison,” and asked to place one label on each bottle, as they chose.  Most participants subsequently showed more reluctance to drink sugar water made from the bottle that they had labeled with the cyanide (or even a “not sodium cyanide”) label. (Rozin et al. 2007, 217–18)

What explains this behavior? Certainly not the belief that there is cyanide in one of the bottles. Instead, Gendler suggests—in line with dual-process theories in psychology—that alongside our “belief” system is an “alief” system that “sees” the world in a way that is automatic, associative, and arational. You believe the water is safe to drink, but thanks to the presence of the word ‘cyanide’, you also—automatically, associatively, and arationally—represent the water as unsafe. This explains why you hesitate to drink from the bottle labeled ‘sodium cyanide, poison’ (or even ‘not sodium cyanide’) even though you know that it contains only sugar water. (In the terms familiar from Daniel Kahneman’s work in dual-process theory, System 1 treats the water as contaminated while System 2 treats it as safe. So, we get a conflict internal to the cognitive system as a whole.)

How does this relate to magic? Well, successful magic performances produce strong feelings of cognitive dissonance. I know that coins can’t vanish into thin air, and yet—for all I can tell—that’s what just happened. (I know it’s a trick, but I don’t see how it could be!) How should we describe this experience? It’s not that I now both believe and disbelieve that coins can vanish in thin air. Even the strongest magic tricks don’t get us to believe contradictions. My suggestion is that, while I believe that the coin didn’t vanish, I alieve that it did. Understood in this way, the job of the magician is to create, and then to intensify, a “belief-discordant alief” in something impossible. Maximum intensity and maximum dissonance occur at the moment of total bafflement when I realize I have no idea how to begin to explain what I’ve witnessed.


In a recent interview Vincent Gambini said that “Magic was philosophy in action” Does this resonate with you?

Yes. After all, if wonder is the impulse at the root of all “pure” inquiry, the starting-point of philosophy, then magic’s playful reenactment of the moment of wonder is a reenactment of the birth of philosophy.


In philosophy who are the big thinkers about wonder? Why does magic need philosophers?

Remarkably, there’s been very little contemporary philosophical work on wonder. While the topic has historically been of great importance to philosophers and scientists—from Ancient Greece through the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period into the 19th century—it hasn’t gotten much attention in the 20th and 21st centuries. However, this is changing. Philosophers and psychologists are both paying more attention to emotions in all of their variety, including so-called “transcendent” states such as wonder and awe. So, I think we can expect to see quite a bit of new work on wonder in the next few years. In the meantime, historians of science Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park have written a marvelous book on the history of thinking about wonder and related emotions that anyone interested in the topic should read: Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150–1750 (Zone Books, 1998).

As for magic, does it need philosophers? In a sense, I think the answer is, “No.” Magicians do just fine on their own. In at least two ways, though, I think the the answer is, “Yes.” First, magicians are a deeply reflective and philosophical bunch. They tend to care about and enjoy discussing questions such as, ‘What is magic?’, ‘What is wonder?’, and ‘What is art?’—prime philosophical terrain. And if how magicians answer such questions affects how they think about and present their magic—well, then, philosophy definitely matters to magic. Second, I think philosophy can play a very valuable critical role for magic. Art criticism and analysis is important mainly because it can help us to appreciate works we might otherwise fail to appreciate. I think that the public by and large has a very poor understanding of the nature and goals of magic performance, partly because magicians have done a very poor job of clarifying it for them (often not understanding it well themselves). Of course, this doesn’t stop people from in many ways really enjoying magic, but I do think that, for many of us, it is an impediment (in part because of the way it impacts magic’s reputation). So, probably the most gratifying thing about the experience of giving philosophical talks about magic to both academics and the general public is the frequency with which I’m told that my work has helped someone to see magic in a new light and to appreciate it like never before. As a philosopher and magician, that’s about the best I could hope for.

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