On Magic and Meaning

On Magic and Meaning

We are doomed to misidentify ourselves, as long as we can’t do justice to where we come from
Charles Taylor.

Is it legitimate to talk about magic, even loosely, in modern business life? We have debated hard and long about whether such language has any place in that context. It’s common to search for meaning, but does meaning and magic have a place? We think it does.

Magic and Meaning speak of changing worldviews: the tensions they elicit invite a closer look at history and a consideration of how we got here.

In the pre-modern world, human identity was inseparably connected to nature and the cosmos. But the power of Galileo’s telescope in the 17th century helped to reveal that, as Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker describe, “the stars were no longer gods. We realised that they are giant balls of gas and that the planets, including our own, rotate around the sun.”

In an effort to provide a physical explanation for this new view of the universe, Descartes laid down a mechanistic code. Nature was seen as a great unfeeling machine made up of separate parts; the modern human mind became the seat of all that was sacred.

In many ways the split between mind and nature enabled individual thinking to develop in unimaginable ways: no longer beholden to inherited stories of a cosmos imbued with magical forces of good and evil, humans became empowered through our own powers of observation. In this seemingly bright new world, understanding through myths and legends, and deriving meaning from the land and the wider cosmos were often thought of as irrational.
We all now enjoy the material benefits made possible by the last three hundred years of scientific progress. But there’s a cost.
As Thomas Berry explains, our reliance on the literal at the expense of other ways of knowing means that the more we have discovered scientifically about the universe, the less it holds meaning for us.
It has also impacted the way leadership is viewed, even today. With no sense of intelligent life left, other than in the mind of the privileged human, it is easy to see how the job of the leader was to command and control, both land and people.
Most of us would agree that we are living in uncertain times. The fragmentation of our world and the consequences for both planet and people is calling for new understanding of what we now know, i.e. that we are not living in a machine but rather are an integral part of a delicately balanced interconnected, expanding and evolving universe.
Whilst magic is a word to use cautiously, the present and the future are calling for an integration of different ways of knowing – the more “magical” ways of knowing with scientific ways of knowing. As Richard Tarnas describes, stepping into a more connected paradigm involves ways of knowing that are deeper than daylight can comprehend.
Just imagine what leaders can achieve if they are prepared, and able, to make meaning through thinking about and working with these different ways of viewing our fundamental story. It’s not magic in the sense of illusion. It’s magic in the sense of harnessing our deepest stories to allow us, our organisations and our world to survive and flourish.