What is magic?
Peter Lamont

When people think of magic, they think of different things. They think of the occult, of mythical tales, of psychic and supernatural miracles. They also think of our kind of magic, and when they do, they think of ‘tricks’. It is based on deception. It is not real.

This has been the case throughout history. In the earliest known references to magic tricks, which are in ancient Greece, they are described as illusions. They were dismissed as trivial deceptions by some, but others compared them to a paradox. And a paradox, according to Socrates, was a profound thing: it was a source of wonder.

In other words, since the beginning, magic has had the potential to be viewed either as trivial or else as profound. On the one hand, it is trivial, because it is not real. On the other hand, it is profound, because it is a paradox – something happens that cannot happen – and this is a source of wonder.

For most of history, however, it has been the trivial image of magic that has dominated. One of the reasons for this is that, throughout the centuries, our kind of magic has been compared to witchcraft, spiritualism, and other kinds of ‘real’ magic. It has been compared to ‘real’ magic for a simple reason: to argue that magic is not real. That is why Reginald Scot discussed magic tricks in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). That is why, in the nineteenth century, the Victorians spoke of ‘Modern magic’. ‘Modern magic’ was defined in contrast to earlier magic that was thought to be real. Victorian conjurors went out of their way to explain that magic was simply a trick. And we have doing this ever since.

We even invented a myth that our ancestors believed that magic tricks were real. We thought that this would make magic seem ‘modern’. Historians of magic, since the Victorian era, have told a similar story: we used to think that magic was real, but now we know that it is not. As it happens, the story is not true. However, like so many other inaccurate histories, this became a tradition.1 It was believed by magicians, presented to the public, and it became the story of magic. No wonder that audiences came to see magic as nothing more than a trick. No wonder at all.

So, the audience know that our kind of magic is not real. They understood this in ancient Greece, and they have understood this ever since. Of course, when people pretend that it is real, many people believe them. That was true in the age of witchcraft, and it remains the case today. Some people pretend to have psychic powers, or to be able to read subtle body language, and many people believe them. That is the nature of deception: if you lie in a convincing way, then many people will believe you.

Our kind of magic, however, is honest about its use of deception. And, if it is to be taken more seriously, as something that is more than ‘not real’, then we need to be clear about what it is. Magic is the demonstration of a paradox: something happens that cannot happen. And the paradox, Socrates explained, is a source of wonder. Magic is a performing art that is designed to provoke this experience of wonder. That is what makes magic unique. And to do so, the performance must seem real.

Magic is not real, but the effect must seem real. The effect is what the audience sees, and they must believe what they see. They do not believe that the ball really disappears. However, they do believe what they see: the ball is there, and then the ball is not there. Now you see it, now you don’t. The audience does not believe that David Copperfield can really fly. They believe what they can see: he is in the air, and there is nothing holding him up.

The audience knows very well that balls do not really disappear, and that people cannot fly. That is why it seems impossible. But it only seems impossible if they really believe what they see. This is not a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. It is genuine belief. It is the job of the magician to convince the audience that the ball is really in the hand, and then that it is really gone. It is the job of David Copperfield to convince his audience that he is in the air, and that there is nothing holding him up. The audience are not meant to believe in magic, but they need to believe what they see.2

The best magicians know this, and they convey this to the audience. Lesser magicians focus on the ‘trick’. They think that magic is about fooling the audience. Some even talk about fooling them badly. Others talk about killing them, frying them, or slaying them, which is deeply disturbing. They are speaking metaphorically, of course, but metaphors are meaningful. Metaphors are supposed to be helpful. These metaphors convey a simple meaning: the audience are the enemy. This is not helpful.

Magic is not about fooling the audience. Magic depends on successful deception, but that is the means, not the end. Of course, the audience should not know how it is done, but this is a basic requirement, not the goal. The goal is not to provoke the experience of not knowing how it is done. The goal is not the experience of ignorance; it is the experience of magic. The audience are not the enemy; they are the people for whom we provide this experience. The goal of the magician is to create the effect that something happens that cannot happen. This is a paradox. It is a source of wonder. This is a profound and worthy goal.


This is part of the ‘Magical Thinking’ project, created by Dr Peter Lamont (University of Edinburgh), and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


1 Lamont, P. (2017). Modern Magic, the illusion of transformation, and how it was done. Journal of Social History, shw126, https://doi-org/10.1093/jsh/shw126
2 Lamont, P. (2017). A particular kind of wonder: the experience of magic past and present. Review of General Psychology, 21(1), 1-8.


© Peter Lamont, February 2018




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