Different Ways of Knowing

August 1, 2009

Evil afoot: Goethe's legendary Faust.
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History professor Thomas Robisheaux's "Magic, Religion, and Science Since 1400" weaves together what he calls "three ways of knowing" in a single course. These are strands that, throughout history, "are seamlessly woven together or overlapping with each other," he says. "You can't understand one without the others." Robisheaux '74 has taught at Duke for more than twenty-five years; he calls this his most challenging course to teach.


"Why is magic forbidden or derided, and yet pervasive in Western culture?" he asks his students. "What claims does religion make about knowing the invisible world? Why does scientific knowledge awe us and dominate Western knowledge?"

This is a course "about the ways we as Westerners move into and out of the visible and the invisible worlds, and what happens when those worlds cross in unexpected ways," as he describes it in the syllabus. The approach in lectures is historical. But course materials draw on works from anthropology, comparative religion, film studies, literature, psychology, and the history of science.

Among the many topics that Robisheaux introduces to his students are medieval and Renaissance magic, the Scientific Revolution, the Galileo trial, modern film and the occult, Goethe's Faust, and J.R.R. Tolkien and fantasy literature. Students read works by figures ranging from Sigmund Freud to Zora Neale Hurston.

Robisheaux's new book, The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village, which is on the syllabus, illustrates how those alternative ways of knowing comingled in early-modern society. "I hope the book shows how mainstream witch beliefs really were," he says. "You had prominent scientists, physicians, jurists, and politicians who had to grapple with this troubling issue.

"It's not something bizarre and on the fringes. Witchcraft is really about how the society understood itself."