Concepts of Fascination, from Democritus to Kant

By Degen, Andreas | Journal of the History of Ideas, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Concepts of Fascination, from Democritus to Kant


Degen, Andreas, Journal of the History of Ideas


In modem American English, there are three different meanings for the verb "to fascinate": "to have a strong interest or attraction for," "to hold motionless, spellbind" as well as the by-now obsolete definition "to bewitch."1 This spectrum of meanings, also found in other languages, hints at previous semantic displacements of the word and the concepts described therein. The following treatise provides a systematic survey of the history of semantic of the term "fascination" since antiquity until modern times.^sup 2^

Basic ideas that have marked the scientific discourse over the concept will be examined, along with their semantic transfers and new theoretical approaches.

Current psychology generally defines fascination as a "profound interest in, attraction to or enchantment with a person, object, activity or phenomenon" - something which, in psychoanalytic theory, describes "an infant's primitive attempt to master what is perceived [. . .] by identifying with it."3 In the theory of hypnosis, the term represents the condition of captivation.4 Within the realm of empirical psychology, an attempt was made recently to interpret fascination according to Jean Piaget's model of cognitive development: the "time and cognitive efforts spent in trying to develop and adjust new structures might appear as fascination."5 Since the middle of the twentieth century, philosophical concepts often have defined fascination as "the awareness of the innermost person increased to the maximum"6 or - according to Jean-Paul Sartre - a radical negation and self -forgetting of the ego.7 More recent attempts at explication define fascination as "any experience that captures our attention without at the same time submitting entirely to our understanding."8 This experience "prompts us through the enigma to attend to what our culture or even we ourselves do not want to recognize."

Although the earliest-known concepts of fascination as a form of affective contamination seem to have little to do with today's concepts of a specific perception or form of experience, there are interconnecting conceptual links. The differences between four basic approaches that are presented in this study result from the combination with various theoretical assumptions or argumentative applications. Some limitations of the chosen method must be accepted. This study deals with the conceptual history, but not the cultural history, of the term "fascination" in the scientific discourses. It focuses on historical definitions and usages of the term as well as explanations of phenomena connected to it. Discursive and cultural contexts can only be treated cursorily. Similarly, within the scope of this study, the numerous associations between the ideas presented here and other paradigmatic concepts (such as "sight," "affect" or "imagination") can only be referred to briefly.

I distinguish four basic theoretical approaches. What they share is a transitive understanding of fascination. I will demonstrate that a fifth approach, which defines the term as intransitive, dates to the eighteenth century. It is the basis of the modern understanding of fascination. These five basic approaches will be presented in a historical chronology. The earliestknown scientific attempts at explanation look at fascination as an affective, voluntary material transfer of highly diluted substances, which damage other living things. Early Christianity transferred the phenomenon from the field of anthropology to that of demonology and epistemology. Avicenna's psychological concept is just as important to the modern term. He suggested that the soul could have an intangible effect on a foreign body. Fascination - which up to the fifteenth century was considered without exception to have an extremely damaging effect - went through an inversion of its valence, thanks to Marsilio Ficino's combination of the substance-based approach with the Platonic concept of eros. At the latest with Ficino, the various notions and reference areas of the term "fascination" increasingly disintegrate. …

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