Naturalism, Normativity, and the Study of Religion
1. Normativity and Naturalism
2. The Interpretation of Humans
3. Humanism in Religious Studies
4. The Hegelian Synthesis of Freedom and Conditioning in Religion
Conflicts of Interest
- Anscombe, Elizabeth. 1963. Intention, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Arnold, Dan. 2012. Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind. New York: Columbia University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Beiser, Frederick. 2009. Normativity in Neo-Kantianism: Its Rise and Fall. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 17: 9–27. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Berger, Peter. 1967. The Sacred Canopy. New York: Anchor Books. [Google Scholar]
- Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. New York: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Brandom, Robert. 1997. Study Guide. In Empiricism & the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Clayton, John. 2006. Religions, Reasons, and Gods: Essays in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Cottingham, John. 2014. Philosophy of Religion: Towards a More Humane Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Davidson, Donald. 1963. Actions, Reasons, and Causes. The Journal of Philosophy 60: 685–700. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Davidson, Donald. 1984. On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme. In Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, chp. 13. [Google Scholar]
- Davidson, Donald. 2001. Radical Interpretation. In Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, chp. 7. [Google Scholar]
- Foucault, Michel. 1988. Technologies of the Self. In Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick Hutton. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, chp. 2. [Google Scholar]
- Godlove, Terry, Jr. 2002. Saving Belief: On the New Materialism in Religious Studies. In Radical Interpretation in Religion. Edited by Nancy Frankenberry. New York: Cambridge University Press, chp. 1. [Google Scholar]
- Kant, Immanuel. 1998. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated and Edited by Paul Guyer, and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, First piblished 1781. [Google Scholar]
- Lewis, Thomas A. 2005. Freedom and Tradition in Hegel: Reconsidering Anthropology, Ethics, and Religion. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. [Google Scholar]
- Lewis, Thomas A. 2009. The Inevitability of Normativity in the Study of Religion: Theology in Religious Studies. In Theology and Religious Studies in Higher Education: Global Perspectives. Edited by Simon G. Smith and Darlene Bird. London: Continuum, pp. 87–98. [Google Scholar]
- Lewis, Thomas A. 2011. On the Role of Normativity in Religious Studies. In The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. Edited by Robert A. Orsi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Lewis, Thomas A. 2015a. Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Lewis, Thomas A. 2015b. Overcoming a Stumbling Block: A Nontraditional Hegel for Religious Studies. The Journal of Religion 95: 198–212. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Macarthur, David, and Mario De Caro. 2010. Naturalism and Normativity. New York: Columbia University Press. [Google Scholar]
- McCutcheon, Russell T. 2006. ‘It’s a Lie. There’s No Truth in It! It’s a Sin!’: On the Limits of the Humanistic Study of Religion and the Costs of Saving Others from Themselves. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74: 720–50. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- McDowell, John. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Pippin, Robert B. 1989. Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Pippin, Robert B. 2009. Natural & Normative. In On Being Human, special issue. Daedalus 138: 35–43. [Google Scholar]
- Putnam, Hilary. 2016. Naturalism, Realism, and Normativity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Quine, Willard Van Orman. 1960. Word and Object. Cambridge: The MIT Press. [Google Scholar]
- Rieger, Joerg, and Edward Waggoner, eds. 2016. Religious Experience and New Materialism: Movement Matters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. [Google Scholar]
- Roberts, Tyler. 2006. Between the Lines: Exceeding Historicism in the Study of Religion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74: 697–719. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Roberts, Tyler. 2013. Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism. New York: Columbia University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Schilbrack, Kevin. 2014. Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell. [Google Scholar]
- Sellars, Wilfrid. 1997. Empiricism & the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. First published 1956. [Google Scholar]
- Strawson, Peter F. 1974. Freedom and Resentment. In Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays. London: Methuen & Co. [Google Scholar]
- Taves, Ann. 2011. 2010 Presidential Address: ‘Religion’ in the Humanities and the Humanities in the University. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79: 287–314. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Taylor, Charles. 1971. Interpretation and the Sciences of Man. The Review of Metaphysics 25: 3–51. [Google Scholar]
- Taylor, Charles. 1975. Hegel. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Wiebe, Donald. 2006. An Eternal Return All Over Again: The Religious Conversation Endures. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74: 674–96. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
- Woodford, Peter. 2017. The Very Possibility of a Science of Religion: Ernst Troeltsch and Neo-Kantianism. The Journal of Religion 97: 56–78. [Google Scholar] [CrossRef]
See also (Lewis 2009, pp. 87–98).
Although one of the consequences of this line of thought is to undermine the segregation of theology from religious studies on the basis of the presence of a prescriptive methodology, there may, of course, be other good ways to effect such a segregation. In any case, that particular issue and its implications are not my concern here.
This follows Sellars ( 1997, p. 76). A relatively recent treatment that finds McDowell particularly useful in thinking about the dialectic between naturalism and normativity weaving throughout modern thought and culture is Akeel Bilgrami’s contribution to Macarthur and De Caro’s (2010) volume, which addresses the issue in general terms not tethered to the problems of religious studies.
McDowell himself seems to want to avoid the concept “objective,” and also demurs from this conflation of natural law with causality (McDowell 1994, p. 71). But Kant classically defined “nature” as “the sum total of appearances insofar as these are in thoroughgoing connection through an inner principle of causality” (Kant  1998, p. 466 fn.), and considered the latter an a priori concept required to cognize objects with understanding, that is, a condition of the possibility of objective experience (ibid., p. 210). This tethering of objectivity to causal explanation effaces a distinction often made in religious studies between mere description and explanation, a differently drawn fault line that often does duty for the divide between normative and naturalistic approaches to which I’m pointing: “Defenders of this approach argue that scholars of religion should seek to explain religion in terms of its causes and functions and not be satisfied simply with describing or interpreting it” (Roberts 2006, p. 699). Now, one might not wish to accept the conflation of non-normative description with, on the one hand, objectivity (the cognition of objects through concepts of nature), or with, on the other hand, determinism (the notion that naturalistic description amounts to explaining things according to laws, whether causal or otherwise). Insofar as one rejects these Kantian conflations, my counter-critique does not apply; but it is then up to such a methodologist to specify her principles of description and show how they function non-normatively.
Consider, for example, Donald Wiebe’s persistent calls for religious studies to make itself more “scientific,” by which he means “mediated through intersubjectively testable sets of statements, whether at the descriptive level of history, ethnography, and phenomenology, or at the explanatory level of law-like generalizations and theory…. [T]he language of the scholar of religion, like that of students of the social sciences, must be no more ‘self-involving’ than the languages of physics, chemistry, and the other natural sciences” (Wiebe 2006, p. 691). Scientific theories of religion must, on his view, locate themselves “within what might be called an ‘integrated causal model’ of the sciences and, consequently, will be ‘reductionistic’ in that they will attempt to explain ‘the supernatural’ naturalistically. All explanatory and theoretical accounts of religion within the Religious Studies framework, therefore, will have to fall within the same conceptual causal framework used to explain all other elements and aspects of the natural and social worlds” (ibid., p. 692).
This is one way in which my own effort here does not merely recapitulate nineteenth-century neo-Kantian debates about normativity. (One thinks particularly of the so-called Wertphilosophie or “philosophy of value” of the Baden school; see Beiser 2009 and Woodford 2017.) There is much to learn from those wide-ranging discussions; but I restrict the scope of my inquiry to particular kinds of discourse, and in so doing, also aim to make my point without relying much on the systematic metaphysical trappings of German idealism. With this disciplinary restriction, my thesis might be seen as parallel to Dilthey’s famous view of the importance of Verstehen (understanding) in the Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences), but again proceeding from hermeneutical premises that are more current in Anglophone analytical philosophy.
Reflecting on his early work in his late essay titled “Technologies of the Self,” Foucault says that he “was concerned not only with the acts that were permitted and forbidden but with the feelings represented, the thoughts, the desires one might experience, the drives to seek within the self any hidden feeling, any movement of the soul, any desire disguised under illusory forms” (Foucault 1988, p. 14). That is, Foucault’s data outstripped explicit doctrine to include the affective, volitional, and practical.
John Clayton put this point nicely with regard to classical arguments for the existence of God: “If theistic arguments no longer make sense to so many of us today, this may be because we no longer find it possible to participate fully in the forms of life in which they were once so firmly embedded…. It is not because they make no sense to us that we no longer participate, but because we do not participate, they no longer make sense” (Clayton 2006, p. 177).
Note that this demand for explanation need not come with very hefty metaphysical assumptions, such as materialism or physicalism; but it remains a general hallmark of naturalists who seek to eliminate normativity from their accounts of human discursivity. Hilary Putnam observes that “even when hard naturalists eschew the demand that reference and representation talk be reduced to physical vocabulary, they feel the need to explain reference and representation in terms of ‘causal relations’” (Putnam 2016, p. 23). Charles Taylor has inveighed against this methodological tendency to forsake interpretation in explanations of human phenomena, which he attributes to the regnant empiricism of modern science, in his classic article “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man”. His argument, deployed mostly to think about political science, is rather different from the one I now attempt; so I do not draw from it in this paper. It bears noting, however, that his central insight of the indispensability of hermeneutics and (as I will characterize part of what is at issue below) the first-personal standpoint is entirely convergent with my own thesis; and, most a propos this point of my argument, he points out that where the human sciences are concerned, the demand for explanation itself often entails the demand for interpretation (rather than excluding it): “It may not just be that to understand a certain explanation one has to sharpen one’s intuitions, it may be that one has to change one’s orientation—if not in adopting another orientation, at least in living one’s own in a way which allows for greater comprehension of others. Thus, in the sciences of man insofar as they are hermeneutical there can be a valid response to ‘I don’t understand’ which takes the form, not only ‘develop your intuitions,’ but more radically ‘change yourself.’ This puts an end to any aspiration to a value-free or ‘ideology-free’ science of man. A study of the science of man is inseparable from an examination of the options between which men must choose” (Taylor 1971, pp. 47–48).
Even someone such as Russell McCutcheon, espousing a scholarly methodology quite contrary to the approach for which I am arguing, views “all scholarship as necessarily involved in acts of translation and redescription” (McCutcheon 2006, pp. 720–21). We can take McCutcheon’s point that mere description, in the sense that is opposed to translation and redescription, fails of scholarly edification inasmuch as it (to the extent that it involves no redescription) can only be repetition, mimicry, or ventriloquism. But this does not leave naturalistic explanation as the only viable form of redescription. Rather, if (as McCutcheon says) all scholarship is involved in translation, then it must also necessarily be involved in interpretation.
This is N.L. Wilson’s “principle of charity” that Quine invokes in his methodology of “radical translation”: “The maxim of translation underlying all this is that assertions startlingly false on the face of them are likely to turn on hidden differences of language…. The common sense behind the maxim is that one’s interlocutor’s silliness, beyond a certain point, is less likely than bad translation” (Quine 1960, p. 60). Donald Davidson extends this approach to what he calls “radical interpretation,” which is an application of Quine’s model to interpretation even within a single language. For Davidson, the principle is then to “interpret in a way that optimizes agreement,” which countenances “the problem of the interdependence of belief and meaning” by “assigning truth conditions to alien sentences that make native speakers right when plausibly possible, according, of course, to our own view of what is right. What justifies the procedure is the fact that disagreement and agreement alike are intelligible only against a background of massive agreement. Applied to language, this principle reads: the more sentences we conspire to accept or reject (whether or not through a medium of interpretation), the better we understand the rest, whether or not we agree about them…. If we cannot find a way to interpret the utterances and other behaviour of a creature as revealing a set of beliefs largely consistent and true by our own standards, we have no reason to count that creature as rational, as having beliefs, or as saying anything” (Davidson 2001, p. 137).
In one of his polemics against the humanistic study of religion, therefore, Russell McCutcheon is both right and wrong to say that “despite the proclaimed empathy for their subjects of study, like everyone else [humanistic scholars] have no choice but to deploy concepts and interests alien to their object of study, it is just that they seem to assume that their language and their interests are coterminous with reality” (McCutcheon 2006, p. 745). Since all study involves translation, the concepts employed are both alien and also faithful to their object if at all they are successful translations. On Davidson’s analysis of translation, therefore, this is just what allows us “unimpeded access” to our objects of study, in McCutcheon’s slightly sarcastic phrase (ibid.): The unironic conclusion of Davidson’s influential argument is that the interpretive considerations that show conceptual relativism to be incoherent are the same ones that “re-establish unmediated touch” (Davidson 1984, p. 198) with reality.
See also Quine (1960, chp. 2). As Terry Godlove says in his Davidsonian polemic against materialism in religious studies, “Shoulder to shoulder with the new materialists, the radical interpreter also embraces the causal, material circumstances of speech and action; indeed, the argument from natural history requires her to weave them into the very fabric of meaning” (Godlove 2002, p. 20). Note that what Godlove is responding to here is not to be conflated with a newer “new materialism” that has arisen in very recent years, as exemplified in Rieger and Waggoner’s (2016) volume. This newest materialism attributes agency to material objects—but inasmuch as it imagines agency without intentionality (p. 5), it does not make contact with my notion of interpretation of agents. (See the note immediately below.) I also should hasten to acknowledge that Quine was himself famously naturalistic, even what might be called behavioristic or scientistic; and that Davidson for his part thinks reasons are causes of action, which would appear to collapse my characterization of the normative into the natural, as McDowell’s so-called bald naturalism would have it. It helps my case that McDowell attacks the reading of Davidsonian interpretation as holding apart the “outside” view of the field linguist, which is descriptive and has a causal structure, from the “inside” view of the “native” or the “earnest seeker after truth,” which is normative (McDowell 1994, p. 147), and he concludes that “Davidson’s vulnerability to the dualism is a defect; it is out of line with his better thinking on interpretation” (p. 153). But in any event, it is not clear to me that Davidson’s basic view of reasons as causes threatens the picture I’m painting, because in effecting this unification Davidson does not deny that reasons give us special kinds of causal explanations—namely, he says, "laws are involved essentially in ordinary causal explanations, but not in rationalizations" (Davidson 1963, p. 697); and “it is an error to think no explanation has been given until a law has been produced” (p. 698). In contrast to the law-like explanations of the usual natural causes—and most to my point in this paper—Davidson says, “A reason rationalizes an action only if it leads us to see something the agent saw, or thought he saw, in his action” (p. 685), thus preserving the first-personal nature of normativity to which I will soon come. And so a reason-cum-cause does not abandon intentionality and agency, which remains central to Davidson’s account: He asks rhetorically, “Why on earth should a cause turn an action into a mere happening and a person into a helpless victim?” (p. 700). It seems that for Davidson, too, causes of human action still occupy the normative space of reasons, and are only intelligible as such.
I cannot here defend the admittedly crucial claim that to describe behavior as non-intentional is to evacuate meaning from description of that behavior. Such an argument would begin with Elizabeth Anscombe’s definitive treatment of the issue, by which “to call an action intentional is to say it is intentional under some description that we give (or could give) of it” (Anscombe 1963, p. 29) and that “it is the agent’s knowledge of what he is doing that gives the descriptions under which what is going on is the execution of an intention” (p. 87). An agent’s own belief is thus ineliminable from meaningful description of her action qua intentional. Dan Arnold usefully works through this notion of intentionality vis-à-vis naturalism as pertaining to both classical Indian and contemporary Anglophone debates in the philosophy of mind, concluding that if “‘naturalizing’ intentionality consists in advancing essentially causal explanations of the contentful character of thought,” then “the facts that we can mean something by any of our claims, and that we can find ourselves persuaded of their truth—facts that are necessary conditions of any account’s making sense—are essentially irreducible to causally describable functional states” (Arnold 2012, p. 237). This is the sort of conclusion that underwrites my appeal to the dependence of interpretation upon attributions of intentional action. See also (Schilbrack 2014, pp. 180ff), and his contribution to the volume The Question of Methodological Naturalism.
For those who want it, here is a more elaborate technical summary of Davidson’s theory of radical interpretation (as presented in his essays “Radical Interpretation” (Davidson 2001, pp. 130ff) and “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”): In order to begin interpreting the speech of a person whom we do not at all understand at the outset, we observe her (verbal and bodily) behavior in the context of her circumstances, and start to form some hypotheses about what her utterances refer to in their environment. When we have a good hypothesis about the meaning (p) of a sentence (s), we can put it in the following form (of a Tarskian T-schema): s is true if and only if p. This closely reflects the observational methodology by which we generated our hypotheses, by describing the relevant circumstances (p) under which a given sentence (s) is believed to be true. The interpretive methodology therefore assumes that we can effectively guess at a speaker’s beliefs, and also that we can capture the circumstances relevant to the utterance—which is to say that we have ventured good hypotheses of meaning. If we turn out entirely unable to formulate any fruitful hypotheses, ones that would account for a speaker’s behavior, we would start to wonder whether she actually had any language at all. But if we are able to generate coherent guesses about her meanings, we are then ipso facto conceptualizing those meanings for ourselves, i.e. understanding them in terms of our own concepts. A condition of interpretation, then, is that our conceptual scheme is (at least partially) commensurable with the speaker. Tarski’s T-schema, then, reflects the charity that Quine and Davidson, as we have seen in note 13, maintain is forced upon us when translating: We must assume that a speaker has some true beliefs in order to guess at her meanings. If we couldn’t assume that much, we would never be able to begin to form hypotheses about what she means to say, because it would be useless to tether only false beliefs to environing facts that we observe and assume to be true. As Davidson says, “The methodological advice to interpret in a way that optimizes agreement should not be conceived as resting on a charitable assumption about human intelligence that might turn out to be false. If we cannot find a way to interpret the utterances and other behaviour of a creature as revealing a set of beliefs largely consistent and true by our own standards, we have no reason to count that creature as rational, as having beliefs, or as saying anything” (Davidson 2001, p. 137). So total untranslatability is not an option if we can recognize someone as speaking at all; we must, then, assume a shared world of things and facts and (what amounts to the same) substantially similar concepts and beliefs about them in order to (so much as) start translating. There can of course be local disagreements, but these can only be localized against the background of the massive agreement that we are assuming and have (hopefully) begun to formulate successfully. There might even be partial failures of translatability, particular concepts that are quite untranslatable; but since our translation methodology interrelates meaning and belief, there is no telling but that these mismatches of meaning might actually be disagreements of opinion. That is because there is no formal difference between failing to formulate a good hypothesis about meaning of some utterance or other, and failing to identify a belief held by the speaker to substitute for “s” in a predictive T-sentence (in which “p” is a fact that we take ourselves to know). These reflections thus display macroscopically what the T-schema shows microscopically: that we can only so much as make another person intelligible to us as a language user (even as a user of our own language) to the extent that we assume that her beliefs agree to a large extent with ours.
This remains true of the humanistic disciplines of the modern university, not at all limited (or even centering upon) religious studies. Ann Taves narrates the development of disciplinary boundaries in the last century thus: “As scientific disciplines promoted themselves as ‘value-free,’ however, the humanities (led by literary studies) emerged in the 1920s as the promoter of values and subjectivity in formal opposition to the value-free, objective sciences” (Taves 2011, p. 297). Indeed, she notes that “the process of disciplinary formation” itself “was shot through with valuations” (ibid., p. 302).
This is thus the disciplinary application of Peter Strawson’s thesis in “Freedom and Resentment” (Strawson 1974), where he contrasts “objective” with “participant” attitudes toward others’ actions and maintains that it is not humanly possible to inhabit the former entirely and never the latter.
This understanding of humanism is a good replacement for the notion of “liberal humanism” as an essentialistic, universalizing discourse about the “human condition” that “overcomes the particularities that might otherwise divide” scholars from their subjects (McCutcheon 2006, p. 726). Rather than grand homogenizing claims, all we need for this sort of humanism is the more modest notion of responsible free agency. Indeed, for the purposes of my argument, we can replace the term “human” with “responsible agent”.
“Where scientific or social-scientific theory seeks to explain human phenomena in terms of general laws or patterns, humanistic study, while by no means simplistically rejecting generalization (which would be to give up on thought and knowledge altogether), insists on studying human behavior through the concepts of freedom and creativity” (Roberts 2013, p. 115). Some scholars’ “historicist social formation theory entails that concepts such as ‘religious experience,’ ‘religious identity,’ and ‘religious impulses’ are not useful explanatory categories because they obscure the historical and social causes of human behavior. On this view, the human subject is but a function of his or her social and historical context, an ‘artifact’: all our thoughts, feelings, and actions—including those we call ‘religious’—can be explained as always the effect but never the cause of historical change and religious behavior…. To consider human beings and their experiences and meanings simply as ‘artifacts’ of social formation is to reject the analytic and explanatory usefulness of concepts such as ‘subjectivity,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘creativity’” (ibid., pp. 58–59).
In one of his final statements after a lifetime of grappling with these issues, Hilary Putnam said that “the fact that something—perceptual representation or reference or truth or intentionality or reasons—can’t be ‘naturalized’ in the way that ‘physicalists’ demand doesn’t make those things ‘non-natural’ or ‘queer’ or suspiciously close to ‘supernatural.’ It is true that the notion of a reason, for example, is not the subject matter of a special science, but that notion is presupposed by all science as well as by fields like history and politics and criticism (including philosophical criticism) that are not sciences, because in all of them one has to decide what there is reason to consider, and ‘elegance’ figures in the reasons scientists give for testing certain theories at all. They are not scientific notions, but the activity of science presupposes a reasonable command of them. Science depends on what is not fully scientific at every point” (Putnam 2016, pp. 42–43).
“Some kind of independent reflective activity (logically and causally independent of what can be directly apprehended), thought’s own projection of the structure within which the determinacy of its objects can be fixed, is required in order for thought to have objects (i.e., to be able to make cognitive claims about objects)” (Pippin 1989, p. 201).
“For Hegel, action can be free only when it is determined by the agent’s essence…. Freedom as self-determination also precludes random or arbitrary action, precisely because such action is not determined by the self… Here freedom and necessity coincide” (Lewis 2005, p. 38).
Nor does this Hegelian solution depend on reading him nontraditionally. Charles Taylor, to whom Lewis points as a paradigmatic exemplar of the traditional metaphysical reading (Lewis 2015b, p. 199), says that Hegel proposes a definitive answer to the problem of "how to unite radical autonomy with the fullness of expressive unity with nature" (Taylor 1975, p. 570). But for those that find this pre-critical Hegel unappealing, it is important to see that the Hegelian rapprochement of freedom and nature can still be made available on the more austere assumptions of the nontraditional reading.
This Hegelian notion of religion retains its power even in modern sociology. For example, according to Peter Berger, "the essence of [Thomas] Luckmann’s conception of religion is the capacity of the human organism to transcend its biological nature through the construction of objective, morally binding, all-embracing universes of meaning. Consequently, religion becomes not only the social phenomenon (as in Durkheim), but indeed the anthropological phenomenon par excellence" (Berger 1967, p. 176; emphasis in original). This rather plausible definition makes plain why my argument both centers on religion and also apply to the humanities generally.
For Lewis’s Hegel, “through its further development spirit can abstract from and reflect upon any of its particular habits. And, if spirit is fully free, it can change these habits as well” (Lewis 2005, p. 57).
Therefore, McCutcheon’s observation that “much of the time, human beings are completely immersed in their social worlds in rather unreflective ways, with nothing in particular in their heads” (McCutcheon 2006, p. 743) does not evacuate the meaningfulness and therefore interpretability of social discourse and practice. Or rather, the final clause in McCutcheon’s articulation, “with nothing in particular in their heads”—which I take to mean having no significant thoughts connected with their behavior, and therefore no meaning to interpret—need not follow from the preceding picture of unreflective immersion. If unreflective immersion means habit, such social formation is not opposed to meaningful behavior; rather, it is (on the Hegelian picture as I understand it) constitutive of what it is for humans to have concepts, anything “in their heads” at all. The force of McCutcheon’s polemic depends on highly mentalistic, even solipsistic, pictures of meaning and action.
“While we can never be fully free when acting merely out of habit or custom, our constitution by customs or ways of life plays an essential role in Hegel’s conception of freedom. Because these norms have a role in constituting us, Hegel believes that acting in complete freedom must involve acting in accord with them. Even if we have reflected upon and become conscious of these norms as the particular traditions of a given society, they still make up much of who we are. To act against them would be to act at least in part against ourselves and thus not entirely freely. Hegel consequently sees following the conventions of one’s land not simply as conformism but as ‘being true to oneself” (Lewis 2005, p. 145).
I am, of course, necessarily flattening Hegel’s “complex, three-tiered anthropology that accounts both for what we inherit from the ethical and religious traditions in which we are raised—through habits—and our ability to criticize and transcend these—through self-consciousness” (Lewis 2005, p. 4).
Or, perhaps, what Pierre Bourdieu means by “habitus,” the “system of dispositions” that is the “product of history,” which is in turn “the principle of the transformations and regulated revolutions which neither the extrinsic and instantaneous determinisms of a mechanistic sociologism nor the purely internal but equally punctual determination of voluntarist or spontaneist subjectivism are capable of accounting for” (Bourdieu 1977, p. 82).
This, indeed, is what Lewis proposes as characteristic of rigorous scholarship: The criterion is that scholars be critical, i.e. “willing to provide reasons for any particular claim or position” (Lewis 2015a, p. 58), a criterion that does not preclude normativity.
Again, this recognition is not to essentialize humanity or imperialistically universalize all aspects of one culture’s own notion of the human. Nor is it a matter of “nurturing solidarity” (per McCutcheon 2006, p. 740), or presuming that “insmuch as they share a common human nature and thus dignity, both scholar and religious participants are involved in a consensual conversation” (ibid., p. 722). Inasmuch as the interpretive work with which I am concerned is largely performed on texts written by people long deceased, the issue of consent often does not arise at all.
© 2017 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Mundra, A. Naturalism, Normativity, and the Study of Religion. Religions 2017, 8, 220. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8100220
Mundra A. Naturalism, Normativity, and the Study of Religion. Religions. 2017; 8(10):220. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8100220Chicago/Turabian Style
Mundra, Anil. 2017. "Naturalism, Normativity, and the Study of Religion" Religions 8, no. 10: 220. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8100220