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One of the most influential theorists of religion, Jonathan Z. Smith is best known for his analyses of religious studies as a discipline and for his advocacy and refinement of comparison as the basis for the history of religions. Relating Religion gathers seventeen essays—four of them never before published—that together provide the first broad overview of Smith's thinking since his seminal 1982 book, Imagining Religion.
Smith first explains how he was drawn to the study of religion, outlines his own theoretical commitments, and draws the connections between his thinking and his concerns for general education. He then engages several figures and traditions that serve to define his interests within the larger setting of the discipline. The essays that follow consider the role of taxonomy and classification in the study of religion, the construction of difference, and the procedures of generalization and redescription that Smith takes to be key to the comparative enterprise. The final essays deploy features of Smith's most recent work, especially the notion of translation.
Heady, original, and provocative, Relating Religion is certain to be hailed as a landmark in the academic study and critical theory of religion.
— Paul J. Griffiths
— Karel van der Toorn
CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2006
"[Smith's] latest collection of essays maintains the peripatetic brilliance and dazzling acumen his readers have come to expect, while introducing newer notes of intellectual autobiography, , , , Here Smith once again sets the bar higher for critical reflection: by attending to the cognitive values and cultural valences that are assigned to differences, he demonstrates how syustems of thought construct their 'others' and in so doing define themselves."
"A new book by Jonathan Z. Smith is something to look forward to. This latest book by one of the most inspiring theorists of religion fully justifies the high-level expectations of the reader. . . . Smith is to be congratulated on the publication of a fundamental and thought-provoking contribution on religion and religions."
— Karel van der Toorn
— Paul J. Griffiths
You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other. JOHN QUINCY ADAMS TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, July 15, 1813
WHEN MIRCEA ELIADE occasionally recounted the tale of our early meetings together, he always remarked that he had found it "very amusing" that I so often used the phrase, "when the chips are down," when commenting on one or another's work. He professed to have not previously encountered it. For my part, I had seen a version of the tag first as the English translation (1948) of the title of J.-P. Sartre's play, Les Jeux sont faits (1947). Both the French and the English phrases are gaming terms that signal finality. With less urgency, I tended to employ it with the connotation, "when all is said and done," as, for example, "despite so-and-so's claims, when the chips are down, he's a functionalist." In this essay, I want to turn the phrase on myself and account for my most persistent interests as a student of religion.
After several abortive attempts, I have settled on writing this account in the form of that awkwardly entitled genre, a bio-bibliographical essay. I am enough of a residual New Critic to largely discount the relevance of the bios part of that compound term, but chronology has its conveniences along with its conventional limitations.
Growing up in Manhattan in the '40s and '50s provided both a foil for my fascination with natural history, especially botany, and a nurturing setting for my initial interests in history and philosophy. Both sets of concerns have strongly influenced the sorts of problems and approaches I have taken when I turned to the study of religion.
My interest in natural history was at once both moral and intellectual. The former goes back to an early acceptance of the categorical imperative, "do no harm." Whether expressed in public gestures such as vegetarianism, conscientious objection, and passive resistance activities, or in my vocational plans to become an agrostologist, a grass breeder, with the hope of an atoning reclamation of those deserts that were the products of human failures to take care-it seemed clear to me, as a preteen, that those western religious traditions with which I had some superficial acquaintance provided no intellectual resources for such an ethic of "do no harm," insofar as they appeared to claim that the earth was ours to "subdue" and exploit. Writings from the late 40s and early 50s are filled with my excited reports of readings in Asian traditions, ranging from Buddhism and Jainism to Gandhi, as well as works on native religious traditions.
At the same time, agrostology led, among other things, to a deep interest in taxonomy. My two bedside books during high school were the seventh edition of Asa Gray's New Manual of Botany and A. S. Hitchcock's Manual of the Grasses of the United States, soon replaced by the second edition, revised by Agnes Chase. This interest remains today; taxonomic journals are the only biological field I still regularly read in.
Putting these naturalist interests together with a concern for teaching, I started, and maintained for fifteen years, a small trailside museum in Westport, Connecticut. My first appearance in a scholarly publication is a 1954 report of a survey of the average number of milkweed plants (Asclepias sp.) per acre, undertaken in support of the Royal Ontario Museum's monarch butterfly migration project.
In 1956, I abandoned my long held plans to study agrostology at Cornell Agricultural School. I instead went to Haverford College, where a remarkable philosopher and teacher, Martin Foss, inspired in me such a desire to emulate that I became a philosophy major. Haverford, at that time, still had a palpable connection with its origin as a Quaker school. The pacifism of the Society of Friends, as well as the austerity of their Meetings, was extraordinarily attractive and moved me to begin systematic readings in western religious traditions, working in Haverford's Rufus Jones collection of Christian mystical literature and studying with Douglas Steere.
These sorts of concerns coexisted with another set of philosophical and historical interests. By 1950, I had already discovered and taken full advantage of that distinctive West Side intellectual and political environment, bounded by Union Square and Brooklyn Heights, with Greenwich Village as its center. Within that universe of discourse, whether one's interlocutor be an old-time member of the International Jewish Labor Bund or a young Stalinist or Trotskyite, Marx was taken for granted, although what "school" of Marxism remained a matter for fierce debate. While accepting the model of both Marx and Lenin, that Hegel had always to be seriously and critically read, a central division of intellectual labor was the split between those who sought to reconcile Marx and Freud and those who worked on relations between Marx and Kant. In either case, there were strong fissures between the several Freudianisms or neo-Kantianisms. Although the project of reconciliation with Kant interested me more, I happily took part in both projects. I was especially intrigued by the so-called Austrian Marxists (especially Max Adler) who had made an industry of works with titles such as Kant und Marx (K. Vorländer) or Kant und der Marxismus (M. Adler). Their writings were studied in informal translations prepared by those who read German and distributed on purple hectograph or sepia-toned thermofax sheets.
By 1950-52, I had come to the view that language per se was a way of reconceptualizing the issues of Marxism and culture. For most of the anti-Stalinist groups, if the topic of language entered the discussion at all, it did so with reference to George Orwell's writings on the political manipulation of language-most famously in the twelve-page appendix to 1984 but more forcefully in some of his essays, especially, "Politics and the English Language." (I do not recall anyone knowing of the journal Politics and Letters, coedited by Raymond Williams, until the 1958 publication of Culture and Society, 1780-1950, when he became a central figure). I found far more interesting one group that spent several months reading Joseph Stalin's Marxism and Linguistics, which had just become available in English translation. Stalin's insistence that "a Marxist cannot regard language as a superstructure on the base," and that language is not constituted by its vocabulary but rather by its grammar, which, like geometry, treats "relations" of entities "in general, without any concreteness," was a liberation from the mechanics of base/superstructure that dominated most of our discussions of cultural productions. Besides, this seemed to offer the possibility of a connection with Kant's formalism, which appeared hospitable to thinking about general linguistics. In this connection I regularly quoted Hamann's remark on Kant, "the question is not 'What is Reason?' but 'What is Language?' ... What we want is a Grammar of Reason"-a challenge paraphrased by Max Müller as a call for a "Critique of Language" to follow after Kant's first Critique.
In the discussion of Marx and Kant, Marx and Freud, the understanding of Kant seemed enhanced by an appeal to language as grammar. On the other hand, Freud seemed more focused on a highly specific semantics. This had taught me to be shy of a quest for 'deeper' meaning (an abstention that largely remains intact), but the chapter "The Dream Work" in The Interpretation of Dreams was a brilliant syntactical proposal that informed my understanding of the project of relating Freud to Marx.
All of these inchoate musings became clearer when I accidentally came across a copy of a journal with E. Cassirer's 1945 article, "Structuralism in Modern Linguistics," in a 10o barrel in a Fourth Avenue used bookstore. This introduced me to the names of Saussure, Trubetzkoy and Jakobson. In 1951-52, very little of their work was available in English, but I began to read in linguistic theory, especially L. Bloomfield, Z. Harris, and L. Hjelmslev.
Cassirer's article did more. He made a crucial analogy between morphology in biology and structuralism in linguistics-both of which would become lifelong preoccupations. (It was as a result of Cassirer that I read, for the first time, Goethe's Metamorphosis of Plants).
I don't think I had ever been as impressed with a mind at work as I was with Cassirer's. As I came to read the bulk of his writings, he persuaded me of five foundational presuppositions.
First, symbols are not expressive, they are a mode of thought.
Second, anthropological thought begins with thinking about language itself, for it is in the linguistic project that we see most clearly the creation of a distinctively human world, our "second environment." In crude terms, language "creates" the world; it does not merely "reflect" it. The various cultural forms that preoccupied Cassirer are differentiated modes of this linguistic project. To cite the peroration of Cassirer's Essay on Man:
Language, art, religion, science are various phases of this process. In all of them man discovers and proves a new power-the power to build up a world of his own, an 'ideal world.' Philosophy cannot give up its search for a fundamental unity in this ideal world. But it does not confound this unity with simplicity. It does not overlook the tensions and deep conflicts between the various powers of man ... They tend in different directions and obey different principles.
The point at which I have learned to differ from this paragraph is with respect to its opening sentence, which repeats one of Cassirer's fundamental presuppositions: "human culture taken as a whole may be described as the process of man's progressive self-liberation." I would now reject the implications of the term "progressive" and would rather speak of a human cultural attempt at "liberation" from culturally created, culturally imposed, constraints through efforts at thought.
Third, Cassirer demonstrated that myth could be an object of inquiry that presumed its rationality, rather than denigrating it as irrational (as was common in so many triumphalist histories of philosophy and science) or celebrating it for its irrationality (as was common in so many Romantic works). I would now differ from Cassirer's grounds for postulating this rationality and seek to extend the logic to other modes of thought and action, especially to ritual, but for me the goal of Cassirer's project remains intact.
Fourth, Cassirer exhibited ways of thinking philosophically about ethnographies. They did not represent exotic or limit cases, extreme exaggerations of features we recognize in our own culture, but were to be taken as quite ordinary data for interrogation and constructive inquiry.
Finally, Cassirer illustrated by his practice that a prime way of doing philosophy was to think philosophically within the history of ideas, broadly construed, rather than against it (the latter, a mood rampant in the '50s, largely under British influence). What I learned from Cassirer was an ethic of careful reading, both contextually and critically, but without suspicion.
Beyond these fundamental elements, Cassirer sealed (as Durkheim would later confirm) my allegiance to neo-Kantianism and its relationship to aspects of the Enlightenment project, a conviction that persists to this day.
Cassirer was as well the source of what appears, with hindsight, to have been an enormous detour. When, in the preface to the first volume of the English translation of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, he described his project of studying cultural forms as a "morphology." I was certain I knew what he meant in light of both his 1945 article and my subsequent readings in the Germanic tradition of biological morphology. However, in the prefaces to the second and third volumes of the Philosophy, Cassirer went on to change his terminology from a Goethean one to a Hegelian, now describing his project as a "phenomenology."
Beginning in 1955 and continuing through my four years at Haverford College, I read and reread Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, each, always, in relation to Kant and the neo-Kantian tradition, in order to understand Cassirer's turn. By then, I had shifted from being a biology to a philosophy major and had the advantage of a series of reading courses with Martin Foss on these figures. (I shall never forget Foss sitting, week after week, in an old armchair in his living room, translating, line by line, Heidegger's Sein und Zeit, while I sat on a footstool furiously scribbling it down. This remains for me the archetypal image of a teacher at work.)
By the summer of 1958, both the readings in western religious and mystical traditions as well as those in phenomenology came together, and I began to outline a project on "the phenomenology of time and the structure of western mystical experience." I spent the summer writing a dense manuscript intended as a "methodological prolegomenon." While the attempt is, now, interesting largely for the bibliography, writing it convinced me that this was not a fruitful area for concentration.
Paul Desjardins had joined the philosophy faculty at Haverford and introduced, among other things, a measure of focus on ancient Greek materials (along with careful readings of Kant's first and third Critiques). His passion was Plato; I found Aristotles's logical and taxonomic work far more intriguing. (Frank Parker, the fourth member of the department, was primarily interested in Aristotelian and Thomistic logic). Almost by way of a defense, I became fascinated with Francis M. Cornford's theory of the relationships between myth and philosophy, which, in turn, led to reading that collection of writers inappropriately collected together under the title the Myth-Ritual School. The Cornford thesis appeared to advance, in a historical way, Cassirer's philosophical interests in taking myth seriously. This led to a decision to focus on the possibility of treating Hesiod as a philosopher by setting his works within the larger framework of what I termed a "phenomenology of myth." At first, the older project was joined with this new one under the title "The Mythic Representation of Time: A Phenomenological Investigation" (1959), but was later generalized as "A Prolegomenon to a General Phenomenology of Myth," which was submitted as my senior thesis (1960).
Because I was convinced that myth could not be studied simply on the basis of antiquarian texts but required ethnographic materials as well, I attended during Columbia University's summer session (1958) a course in cultural anthropology with Morton Fried. The course gave me some beginning measure of confidence in reading anthropology. The most striking feature of the much-revised 1960 "Prolegomenon" is the decline of citations of philosophical and theological writings and the increase in references to specific ethnographies and anthropological theories (including some early writings by Lévi-Strauss), along with an enlarged repertoire of Continental historians of religion. In the "Prolegomenon," the term "morphology" largely replaces "phenomenology." "Morphology" had been reencountered in Eliade but was equally resonant with past readings in Cassirer and in works cited by him.
I do not regret the "detour" into phenomenology. I read some wonderful books along the way. (I have read or reread Heidegger each summer for more than forty years). But by the end of 1959 I knew that the Romantic ontology and epistemology which characterized so much of the thought of both the phenomenologists and the historians of religions was profoundly nonanthropological and antihistorical and was, at its base, in curious ways, disturbingly nonrational. Neither Marx nor Kant could be satisfied.
In several papers written in 1959-60, I sharply criticized what was taken to be 'phenomenology of religion,' coupled with a long paper in which I argued that Sartre's Being and Nothingness was a useful model for a properly anthropological phenomenology, even though I ended by confessing that I could not see how to apply it to problems of mythic thought. My work on Hesiod still retained too much phenomenological vocabulary; it was my excited reading of Lévi-Strauss's "Four Winnebago Myths" that purged that! I rewrote the Hesiod piece several times during 1960-61, striving to make it into a purely structuralist essay as I understood structuralism at that time.
Excerpted from RELATING RELIGION by JONATHAN Z. SMITH Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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1. When the chips are down
2. Acknowledgments : morphology and history in Mircea : Eliade's Patterns in comparative religion (1949-1999), part 1 : the work and its contexts
3. Acknowledgments : morphology and history in Mircea : Eliade's Patterns in comparative religion (1949-1999), part 2 : the texture of the work
4. The topography of the sacred
5. Manna, mana everywhere and [actual symbol not reproducible]
6. The domestication of sacrifice
7. A matter of class : taxonomies of religion
8. Religion, religions, religious
9. Bible and religion
10. Trading places
11. Differential equations : on constructing the other
12. What a difference a difference makes
13. Close encounters of diverse kinds
14. Here, there, and anywhere
15. Re : Corinthians
16. A twice-told tale : the history of the history of religions' history
17. God save this honourable court : religion and civic discourse
App. Jonathan Z. Smith : publications, 1966-2003