‘Religion’ with a Dash of Kripke

By LPLT - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10331682

By LPLT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10331682

by Adam T. Miller

The ongoing debate about whether the category religion has any analytical purchase is without doubt quite familiar to readers of the Bulletin. And for most of us, due to the lasting influence of J. Z. Smith and others like him, it is an important matter that should always be at the forefront of our minds. From what I gather, there are a couple of ways to deal with this question—in short: to affirm or deny its analytic utility—and I sometimes get the sense that those engaged in the debate talk past each other. In bringing Saul Kripke into the conversation, I hope not only to defuse some of the critiques against the use of the category (because I think it can be used) by offering a clarification of terms, but also to work toward bridging some gaps. In the event that what follows is not persuasive, I hope that my position be read charitably and that it start a fruitful discussion.

I was introduced to Saul Kripke in an analytic philosophy course many moons ago. His thought intrigued me then, and recently, in a paper putting the seventh-century Buddhist philosopher Candrakīrti into conversation with history of religions (random, I know), I had the occasion to visit Kripke again—albeit this time with rather different interests than before. It is my goal to eventually write something for submission to Method and Theory in the Study of Religion regarding Saul Kripke’s relevance for theoretical discussions in our discipline—that is, if I can convince myself that I’m on to something. Any feedback on what follows, cursory as it is, would be greatly appreciated.

To make my point here, I will make reference to two poles of the debate as exemplified by Timothy Fitzgerald’s critique (2006) of Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Method” (1996) and Lincoln’s response (2007).

From what I’ve read of his work, it seems one of Fitzgerald’s main projects is to jettison religion from our analytic vocabulary, pointing to the sometimes/often pernicious ideological underpinnings of the category’s development and employment throughout history for justification. In the article linked above, Fitzgerald addresses one-by-one each of Lincoln’s theses (bringing Lincoln’s other work to the table from time to time, particularly his definition of religion[1]), arguing that they have the implication of “embedding English language categories as though they are static and eternal verities.”[2] What concerns Fitzgerald here is essentialism—the idea that our word religion reliably picks out some Thing (or Set of Things) that actually exists Out There regardless of whether there are humans around using language in this way.

As I read his reading of Lincoln, however, it seems Fitzgerald is committed to an unnecessary (if the pun may be excused) linkage between a prioricity (a billion-dollar word for when things can be known prior to experience) and necessity. Fitzgerald writes, for example: “Lincoln is a priori embedding in his own rhetoric the problematic that he wants to critique.”[3] And elsewhere he charges Lincoln with “essentializ[ing] and universalis[ing] English language categories as though they are eternal truths fixed in the nature of things.”[4] The link between a prioricity and necessity is never spelled out straightforwardly, but it seems reasonable to infer its presence given his association of the epistemological category and “the nature of things.” It is possible that I am reading Fitzgerald incorrectly—in the event that I am, I would need to modify (perhaps abandon) my position. But from what I can see, Fitzgerald assumes that knowing something prior to experience by definition has something to do with necessity, metaphysics, essences.

It is here that Saul Kripke may be of use. In Naming and Necessity (go ahead and buy it),[5] Kripke (among other things) distinguishes a prioricity from necessity, which had widely been thought to be coextensive since Kant.[6] Against the prevailing paradigm, Kripke contends that there are, in fact, truths that we can know prior to experience, but that are nevertheless contingent.[7] Though he does not dwell on the matter long (and indeed the point he makes with this example is quite different from what I aim to do with it), Kripke spends a couple of pages discussing the Standard Meter,[8] an iron bar of a certain length kept in Paris that served to define the length of a meter from the 1790s until 1960 (when its official definitional duties were transferred in 1960 to a beam of “orange-red light, in a vacuum, produced by burning the element krypton” [pictured below]).[9] The proposition “The Standard Meter is a meter long,” he says, can be known prior to any experience. But at the same time, the truth expressed by the proposition is clearly contingent—for the length of the particular piece of iron that served as the Standard Meter did not have to be what it was necessarily, and indeed the piece of iron could be cut in half and re-christened tomorrow, thus doubling all of our measurements (assuming this to be what defines meter instead of that cool laser beam…I mean look at that thing…it’s sick).

By Copyright © 2004 David Monniaux - en:Kastler-Brossel Laboratory at en:Paris VI: Pierre et Marie Curie, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=295187

By Copyright © 2004 David Monniaux – en:Kastler-Brossel Laboratory at en:Paris VI: Pierre et Marie Curie, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=295187

Nothing in the world comes to us already measured in meters. In order to measure something in meters, we must stipulate a definition and then get to work. Our doing so is clearly an interested activity, yet it does not seem to have any metaphysical implications whatsoever regarding tree branches or boulevards.

If we take religion to be a category of this kind (that is, a contingent a priori category), we have the benefits of constituting a disciplinary boundary and knowing what the hell we’re talking about (yes, prior to experience), while at the same time avoiding charges of essentialism—for it leaves open the possibility of different definitions geared toward different ends. And this is more or less Lincoln’s response to Fitzgerald; he writes: “[W]here Fitzgerald accuses me of proclaiming eternal essences by professorial fiat (as if I or anyone else had such power), I am simply trying to clarify the way I use the terms in question.”[10] Indeed, scholars of religion who focus more on individuals than social groups will likely want to bypass Lincoln’s formulation and stipulate a definition more suited to their analytical agendas. Given that the category is understood not as denoting any essence, but as part of a complex scholarly activity that calls into being certain features of cultures past and present as religious (resulting in religion’s being an object of historical enquiry for us that comes into view in dependence on several contingent factors, among them a priori definition), I do not see why the category can be said to have no analytic value.

Now, I’m not trying to say meter and religion are alike in all ways, or even many ways.  The category meter and the precise length it simultaneously creates and denotes do not seem to have terribly serious implications (though this NPR discussion shows how messy a process it was). Nor am I trying to say that “The Standard Meter is a meter long” and “For my purposes, religion denotes such-and-such” are similar sentences. The former is knowable a priori by virtue of meaning alone while the latter is not. What I am suggesting is that they are (or can be) the same kind of category and that, consequently, theorization does not entail essentialism. If we keep in mind that a prioricity can be distinguished from necessity in this way, then perhaps the conversations surrounding the analytic utility of religion can move in new directions.

[1] Lincoln’s definition of religion, for reference: “1. A discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent, and that claims for itself a similarly transcendent status; 2. A set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subject, as defined by the religious discourse to which these practices are connected; 3. A community whose members construct their identity with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices; and 4. An institution that regulates discourse, practice, and community, reproducing them over tiem and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.” Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006 [2003]), 5–8; Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 75–76.

[2] Tim Fitzgerald, “Bruce Lincoln’s ‘Theses on Method’: Antitheses,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 18, no. 4 (2006), 392–423, at 394.

[3] Fitzgerald, “Antitheses,” 420.

[4] Fitzgerald, “Antitheses,” 395.

[5] Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1981 [1972]).

[6] Kripke writes: “Now, everyone remembers Kant (a bit) as making a distinction between ‘a priori’ and ‘analytic’. So maybe this distinction is still made. In contemporary discussions very few people, if any, distinguish between the concepts of statements being a priori and their being necessary.” Kripke, Naming and Necessity, 34.

[7] He also argues that there are necessarily true propositions the truth-value of which had to be discovered (i.e., their truth-value was not known a priori). An example of this kind of proposition is “water is H2O.”

[8] Kripke, Naming and Necessity, 54–57.

[9] http://www.surveyhistory.org/the_standard_meter1.htm

[10] Bruce Lincoln, “Concessions, Confessions, Clarifications, Ripostes: By Way of Response to Tim Fitzgerald,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 19 no. 1 (2007): 164.

Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Typically operating within socio-rhetorical theoretical frameworks and employing philological, discourse-analytic, and historical methods, his research interests tend to be all over the place. He plans to specialize in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India (going into Vajrayāna and Tibet, as well), but has written on and maintains a strong interest in such topics as Swami Vivekananda and Death Grips.

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