Thursday, February 11, 2010

Religion as a "Bifurcated Essentially Contested Concept"

It occured to me that at least a few readers of this blog might be interested in the core section of an e-mail that I recently sent to a philosophical colleague--in which I briefly describe the more technical philosophical idea that was percolating beneath the surface of my recent Religion Dispatches article reflecting on the Hitchens-Sewell interview. In briefest terms, I've become increasingly convinced that the concept of religion operates in a rather strange way in contemporary discourse. I've decided to call it a "Bifurcated Essentially Contested Concept."

In fact, the first draft of the RD article included a brief discussion of this more technical idea, but I decided that it didn't work for that venue. I'd either need to go into so much depth expositing the relevant ideas in the philosophy of language that the article would have this distractingly dry academic portion in the middle, or I'd end up underexplaining these ideas so much that they wouldn't be helpful.

But for those interested in the more academic side of my work, the note to my colleague is brief enough to fit in a blog but detailed enought to offer a sense of one of the philosophical projects I'm am developing. So here is what I wrote:

In brief, (the philosophical project) involves an analysis of the concept “religion” that makes use of W. B. Gallie’s notion of “essentially contested concepts.” In case you’re unfamiliar with Gallie, he understands essentially contested concepts to be characterized by (a) a shared set of complex paradigms, (b) a common appraisive meaning, and (c) disagreement over which features of the paradigms justify the appraisive judgment. Since the appraisal has become an ineradicable feature of the term’s use in ordinary language, any proposed definition takes sides in a moral dispute: by fixing the extension of the term, the definition makes a judgment about which entities should be subject to the normative appraisal that goes with the use of the term, and which shouldn’t. According to Gallie, preserving the essential contestability of a concept—that is, characterizing the “language game” of proper usage in terms of (a) and (b) and, arguably, paradigmatic examples of things that fall outside the extension of the term, rather than in terms of a conventional definition—prevents normative disputes from being ended by definitional fiat (and thereby having certain moral perspectives illegitimately silenced).

What I’ve been thinking as I get increasingly caught up in the current “God debates” is that “religion” operates today as an essentially contested concept
with a twist. The twist is that, although there is a shared set of complex paradigms, there are two competing appraisive meanings—one positive and the other pejorative—and hence two communities of discourse—one disagreeing over which features of the paradigms justify the POSITIVE appraisal they attach to the term “religion,” the other disagreeing over which features of the paradigms justify the NEGATIVE appraisal they attach to the term. Thus conceived, Sewell is in the same community of discourse as, say, Pat Robertson, but fundamentally disagrees with him about which features of religious paradigms justify positive appraisal because they are operating from deeply opposed normative frameworks. Hitchens, by contrast, is in the opposing community of discourse, but is operating with very similar normative lenses as Sewell. The result is that her understanding of religion, derived from her culling from the paradigms that which justifies a positive judgment, falls entirely outside the scope of Hitchens’ definition of “religion” precisely BECAUSE it has been stripped of all the things that justify a NEGATIVE appraisal. But they agree about so many things that one might even start to think of Hitchens as a closet Unitarian.

Since this passage from my e-mail explicates Gallie's "essentially contested concepts" rather quickly, without the help of clarifying examples, let me just add two examples for the sake of my readers here. First, there is "work of art." We all agree that DaVinci's Mona Lisa is a work of art, and that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is a work of art, etc. That is, there is a shared set of paradigms that we can all agree fall within the extension of the term. And we all attach a positive appraisive sense to the term "work of art." That is, for something to be properly called a work of art, it needs to exemplify an achievement of a certain sort. So, we agree that the paradigms exemplify this achievement. But when it comes to, say, certain post-modern creations on display in modern art museums, some will call them works of art and others will vociferously disagree. Why? Because to call it a work of art is to say that it achieves something--something of the same sort that the Mona Lisa achieves. Perhaps not in the same measure, but enough so that they both deserved to be classed as works of art.

The result is that you have clear cases of works of art--in which there is general agreement that this or that is a work of art--and borderline cases (which some will call works of art and others won't). Gallie's point is that this is well and proper, because to insist upon a strict definition with precise boundaries would be to illegitimately shut down an ongoing normative disagreement about which features of the paradigms justify the positive appraisive judgment that attaches to the term "work of art."

Here's the second example: the concept "terrorism." This one works in very much the same way, except that the appraisal that goes along with the use of the term is strongly negative. There are, again, a bunch of agreed paradigms--the 9/11 attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, etc.--as well as a range of contested cases. The disagreement turns on which features of the paradigms of terrorism justify the negative judgment that "terrorism" implies.

So anyway, my working theory, from my observation of the way "religion" has come to be used, is that it fits the model of essential contestability in a number of important ways--except that, crucially, some attach to the term a positive appraisive sense while others attach to it a negative one. This fact may imply other differences. Part of my current work is to tease out in a systematic way precisely WHAT other differences are entailed.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    It can't be any mystery that an imaginative concept used to totemize and legitimize power-relations is "essentially contested". Or that those contesting it take diametrically opposed views while contesting it. Were there any reality to it, it would be a different story.

    For example, we might take opposing views of real things such as nuclear bombs, but such things are not "essentially" contested, only ethically, operationally, even militarily, contested.

  2. Burk--Your comment here, interestingly, fails to apply the notion of essential contestability in the sense that I was explicating in my post while at the same time EXEMPLIFYING the essential contestability of "religion" (by presupposing a contested understanding of its essence).

    I'm not sure what you mean by "imaginative concept"--but if the point is to continue your pattern of beginning every discussion about religion from the premise that every substantive religious claim is nothing but an invention of the imagination, you're failing to take notice of the fact that the term "religion" itself clearly has a range of referents in the real world that are far from imaginary.

    When I talk about the concept of religion, I'm talking about a concept that refers to complex phenomena characterized by a range of characteristics--including doctrinal commitments, the treatment of certain things as sacred, institutional structures and hierarchies, deliberate communal efforts to create ritual spaces for nurturing experiences of a certain kind, the complex interplay of individual experiences of the numinous and collective efforts to understand their meaning, etc.

    The things to which "religion" refers are every bit as real as nuclear bombs and potatoes, even if those entities which religions often posit have a contested existential status. But the contestedness of "religion" to which I refer has nothing to do with the contestedness of those entities posited in religious doctrine. Rather, it has to do with the contestedness of claims such as "the essence of religion is the totemization and legitimation of power-relations."

    The point is this: Religions are complex phenomena characterized by a wide range of properties. People use the term "religion" in competing ways depending on which of these properties they take to be most essential. And which of these properties they take to be most essential is a function of (a) the particular appraisive meaning that they attach to the term and (b) the value system which they bring to bear on the assessment of the diverse porperties. The term "religion" has this in common with such terms as "rape" and "terrorism" and "scholar" and "work of art," all of which refer to real entities. Where I think "religion" differs from these other terms is that the other terms are unified by an appraisive meaning shared among users.

  3. So, for example, if you attach a certain kind of negative appraisive meaning to "religion," and you happen to APPLY that kind of negative appraisal to the totemization and legitimation of power-relations through the fabrication of unsubstantiated doctrines allegiance to which is used as a criterion for group membership, you will define religion in terms of the tendency to do this, and so will tend to exclude, say, Quaker meetings from the scope of the term.

    If, by contrast, you attach a positive appraisive meaning to "religion" and happen to apply such a positive appraisal to the collective effort to experience the numinous by creating a space of openness to it, then Quaker meetings will qualify as religious but nothing religious will be going on at all during airings of the 700 club.

  4. I see. So what's the point? The fact that some concepts are slippery enough to be re-defined to one's taste, or one's argumentative predilection, hardly speaks well of the original referent, does it? In other fields, there is a "there" there.

    I'd suggest that a concept/word only becomes "essentially contested" when its referent is unavailable for inspection, thus becoming a rorsach blot rather than a descriptor (as can be true of meanings in art and politics). There are subjective and objective meanings to most things, and the thinner the objective basis, then naturally the more volatile the subjective valences.

    The difficulties and discussions of religion do not revolve around its concrete manifestations, but its essential meaning-claims and power-claims, so tied up in problematic ontologies ... which are contested. At risk of being flip, if I sell you a bridge to which I don't own the title, have we shared a complex paradigm, shared a common appraisive meaning, and subsequently failed to see eye-to-eye on which features of the paradigm justify that meaning?

  5. Burk, I'm not quite sure what you're trying to say. Some of your comments suggest that you don't think religion exists, but that presumably isn't true. Others point out that you think the things believed in by religious people don't exist--a belief you seem to express as frequently and obnoxiously as you possibly can--but that doesn't have anything to do with what Eric is saying. Finally, you might be saying that religion is hard to define because the things religious people believe in don't exist. But I'm not quite sure why we should think that's true.

    (Take "science," for example. Presumably you think science exists and delivers true statements about existing things. But exactly what, if anything, separates "science" from "pseudoscience" (as opposed merely to really bad science) is notoriously hard to define. If you don't believe me on this point, I can point you to any number of essays out of my phil. of science textbook. Of course, there's probably more of a general sense of agreement about what constitutes science than about what constitutes religion, but there's no reason to think that isn't for sociological factors.)

  6. As an atheist (and former Christian), even I get upset with the way many atheists (including Hitchens) criticize religion in generalities. As I fumbled in my own way to secure the issue at hand, I came up with a Syndrome Model for Religion. If you have a chance, you might take a look. I think it captures some of the problems you point at with those who focus on negative vs. positive aspects.

  7. What a strong view of divine sovereignty rules out, in short, is a portrait of a God who can’t just wave His magic wand to prevent evils like the Haiti earthquake, but who can and does transform such evil by making Himself truly vulnerable to it, sharing our afflictions with us, and thereby turning evil into an avenue for profound solidarity with the divine.

    For such a view of God to make sense, we need to see God as truly constrained.

    You are making a very hasty move from "God allows terrible suffering" to "God is constrained". You are familiar with the current apologetics literature on the problem of evil, aren't you? Shouldn't you at least discuss Daniel Howard-Snyder and others, if just to show why you disagree, before you make that move?

  8. Hitchens says "show me what there is, ethically, in any religion that can’t be duplicated by Humanism. In other words, can you name me a single moral action performed or moral statement uttered by a person of faith that couldn’t be just as well pronounced or undertaken by a civilian?"

    There is an answer to this. Religions invoke principles. In Christianity, for example, the arch-principle is selfless giving. Hitchens 'civilian' has access to no such principle. There is nothing to stop him from selfless giving, but nothing to recommend it, either, except for it being a good idea. Or is it? What is the reason for that? And so on.

    Buddhism is non-theistic, but invokes principles of (for example) non-self and compassion. It has extremely well-articulated guidelines and principles that have dynamic power to change the personality. And you don't get this from just thinking. It needs some kind of power or principle to do the work.

    All the traditions have principles of this type. And in fairness to Hitchens, traditional humanism does too - but you have to dig for it. (See for example Pierre Hadot's 'Philosophical Exercises'.) But without the kinds of archetypes that the traditions provide, along with praxis, discipline, commitment, the 'humanist civilian' is just another person with an opinion. There is no principle he or she can harness that will 'do the work'.

    I don't think he gets this.