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I’ve been talking to a colleague recently about developing a project on religion and economics under the auspices of the Religion and Political Culture Network (RPCN) at the University of Manchester. This has got me thinking about Buddhism, economics and Buddhist economics, and has led me to reread Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s classic essay Buddhist economics, first published in 1966, and available online here: (more…)
This post is a continuation of my thoughts in my previous post…
Now to Needham’s review of Veyne’s book. The review is short, and much is taken up with flattering comments on Veyne’s style, but overall the conclusion is negative—he characterises the argument as ‘erratic and inconsistent’. On my reading, Needham makes three substantive points, which I shall deal with one by one here in order of importance.
(1) The only criticism that really has bite is that Veyne is vague about what the key terms in his analysis—belief and truth—mean to him. Partly on the basis of Veyne’s previous work, Needham reads Did the Greeks…? as an exercise in epistemological relativism, and makes a version of the usual objection to the paradoxes of relativism: if truth is always to be defined in local terms, in relation to historically specific programmes of truth, as Veyne would have it, then what exactly does Veyne mean when he says, absolutely, and not qualified by any context, that truth is plural?
As it turns out, Veyne actually concentrates not on belief but on truth, but only to place himself in a further difficulty. He concedes that ‘truth’ too means so many things, yet he passes over the variety of theories of truth and, in the end, commits himself consistently to none. The nearest he gets to a steady acceptance is to say that truths and interests, which are both limited and arbitrary, are ‘two different terms for the same thing’.
Needham is right to call Veyne out for not clarifying his terms, and attributing this weakness to strong epistemological relativism is not an unreasonable interpretation. However, I believe another reading is possible.
Veyne details the variety of ‘regimes of belief’ in terms of different truth conditions and specific practices, such as the use of footnotes in academic writing, with which they are associated. These things are the specific form that believing has, historically taken. But it is still possible to speak of believing in the abstract, as the category to which all these concrete modes of belief belong. What is it that makes the ordinary ancient Greek’s vague and lethargic belief in gods and heroes an instance of the same class of phenomenon as the mediaeval lawyer’s insistence on footnotes, and the modern newspaper reader’s suspicion of bias? They are all specifications of the practical and social relationship between thinker and what the thinker accepts as truth. To put it more pithily, belief is about a relationship to a body of truth.
I admit, it’s not clear from Veyne’s text that this is what he means by belief and truth, but it’s a reading that makes sense of his concrete claims, and saves his general conclusions from Needham’s anti-relativist criticism. Needham is right that Veyne is unclear on this score, and clarifying the meaning of the general category of belief, and of the general category of truth on which it depends will be an important task for any ethnographic approach to belief.
(2) He complains that Veyne, in seeking to understand belief, did not take into account the attempts of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Hume, Kant, and so on to do the same thing.
These writers were engaged in what Veyne describes as an exercise of ‘the constitutive imagination’. Like the ancient and modern historians whom Veyne describes, they were engaged in shaping programmes of truth, legitimising some ‘regimes of belief’ and delegitimising others. They were not in the business of describing the plural programmes of truth of others, and they would only have had a place in the book alongside the mediaeval jurists and modern journalists that Veyne—as case studies of the kind of second-order belief theory and practice that Veyne is interested in describing.
In other words, Veyne is writing at a higher level of generalisation or abstraction than Kant et al., and for a different purpose. The philosophers’ question would not have been ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths’, but the logically posterior question, ‘Were the Greeks right to (dis)believe in their myths?’, which is only meaningful once it is established whether or not (or to what extent, in what senses) they did, in fact, believe.
(3) Finally, Needham chides Veyne for not taking account of ‘sceptical anthropology’. He argues that ethnographers have succeeded in explaining the kinds god-language that Veyne’s question raises, but without resorting to the notion of belief. He concludes that these writers,
confirm that it is not ‘pointless’, as Veyne proposes, to try to determine the true thought of other peoples, but that we shall not do so if we attribute our thoughts to them.
No page references are given in the review, but thanks to Google, it is possible to trace the passage in Veyne’s book to which Needham refers. Needham suggests that Veyne says it’s pointless ‘…to determine the true thought of other peoples thought’. The ‘pointless’ here is taken out of context and is quite misleading. In fact, Veyne was not saying it was hopeless to try to understand ‘other people’s’ thought, but that when faced with contradictory forms of thought, one must recognise the plurality rather than trying to explain it away. The full passage reads as follows:
Struggling to determine ‘the’ true thought of these people is pointless, and it is equally unproductive to attempt to resolve these contradictory thoughts by attributing one to popular religion and the other to the beliefs of the privileged social classes. (Veyne 1988:89)
The sceptical approach that Needham recommends begins by setting aside the question of belief. It may have found other explanations for religious language, and they may be illuminating, but this approach cannot even recognise the plurality of modes of belief that Veyne draws our attention to and makes it his business to describe and understand.
In summary, then, Needham’s critical review does not persuade me that Veyne’s way of understanding belief is not a really critical piece in understanding human thought, though Needham is right to say that Veyne is vague about his key terms. They’re still arguing in my head and Veyne is still winning.
Veyne, Paul. Did the Greeks believe in their myths?: An essay on the constitutive imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
I recently came across a review by Rodney Needham of Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks believe in their myths? I was quite intrigued by this as these two authors are representatives of two approaches to the study of religious belief and the anthropology of belief I have been thinking about for a while . They have often squabbled in my head, and in my imagination, Veyne always wins the argument, so I was curious to see what Needham would make of Veyne’s argument and the strong implicit critique of his own position it entails. (more…)
Over the weekend I read Wilfred Cantwell Smith‘s The Meaning and End of Religion (1962). I knew a little about this book from Talal Asad’s 2001 article (jStor paywall), which I suppose is the main way most anthropologists of religion have come to know its content too. Asad lavishes praise on Smith at the beginning of the article—the book is a ‘modern classic’, and so on—but most of his article is a pretty unrelenting takedown. I have always taken it for granted that Asad’s precis is a reliable description of Smith’s position, but now I’ve actually read the book, I’ve found that the argument is much more subtle, and that many (but not all) of Asad’s criticisms are unfair.
Here’s my review of Abby Day’s Believing in Belonging which appeared in last year’s edition of the Journal of Religion and Society. Though I didn’t quite buy the theoretical argument of the book, I thought the substantive work on people’s attitudes towards institutionalised religion, gods, ghosts and fate was fascinating.
The commentary on the census is also very useful. I referred to that aspect of the work in a previous post, where I questioned an evolutionary explanation of religion that relied on data from historical censuses.
The full text of the review follows, and a pdf version (post-print) is available here.
Review of Believing in Belonging by Abby Day
Religion and Society: Advances in Research, Volume 3, Number 1, 2012 , pp. 211-241(31)
Believing in Belonging is a study based mainly on a series of interviews conducted in the early 2000s in the north of England. Suspecting that sociological studies of religious affiliation were failing to capture something important, Day asked her interviewees instead about ‘belief’. In the substantive chapters she outlines the main issues that emerged from these conversations: community and identity, relations with kin, enduring relations with the dead, the operation of fate or providence, and the importance of morality.
As promised, here’s a post-print version of my Cultures of Belief article, which was published in Anthropological Theory.
The text is identical to the journal version, but the formatting is different — this is the version I’m allowed to distribute according to the publishing agreement. If you have access to the journal, for example through a library, you can see a prettier version here.
I’ve just had a new paper out in Anthropological Theory — this is behind a paywall, I’ll make a post-print version available through this website soon for those who don’t have access to the journal through an academic library.
The paper is titled ‘Cultures of ignorance’. In a nutshell, the argument is that academic students of religion have settled on a way of accounting for religious language and thought that distinguishes ordinary, everyday belief from religious belief. The former is understood to be literal and practical. The latter, by contrast, is taken to be indirect, metaphorical, symbolic, affective, moral and so on, and by implication not to be about propositional belief. Drawing on my own field research in northern China’s Inner Mongolia, I argue that there are ways of relating to a body of true knowledge that fit neither of these models. I argue that in order to understand what is going on in this situation and many others we need to develop an ethnographic sensibility to locally specific ‘cultures of belief’. To get this project off to a start, I suggest some initial building blocks for a general anthropology of belief, based on religious thought in ancient Greece, mediaeval Judaism, and contemporary US Evangelism.
Here’s the abstract:
In popular thought about the meaning of religion, as well as established debates in anthropology, religious belief is interpreted as either a commitment to a clear set of propositions, or as a non-literal, symbolic, ethical or social commitment. Anthropologists have tended to support the latter of these positions, so much so that this can now be seen as the ‘anthropological’ position; it is also characteristic of the view of scholars in related disciplines, such as religious studies. This article argues for a third possibility: that religious (and other) believers are often engaged in complex, reflexive practices that stipulate specific cognitive and non-cognitive relationships to propositional content. This is demonstrated with reference to contemporary Buddhism in Inner Mongolia, China. The author argues that the existence of such cultures of belief demonstrates there is a need for a systematic anthropological theory of belief and suggests some sources that may contribute to its formulation.
Mair, J., 2013. Cultures of belief. Anthropological Theory, 12(4), pp.448–466.
This is a cross-post from ethics.CRASSH.
Felicitas Becker on Islamic reformism and Sufi traditionalism in Tanzania
I’ve just read two fascinating papers by Felicitas Becker on moral conflict in East Africa. Both papers describe the relationship between Islamist reformers and Sufi-influenced traditionalists in rural Tanzania. Broadly speaking, the Islamists are young, have international connections (though these are limited), and their leaders claim legitimacy as a result of their scriptural scholarship. The traditionalists are drawn from the older generations and derive their authority from their descent from founders of local mosques, or from their place in a chain of transmission of oral knowledge. Most local people, Becker notes, consider themselves Muslims, but observe the debates between the two groups without feeling the need to declare themselves partisans of either side.
One of the papers, ‘Islamic Reform and Historical Change in the Care of the Dead’ (2009) focuses on disagreements between the two parties around funerary practices, which take on great importance in this context. Traditionalists have elaborate funerals in which prayers and the Quran are recited over the funeral procession and the deceased is read instructions on how to meet the angels after the burial is complete. To the elders who represent this tradition, these measures show that they are more punctilious in caring for the dead than their nomadic forebears who, before the adoption of Islamic usages, would abandon settlements along with the corpses of the dead. To the reformists, the intercessions on behalf of, and interaction with, the deceased are accretions that are not justified by Quran or Hadith and must therefore be relinquished.
The other paper, ‘Rural Islamism during the “War on Terror”‘ (2006) considers a wider range of disagreements over practice, and also addresses the question of how far the reformers, who are nicknamed by other ‘Al Qaeda’, are in fact part of a coherent ‘international terror’ movement. Becker’s admirably nuanced conclusion, if I understand it correctly, is that although they are politically activist in theory, and in a way that could potentially lead to violent conflict, the political plank of their programme finds no traction with local concerns and is therefore barely a live part of their practice, while the international connections are tenuous. Meanwhile, the other aspect of their programme, the claim that scriptural scholarship is the sole source of religious legitimacy has found great support among the population, and even grudging assent among those who find themselves on the opposite side of debates about specific practices. This aspect of Becker’s material makes it interesting in terms of the CRASSH Speaking Ethically Across Borders Project.
The ‘morality system’ and literacy
In the 2006 paper, Becker notes:
…the opinions expounded by Ansaar [the reformists/Islamists] consistently tend towards the imposition of stricter rules. They are more concerned than others about the loss of ritual purity through contact with the opposite sex; they support a ban on alcohol and have suggested that smoking, too, is haram, religiously prohibited. … They have also introduced new forms of veiling to Rwangwa, have changed standards for halal (religiously correct) slaughter and have questioned the acceptability of established ways of dealing with witchcraft. (Becker 2006: 594)
This made me think about the relation of literacy and forms of ethics. Much recent anthropological work on ethics has taken on a distinction from philosophy between virtue ethics and what Bernard Williams calls the ‘morality system’. The morality system is about judgment of acts against legalistic codes of behaviour, lists of obligations and taboos, and it leads to a concern with the refinement of rules for particular circumstances, and with moral dilemmas. Virtue ethics is about the judgment of character against models of excellence, and leads to a concern with the identification of exemplars, and with pedagogical techniques that lead to the cultivation of particular virtues (including what Foucault calls ‘techniques of the self’).
A lot of anthropological work on Islamic reformists has emphasised the way in which their reforms are connected to virtue ethical programmes of character development, but I wonder if there’s a general relationship between reformist movements that base legitimacy on scriptural sources and the importance of the ‘morality system’. Character-based ethics requires a good deal of interpretation in order to work out how an exemplar would act in the current situation (see Humphrey 1997 on this). Virtues that are partly or mainly about embodied dispositions are apt to be expressed in imagistic forms that underdetermine their expression (Carrithers 1990). Is it difficult to combine this interpretative flexibility and the autonomy it implies with an insistence on submission to scripture as a sole source of authority?
In Becker’s Tanzanian case study, the traditionalist elders apply this kind of reasoning to the conduct of funerals. The reformists argue from scripture that,
The Prophet, peace be upon him, prohibits the corpse [to be sung to], that is to say, when we get up to go to the graveyard to bury someone, we are required to be quiet and to ponder that our fellow Muslim has died and we will die too. Therefore we must be quiet. And the Prophet says don’t follow the hearse with any sort of noise, let people be quiet and reflect. (Becker 2006: 592)
The Sufis’ riposte is that:
In the days of the prophet, the graves were situated very close to the houses of the liv- ing. But our graves are far from our villages. Moreover, our faith is not as strong as that of the first Muslims. Were we to go to the graveyard in silence, our thoughts might start to wander and some might start to discuss, say, football on the way to the grave! So our elders decided we had better recite the shahada on the way to the grave, to keep our minds focused.
This could, I think, be interpreted as a more character-based approach to ethics. Though the traditionalists accept the idea that scripture, and not established custom, is the proper arbiter of practice, they maintain enough autonomy from it to interpret it in the light of specific local and personal conditions. Perhaps this shows that they are more concerned with emulating the underlying character expressed by the Prophet’s actions, something that can never be entirely captured in words, because it is always contextual, rather than reproducing the actions, which can be more precisely described in the text, themselves.
It’s difficult to reach a conclusion on this question on the basis of this material alone, but perhaps a comparative approach would turn up a regular association between text-based revival movements (i.e. renaissances — Goody 2009), and a shift away from a concern with character and towards a concern with moral rules. Or the shift might be away from a complex character approach, with multiple, perhaps mutually incompatible, virtues or exemplars available to the moral subject, towards a simpler character approach which focuses all effort on the single virtue of perfect submission to the authority of the text.
Becker, F., 2006. Rural Islamism during the “war on terror”: A Tanzanian case study. African Affairs, 105(421), pp.583–603.
Becker, F., 2011. Islamic Reform and Historical Change in the Care of the Dead: Conflicts Over Funerary Practice Among Tanzanian Muslims. Africa, 79(03), pp.416–434.
Carrithers, M., 1990. Jainism and Buddhism as enduring historical streams. JASO (Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford), 21(2), pp.141–163.
Faubion, J.D., 2001. Toward an Anthropology of Ethics: Foucault and the Pedagogies of Autopoiesis. Representations, (74), pp.83–104. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2001.74.1.83.
Foucault, M., 1990. The history of sexuality volume 3: the care of the self, London: Penguin.
Goody, J., 2009. Renaissances, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Humphrey, C. 1997. Exemplars and rules: aspects of the discourse of moralities in Mongolia. In Howell, S. (ed). The ethnography of moralities. London: Routledge.
Laidlaw, J., 2002. For An Anthropology Of Ethics And Freedom. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 8(2), pp.311–332.
Williams, B.A.O., 1985. Ethics and the limits of philosophy, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Part of my argument in the recent neoliberalism debate was that,
evidence of discontent about any aspect, be it ever so narrow, of what have been identified as neoliberal transformations is taken, without further justification, as a rejection of all of the phenomena that have been so identified
My point was that just because lots of people in different countries are critics of, say, structural adjustment programmes, we cannot leap to the conclusion that they share the same conception of the state and civil society and all agree on the proper balance of power and resources between the two; their motivations and assumptions might be quite different in each case.
This is a formal problem of cross-cultural description or comparison: the conversation at cross-purposes. We recognize something familiar in other people’s statements, and rush to fill in the rest from our own common-sense ideas, which may be quite different. My favourite example of this is one that operates in both directions — a reciprocal conversation at cross-purposes. (more…)
Thanks again for taking the time to engage with me earlier. Sorry that this is a bit of a long reply…
In your comment you note:
the fundamental questions remains: Why are only “religious” communities able to augment this in-group cooperation not, say, political parties or sport clubs?
This is certainly an interesting question, and one that is not affected by the objections in my previous post, but I do have some reservations on this count too.