The Seminar Room

A Religious Studies Podcast

Month: February 2016

A Sociology of Value: Max Weber’s Methodology

This week we move into territory that is in the realm of my own specific dissertation research and discuss Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Sean is able to join us on the podcast for his first episode, which is super exciting. He was traveling in California and had to leave the recording a little early, but it was still fantastic to finally get him on!

In this introduction, I want to briefly summarize what I see as Weber’s most important intervention in social theory and especially methodology regarding the study of religion. Much of European social theory in the 19th century that we still care about today was divided between two poles. On the one hand, there were positivist theories of history and society such as those advanced by Auguste Comte, which posited universal laws of history and a strong evolutionary theory of society, culminating in the modern era. For Comte, one could look at the empirical evidence that history and contemporary society provide and abstract from that evidence these laws and the proper evolutionary divisions between eras in the development of society. On the other hand, there were genealogical accounts such as those belonging to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud who aimed to show that a latent principle of human nature (also empirically verifiable, at least for Marx and Freud) was what reallydrove the development of society to the modern era. Marx believed that recognizing this could help us overcome the worst aspects of this principle (our ability to advance the efficiency of meeting our needs through mastery of nature), Freud thought we were doomed to be haunted by our repressed desires forever, and Nietzsche is maybe somewhere in the middle. What is characteristic of all three, however, is the positing of a central, world-historical factabout the nature of humanity. It is this fact that first sets the machine of societal development in motion.

Weber’s intervention is to show that such a world-historical fact cannot form the basis of a social theory. There are a number of reasons for this. First, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud can’t all be correct simultaneously. Their theories are competing and mutually exclusive (though, to be sure, there certainly have been more recent creative combinations of psychoanalysis and historical materialism.) Given the proposed explanatory strength of their theories (at least on Weber’s reading), one would expect that, looking around the world at various cultures, we would be able to see cultures developing more or less along the lines proposed by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, even if at different rates. But Weber says this is not at all what we see. Instead, we see features of society in the West that have onlyemerged in the West and that (as Sean points out in the episode) even within the West itself, there are developments in some regions that do not occur (and likely cannot occur) in others. The empirical evidence, which Weber thinks is quite plain to everyone, simply does not support any “world-historical” foundational principle that could somehow explain all religious development (this is a blow to other evolutionary theories as well, e.g. E.B. Tylor, Emile Durkheim, etc.)

Weber thinks that no “material fact” can serve as the proper point of departure for mounting an analysis of society. What he means here, though, depends upon a specific way of viewing values in modern society. Whether or not this constitutes a kind of static, material fact for Weber is another question, but I do think Weber leaves his theory “open” such that his understanding ofScreen Shot 2016-02-27 at 10.10.21 AM values is not intended to be a priori true or have the same level of fundamental irreducibility that we see in the figures mentioned above. When Weber means in dismissing these sorts of “facts” is that we cannot understand the values in one sphere of life strictly from the perspective of another sphere. This is what he sees happening in Marx and Nietzsche (he doesn’t really engage Freud.) By “sphere of life” Weber is referring to a particularly modern structuring of one’s view of life-as-a-whole (pictured to the right from a Powerpoint lecture I gave on this recently). Weber thinks that at one point, these spheres were more or less undifferentiated (a rather uncontroversial claim, I think), but as “rationalization” within each sphere became more and more complex, the spheres began to make their own differentiated and unique demands on the individual and the community. For example, at one time nearly all art was “religious art.” There was not a serious distinction between two such forms–even what we call “religious art” today was just “art.” But, so Weber theorizes, as artists and viewers of art came to appreciate the form and technique of the artist rather than the religious content of the image, artists began to create art for the sake of highlighting form and technique (among other aspects of art not related to religious content and purpose.) Furthermore, there developed a sense that the aesthetic sphere provided an alternative path to salvation, thus putting at odds the values of the aesthetic and religious spheres. Weber thinks a similar differentiation occurs in each sphere with regard to religion. In the West, and in Reformed Protestantism particularly, the demands of the religious sphere are pitched so high that it becomes the dominant sphere. However, this is not at all obvious from the historical data since this branch of Protestantism maintained a strong connection with the economic and political spheres, rather than (as in other situations where religion is dominant) completely retreat form the world altogether. Obviously, we talk much more about this connection between the economic and the religious spheres in the episode.

What comes to the fore for me in this analysis is Weber’s utilization of religious and even theological ideas as a way of describing and illustrating the religious values of Reformed Protestants for the purposes of his analysis. I want to say that this move is non-reductive over-against both contemporary calls to reduction (e.g. Sharf, or especially Don Wiebe or Robert Segal) as well as the phenomenological approaches such contemporary reductive accounts critique. Weber is not reductive either in the “critical religion” or phenomenological senses. Though Weber’s method (importantly) extends beyond what religious adherents themselves see as the telos and/or explanation of their own ideas and practices, Weber’s starting point is not an explanation of what those ideas and practices are fundamentally. We see such a starting point in critical religion and phenomenology–an ontological approach to what religion is. Even in explaining what religion means as some phenomenologists do, I’d argue that the fundamental goal of such meaning is ontological/definitional. Weber, on the other hand, is interested in what religion does: i.e. the particular effects that the process of rationalizing religious values with the values of other social spheres has on those other spheres. For Weber, even if the religious values are not “really” religious but can be shown to be “actually” something else, Weber thinks the fact that people regard them as religious has a genuine effect that cannot be explained by such a reduction. In other words, Marx’s theory, for example, cannot account for the ways that “religious values”–as understood by the adherent to be actually religious–has determinate effects on and even creates the conditions for new kinds of capitalism.

Listen to Episode 5 here:



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Experience: A Response from Eva Kelley

Eva Kelley, a Ph.D student in UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies and friend of ours, graciously agreed to write a response to both the chapter we discussed this week, “Experience” by Robert Sharf, and to the podcast itself. We at TSR thank her for her thoughtful work here! Her post follows below. References in her post refer to the actual page numbers of Critical Terms for Religious Studies rather than the PDF version which Lucas and I used for the podcast.

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Robert Sharf argues that experience ought not be a critical term for religious studies because experience, as something private and ineffable, will always remain inaccessible to the scholar. His objection then is not just to the term experience but to the pursuit of the thing it supposedly denotes. Sharf’s issue is not simply with scholarly terminology—that in some languages and cultures there may be no conceptual equivalent to the English word experience which we could somehow refine by discovering terms native to various traditions and languages. Rather, he makes a stronger claim: other people’s interiority is just not something we can ever get at publicly, so it should not be the object of scholarly inquiry. Proper objects of religious studies inquiry are texts, sacred rites, and oral traditions—i.e., all publically accessible displays of human culture.

Some accuse religious studies scholarship of being reductionistic when it fails to consider experience or the inner dimension of religious practice, that it elides the living, breathing, dynamic, personally affecting dimension of religion. To such critics, Sharf answers that considerations of such an inner dimension usually end up as one more form of ideological appropriation, because the category of experience, as it is wielded by scholars, is “a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning.”[1] Experience can mean whatever the scholar wants it to mean, precisely because the term has no observable content—we have no standard or data against which to measure one person’s consciousness and interiority against another’s, so we load the term experience with whatever meanings we need it to bear for us. Thus Sharf’s critique of method is closely tied to his position on philosophy of mind.

Interpretation is no doubt a central part of our work in the humanities, but it is hard not to agree with Sharf that “scholars of religion are not presented with experiences that stand in need of interpretation but rather with texts, narratives, performances, and so forth,” which is why “it is ill conceived to construe the object of the study of religion to be the inner experience of religious practitioners.”[2] My job is to interpret, for example, the texts of the medieval Kabbalists, Julian of Norwich, and Bonaventure, which contain visionary accounts, not to try to interpret their experiences of such divine visions because I have no access to the latter (the experience), only to the former (the text about the experience). It is fruitful for me to examine the neoplatonic and Talmudic influences on the Zohar, or the blending of Franciscan and Dionysian themes in Bonaventure’s Itinerarium. It is pointless for me to ask, using the tools of RS scholarship, “What did the Kabbalists or Bonaventure in fact experience during an out of body union with God, the creator of the universe?” Attempts to answer that kind of question take us all too quickly into the domain of theology.

This is where Sharf’s implicit scientific materialism strikes me as odd and out of place. Sharf rebukes Felicitas Goodman for her agnosticism about the reality of extraordinary experiences such as spirit possession or divine visions, calling her agnosticism “a small step away from John Mack’s qualified acceptance of the existence of alien abductors.”[3] First of all, agnosticism in no way approximates qualified acceptance; agnosticism properly refrains from making a judgment, so it is precisely not acceptance. Goodman is simply arguing that “whether these changes [in the bodies of those who report spirit possession] are internally generated or created by external agencies is not something discoverable,” which sounds much like the position for which Sharf himself is arguing.[4] The object of religion scholarship is not inner experience, but rather the stories, myths, and practices about such experiences. To be faithful to his own prescription, Sharf would be obligated to remain agnostic about the veracity of alien abduction accounts, or at least would be obligated to refrain from the attempt (which would be futile, according to his own assertions about philosophy of mind) to establish or disprove their veracity through scholarship.

Joel and Lucas pick up on this tension, though there seems to be bit of confusion about which of the many camps within the religious studies discipline are allies on these issues. Joel and Lucas note that the interesting question for RS scholars is not “did this person really experience alien abduction, or touch the wounds of a bleeding Christ, or become demon-possessed” but rather “how do these discourses of experience function in their social context? What power do they wield? What institutions and values are being critiqued or reshaped by these discourses?”

Joel reads Sharf’s critical approach as one amenable to cognitive science assessments of religion and as at odds with critical theory, but on my reading, it is the reverse. Sharf’s position is much more amenable to analyzing religion according to power dynamics, values, and institutions than to cognitive science. Sharf’s own explanation of the rise of the term experience in Japanese and Chinese contexts as a response to western imperialism is a great example of exactly this kind of work. He looks not at whether Theravāda and Zen masters have in fact achieved enlightenment, but rather at the terms for enlightenment (satori or kenshō), the techniques used to achieve it (samatha versus vipassamā), and the authorities attempting to define authentic forms of it vis-à-vis Christian missionary activity. Whereas Sharf says the religion scholar ought simply to investigate and catalogue religious artifacts and leave well alone the inevitably ineffable domain of religious experience, cognitive science takes inner experience as its primary object of investigation. It seems to me that it has to presume from the get-go that inner experience is accessible to us, is quantifiable, and can be mapped according to neurological activity and blood flow to certain brain tissues. This is precisely the kind of work Sharf is most roundly rejecting, relying as it does not on literary and artistic representations but on the “numinous inner realm” to which those representations supposedly refer back.[5]


[1] Robert H. Sharf, “Experience,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 113.

[2] Ibid., 111.

[3] Ibid., 112.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 113.

Experience with Diesel Engines

This introduction is going to be a bit shorter than the first three since we have a very special guest response to the episode coming later this week. Eva Kelley, good friend of ours and colleague of Lucas’s in UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies, will be offering her thoughts on the status of “experience” as a concept in religious studies. It’s going to be fantastic.

This week we discussed “Experience” by Robert Sharf which is a chapter from Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998). There is really no good reason to choose this chapter over any of the others from the text except that it was the first I read from the collection after a professor from one of my first seminars at Northwestern gave it to me as a supplement she thought I might find interesting. I found it exasperating, and thus extremely interesting, and it’s an essay that has sort of stuck with me ever since.

I find it exasperating for reasons that I get into in the actual podcast, but there are elements I appreciate about the essay. The colonial history of the inherited terms in religious studies is seemingly inexhaustible, so I think it’s always worth digging into and telling. Though I don’t think Sharf is conscious of it in this essay, through his analysis of the colonial genealogy of “experience,” he touches on something that I’ve become increasingly interested in: the fault lines between indigenous uses of colonial power as resistance or as consolidation of different, non-colonial discourses of power and the imposition of categories as a means of colonial political taxonomy and control. Put another way, as I wonder in this episode, can we understand someone like D.T. Suzuki or Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as colonizers of their own religious traditions? Sharf’s account of these two figures raises some important questions about how we mediate the boundaries between criticizing a colonial imposition and criticizing what is perhaps an internal change from within a tradition, even if it is employing “colonial” concepts for its own ends.

Lastly, Lucas and I have a slight disagreement toward the end of the episode over whether or not Sharf’s handling of epistemology is a problem related to assuming a kind of scientific naturalism or a logical problem. My position was the former (which I don’t think excludes logical problems necessarily), which is part of a larger problematic trend I see in critical religion. I don’t have any problem out of hand with natural scientific approaches to the study of religion if we’re talking about cognitive science or something like that. I see an actual logical distinction between what natural sciences does and what “historical sciences,” die Geisteswissenschaften, the humanities, do (a distinction that I will talk about in the next episode when we discuss Max Weber), so natural science people can go nuts. The problem I have is moving from a critique of colonial imposition to the conclusion that religious studies should, therefore, engage natural scientific approaches in the study of religion. The leap this conclusion makes is evident in the way in which the first part of Sharf’s chapter seems almost completely unrelated to the second part where he eludes to the reducibility of all phenomena to natural scientific explanations (by invoking Daniel Dennett.) At odds in this leap, on my reading, is a confusion of the fact/value distinction where certain “value-centered” approaches are employed while at the same time rejecting such approaches as meaningless, useless, or nefarious in favor of fact-based “science.” This is an argument that I’m still developing, so I’ll leave it there for now. It’s certainly going to come up again in future episodes!

Listen to Episode 4:


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