Classifying Classification in the Study of Religion

dandelionsclassificationSo ends the late Charles J. Adams‘s classic entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica on the topic of “Classification of Religions.” Or consider the Encyclopedia of Religion‘s own entry on the same topic (not updated in the second edition), this time written by the late Harry B. Partin — which concludes as follows:

encyofrelThat there as yet has been no satisfactory classification system for religion — or so both authors tell us — indicates to me that both share the same assumption that things come before their organization. That is to say, classification systems in the study of religion are generally seen as part of a secondary step, devised merely to manage the plurality of “dynamic entities” that we’ve already come across — naturally occurring things called religions that we confront in the wild; classification schemes help us to bring order to them and make more apparent how they do or do not overlap.

After all, classification is just a tool.

But consider yet another article on classification, this time from Jonathan Z. Smith. Writing in the opening to his chapter on this very topic in the Guide to the Study of Religion he notes how

Claude Lévi-Strauss has recalled, on a number of occasions, a Proust-like reverie triggered by contemplating a dandelion one Sunday in May, 1940…. In order to “see” the dandelion, Lévi-Strauss discovered, one must, at the same time, “see” the other plants which differ from it. The dandelion cannot be “intelligible” by itself, but only as “much more,” as constituted by the totality of those relations of similarities and differences that allow one to “isolate” it…. [D]enomination is placed in relation to classification, as it must be…. Lévi-Strauss … insists that classification, comparison and naming be seen as a single, indissoluble process…. [O]bjects are “given” as “bundles of relations” as part of the process of intellection itself.

In this scenario classification constitutes the very condition by which cognition takes place, making it far more than just a tool used to manipulate things already given but, instead, the enabling conditions that allow us to experience this and that as being either the same or different — classification is not how we organize things in the world but, instead, how we come to understand there’s a world out there comprised of things apart from us.

Classification is now synonymous with identification rather than just a way of organizing things that are already identified.

So here we have two drastically different, even diametrically opposed, views on the role of classification in the study of religion — each implying very different views on what religion is and how scholarship of any sort proceeds.

For which will you opt?