I finally got around to reading Tom Tweed’s recent Journal of Religion essay the other day, “After the Quotidian Turn: Interpretive Categories and Scholarly Trajectories in the Study of Religion Since the 1960s.” I’ve got a paper of my own in which I argue that we should turn our attention toward studying what I’ll just call the common, so I thought I should see what Tom had to say — those who advocate for studying so-called everyday religion, such as finding a small, simple shrine in a notch on a sidewalk’s wall, or those who go looking for, say, the implicit religion of baseball, are certainly talking about rather different things than I am in my paper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing what they’re all up to.
For the time being what stood out for me was his essay’s opening line:
I’m not really sure what to make of this claim, inasmuch as it strikes me as asserting, rather than arguing for, collapsing that longstanding distinction between interpretations of meaning, on the one hand, and explanations of causes, on the other — a distinction very much at home in some parts of the study of religion. (Note: he doesn’t go on to say that some other categories we use are explanatory, indicating to me that his claim is not just about all scholars in the human sciences but also about all of their categories.) So is it all reducible to meaning (as a classic humanist might arguer), thereby eliminating the notion of an explanatory category? That Tom limits his claim to the so-called human sciences is telling, I think, for it suggests that he’s trying to make a case that, at the end of the day, all human activity (including scholarship on that activity, of which Tom’s essay and this blog are but two examples) is somehow about either making or interpreting meaning — a claim in keeping with not only Dilthey‘s well-known approach but also a Geertzian model of culture.
How the natural sciences are exempt from all this, I’m unsure, unless we assume their objects of study transcend or predate the human — i.e., that a mitochondria is just a really real thing that’s interesting all on its own. Since I don’t think their categories are any truer than ours (to use Tom’s criterion: our categories are interpretive, he says in the next line, because they are neither true or false but, instead, more or less adequate to the task). For it isn’t difficult to imagine that the definition of mitochondria is not only just as pragmatic and human a tool as any term I use in my work but also that it (driven by the series of human assumptions and interests that motivate and inform its use in specific situations) is the thing that coaxes that little part of the cell into existence as a seemingly separable thing to study and talk about.
Same thing applies to “cell” of course. And to “thing.” And so on, and so on…
But I’ll leave that line of reasoning aside for the time being.
Instead, all I want to ask is whether this is the only model — i.e., that our categories are interpretive — we might pragmatically operate with? If not, then might we need some argumentation to establish the utility of such a point instead of asserting it on the first line?
For if it stands on its own, without argumentation and persuasion, then I’m not sure how this claim stacks up to itself, for it starts to sound as if all scholars in the human sciences use interpretive categories (i.e., that are neither true nor false) except those used in that opening line, for it seems to me that only self-evident first principles are universal, factual, and thus requiring no evidence and persuasive argumentation.
So is there a contradiction buried in that opening line, one that calls the entire paper — when seen itself as a piece of work in the human sciences and not somehow floating above it — into question?