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Classification As A Scholarly Act

Keeping in mind this relationship between classifier, classification, and that which is classified, it may be seen why a number of contemporary scholars have found the essentialist approach to be unproductive insomuch as its metaphysic presumes a common essence to underlie its varied manifestations—the presumption that motivated an earlier movement known as the Phenomenology of Religion (e.g., van der Leeuw's 1933 work, Religion in Essence and Manifestation). Moreover, just as studies of the politics of scholarship have recently appeared throughout the human sciences, so too in the study of religion once this field was re-conceived as a site constituted by choice and interests rather than one based on sympathetic spiritual insight (e.g., Fitzgerald, Wiebe). Due to the breadth of his own work and its international influence, the University of Chicago's Jonathan Z. Smith is, perhaps, the best representative of this recent development among scholars of religion who now take seriously that "religion" is their analytic tool and that it does not necessarily identify a universal affectation lurking deep within human nature.

Contrary to Max Weber (1864–1920), who famously opened his now classic The Sociology of Religion (1922) by stating that exhaustive description must precede definition, many scholars no longer see classification to be concerned with linking a historical word to an ahistorical trait identified only after all empirical cases have been considered. Instead, classification—like all human activities—is now understood as a tactical, provisional activity, directed by deductive scholarly theories and prior social interests in need of disclosure. Classification ensures that some generic thing stands out as an object worthy of describing; for without a prior definition of religion Weber would have had nothing to describe. To paraphrase Jonathan Z. Smith, classification therefore provides scholars with some elbowroom to get on with their work of disciplined inquiry.


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Russell T. McCutcheon

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReligion - The Beginnings Of "religion", The Essentials Of Religion, The Functions Of Religion, Religion As An Item Of Public Discourse