On Will Sweetman’s Criticism—S.N.Balagangadhara

[For more, check Orientalism, Postcolonialism, and the ‘Construction’ of Religion ]

Let me just focus on one important and one not-so-important claim from Will Sweetman’s article —‘”Hinduism” and the history of “religion”: Protestant presuppositions in the critique of the concept of Hinduism. He suggests that I argue the following.

First premise: Christianity is prototypically what religion is.

Second premise: Hinduism does not share all (or perhaps any) of the relevant properties of Christianity.

Conclusion: Hinduism is not a religion.

The problem, here, turns around the notion of ‘prototypicality’. I explain at length (a) the source of the word; and (b) its meaning. For the role these clarifications play in Sweetman’s analysis, I might as well not have written those passages.

‘Prototypical’ talks about our language-use. What it says is this. We use the word ‘religion’ in English to minimally refer to Christianity. This use does not tell us what the word ‘religion’ means; does not tell us that Christianity is a religion. In the book, I suggest that Christianity might not even be a religion and that our language-use might be totally wrong in this case. (For instance, we used to refer to whales as ‘Fishes’. We now know they are mammals.) But we can only make such a claim after we have a theory of religion. This is the meaning of the word ‘prototypical’. We need to rewrite the first premise so that this point becomes clear.

First Premise: In English, the word ‘religion’ refers minimally to Christianity.

Second premise: Hinduism does not share all (or perhaps any) of the relevant properties of Christianity.

Conclusion: ??????

We cannot conclude what Sweetman makes me conclude. We cannot even conclude that the word ‘religion’ does not refer to Hinduism (unless we add an additional premise: the word ‘religion’ refers to Christianity by virtue of the properties of Christianity).

The problem is clear. Sweetman assumes that ‘prototypicality’ is the same as (or something like) ‘central’ or ‘essential’ properties of an object. Better put. He probably thinks that a prototypical ‘example’ is the best example of an object. However, the technical meaning of the word is not that. It is about what, in language-use, is understood as a best instance of a word. As I explain in the book, this notion is used for most natural-language categories and for sets for which the criteria of set-membership are vague. ‘Face’, ‘bucket’ (to keep to the book) are examples of such natural language categories. ‘:)’ is a face; so is a visual smiley. A photograph of a smiling person is ‘prototypical’ when compared to either of the two. This has to do with graded membership of the set ‘face’, and where it is not possible to come up with an all-or-none criteria. (For instance, ‘:)’ is not a face straight away to someone who either does not know computer conventions or to whom the trick of seeing a face in that set of symbols is not yet explained.)

In other words, Sweetman’s representation of my ‘argument’ is flawed. I do not say this. This is the important point. Now to the not-so-important point. He says the following: “Balagangadhara himself acknowledges that “there is a quasi-universal consensus that the `Western’ concept of religion is inadequate” (Balagangadhara 1994: 313) but he fails to see that this in itself is not a reason for thinking that Hinduism is not a religion but, rather, a reason to work out a better concept of religion.”

I discuss exactly this (and show its triviality) when I discuss Staal. Which intellectual does not want to work out a “better concept”? What does this mean, in any case? That we should come up with a concept that also makes Hinduism into a religion? He calls my hypothesis a ‘tendentious’ concept and makes it sound as though I am doing something wrong. Encarta, for instance, defines the word this way: “written or spoken by somebody who obviously wants to promote a particular cause or who supports a particular viewpoint”. I want to promote a scientific viewpoint. Quite obviously, this is not what Sweetman probably has in mind because he does not consider his argument ‘tendentious’.

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