Intercultural exchange of categories

What is wrong with the intercultural exchange of categories? Throughout one gets the impression that there is something “fundamentally wrong” with categories shifting in meaning over time or with the introduction of categories from one culture into another culture. But what is important about these shifts in meaning? What exactly is the problem in introducing the category of religion into India or among Native Americans? The category “yuppie” did not exist in the Middle Ages, while “orange” came through Arabic from Sanskrit, and “girl” used to refer to a young person of either sex. When we analyse the genetics of early modern populations, we are also introducing categories that they did not possess. Or take the word “silly,” which in Old English used to mean blessed. So what? An historical analysis of discourse and categories is significant not to identify shifts in meaning per se. Shifts in meaning become significant only against the background of a theory on the historical development of the western culture and its understanding of other cultures. Such a theory is needed to clarify as to why a shift in the meaning of “religion” or “the secular” is of crucial importance.

Let us illustrate this point. Many scholars have linked the etymology of “religion” to religare (“to connect”). Others make the case for a link with religere (“to re-read,” “to carefully select”). This last group claims that the Latin word religio had a completely different meaning to the “pagan” Romans — namely, religio referred to ancestral traditional practices — as compared to what “religion” would signify after the Christians transformed it into true belief.

This is interesting, not so much because it shows nuances in the meaning of the word “religion,” but because it reveals that the Roman religio was a phenomenon completely different from the Christian religion and the modern understanding of religion. This difference has many consequences: in the Roman understanding, for example, it is senseless to ask whether a religio is true or false; in the Christian understanding this question is of primordial importance. Even though  this problem is noticed, there is a need to delve deeper into the theoretical significance of shifts in meaning and of the introduction of alien categories into new cultural matrices.

2 thoughts on “Intercultural exchange of categories

  1. Jos De Vos

    “What is wrong with the intercultural exchange of categories? Throughout one gets the impression that there is something “fundamentally wrong” with categories shifting in meaning over time or with the introduction of categories from one culture into another culture. But what is important about these shifts in meaning? What exactly is the problem in introducing the category of religion into India or among Native Americans? “

    Let me counter that question with this one: What is wrong with the word ‘category’ itself in a culture where propositional statements are to be found suspicious (Nagarjuna) or theoretical knowledge is embedded in performative knowledge? Answer: reading a book or two will be of no help since it is mental activitity accumulating theoretical knowledge, hence access to performative knowledge denied. Perhaps the only solution that can be provided for is reading-while-jogging.

    “The category “yuppie” did not exist in the Middle Ages, while “orange” came through Arabic from Sanskrit, and “girl” used to refer to a young person of either sex. When
    we analyse the genetics of early modern populations, we are also introducing categories that they did not possess. Or take the word “silly,” which in Old English used to mean blessed. So what?”

    Some researchers in the field of etymology have made the link of (shifts
    of) meanings of words to cultural mindset or a societal Zeitgeist. E.g. the category “faith” in Smith’s examination of the evolution of Christian ideas. Or the term “sceptic” in Greek thinking versus the modern version. Are you suggesting this is all bogus research? If you do, then please provide for arguments, extending beyond mere
    emotional exclamations. No hardtalk without valid alternatives!

    “An historical analysis of discourse and categories is significant not to identify shifts in
    meaning per se. Shifts in meaning become significant only against the background of a theory on the historical development of the western culture and its understanding of other cultures. Such a theory is needed to clarify as to why a shift in the meaning of “religion” or “the secular” is of crucial importance.”

    Since you proclaim to be in possession of precisely such a theory, you should be able to not only illustrate this claim with the examples mentioned above, but also to test the
    particularities of your proposed framework: a potential win-win situation. Three categories, “silly” “Yuppie” “girl”: kindly show us how the historical significance emerges in the context of your superior theoretical framework.

    “Let us illustrate this point. Many scholars have linked the etymology of “religion” to religare (“to connect”). Others make the case for a link with religere (“to re-read,”
    “to carefully select”). This last group claims that the Latin word religio had a completely different meaning to the “pagan” Romans — namely, religio referred to ancestral traditional practices — as compared to what “religion” would signify after the Christians transformed it into true belief.”

    This is a very bad example since Roman culture, and ‘religio’ in specific, cannot be explained in your theoretical framework because it lacks the properties that are supposed to make up either one of the two identified learning configurations. Still, its culture was very expansive, which make it similar in effect to the dynamic of proselytisation. Talking of theoretical insufficiency! The same counts for the category “scepticism” or any other term borrowed from the Roman-Greek culture.

    “This is interesting, not so much because it shows nuances in the meaning of the word “religion,” but because it reveals that the Roman religio was a phenomenon
    completely different from the Christian religion and the modern understanding of religion. This difference has many consequences: in the Roman understanding, for example, it is senseless to ask whether a religio is true or false; in the Christian understanding this question is of primordial importance. Even though this problem is noticed, there is a need to delve deeper into the theoretical significance of shifts
    in meaning and of the introduction of alien categories into new cultural matrices”

    Suppose we are willing to entertain the suggestion that Roman religio was “completely different” from Christian religion and modern religion. The onus of proof is now on you to explain this in terms of the double dynamic of secularisation and proselytisation – I understand it has even become a “triple” one recently with the advent of the ‘topoi-force’ – , not only in contrast to Christianity, but also to Judaism and Islam. For starters: note that Judaism has no intrinsic proselytisation since it is a connection
    through birth, and that Islam has hardly known any secularisation to date. Besides, Roman culture was expansive and Greek culture internally very saturated. How to account for these mechanisms?

  2. windwheel

    ‘in the Roman understanding, for example, it is senseless to ask whether a religio is true or false’- I don’t think this is true. A cultus is true if

    1) its oracle makes correct predictions and sacrifices at its altar yield the expected result

    2) it fosters ‘virtue’ so as to yield social harmony.

    3) the object of the cultus is worthy. Caligula or Claudius are less worthy of worship than ‘the Divine Augustus’.

    Similarly with Catholicism, the cult of a Saint or the teachings of a Savant may be officially sanctioned or it may be prohibited and extirpated

    In Buddhism, we notice that the Dalai Lama is now severely condemning as ‘demonic’ a cultus previously considered orthodox.

    Similarly, in Hindu and Jain sects, over the course of time, some previously orthodox Gurus are repudiated while others, considered heterodox, are embraced.

    In all these cases, ‘truth’ really is an issue though of course the underlying Epistemology or theory of truth may differ.

    Your own post begins by raising an issue central to ‘coherence theories.’ It looked as though you were going to improve on ‘Neurath’s raft’ by saying it really doesn’t matter if a ship is repaired, during a voyage, by recycling its own timbers or if it uses timbers either found floating in the water or bought or stolen from some other ship. This would yield, in this context, a Coherence theory of a Universalist type such that Eurocentrism disappears- Tertullian’s ‘Jerusalem or Athens’ dichotomy disappears (Alexandria had already bridged that chorismos)- my own chauvinist Hindutva belief that India is the sole karmabhoomi disappears because as Borges says ‘India is larger than the world’ and, in any case, Vasudhaiva kutambakam- a notion even a child can grasp.

    Yet you conclude by speaking of ‘a need to delve deeper into the theoretical significance of shifts in meaning and of the introduction of alien categories into new cultural matrices.’ I’d agree if you mean that alien categories may encode a hatred based on ignorance or greed for power directed at something venerable or contributing to the evolving moral economy that already obtains but in this case it is not ‘shifts in meaning’ which require investigation but stupid hate-mongering lies which need to be exposed.

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