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“Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Discuss philosophical questions regarding theism (and atheism), and discuss religion as it relates to philosophy. This includes any philosophical discussions that happen to be about god, gods, or a 'higher power' or the belief of them. This also generally includes philosophical topics about organized or ritualistic mysticism or about organized, common or ritualistic beliefs in the existence of supernatural phenomenon.
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Burning ghost
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“Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Burning ghost » October 20th, 2018, 2:52 am

ALL quotes from “The Interpretation of Cultures” by Clifford Geertz.

This is one of my favourite quotes because I believe it is a definition that describes mostly what it is to be “human.” Please note I don’t mean to be human we need to be “religious” in the common sense of the word.

Anyway, to the quotes ...
... The notion that religion tunes human actions to an envisaged cosmic order and projects images of cosmic order onto the plane of human experience is hardly novel. But it is hardly investigated either, so that we have very little idea of how, in empirical terms, this particular miracle is accomplished. We just know that it is done, annually, weekly, daily, for some people almost hourly; and we have an enormous ethnographic literatureto demonstrate it. But the theoretical framework which would enable us to provide an analytic account of it, an account of the sort we can provide for lineage segmentation, political succession, labor exchange, or the socialization of the child, does not exist.

... Without firther ado, then, a religion is:

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz (p.90)
The numbers are used Geertz to reference each part of this definition; which he makes as explicit as he can over the next 30 odd pages!

So, if you wish to ask questions about any particular part of this definition and/or wish to comment about the definition, the please go ahead and I’ll do my best to offer up his direct quoted and my own take too. If not I will likely take a more in depth look at one particular line and possible refer to other anthropologists whose work was bold enough to express some speculative ideas and opinions in a book titled “Inside the Neolithic Mind.”
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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Karpel Tunnel » October 20th, 2018, 3:21 pm

This definition seems to be taking a stance, though not entirely openly or clearly, that the conceptions are not factual, and also that the order is not from the empirical to the conceptions, but from the symbols to moods to conceptions.

I think it would be better to have a definition that is taking less of a metaphysical stance and also I am skeptical that the process diagram would accurately describe the cognitive end of what many religious believers experience or go through.

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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Burning ghost » October 20th, 2018, 3:29 pm

Karpel Tunnel wrote:
October 20th, 2018, 3:21 pm
This definition seems to be taking a stance, though not entirely openly or clearly, that the conceptions are not factual, and also that the order is not from the empirical to the conceptions, but from the symbols to moods to conceptions.

I think it would be better to have a definition that is taking less of a metaphysical stance and also I am skeptical that the process diagram would accurately describe the cognitive end of what many religious believers experience or go through.
I don’t know what most of this means. Can you be more specific please?
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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Karpel Tunnel » October 20th, 2018, 3:59 pm

I'll give it a shot.
(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
It reads like a flow chart. We have a system of symbols that ESTABLISH (read: cause) moods and motivations. It does this by formulating a general order of existence. So the system of symbols formulates a general order of existence - iow the symbols make a model of reality and this model of reality leads to emotions and motivations.

I think that religious ideas often start from experiences that are later translated into symbols. We can black box whether those experiences were correctly interpreted. If we look at his formulation, in this very concise form, it sounds like some people simply sat around making up symbols that then indicate a model of reality and these in turn lead to motivations and emotions. That certainly does take place in religion for some believers but it hardly is a general rule. Often specific members will have experiences that either create or modify religious symbols, start new religions or branches, change the symbols and/or lead to new practices.

This is I meant in my previous post about leaving out the process of the empirical (experience) leading to the symbols, rituals, conceptions, models.

As far as his metaphysical stance...

clothing these conceptions in an aura of factuality - this seems to me to be implying strongly that it is not factual. I think if we are going to have a definition of religion it is better to have one that does not take a stand that religions are ontologically off, per se.

I mean, it depends on the goal of the definition and I am not sure what yours is. I think that portion of the definition works ok as an atheist view of religion. If that is the goal, well, then it works. But if the goal is to be more neutral, to set aside drawing conclusions, I think it is a poor one. Of course an atheist would say it is simply descriptive, and there could be discussion of that.

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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Fooloso4 » October 20th, 2018, 4:45 pm

Burning ghost:
(1) a system of symbols ...
Although we may find a symbols and in some cases a system of symbols, I do not think that this is an adequate description of religion. Those who worship God may object that they do not worship a system of symbols, the worship the creator, a power, and presence. In fact, for some iconography is prohibited. For many religion is a matter of practice - ritual, obedience, transcendence, transformation, and redemption.
… which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence
Some would describe it as passive, receptive, theorea, openness. It does not establish but is attentive to the divine that establishes itself. For some the formulation conceptions is antithetical to religious experience.

This strikes me as a view from the outside looking in, seeing what can be observed, and not having experienced it, assumes that what is conceptually conveyed is something, an “aura” imposed on reality.

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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Burning ghost » October 21st, 2018, 2:34 am

Karp/Fool -

He isn’t defining any religious experience. He is certainly aiming to describe ‘religion’ as a cultural phenomeon - he is an anthropologist after all.

He talks about the aim of broading the anthropological definition of ‘religion’ saying:
... The dangers of such a procedure are obvious: arbitrary eclecticism, superficial theory-mongering, and sheer intellectual confusion.
He then goes on to say:
... The term “culture” has by now aquired a certain aura of ill-repute in social anthropological circles ...

(Though why it should suffer more for these reasons than “social structure” or “personality” is something I do not entirely understand.)
... Of course, terms such as “meaning,” “symbol,” and “conception” cry out for explication. But that is precisely where the widening, the broadening, and the expanding come in. If Langer is right that “the concept of meaning, in all its varieties, is denotation, signification, communication ... are our [intellectual] stock in trade,” it is perhaps time that social anthropology, and particularly that part of it concerned with the study of religion, became aware of the fact.

- The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz (p88-9)
It may make more sense to go through, briefly, each part of his definition post by post. Like I said, he goes into depth with this definition and offers examples and further explanation.

From my perspective I find the definition to be one that describes what it is to be being human if taken purely at face value (Colin Renfew borrowed this definition and used it to describe “money,” which then made me think of its broader applications and that is why I am fond of it.)

Anyway, to take a closer look at (1) and what Geertz ‘means’ by stating “a system of symbols which acts to ...” Skipping a few paragraphs into his explanation:

... is comparison of gene and symbol is more than a strained analogy of the “social heredity” sort. It is actually a substantial relationship, for it is precisely becasue of the fact that genetically programmed processes are so highly generalized in men ...

...

This point is sometimes pu tin the form of an argument that cultural patterns are “models,” that they are sets of symbols whose relations to one another “model” relations among entities, processes or what-have-you in physical, organic, social or psychological systems by “paralleling,” “imitating,” or “simulating” them. The term “model” has, however, two senses - an “of” sense and a “for” sense - and though these are but aspects of the same basic concept they are very much worth distinguishing for analytic purposes. In the first, what is stressed is the manipulation of symbol structures so as to bring them, more or less closely, into parallel with the pre-established nonsymbolic system, as when we grasp how dams work by developing a theory of hydraulics or constructing a flow chart. The theory or chart models physical relationships in such a way - that is, by expressing their structure in synoptic form - as to render the apprehensible; it is a model of “reality.” In teh second, what is stressed is the manipulation of the nonsymbolic systems in terms of the relationships expressed in the symbolic, as when we construct a dam according to the specifications implied in an hydraulic theory or the conclusions drawn from a flow chart. Here, the theory is a model under whose guidance phsyical relatoinships are organized: it is a model for “reality.” For psychological and social systems, and for cultural models that we would ordinarily refer to as “theories,” but rather as “doctrines,” “melodies,” or “rites,” the case is in no way different. Unlike genes, and other nonsymbolic information sources, which are only models for, not models of, culture patterns have an intrinsic double aspect: they give meaning, that is, objective conceptual form, to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping it to themselves.
That should, I hope, clear up the issue of “symbol” and show he isn’t being frivilous with his use of the term.

I would add that the “religious experience” (whatever form it may take) is meaningful to society in how it can be expressed through “symbol” in the “of/for” sense. If it cannot be communicated at all then it has no direct social function - essentially cannot be apprehended “meaningfully.”
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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Karpel Tunnel » October 21st, 2018, 6:08 am

Burning ghost wrote:
October 21st, 2018, 2:34 am
culture patterns have an intrinsic double aspect: they give meaning, that is, objective conceptual form, to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping it to themselves.
That should, I hope, clear up the issue of “symbol” and show he isn’t being frivilous with his use of the term.

I would add that the “religious experience” (whatever form it may take) is meaningful to society in how it can be expressed through “symbol” in the “of/for” sense. If it cannot be communicated at all then it has no direct social function - essentially cannot be apprehended “meaningfully.”
Only this last bit seemed to address one of my points - the flow chart one. And I have an easier time accepting it if that double flow is up front and central to his hypothesis. (I didn't consider it frivilous, I just disagreed. I think I am affected by the French and other structuralist types who see us as the nearly superfluous husks around signs, much as some view us as mere side products of genes). As long as we see the symbols as flowing out of experiences and social phenomena AND then shaping and stimulating the same things on return, I am fine with it.

I also think his definition would be better more neutral. The other point I tried to explain in my previous post.

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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Fooloso4 » October 21st, 2018, 10:04 am

BG:
He isn’t defining any religious experience. He is certainly aiming to describe ‘religion’ as a cultural phenomeon - he is an anthropologist after all.
As I said:
This strikes me as a view from the outside looking in, seeing what can be observed, and not having experienced it, assumes that what is conceptually conveyed is something, an “aura” imposed on reality.

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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Karpel Tunnel » October 21st, 2018, 10:29 am

BH - pardon my poor use of the quote function.

Fooloso4 - this is partly what I was getting at. I would go further and say that not only is he an outsider, but one who has a decided take on religion also and something that muddles things, amongst other effects. Not all schools of anthropology have a 'be neutral' guideline, but I think it would be better if he was.

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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Eduk » October 22nd, 2018, 3:16 am

A religion is not the same thing as belief in a religion.
Unknown means unknown.

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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Burning ghost » October 22nd, 2018, 4:55 am

Eduk -

Precisely.

Karp -

I’m kind of split here between saying what Geertz says and what I think. I’ll first start with Geertz and a quote from Langer he uses in the text:
Man] can adapt himself somehow to anything his imagination can cope with; but he cannot deal with Chaos. Because his characteristic function and highest asset is conception, his greatest fright is to meet what he cannot construe - the “uncanny,” as it is popularly called.

... Therefore our most important assets are always the symbols of our general orientation in nature, on the earth, in society, and in what we are doing: the symbols of our Weltanschauung and Lebensanchuuang.

- from “Philosophy in a New Key,” by S.Langer (no page ref. given.)
I should add that I do agree with both yourself and Fool in regards to Geertz style, but he deosn’t really express that here much. I’ve read some work of Levi-Strauss, Eliade, Renfew, and Geertz. Geertz is the most free-wheeling and seems to express himself and his views rather than give a scholary account in this book. Levi-Strauss is more rigid and Eliade more “sympathetic” (prob. not the best word to use hence the “”), and this particular work of Geertz does carry a feeling of dismissal toward religious people in some way yet he does point out some very interesting things and this particular book reads a little more like a Pop Science book in places.

You say:
As far as his metaphysical stance...

clothing these conceptions in an aura of factuality - this seems to me to be implying strongly that it is not factual. I think if we are going to have a definition of religion it is better to have one that does not take a stand that religions are ontologically off, per se.
As from the above quote from Langer, used by Geertz, I think it is reasonable enough to assume that he means commonly used symbols that are used to orientate us physically and mentally become habitual and unquestioned - over time concepts are pruned and even split apart. Initially if something “works” (serves a purpose) it likely carries with it many parts that don’t suit the purpose at all. Given that we have an innate need to understand our positioning in the world (both physically and mentally/psychologically speaking) it serves us to bolster our position so as to anchor ourselves in “reality” - if we didn’t, as Langer points out, then we’re hobbled.

So he is not really talking about what is and isn’t “factual.” He is talking how concepts are “clothed” in objective reslity - hence we can talk about this. If we cannot relate any concept to an objective reality then there is no concept.

I don’t see anywhere him saying that “religion” is ontologically off; if anything he is looking at “religion” because he sees it as a important human phenomenon.

To move to my thoughts and away from trying to explicate Geertz’ words ... what I personally take away from this is a view of the definition being one that essentially describes human nature and “religion” being opened up to me as something like an attempt to refine our sense of “being” - many pitfalls ensue. What remains a very curious for me is something both yourself and Fool have pointed. That is “religion” as an item of society and “religion” as the personal experience. Anthropolgy deals with very broad categories of human behavior that are all entwined with each other (Geertz himself points this out and his attempts here were to drag anthropology into the well established scientific fields - he notes that Malinowski, Freud, and others all offered new ideas to this field by taking onboard more empirical information, so “metaphysics” is far from his mind.)

Note: I fixed the quote.
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Re: “Religion” - a defintion by Geertz

Post by Karpel Tunnel » October 22nd, 2018, 6:03 am

Burning ghost wrote:
October 22nd, 2018, 4:55 am
I should add that I do agree with both yourself and Fool in regards to Geertz style, but he deosn’t really express that here much. I’ve read some work of Levi-Strauss, Eliade, Renfew, and Geertz. Geertz is the most free-wheeling and seems to express himself and his views rather than give a scholary account in this book. Levi-Strauss is more rigid and Eliade more “sympathetic” (prob. not the best word to use hence the “”), and this particular work of Geertz does carry a feeling of dismissal toward religious people in some way yet he does point out some very interesting things and this particular book reads a little more like a Pop Science book in places.
Sure, I wouldn't dismiss him in response.
As from the above quote from Langer, used by Geertz, I think it is reasonable enough to assume that he means commonly used symbols that are used to orientate us physically and mentally become habitual and unquestioned - over time concepts are pruned and even split apart
Even that smal addition of this is the result over time (and I would add 'for many believers') makes a huge difference. Then we are looking at what happens much of the time, for more casual participants and especially casual participants who have grown up in the religion. It doesn't fit those who actively explore the practices of the religion, perhaps in apprentice type formats - say ashram meditation in Hinduism or becoming shamans in indigenous and other contexts. It fits less well with people who have powerful experiences, people who start offshoot religions, mystics or those in the 'priest' role. It also would not fit people who dive back into what had been a casual relationship with their religion in crisis, addiction, etc. I would think there are other examples.

I would guess if we looked at people's knowledge of science, for example, we might find similar 'clothed in objectivity' in their ideas poorly filtered from memory from school, bad interpretations of science writers (or even poor science writing), never habnig understood, etc.

It would be odd to sum up science based on causal 'participants' way of getting information/practices and moods. To have a description based ONLY on that.

Initially if something “works” (serves a purpose) it likely carries with it many parts that don’t suit the purpose at all. Given that we have an innate need to understand our positioning in the world (both physically and mentally/psychologically speaking) it serves us to bolster our position so as to anchor ourselves in “reality” - if we didn’t, as Langer points out, then we’re hobbled.

So he is not really talking about what is and isn’t “factual.” He is talking how concepts are “clothed” in objective reslity - hence we can talk about this. If we cannot relate any concept to an objective reality then there is no concept.
To me this would hold for things like golf coaching, even at high levels of coaching golf. Psychotherapy, parenting books, political ideas, pedagogy and more. Here we have something in the short form summation of religion and it strongly emphasizes this. I find it hard to merely take it as a neutral description of religion.
I don’t see anywhere him saying that “religion” is ontologically off; if anything he is looking at “religion” because he sees it as a important human phenomenon.
I think it is implicit in the language he uses.
To move to my thoughts and away from trying to explicate Geertz’ words ... what I personally take away from this is a view of the definition being one that essentially describes human nature and “religion” being opened up to me as something like an attempt to refine our sense of “being” - many pitfalls ensue. What remains a very curious for me is something both yourself and Fool have pointed. That is “religion” as an item of society and “religion” as the personal experience. Anthropolgy deals with very broad categories of human behavior that are all entwined with each other (Geertz himself points this out and his attempts here were to drag anthropology into the well established scientific fields - he notes that Malinowski, Freud, and others all offered new ideas to this field by taking onboard more empirical information, so “metaphysics” is far from his mind.)
I doubt he was thinking: now I will take a metaphysical stand on religion. I am sure he was trying to be descriptive. However our metaphysical stands seep into our descriptions. Also anthropology has to be heavily qualitative. You have to go through individual members and, it seems to me, try to remove as much as one can of one's own cultural assumptions. More goal than possiblity is perfection in this, but it is pretty easy to modify his summation to make it neutral AND I don't think it would lose any explanatory power.

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